Monday, November 05, 2007

Brian Bouldrey Interview

Brian Bouldrey is the author of the nonfiction books Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica (University of Wisconsin Press, September, 2007), Monster: Adventures in American Machismo (Council Oak Books), and The Autobiography Box (Chronicle Books); three novels, The Genius of Desire (Ballantine), Love, the Magician (Harrington Park), and The Boom Economy (University of Wisconsin Press); and editor of several anthologies. He is recipient of Fellowships from Yaddo and Eastern Frontier Society, and the Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation, a Lambda Literary Award, and the Western Regional Magazine Award. He teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing at Northwestern in Chicago, when he's not traipsing around the world. He will be reading from his new book, Wednesday, November 14, at University Book Store, at our Cafe fireside, at 7PM. Bookseller Brad Craft, an old friend, interviewed him for us.

Brad Craft Why Corsica, of all places?

Brian Bouldrey If you've done any traveling in the past decade, the world
seems overrun, completely colonized, CNN-ified, no mystery there, or there, or
there. But walking takes you into small villages with a dearth of fast food, souvenirs, and sometimes, even, beds. But we're all looking for something authentic, so I, myself, am guilty of overrunning the authenticity. I was walking to Santiago de Compostela in Spain a second time back in 2002, and met a nice Swiss guy who raved about Corsica--an entirely different terrain, an entirely different culture, preserved on an island.

BC You've written before about your experiences "on pilgrimage." Still consider yourself a pilgrim?

BB I think pilgrim has somewhere in it the sense that there's an end place, a
specific, physical goal. As with Santiago, or Rome, or Shinto shrines or Mecca, it seems the thing we lose in this age of flight and speed is the experience of moseying back home after arriving at our goal. So lately, I've found myself either embracing my one-way nature, or removing the goal altogether.

BC Do you read travel books, or "travel narrative," as we call it in the
trade? If so, do you have any favorites?

BB I do read travel narratives, but weird ones. Old ones. I love the stuff that came out of the period between the two World Wars, as described by Paul Fussell in Abroad. The Road to Oxiana, Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps, Norman Douglass' Old Calabria. That doesn't mean I don't read contemporary travel writers, but I'm a little odd in my taste: Redmond O'Hanlan's No Mercy about the Congo River, The Art of Travel by Alane de Botton, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, Bruce Benderson's The Romanian, Rowing to Latitude, Jill Fredstone, those great armchair travel essays by Evan Connell (I suspect Connell doesn't even LIKE to travel, but he sure gets his mind)--those are some of my recent favorites.

BC Noel Coward famously wrote, "why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel..." You've encountered some bad travelers along the way. Are they as amusing on the trail as they are in your book, or do you try to avoid them whenever possible?

BB Oh, I didn't know that Coward line, but it is true, true, true. The terrible thing about getting better at travel is that you get better at avoiding some of the real characters as well as the real...tourists. Tourist are the wrong people--they aren't interested in being away from home. Yoo-hoo!--it's okay not to like traveling. I have many friends who would be perfectly happy sitting in their living rooms for the rest of their lives. But in my ability to spot the tourist, I've often avoided another odd breed, the occasional hilarious grotesque--people who may cause me trouble but are always good for a story later. I love being with a friend and encountering that kind of goof--our eyes lock as the goof goes off, and we're saying telepathically, "Oh boy, here comes a good story now!" Walking also forces you to spend time with people you would try to avoid in other situations. There were these two guys walking in France who were called, for weeks, "Quixote and Sancho Panza" for their body types more than anything. Very late in the trip, I was cornered into a dinner with them--they were both celebrating five years clean from heroin addiction, and had lost all their other friends--they were celebrating being alive, and they had so many good stories to tell--I kept myself from hearing a lot of them by avoiding these guys for so long.

BC In this book, you aren't traveling alone. Can you tell us something more about how the delightful Petra became such a good friend to a "stupid American boy?"

BB In an alternate universe, Petra and I are married and have stupid German-American children. We met on the road to Santiago back in 1996, and she and I have seen each other through breakups, major moves,
and several good hikes. She never panics when we're roughing it. But she loves to play "the girly card" when hiking. "Today," she would capriciously announce, "I will have you boys carry me in a litter. I don't feel like walking." And I would play along and say, "And I will feed you chocolate as the others carry you?" and she replied, "Yes, but also, sometimes, something salty." She had it all figured out. I am happy to report that she is now the mother of a beautiful daughter, Julia Johanna. This, of course, ruins my hiking expeditions, but for now, I'm letting this pass.

BC As a novelist, do you find yourself narrating as you go? Even when you get yourself hopelessly lost, there seems to be part of you "writing" the scene. Is that your experience of the moment, or something that only comes after, when your safe and dry and drinking a beer?

Anybody who has seen my travel journals--and I suspect SOMEBODY here has seen some of my travel journals--knows that there is a suspiciously coherent "through narrative"--complete with dialogue, gesture, all the major senses. I mean, who DOES that in a journal? A fiction writer. I usually write in my journal at the end of the day, "great emotion recollected in tranquility." Then I can transform the day's events into a shape that I can examine for myself, too. I have to say, I'm very grateful for all my journals. I have a pretty good memory, or used to have a good memory, but there are things you forget, and it's such a pleasure to go flipping through an old journal and be reminded of some minor episode. Good food. Sex. Political argument. Trouble with the locals.

BC You've written about some very personal, even painful memories in this book. How hard was it to do that, and how hard was it to use that experience honestly in what is, otherwise, a very light-hearted book? How do you balance those voices?

BB Paul Reidinger, bless his hide, called me "One of our cheeriest bards of sorrow" in the Bay Guardian this month. I like that. So many awful things happen in a lifetime, but so many great things happen, too. It would seem ungrateful to whine about all the bad stuff when there has been no end of hilarity and ridiculous event, too. But I also want people in this entertainment culture of ours to know that living is a serious business, and my m.o. is to present a jolly holiday at first, then pull the rug out from under the reader--if only for a paragraph or two, showing the dark tunnel down which life can go. I hope that by bringing them back to the hilarity creates that balance, just to keep the reader's trust. I'm that friend who will unscrew the cap on the salt shaker and laugh at you when you dump it on your food, and then buy you a whole new plate of food to buck you up.

BC One of the most enchanted moments in the book is when you hear the locals making music. Do you travel for such encounters? Can you?

BB That's the stuff that keeps me going. You can never plan it. You can make educated guesses (that's what travel guides are for), but you can never guess when a faraway place is going to just open up the heavens and rain down beauty. It often happens just when being in a foreign place has ground you down to nothing. You're in southern Spain and you've just ordered what you thought was a sandwich and got lamb intestines instead, you've just pissed off the barkeep by asking for an ice cube in your wine, and you nearly got run over by a crazy taxi, when all of a sudden, you see an old man dancing sevillanas with a 9-year-old girl under an orange tree while two gypsies clap and ululate--it's as if you have to be torn down like a tenement so they can build a spiffy new kingdom of heaven on your lot.

BC How much did you miss your dog, Thurber?

BB It was actually Grace at the time. I sometimes have terrible remorse--that my traveling might have hastened her end. I would be gone for months at a time and while Grace would be with friends and family who loved her, it has been reported to me that (and these are my mother's guilt-ridden words) "every day, she died a little bit." I've started planning walking trips that accommodate my dog. Thurber, who is half pug and half basset (a baguette, if you will), has short legs, so we can keep up with each other. We're going to walk the Appalachian Trail together. I'm having him fitted for a backpack. In a pinch, his juicy haunches will keep me alive if we get snowbound or something.

BC Where are you going next?

BB Oooh, I shouldn't tell. But I'm a little excited. There is a trail that basically circumscribes Northern Ireland. It's not very well known and not well-supported, and reports are that there are parts of the trail that are in complete disrepair. And people still shy away from Belfast and environs because of the "unpleasantness". But they haven't had bombs in a dozen years or more--I'm safer, statistically, there! The terrain looks incredible. And if it doesn't pan out, I'll head back to town and drown my sorrows in Guiness!

BC Thanks Brian. We look forward to you coming to read to us in Seattle.

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