A traveler often needs to bridge two worlds. There’s the rational, the practical. Did I pack enough food and water? Am I wearing the right shoes? Do I know how to handle snakebites? Then there is the spiritual. When you spend a long time with nobody but yourself and the surrounding countryside for company, thoughts tend to stray to the meaning of existence.
Acclaimed travel writer William Least Heat-Moon has been through both phases of travel writing. His 1982 classic travel memoir Blue Highways: A Journey into America set the standard for the genre. His latest book, Celestial Mechanics, reviewed in our March/April edition, is his first piece of fiction, and it travels between the worlds of the concrete and the spiritual.
In the interview below, I asked Heat-Moon how he managed the transition and how we can all just relax in these stressful times.
Your book examines the junction between rationality and spirituality. In public life, though, doesn’t it seem like those two ways of thinking are growing farther apart?
The separation between rational thinking and what we often term “spirituality” is one humanity must continually address. The forces to keep separate these two ways of responding to life on the blue planet are powerful, universal, and probably eternal. Nevertheless, it is my belief that humankind rises highest when we embrace critical thinking as a central means for apprehending not only an ethos for ethical behavior but also responses that might seem—but are not—separated from scientific method. Indeed, whatever intuition is, it can contribute to our realizing who and where and maybe even why we are.
How was the transition from something as concrete as travel writing to a books as mystical as Celestial Mechanics?
Because my nonfiction uses a number of techniques common to fiction, the transition was hardly noticeable to me. Conversely, because my novel draws upon science, astronomy, biology, psychiatry, as well as countless incidents I’ve witnessed, places I’ve visited, and people I’ve known, the “story” is only on its margins a work of fiction. Even much of the dialogue I took from things told me. In the novel, for example, there’s a hand-drawn map I drew of where I live. The “fictional” setting is the very place outside my study window.
The main character in your novel is a backroads-and-bywaters kind of guy. Is that you, or based on you?
Silas Fortunato, the male protagonist of Celestial Mechanics, is a better man than I, but some of his interests I share: astronomy, a belief in the power of trying to use language well (including utilizing the wealth of our vocabulary), and, above all, a deep respect for what he calls otherosophy. Otherosophy recognizes that we, just as the Universe itself, are composed of an uncountable number of different elements. We–and the Cosmos–exist because those differences, those othernesses, cooperate. For cooperation to work at its base level, there must be tolerance; even better is the effort to respect all that is not you.
This past year or so, it seems we’ve lived in a really stressed-out society. Everybody’s stressed about politics. What can we do to relax?
Celestial Mechanics, given our current political aura, is a story for its time. Much of our stress, so I believe, derives from failing to see our links with all that is larger than our own limited lives. The deeper we understand how we are citizens of the Universe that brought us into existence, the broader our perception of what’s going on around us, and the deeper our perceptions, the calmer we can spend our days. Perhaps the initial result of seeing ourselves as part of such a broad scope, is to find self reduced. As a witch counselor to Silas tells him, “Divinity of self is a great fraudulence.” And like all fraudulence, the outcome will be disappointment, a feeling of having been cheated. Yet it is we who bring it on ourselves.
Where are you traveling next, either in reality or in novel form?
I wish I knew the answer to this question, although I can say that tomorrow I’ll be traveling into town to see my barber.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy