Maria Judnick Interviews Rebecca Solnit
San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit is the author of thirteen books about art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory. They include November 2010’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, a book of 22 maps and nearly 30 collaborators; last year’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, and many others, including Storming the Gates of Paradise; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities; Wanderlust: A History of Walking; As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art; and River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). She has worked with climate change, Native American land rights, antinuclear, human rights, antiwar and other issues as an activist and journalist. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a contributing editor to Harper’s and frequent contributor to the political site Tomdispatch.com and has made her living as an independent writer since 1988.
Maria Judnick: Over your career, you’ve covered a wide range of topics – art, environment, politics, place – to name a few. You also have a strong background as an activist – including some recent essays on the Occupy movement. How do you decide what topics to address in your upcoming books / essays? For example, in Wanderlust, you begin the book in scene as you walk along the Marin Headlands. Do ideas for your books expand from these small moments in your life or do you think of the general theme first? As someone who has also been extensively published, do you have to merge your passions with deadlines or requests from magazines or do you have the freedom to be more selective in your interests?
Rebecca Solnit: The topics choose me! Each work comes in one way or another from the one before. Often a book raises questions that the next one answers–Wanderlust’s questions about getting lost were explored further in A Field Guide to Getting Lost; its questions about technology, speed, and disembodiment in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological West. In most cases the general theme is selected, and then it calls forth the small moments one collects without intentions–it’s a way of ordering what I already have, in ideas and experiences, and moving forward from it, a kind of mapping.
Once I have an assignment or book contract, I am more or less bound to carry out what I’v ecommitted to, but I choose the assignments for personal, intellectual and ideological reasons at the outset, so I never feel bogged down by unwanted writing work. The clutter in my life is public appearances and, I have to admit, media; that consumes as much as I give it and would consume much more. If I were only writing life would be a cake walk.
MJ: As an essayist, do you see your work as having a particular strand or thematic element that connects all of your interests / books together (for example: an interest in landscapes)? What advice would you give writing students as they try to expand past their first book, their first few essays?
RS: There is most definitely an abiding interest in place, landscape, and public life–life literally in public spaces such as city streets and in political engagement and citizenship. But, happily, there are no laws and no law enforcement. I know some academics feel like they cannot stray from their territory, but I think straying might be my territory.
And thank you for calling me an essayist! It’s a much nicer term than creative nonfiction. An essay is a shapely exploration–essayer is the French verb to try–while creative nonfiction is a sort of anxious name for enthroned fiction’s leftovers. (Maybe an essay is the opposite of blogging, because in it form matters, and because it’s like a walk that comes full circle back to its starting point–it has a real sense of direction. Blogging is formless and sometimes pointless, in that it literally doesn’t know who its audience or what its purpose is, and that when you have form you have a point and often when you have a really clear point it points you to a form. Maybe considered as diary or journal it has an honorable place-but I’m an essayist.
MJ: As someone with a background in journalism, it is unsurprising that your books are so extensively researched. Could you talk a bit about the research process? How do you decide on the structures of your books? I’m thinking in particular of Wanderlust which is broken down into different aspects of a walk – whether philosophical, geographical, historical, or a mixture of all.
RS: Once I committed to write Wanderlust–which expanded upon an essay I wrote for a Danish museum in about 1995–I realized I had a vast amount of material on hand. I organized it by proceeding in a way that was both chronological and topical. So I had a sweeping introductory chapter set in the Headlands (which you mentioned), and then began with the evolution of human walking and that first four-chapter section deals with mind/body and mind/spirit (as in pilgrimage) relationships. The second deals with the rise of an aesthetic for unaltered landscapes and for walking and with what emerged from that, from mountaineering to the environmental movement. The third is about urban spaces and bodies moving through them. And the last four chapters–I think there are four–look at what walking might be in the present.
As for the research, I love it, and I never had more fun with a book than with the Muybridge book, River of Shadows, which involved spending glorious hours with primary materials in Stanford and UC Berkeley’s archives. I always ask why, and why for me is always partly about how we got to this point, which is about the past, or history, and so I go off through books and documents and interviews to try to understand all the threads that braided into this very moment. I do write quite a bit about the present–political essays for the website Tomdispatch.com–and more personal stuff that is informed by readings but not so inclined toward footnotes.
And as you astutely note, going for a walk, meeting someone who makes you think, inquiring deeply into your own psyche is also research. We are all detectives all the time, but some of us are more excited about the chase and the arrival at understanding.
MJ: Many of your books reference some great writers of place – Mary Austin, Thoreau, Wordsworth, etc. Do you have a distinction between writers you read for research and those you read for pleasure? How do you think Thoreau and these other writers of place have influenced your work? Is there a particular writer you turn to again and again to be inspired by?
RS: There is some research that is purely dutiful–finding out basic facts–but one of the reasons I write is that it’s a discipline in the sense of a vocation but also of being disciplined. I like setting myself up to think harder and inquire deeper than I might otherwise, and I often find that my understanding of a subject can change quite a bit when I explore it to write about it. I hope that the writing sometimes leads readers through a version of this experience. And there are times when I feel like I’m hot on the trail of a new way of seeing, a new version of something that matters, that are exhilarating. It’s work and the best work. But there are some things–once some magazine wanted to know what I was reading for one of those lightweight things they like to do nowadays. Maybe it was for their website. Usually people are supposed to be reading something recently published or in print or at least something others are likely to want to read, like Tolstoy or Rilke. I was reading the 1950 book Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and Longmans, Green and Co. Which was not something anyone who wasn’t writing a book about disaster and civil society as I was would be poking around in. You don’t read these the way you read novels–you are not like a reaper going down every furrow of every field that is every line of every page. You are a hunter-gatherer going in there to get what you need and you might not bother with the whole book. Or you might.
I read poetry for pleasure, but I often want to read a novel and have trouble finding novels I want to read. Periodicals and the Internet take up too much of my time. I would like to find more time for reading for pleasure (though I managed to read War and Peace on a two-week work trip to Japan in March, and there was huge pleasure in that.)
MJ: During your visit to St. Mary’s you mentioned you are working on follow-ups to your Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Can you talk a bit about the process of deciding to chronicle your home in such a unique way and how you selected the other two cities? Were there any potential maps that had to be eliminated from your atlas because of space / page concerns? Were there any details that surprised you about San Francisco in the process of conducting research for this atlas? Why do you think these more traditionally hand-drawn maps are so fascinating to a modern reader?
RS: Yes I can, and thanks for asking (and listening). I always loved maps and I didn’t know until I published Infinite City how extremely not alone I was. But in making the book I had several hopes and desires. Maps seemed to have hit a fork in the road, and down one avenue were useful but uninteresting, visually and sometimes imaginatively, cartographies–typical highway maps, Garmin devices, Mapquest on cell phones. Down the other were visually stimulating things that were no longer quite maps–they didn’t really give you reliable information about actual places, and you would probably never navigate by these paintings or projects. I wanted to make beautiful, topical, imaginative maps of an actual place. I wanted to make the case that every place is potentially infinite because it can be described infinite ways, and because no two people quite live in the same place. And I wanted to do a gregarious, exuberant project after writing the very serious book about disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell. And so with the help of about 29 other people, notably the divine designer Lia Tjandra, I made this book.
I am now well into working on a sequel–that I expect to be even better–with filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker of New Orleans. She is a native deeply immersed in her city and wonderfully organized–she won an Emmy recently for producing a documentary (and her management style reveals how chaotic mine was, though I cut myself slack for trying to invent a new kind of book–or reinvent a very old one, more accurately, without models). She’s also one of my dearest friends, a brilliant, vibrant, generous person, and I’m having a great time with this book that UC Press should publish in November of next year. The one after that I’ll wait to talk about but I want this project to be a trilogy–and I’m equally excited that new atlas projects are arising that don’t require years of work from me.
As for maps, none needed to be eliminated for space, exactly. Each map was a tremendous amount of work, and 22 was a ton to take on. But none of the maps are hand-drawn. The cartography and design are all computer-based, though Lia did things to make them look and feel old and some of them include drawing, painting, or photography. We used David Rumsey’s magnificent collection of maps as a source of historic examples of maps with ornamental borders, maps with drawn elements and other examples of merging language, cartography and representational visual art into this pleasurable density of information.
MJ: As mentioned, you’ve spent quite a bit of time devoted to the Occupy Movement. What do you think, as a writer, would be the ultimate message or legacy you’d like to see presented by this group? Are there other current movements you wished would receive as much attention in the media as this group?
RS: Well, I think Occupy has succeeded in profoundly changing the conversation and making economic injustice outrageous, the way the Civil Rights Movement made racism unacceptable after it had been the status quo forever. I think it has demonstrated the deep hope and desire for a better society, the power of anarchistic organizing methods–leaderless, nonhierarchical, consensus-based decisionmaking and largely nonviolent–or as we prefer to call it–people power tactics. It has revitalized the possibility of direct change. And it’s demonstrated the bankruptness in so many senses, starting with moral, of electoral politics and the world run by money. All the fuss about demands and message–it was always clear this was about the way the economy is rigged so that we have a 1% of obscenely rich people and a 99% of people struggling harder and harder and often failing to thrive, dragged down by tuition debt or housing debt or medical debt or the impossibility of making a decent living on minimum wage. I’m happy Occupy received so much attention when it surprised us all at its outset, but so much of the bad mainstream media throughout caricatured it as people without demands, as the usual post-1960s spoiled middle-class malcontents, and then as terribly violent (while the Oakland police were breaking heads and UC Davis police were spraying excruciating and toxic substances into the faces of seated, nonviolent people and the UC Berkeley police were knocking down your own lovely professor Brenda Hillman).
MJ: As a writer for TomDispatch, you are often called upon to write an end of the year column that tries to give a hopeful spin on the year ahead. What do you think is one of the most hopeful prospects for the year 2012 and the years to come?
RS: Ask me after December 15th of this year, when my column is due!