An Interview with William Least Heat-Moon
William Naparsteck | December 2015
William Least Heat-Moon
William Least Heat-Moon’s newest book, Writing Blue Highways, tells “The Story of How a Book Happened.” That book, Blue Highways, remained on The New York Times bestseller list for forty-two weeks in 1983–84, and is still in print. The writing of the book was fraught with frustration, disappointment, rejection, and other emotions faced by the unknown writer. In the three decades between Blue Highways and Writing Blue Highways, there were six other books, including PrairyErth, River-Horse, Columbus in the Americas, Roads to Quoz, and Here, There, Elsewhere. Heat-Moon lives near Columbia, Missouri, and he has just finished a novel.
Martin Naparsteck: All of your books have been about the United States or some part of it, and you’ve visited every county in the country. After decades of writing about the US, has your view of the country changed in ways that you wouldn’t have expected say, in the early 1980s, when Blue Highways came out?
William Least Heat-Moon: My book, Here, There, Elsewhere, has several stories about places and people overseas—Japan, England, Italy, New Zealand. Yes, I’ve traveled into every county in the contiguous forty-eight states. I made the Blue Highways trip in 1978, and the country I saw then foreshadowed much of what has come to pass: the demise of local businesses—whether cafes or hardware stores or virtually any other Main Street undertaking—in the face of inundating assaults from megacorporate powers; growing congestion from an increasing human population with some of its consequences—the sprawling of towns, even ones as small as five or six thousand people, the increasing anonymity of each of us. What I neither foresaw nor expected was the rise of political influence from the far right: its hostility toward environmental sanity, social services for both the poor and middle classes, and assistance for education. Its gross intolerance of any view divergent from its own highly limited and limiting notions is anathema to democracy and the capacity for critical thinking. Blue Highways—and I trust all of my books—are an antithesis to such an approach. Even more, I hope they are a rebuke to such heartlessness and an urging (to young Americans especially) to see our nation proceed wisely and humanely when we honor the otherness of existence.
Naparsteck: Do you view your writing as consciously American?
Heat-Moon: I work deliberately to keep my allusions—historical, literary, and so on—drawn almost entirely from American life and culture. Our history is deep and diverse enough to fulfill almost any writer’s allusive desires. In writing about America, I consider it my duty (and pleasure) to draw from our fifteen thousand years of human existence on this continent. I have no wish to use timeworn references taken from the Old World (although I do occasionally yield to something timeless from classical mythology).
Naparsteck: Can you talk a little about your research for your books? Much of it is journalistic (interviewing people you met for Blue Highways, for example), and much of it is the type historians do (reading old newspapers and old books for PrairyErth). And some of it is personal memory. And some observation of the world you pass through (River-Horse comes to mind). I think almost all of your writing combines the crafts of the journalist, the historian, and the memoir writer. Do you agree with that, and if so do you have a sense of trying to achieve some type of balance among the three? And have you found any one of them more difficult than the others? More or less fun than the others? Am I leaving anything off the list of types of research?
Heat-Moon: I accept your triad of approaches I use in trying to recreate something on paper in such a way it becomes a beckoning to a reader to enter an immaterial world, the realm of imaginative life. I’ve never thought about balance among the basic elements of my writing; whatever balance may exist is intuitive except in one important instance. While working on Blue Highways, after a couple of years of it, I realized there was too much author present, but that awareness happened only when I slowly came to see what the book—and the journey itself—was truly about. When I found the real subject of the book. For me, the narrator—even if he has my name—is merely a means to connect a reader with places, events, and above all, other lives. The narrator is a tool: a lever to lift a lid, a lens to sharpen focus, a hammer to drive home an idea.
I find misleading and, I must confess, most vexing, when the term “memoir” is applied to my book-length work. The primary purpose of a memoir, as I see it, is to present a “self,” to show—if not elucidate—one’s own life. If that’s what my books come down to, then throw the things into the fire. As a man, I’m not worth it. But the lives of those who appear in my books, those people I believe have value, and when they speak and are considered together, then they have a voice of power and of significance. E pluribus unum.
I’ll add this about the term “memoir.” It’s become so widely used and so carelessly used that it’s no longer serviceable. I’ve heard the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition called “memoirs.” Use of the first person doesn’t automatically make a text into a memoir. The definition should be based on the intent of the work; ask the question, “What’s the point of the book?”
As for comparative difficulties of reportage, research, and narration, I find them all challenging. Hell, I find everything in writing knotty, even answering this question. As for “fun”—that so-American notion—then my answer is no. But if we speak of writing—recognizing its incessant labors and doubts and dead ends—as yielding emotional rewards from time to time, then my answer is, “You bet your booties!” To single out one aspect of assembling a book that I might call “fun,” then a face-to-face interview—as mine often are—with an articulate person is hard to surpass.
Naparsteck: How much of the research that you do is not directly productive? By that I mean, how many interviews do you conduct that never end up in an article or book? How many old newspaper articles do you read that produce no information useful to your writing? And, related, is that research still useful, perhaps in giving you broader exposure to background information or increasing your understanding of a subject?
Heat-Moon: I don’t believe much in unproductive research, even though I know that less than half of what I learn will appear in print. For interviews, the ratio of answered questions to printed answers must be something like ten to one. Most of what a person tells me will not appear in my book although nearly everything an interlocutor says will serve as background to interpret what I’m learning. Further, the more a person speaks the better chance I have to hear a nugatory statement, one that encapsulates a character or moment. It should go without saying, the more material a writer has to select from, the richer and more accurate a portrait can become.
What’s more, time is an assist in getting someone to feel comfortable and speak frankly. The greater the trust between subject and interviewer, the greater the chance for significance rather that mere chit-chat. It’s common for a person being interviewed to warm to the conversation slowly, to relax. And that’s why I usually begin with simple, even bland queries. In this regard, I learned my interviewing “technique,” such as it is, from the television detective series, “Columbo.” Actor Peter Falk showed me the respect and curiosity inherent in a revelatory interview, especially his willingness to appear dim and to toss out unexpected, even off-beat, questions in the hope they might shake loose something unpredictable.
As for research among printed materials, the ratio of what I read to what I use is probably even less than ten to one, but dead-ends can give writers assurance they are moving toward accuracy, and eventually confidence they have done sufficient research to present a topic with at least a suggestion of fullness if not completeness. And, once again, the wider the field of details to select from, the stronger the story. Why does the United States win so many Olympic medals compared to other nations? A key reason is that we are a populous nation. We’ve got a big field of sprinters to choose from.
I find the most difficult question in research—as in rewriting—is knowing when to conclude it. For me, I have to resist an inborn impulse to be encyclopedic. I think my decision on when to stop is more intuitive than reasoned.
Naparsteck: Do you ever find that your research urges you to change the subject of an article or book, or its focus? Has research, especially early research, ever resulted in abandoning a topic?
Heat-Moon: I do not remember research ever giving me reason to give up on the topic or even changing it; research surely does help me see other dimensions, and those can lead to a much modified piece. When I’ve abandoned a topic—it doesn’t happen often—it’s been because I couldn’t find the passion to get into the research. In short, research inspires continuation into the subject.
Naparsteck: Many of your books are called “road books.” Do you accept that designation, and to what extent does being on the road, traveling around America, help you conceive a topic for a book?
Heat-Moon: To this point, my work could be put into the category of “travel books,” even my little history Columbus in the Americas. Writing Blue Highways, in a couple of senses, might also fall under that broad rubric. I acknowledge the designation, despite its limitations. I mean to say, my books are about travel in the largest sense the word can contain, and for that reason I don’t think of myself as a “travel writer.” If what I write doesn’t reach beyond road mileage, then I’ve failed in what I want the work to do. Some readers see the books as going beyond asphalt, and some don’t. (Long prosper those who do!)
Naparsteck: Before writing your first book, Blue Highways, what road books or travel books did you read that might have influenced you, for good or bad, in your own writing?
Heat-Moon: Books influencing Blue Highways—and much later work—are too numerous for me to list other than a few obvious ones. Travels with Charley, which I read sixteen years before setting out on the blue roads, made a pair of key contributions: the notion of a circular journey rather than a cross-country run. The other is my disappointment with Steinbeck’s reluctance to really engage people he met along the way. What he often chose not to do, I wanted to do.
The kaleidoscopic structure of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia helped me see a form for reporting my travels and also later for putting PrairyErth together. The last book I read before setting out in 1978 on the blue highways was Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but its influence was minimal in that he was after things I was not. He pursued pure idea, and I was looking for lives. One book frequently linked to Blue Highways, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I didn’t read (although I owned the book and had looked into it) until two decades after I returned from my initial journey on the back roads. However, I recently discovered that he speaks in OTR of highways marked in red on maps, roads leading right across the country in a more or less direct line. Blue Highways, of course, has a circuitous route, and that is an important image for the meaning of the book.
Naparsteck: You’ve just completed writing a novel. Why after more than three decades of success in writing nonfiction now switch to fiction? And do you worry at all about what might be called the Michael Jordan syndrome? That is, after so many years of success at playing basketball, trying to make it as a baseball player, and, of course, we know what happened?
Heat-Moon: I see myself as a storyteller. Whether the format is fiction or nonfiction is not much of a consideration for me (provided I grant the latter its resident power of the primacy of fact). But then, in the novel I’ve just completed, there is a great amount of the factual necessary to develop the narrative: What happens when a high-wing airplane crashes on a Nevada mountain? What is the treatment for a person in a coma? How distant is Arcturus? While the characters and the plot are largely inventions, settings and physical details are not.
As for the Michael Jordan syndrome, to use your phrase, I see it as existing more in the minds of others than in my own. I will not be measuring my novel on the basis of its reviews or sales; rather, I’ll be judging it on whether it achieves the goal I set out for it several years ago when I began thinking about the characters and their actions. When I finish, will I have short-changed my effort? Will I have given to it the time necessary for it to be what I want it to be? The opinions of reviewers, critics, and even readers cannot answer those questions. Artistic integrity begins with the writer being bluntly honest in evaluating his work.
I should mention here, as is common, my earliest reading was mostly fiction. From that background, I’ve long wondered whether I could write a capable novel. After all, in American literature, for better or worse, the novel remains the gold standard of artistic achievement. It is the attempt that is significant for me.
Naparsteck: What elements of your nonfiction writing are transferable to writing fiction? And what do you think you have to learn for the first time?
Heat-Moon: I’m trying to think of a single element of my nonfiction that cannot transfer to my fiction, and I’m not coming up with much, perhaps because I’ve long asked this question inversely: What elements of a novel cannot transfer to nonfiction? There is only one of importance, as far as I can see, and that is the freedom of invention. When fabrication happens in nonfiction—as it not infrequently seems to in the currently popular quasi-genre called memoir—there is a corruption and weakening of nonfiction because its very power lies in readers trusting the writer not to deceive them.
As I finish this novel, I can’t think of a basic storytelling technique I’ve not previously employed in writing nonfiction. Again, I see the question inversely: With the novel I’ve enjoyed being free to shape characters as I see fit—their words, their deeds—to suit the drama I’ve invented for them. This aspect of writing a novel allows for the creation of meaning that can surpass that of nonfiction because I can reach deeper into the heart, the truth, of a fictive character. If in the narrative there’s a liar or a cheat or an out-and-out knave, I can show him or her in any way I choose—directly or evasively—without thought that somewhere outside, there lurks a miscreant reader with a tire iron in his hand.
Naparsteck: There are more nonfiction books published than fiction and fiction has come close to disappearing from large circulation magazines, and yet when we talk about “literature” we seem to mostly talk about novels and short stories, and poetry and drama, but only occasionally about nonfiction. Does nonfiction not get the respect it deserves? Have we perhaps been conditioned by, say, college literature courses, to think of nonfiction as something different than “literature”?
Heat-Moon: The novel has risen from its emergence in eighteenth century Europe as a less than respected literary form to, at least in the United States, full dominance. An American writer who does not attempt and succeed in making a good, long work of fiction will be valued less than one who does, and it can take but a single novel to enter that pantheon of the honored. Until recently, Harper Lee had one book to her credit, an exceptionally fine work to be sure, but To Kill a Mockingbird by itself, has placed her in many literary evaluations with the likes of Hawthorne, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. Barnes & Noble bookstores hang their walls with large portraits of eminent writers, but nowhere among them is a writer whose major work is nonfiction. No Thomas Paine, James Agee, Eleanor Clark, John McPhee.
Does the self-styled “literary establishment” give equal respect to nonfiction? It does not. And yes, at the heart of that negligence is the college English department curriculum that has largely trained its graduates according to the standards and dictates of the last century (although the field has created a wider representation in gender and race).
Part of this omission of nonfiction lies in the very term for it. One of the basic principles of elementary logic is the uselessness of defining a thing by what it is not. Woman is pointlessly defined as nonman, or moon as nonsun, or chicken as nonserpent. The greater problem here, though, is the term nonfiction can include cookbooks, textbooks, self-help books, all the Dummy-Idiot series, travel guides, books on how to get rich, how to lose weight, how to find happiness, God, or the best washing machine.
We need a term for works of length that in expression, structure, idea, and emotion equal or surpass the best long fiction. I find “literary nonfiction” clumsy and inadequate. It’s a shame that “faction” has other meanings—but then, so does “novel.”
Naparsteck: How might new technologies—like the GPS systems—affect travel writing? Much of what is best in travel literature seems to be unexpected discoveries, and a GPS device, or even the Internet—seems to lessen the possibility of coming upon something you didn’t expect to be there. Just as airplanes made it easy to fly over and not see a place, will the GPS system detract from the act of travel?
Heat-Moon: Certain recent technologies have the capacity to enhance any writing about place just as they can weaken it, especially in the hands of inexperienced writers or those lacking dedication to the perpetual and god-awful difficulty of seeing and presenting a topic—say, landscape—in a new light.
If digital images are a substitute for the actual rather than an expansion and penetration of it, then I believe there is a weakening of accuracy, breadth, and the creative vagaries of human perception. The journey I made in 1978 for Blue Highways might have been enhanced in a way or two had laptops, smart phones, digital recorders and cameras, and GPS been commonly available. But then, a book or a journey can accommodate only so much information: There is time and scope for only a limited amount of detail to the point that each fact and observation allowed into text absorbs space that cannot then be given to something else. That suggests Blue Highways or PrairyErth or River-Horse would be perhaps different books under the influence of digital gizmos, but I doubt they would then necessarily be better.
I will, however, qualify that statement in at least one area: the Internet can speed up research. I might have written those books somewhat more quickly, although that means they would have had less time to mature, to lie waiting for the layering I think marks my work. The stratifying of details and ideas and emotions cannot be rushed. Those elements, as if living, take their own time to develop and arise. From that notion, one might infer I think too much writing today gets written too fast. Such an inference is accurate.
Naparsteck: Much of your latest book, Writing Blue Highways, is about the rejection and dejection that accompanied the difficulty of getting your first book published. If Blue Highways had never been published, do you think you ever would have written a second book?
Heat-Moon: I can only guess, and my guess is probably not. For one thing, another four years financially and emotionally would have been lethal to my confidence. But, then again, when Blue Highways was getting rejected, I did manage to find ways to continue. Continuing was difficult but not impossible, and without question it was more tolerable than quitting. To have failed, to have been whipped, would have eaten at me for the rest of my days.
Naparsteck: In Writing Blue Highways you talk about the dangers of writing too fast. Fast writing, you say, is the enemy of both craft and depth. Do you think fast writing is a product of inevitable human impatience, the way writing is often taught (i.e. “I want a ten-page paper by Friday”), modern technology (TV, computers, etc.) that seems to induce willful attention deficit disorder, some combination, and am I leaving something off the list?
Heat-Moon: In large part, excessive speed is likely an aspect of the current instant-gratification syndrome, and unwillingness to delay reward; but speed can also be a way of cutting down on the arduousness of the creative process. I don’t believe that excellent writing comes easily to anyone. To draw out one’s best means first demanding the best of one’s abilities and then answering that demand for the time it requires.
Naparsteck: Also in Writing Blue Highways you talk about the dangers of revising too early, but you also say that not revising enough is a danger. Is there any way, other than gut instinct, that a writer can know that he or she is, one, ready to revise, and, two, has improved the piece of writing about as much as revision can improve it?
Heat-Moon: As long as a writer can identify infelicities and incompletions in what might appear to be a finished draft, then revision should continue. But continuance assumes the writer has the capacity to see where a word, a sentence, a paragraph fails to be the strongest, most capable expression. The only way to gain this faculty, as far as I’ve discovered, is to be a dedicated reader of the best writing. I’m speaking of the so-called classics of literature admixed with the very best contemporary work (defining “contemporary” as a moving era of the most recent quarter-century just past). I’m careful about what current writing I read. So much of it—not all certainly—is thin and feeble when seen against time-proven great work. To revise well, one must read well. I’m not aware of any other successful means.
Naparsteck: You began writing Blue Highways at age thirty-eight. Prior to that did you want to be a writer? And did you associate being a writer more with the act of writing or the fact of publication?
Heat-Moon: Even before I could read, I loved books, first as things, then as stories, then as repositories of ideas and expression. My initial thought about a profession was to become a photojournalist, but when I saw that the pure and unsupported image could carry a story only so far, I stepped away from the photo portion and moved almost entirely into the journalistic component. And now I find myself writing long fiction. Who knows where that’s leading? Before you can ask, let me say this new approach does not necessarily mean I’ve abandoned nonfiction.
Early, I had so little notion of what publication entailed, I thought almost exclusively of writing in terms of handwritten or typed words. I saw marks on paper not as books but more as if they were drawings.
Naparsteck: After three years of rejection with Blue Highways, added to 600 job applications leading nowhere, you finally received an offer from Atlantic Monthly Press books to publish it, but after a while they told you the book was so long that they would need to eliminate the photographs. And you said if they did you would withdraw it. Your wife at the time wasn’t happy about that and you didn’t really have the finances to say no to publication. But you promised to. Incredibly, the next day, the editor called back and said you won. In retrospect, are you surprised you vowed to withdraw the manuscript? And if they had said, well, fine, we won’t publish it, do you think you would have given in?
Heat-Moon: For a pair of reasons, I doubt I would have yielded. First and of most importance, I believed—as I do now—the photographs were not only integral to the text, they provided prima-facie evidence of the actuality of the people I talked with. In the second instance, that initially qualified acceptance of the manuscript reinforced my notion that interest from one publisher suggested there would be another somewhere—if I remained dedicated. Nevertheless, had a few dozen subsequent rejections come in, I might have re-evaluated my position or perhaps considered publishing the photographs separately. Today, I’d think about possibilities in self-publishing any material an editor excluded.
Naparsteck: The success of Blue Highways (nearly ten months on The New York Times bestseller list, still in print after three decades, widely regarded as a classic of its type) opened up other possibilities. Invitations from Time, the Atlantic, and other big publications to do articles), speaking engagements. Do these types of opportunities make it too easy to write for money and thus, perhaps, prevent a writer from experiencing again whatever it was that made the first book the book it is?
Heat-Moon: A successful book is likely to offer inducements and allurements to pull one away from the dedication, the single-minded insistence that make a book distinctive enough to reach a large audience. Even before Blue Highways appeared in print, I was looking into the tall-grass world that eventually led to PrairyErth. While I accepted some sweet plums of assignments during the eight years of writing that second book, I still continued to pursue the larger topic. I believe the greater challenge helped keep me focused on what really mattered.
Naparsteck: Do you think, given the way America has changed since you wrote Blue Highways, that it would sell as well today? Could you or would you have written the same book if it were a book of the second decade of the 21st century rather than of the 1970s?
Heat-Moon: Were Blue Highways, or ever more so, PrairyErth, first published in 2014, I imagine the reception for either would be much muted. Both books are still in print and still selling, but that’s in no small measure a result of readers’ initial response to them some years ago. I believe virtually all of the classics would struggle were they first published pseudonymously today. American culture has been undergoing a fierce erosion of our willingness and capacities to create first-class work in the arts. I see it in every discipline, and I hear it in the way we speak. One of the results of this decline, so it seems to me, is that truly distinctive and well-crafted work is more rare. The good news is that today, lasting quality stands out even more forcefully than it might have a few decades ago.
To try to write Blue Highways in 2014, for me at least, would be calamitous. As Writing Blue Highways shows, that younger traveler has traveled on to the yesterland of no return.
Naparsteck: It used to be common to criticize college journalism programs for putting too much emphasis on training students to be journalists and too little emphasis on educating them about the beats they would cover. For example, the criticism said, political reporters often had too little understanding of politics and science reporters didn’t know enough about science. Does that criticism apply to writers of nonfiction more generally? Related: beginning writers are often advised to write about what they know, but of course what we don’t know we can learn. But is it possible today that too many writers start to write before they know their subject well enough?
Heat-Moon: So that graduates can take on assignments in various areas and write intelligently and accurately about them, the best journalism schools do what they can to encourage their students to educate themselves broadly beyond the requirements of news reporting. Are all those graduates dedicated to educating themselves to be able to cover many different fronts? No.
A greater problem, in my view, is the weak or nonexistent attention given to expose future journalists to excellence in writing, exposure to the masters of the craft not just of reporting but writing in general. The quality of journalistic expression far too often is almost garbage, and I’m thinking not just about the widespread, half-assed comprehension of fundamental rules of usage, but also about ignorance of the differences between acceptable reporting and excellent reporting, the space between a journeyman and a craftsman. Graduates so frequently today come out poorly read in the best current work and embarrassingly unread in the classics, so they are unaware of ways to construct superior stories. Not having the flint and steel offered by master artisans, the young—those who care—lose time trying to reinvent fire.
Naparsteck: There’s an old, easily dismissed, cliché/stereotype that says, He’s such a good salesman he could sell refrigerators to Eskimos. There’s a parallel attitude that somebody is such a good writer she could write well about anything. Most people seem to recognize the claim about the salesman as hyperbole, or worse, but not everyone sees the same problem when the claim is made about the writer. Do you think you could have written with the same success if you had written about, say, baseball or ancient civilizations? And, are there subjects you have not yet written about that you would like to?
Heat-Moon: I readily concede there are limits—and not just in knowledge—to my capacities to write well about certain topics. The biggest of my limitations, for any subject, has to be the degree of passion I feel for it. As a boy, I rejoiced with the old Kansas City Athletics when they won, and I suffered (maybe more than they) when the team lost. Today, any attempt by me to write about baseball, to use your referent, would come out flat indeed. And so with numerous other topics. But to live is to be exposed to new possibilities. The novel I’m just now finishing took me into astronomy, a field I’m now intrigued by even if woefully ignorant and intellectually incapable of understanding some of it. To comprehend astrophysics requires a brain different from mine, even though I’ve tried to grasp enough to develop my ideas for the novel. What’s next in the way of subjects? I don’t know, but I trust life will open to a couple of them and their challenges.
Naparsteck: You write your first drafts in pencil and don’t get around to using a computer until the second or third draft of creating a book. What are the advantages of delaying use of a computer until late in the process? And, are those advantages personal? That is, is starting with a pencil, or pen, something you would advise other writers to try?
Heat-Moon: I believe strongly most so-called literary writing can be assisted by beginning with pencil or pen in hand because of their links to drawing. A different part of the brain seems to kick in when those primitive instruments are in hand. There’s no power grid or digital contraption to interfere, and there’s no glass screen between my words and me. A sentence from an instrument of the hand seems to flow from its point or its nib, the power coming directly from the shoulder down the upper arm to the lower arm and on through the metacarpals to the finger tips. It’s a motion more fluid, I want to say, than simply tapping fingers at keypads. My penmanship, my cursives, are important to me partly because they look like they’re an aspect of me—little self portraits not of my face but of my thoughts. They physically possess idiosyncrasies of my ideas. On a handwritten page, I feel I belong, feel at home in a realm I’ve grown up in. For these reasons, I lament the serious and universal decline of penmanship—the use of cursives—among young Americans, especially those who would write prose beyond instructional booklets or legal contracts. My penmanship is not a thing of beauty, but it is distinctive, legible, and it doesn’t look as if it came from the hand of a fourth grader. To see it gives me confidence because it can remind me of manuscripts of writers, say, the early 18th-century novelists on down to Faulkner. My fountain pens, even more so than pencils, create a feeling of being part of a venerable confraternity of writers, and when expression is not going well, anything that assists confidence is good. Should young writers consider a pencil or pen for a first draft? Yes. Will they? Unlikely. Will the results of that decision show up in books of the future? I think so.
Naparsteck: You often advise, in your writings and conversations, that people read the best writers. Is there danger in reading bad writers even a little bit? Or is it like food: if you eat junk food one out of twenty meals, say, you’re not likely to damage your health, as long as the other nineteen meals are healthy. In fact, might there be some advantage in reading a bad writer; that is, might a bad writer more easily reveal why his or her writing is bad than a good writer will help us understand why that writing is praiseworthy? Or is bad writing more like a narcotic that is quickly addictive? Even a small sampling offers too many perils?
Heat-Moon: Reading schlock pollutes and corrupts the part of a human brain that directs how we speak and write. Our minds form patterns for expression based on what we hear and what we read—that’s how an infant learns to speak. That’s why so many people of the south are capable storytellers—they listen to well-told stories. Today we speak of “garbage in, garbage out,” but we don’t seem to recognize the opposite: good stuff in, good stuff out. The reading of even one poorly executed book can take days to get erased from a writer’s unapprehended memory, and for that reason I avoid reading work that I consider lacking excellent expression. That avoidance is especially crucial in the early stages of writing. Like its human counterpart, an embryonic draft is especially more susceptible to pollutants than later versions.
I see no need for a writer to seek out incompetent work in order to educate oneself. Ye gods, crud is to be found everywhere. In deciding whether to read a new book or story, I use a simple test I explain in Writing Blue Highways: I read the first page, then turn at random to three or four pages further along. If what I see is, in my eyes, free of written merit, I’ll put the book down. I recently performed that test on a novel currently receiving massive praise and, I think, sales to match. The first sentence had a howler of a dangling modifier, on the order of “Walking outside, the air felt cold.” I turned to paragraphs deeper in the book, and found sentence after sentence of the same construction: subject, verb, object. The monotony was numbing. (Confession: Not long ago I found a howler in one of my own books. I corrected it in the second printing.) It isn’t a single gaff or two that sinks a book, but rather the number and variety of errors and infelicities.
The concomitant to a deterioration in genuine literacy, in my mind, reflects a decline in the willingness of many American readers to engage as a cocreator of a literary book. Good books require good readers, and the offal and wastage that today occupies so many feet of shelving in a chain bookstore does not help encourage good reading. In the last few years my local chain affiliate, like so many others, has turned over more than a third of the building to children’s puzzles and games. Have Duplos become more important than Donne? Transformers more significant than Treasure Island?
Naparsteck: In Writing Blue Highways you offer several pieces of writing advice. Among them: (1) “Writing manuals often advise us to ‘prefer a simpler word to one more complex’; before buying into such counsel, check it against the classics. No writer (and that means also no reader) serious about good work should be so constrained.” And (2) “revising... is the single most important phase of writing well.” Were these lessons you learned while writing your books or do they reflect attitudes you brought to your writing?
Heat-Moon: My notions about vocabulary existed in primitive form before I began writing books. Even then I loved the abundance of words in the English language, a treasure unmatched by any other tongue. I’ve long believed that vocabulary-impoverished people—readers frequently hostile to words unfamiliar to them, a group including some writers—should not become vocabulary gestapo wanting to reduce our great storehouse to their own limited range. Would we allow slap-hitters to outlaw the home run?
As for revising, I early knew its importance, but I didn’t understand how extensive and pervasive it must be to move a work from the ordinary to something stronger. With experience, I went from a three-time reviser to a ten-timer. And beyond, these days.
Naparsteck: Blue Highways remains your best known book. Do you ever consider recreating the trip, three and a half decades later? And if you did, would you do it differently? Perhaps travel with someone rather than go alone? Or go this time counterclockwise around the US?
Heat-Moon: Roads to Quoz, a return to the American blue highways, is a series of linked journeys done with my wife, and the result produced different travels and a different book, and it is my farewell to writing about the back roads.
Naparsteck: Looking at a map of the Blue Highways trip, it’s very noticeable that your traveling was very close to being literally “around” the US. Much of it is not far from the coasts and just south of the Canadian border. In PrairyErth (a deep map), by contrast, you deep mine all your material from one place, Chase County, Kansas, smack dab in the middle of the country. When you were driving around the US, were you conscious of staying so close to the borders, or is that something that revealed itself only later on a map? And when you chose Chase County as the subject for PrairyErth was part of the reason that you wanted a contrast: not only of staying put rather than moving, but also seeing the country at its center rather than its edges?
Heat-Moon: The perimeter of the United States was not part of my thinking other than being a near necessity to fulfill my urge to circle the nation. But centrality was very much a part of the inceptive idea for PrairyErth. I wanted to penetrate the topographic heart of the country in hopes of revealing deeper and sometimes ignored aspects of America and of being American.
Naparsteck: You’ve written a good deal about beer. Most notably a 1987 article for the Atlantic. A few decades ago, local breweries had all but disappeared, but now microbreweries and brew pubs are ubiquitous. You’ve also written favorably about small town restaurants. Perhaps your best known comment is that a customer can judge a restaurant by the number of calendars on its walls; the more calendars, the better the food. You seem to select the ordinary to reveal something about America. Is there a pattern to this selection, or is it more that sometimes an item or place reveals something larger for reasons you’re not aware of?
Heat-Moon: I’ve several times mentioned beer in my writings, but the only somewhat extensive piece is “A Glass of Handmade” published in the Atlantic in 1987. That story, as history has played out, was a contributor to the awakening in this country to the merits of real ales and their marvelous variety. As for any larger pattern in my writing about or mentioning American food or drink, I see none other than my interest in passing along to readers word about things I find worthy of recognition. Of late, I’ve spoken of bourbon several times; I learned just last week there has been a significant rise in its popularity. Can a writer change society or merely reflect it?
Naparsteck: You were born William Lewis Trogdon, names carried by both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and much of the trip you took to write River-Horse, A Voyage Across America follows the route they took two centuries earlier. One very notable difference is that they were going into a land that, for them, was unknown and potentially dangerous. Another difference is that they were under detailed and precise instructions from Thomas Jefferson about what to look for, what to collect, what questions to ask. You, by contrast, had both a less dangerous trip but, also, more freedom. You could go where you wanted, talk to whomever you chose, ask whatever questions you wanted to. In your River-Horse travels did you have a sense of recreating one of America’s epic journeys or were the differences evident enough that it seemed like a mostly different voyage?
Heat-Moon: My route across America as presented in River-Horse had nothing to do with that of Lewis and Clark on their grand westward exploration. The two courses shared many miles only because there are few interior water routes—rivers, lakes, canals—that will get a boat from sea to sea. Nonetheless, my long interest in the Corps of Discovery, as the expedition company was called by Jefferson, enhanced our transcontinental voyage 190 years later. We would not, nor could the Corps, go wherever we wanted. All of us were limited by the paths water takes in returning to the sea. The Corps, I should add, was free to talk to whomever they chose and ask questions beyond the guidelines requested by Jefferson. I had no intention of recreating or even retracing the Lewis and Clark passage, and I understood—from previous experience—that we would travel in a much changed realm, and that’s why reference in River-Horse to the great explorers is minimal.
Naparsteck: Writers of books have traditionally had more freedom than writers for magazines and newspapers. Writers of books usually get to set their own lengths, to digress when they chose, and are less subjected to the whims and dictates of an editor. Have you found that to be true? And have there been times when an editor clearly improved (or damaged) your writing with suggestions, imperatives, or subtle hints?
Heat-Moon: The freedom allowed writers of books is many factors greater than what one is typically allowed in a magazine assignment, and that’s the central reason I give most of my time to books. The subjects I want to explore usually reach beyond the scope of what periodical editors calculate will interest their readers. Rather than argue that point with an editor, I usually save the topic for inclusion in a book.
Only once have I seen a piece of mine seriously damaged by an editor. In our discussions, I asked her why the magazine asked me to write a story only to corrupt the voice they’d hired. That story, as I originally wrote it, appears now in my recent book, Here, There, Elsewhere, under the title, “Out East on the North Fork.” It’s about Long Island, New York. That book also restores a couple dozen of my other pieces to their original state—and improves a few infelicitous passages that showed up only years later. It also discusses briefly the restorations.
I must add that many editors listened to my reasonings against certain changes and accepted my defense of elements I did not want modified. I’m a writer who always asks for the toughest—that is, the most thorough—copy editor a magazine or publisher can provide. Those editors keep me from stupid errors of fact or in usage. When we finally erect a statue to the under-appreciated copyeditor, say in Central Park, I’ll be among the first to write a check.
Martin Naparsteck has published eight books, most recently Mrs. Mark Twain, The Life of Olivia Langdon Clemens, and The Trial of Susan B. Anthony, both from McFarland.
from Writing Blue Highways, The Story of How a Book Happened
On a Sunday in late February, at the end of eight hours of writing, something happened. I don’t know what triggered it, but I found myself, as if abruptly awakened, standing above the typewriter, a sandal in hand, beating the devil out of Mount Olympus. (The idiom here may be more literal than figurative.)
Lucy, not yet exposed to the madness that attends writing, watched from the sofa. She was frightened nearly to tears. She said almost inaudibly, “Oh no! oh god!” I was insensible to what a chore book writing can be for those not doing the writing, especially those not permitted to read any part of it. The question of inclusion is tricky for a writer, and denial of it is dangerous to everybody near, so it should be answered cautiously, wisely with a generous eye toward some sort of sharing greater than just the burden.
I sat, put my head down on the Olympia. After a spell I whispered, This goddamn would-be book is making me insane. After a few uncertain minutes, Lucy asked, “Do you think you could handle a bloody Mary?” It was the one thing I could handle. We talked. Well, I talked. Fast, nonstop, madly. I told her that as much as some self-described “book” meant to me, my sanity meant more. There I paused, and then the gates came unhinged: I’m through, I’m quitting, have to quit, what else can a man do, they’re not putting me in a straitjacket, there’s gotta be a way, I’ve been fooling myself, when a guy doesn’t have it, what the hell man, things are turning noxious, maybe they can stop the book but they’re not going to drive me off my nut, nogoddamsiree! Ramble, ramble, ramble. And I took a swallow of what seemed more my blood than Mary’s.
From Writing Blue Highways, The Story of How a Book Happened;
copyright © 2014 by The Curators of the University of Missouri; University of Missouri Press.