Brian Hall has previously written two novels, The Dreamers and The Sakiad, and three works of nonfiction, Stealing From a Deep Place, The Impossible Country and Madeleine’s World. He has also published in The New York Times Magazine, Time and The New Yorker. His third and newest novel is I Should Be Extremely Happy to Be In Your Company: A novel of Lewis and Clark. Brian Hall lives with his family in Ithaca, New York.
Robert Birnbaum: In reading this book I got a very strong sense of many deliberate decisions, multitudes of micro decisions. Why did you choose I Should Be Extremely Happy To Be In Your Company as a title?
Brian Hall: One of the big underlying themes is ineluctable human loneliness, and certainly Lewis is the embodiment of that in the book, being cut off from other people. Also, the difficulty of communicating from one perspective to another—we have these five voices that operate in this book, and there are very few places where they see things remotely the same way. Even among Lewis and Clark, who have the same cultural background, there is this large disconnect, this misunderstanding in the way they view each other. To me that line, which is in the letter from Lewis writing to Clark. I came to the title late in the writing. But once I saw that title, having thought for a long time about Lewis and Clark and the relationship between these characters, that phrase started to seem more resonant and poignant to me the more I looked at it. This idea that if only you will be with me I will be happy. Of course, it’s not that easy. But that longing, that somehow that’s how happiness is achieved is by being in someone else’s company.
RB: Were there other titles that you considered?
BH: None that I liked. I have never been good at titling, or least it’s always a struggle. It’s obviously for someone else to judge whether the titles that I actually came up with were any good or not. I always find it difficult. This one was particularly hard. So I had a long list of possible titles, but I really didn’t like any of them. I didn’t want a title that sounded like a title, sounded liked an easy simple title. Also, what interests me in this book is the difficulty of taking reality and packaging it in a narrative that fits people’s expectations of what a narrative should be. Because, of course, that’s Lewis’ great problem after the trip. To try to—which he fails to do—package this trip for early 19th century public consumption of a standard heroic narrative. And since in very deep ways he feels he doesn’t match the portrait of a hero when he is confronted with that is one of the things that keeps him from writing that account. If I had a title that sounded very much like a book title, it seemed to go against what I wanted to do in the book. And so when I thought up this title, some people liked it right away. There were also people who didn’t. One of the reasons they didn’t is they would say, "It just doesn’t sound like a title." And I each time said, "Exactly! That’s what I want." It sounds cumbersome. It’s hard to remember. I wanted to signal somehow that although it was a Lewis and Clark book and there are dozens of such, that this was a very personal, somewhat nakedly emotional look. There is something about that line that sounds so yearning and needy, it cut against the usual Lewis and Clark narrative.
RB: Late in the book, perhaps in the section called The Hero, is Meriweather Lewis trying to remember that line?
BH: The sentence he is trying to remember just before he kills himself is actually a sentence that doesn’t exist in the historical record because we know he really did write a letter to Clark shortly before killing himself. And that letter hasn’t survived. There is some reason to believe Clark deliberately destroyed the letter. So that’s one of only two documents in the book that I have to somewhat make up on my own. I deliberately don’t give the reader the letter. Instead we have Lewis after the fact who has written the letter—he’s afraid he has done something indiscrete in the letter—because his emotional feelings for Clark are so strong, so unusually strong, that he senses that he can’t really express to Clark exactly how strongly he feels about it. He knows that something’s not quite normal about it. So he’s written some kind of sentence in that letter that has something to do with the phrase "no man on earth." And it’s because in the early letter to invite Clark on the expedition, he does use that phrase. And Clark in a typical Clarkian way, when he writes back that "he would be happy to go" and he echoes Lewis’ sentence back to him. He says, "Believe me, friend, there is no man on earth with I whom I should like to do this as much as with yourself." The sense that you get from the real record, that I exploit for the novel, is that Clark is intriguingly opaque in his emotional relationships. The opacity partly comes from the fact that he bounces back to people their own words. So that you can’t be sure he is actually feeling the things he says he is feeling. It sounds like he is echoing in a desire to please, that he is not really even aware of. He just adopts other people’s phrases. This at the end, starts to bother Lewis. Lewis starts to wonder, "Have I really meant anything to Clark?" So this phrase "no man on earth" which he may have used indiscreetly in some way—perhaps he used the word love in some way that he felt was indiscrete. I never give the sentence to the reader because Lewis can’t remember it either and it haunts him.
RB: I would have expected that the end papers to the book would have had maps. Because I am sure this was not an oversight, why not?
BH: You are right. We talked about it a lot. The original idea was that we were going to have maps. Not just modern maps, but we were going to reproduce the Arrowsmith maps of that period, which were the ones before the expedition, showing the West with big blank space and the Rocky Mountains completely wrong. We decided not to because there was a concern throughout to make sure people thought of this primarily as a literary novel. We knew it would be seen as a novel, but there have been a number of Lewis and Clark novels which I don’t consider literary. They are much more romanticized and canned visions of the trip. The more you add that kind of paraphernalia, the more it trends toward that impression. Also, the more cogent argument is that so much of this book is about dislocation, about not knowing where you are. Lewis and Clark don’t know where they are a lot of the time. They know where they are sort of as far as latitude goes. But as far as what they are heading toward, they have no idea. Having maps, works against that. The reader, when he gets confused, thinking where are they, they flip to the maps and say, "Oh, they are in Montana." Well, of course, Montana didn’t exist back then when they are wandering through this high desert country wondering where the Rockies are. I want readers to stay with that notion. Forget Montana, forget what latitude they are at. They are sort of lost. They have no idea when they are going to hit the mountains and neither do you. It’s the same for the tribal names. We originally talked about having a glossary. But there too, I thought, "Well what’s the point because that makes everything clear." What fascinated me about the record—and I then exploit it for the novel —is the incredible confusion that reigned constantly about which tribe is which. Two different names for the same tribe, but it was presumed to be two different tribes and vice versa. The same names were often given to two completely different tribes. When people talked to each other and they were reading notes they were constantly misunderstanding which tribe was being referred to. If you had a glossary the reader could just go there, boom, boom, boom, this is what they are "really called" and there is there is no such "really." The words we use for them now are almost as arbitrary as all this plethora of nomenclature back then, too.
RB: The subtitle is, of course, "a novel of Lewis and Clark," which raises the questions are you using these historical figures to carry a larger idea or are you trying to set the record straight in some way or to rehabilitate anyone? Why chose Meriweather Lewis and William Clark?
BH: Actually, it may sound like dodging the question, but I don’t think it is. I think both of what you mentioned were equally important to me. I really consider myself a literary novelist who is writing about any subject, usually character-related, that happens to fascinate me. And because I am basically a character-driven novelist, the kinds of things that deeply interest me are: how the human mind works? The deeply sad issues of human existence, aging, death, lack of resurrection if you don’t have that comfort. And, of course, lots of the Enlightenment figures were very doubtful about that. So, that would be the big themes, how the mind tries to organize reality. How it fails to do—it’s every successful in organizing reality and that is the problem. As we impose the patterns and expectations on a reality. So those are the big philosophical and epistemological ideas that I love, which I thought could be brought out in an effective way with this story. Because of issues of culture clash, cultural destruction especially interesting is cultural destruction in the context Enlightenment period. Jacksonian democracy is not nearly as interesting because there the basic attitude is "Indians are scum. They will never be any good. Let’s get rid of them."
RB: Was "jacksonize" an actual phrase?
BH: It really was. (both laugh) It almost sound like killing germs in the kitchen. That’s an appalling period. But the ironies are not nearly as deep. Because the genocide was much more straightforward and to a certain extent much more self understanding. "We hate the Indians. We don’t want them; we want their land. Let’s kill them all." And they just demonized them so it was easier to do. The Enlightenment was much more ironical because there was such an idea that we could take these native Americans who are genetically our equals, unlike the Africans, and we can change their culture. And if you take away the hunting spear and hand them the plow, then through this enlightenment mechanistic idea of how the human mind is formed, they will become farmers and we will all get along. So you have got this, what amounts to issues of racial supplanting, and you have a relatively good-willed approach which is based on this compete fallacy on how culture is formed and how tenacious cultural characteristics are. And so it runs into this wall. There too, the mind’s desire for reality to be something that it’s not. In the Enlightenment Age you can see that very clearly in the cultural clash.
RB: In your book Jefferson theorizes about bringing native Americans into the fold. Was that based on the actual record and did anyone else hold his view?
BH: In his monologue when he gets into this policy, I am actually quoting fairly closely his correspondence. In the particular, there is a letter he wrote to William Henry Harrison right around this time, February 1803, which lays out a lot of this stuff. You are right that Jefferson was out on a branch when it came to his optimism about how easily this might work. And it was part of his personality to be extremely impractical about issues that he wanted to be true. So, the reason I like having him in the book and the reason that I really liked that Lewis is like a mini-Jefferson or tries to be, is the way Jefferson is an arch example of the blindness that can happen with the articulate rational based Enlightenment ideal. So you are definitely right that even in the Jeffersonian period many people were not as Jeffersonian as Jefferson was. In that period also, of course, it really was just the elite that had this idea all. The regular settlers were already Jackson people. They just hadn’t yet mobilized enough to become Jackson people. The pipe dream of the Enlightenment project with the native Americans was recognized as just that by your average person, who just wanted to go and get a farm. And of course they wanted to see it as pipe dream because they had economic incentive.
RB: Clark is more sympathetic to the Jeffersonian thesis on Indians than Lewis is.
BH: With Lewis, he has tried to adopt Jefferson’s ideas, but his emotional response to the native Americans is one of distaste. And it’s partly because he reacts to most people of any kind with distaste, and the more intimate they try to be with him, the more he feels that distaste. The native American plains culture was a much more personalized intimate social culture than the Virginian aristocratic culture. The ego boundaries were very fluid and you had people—and Lewis complains about this constantly in the book—you can’t keep people out of your personal life. As soon as you establish any kind of reciprocal relationship at all, they will show up at your cabin door and walk on in…there is one chief, we know from the journal that one chief had been in their hut for the ten days straight and he was complaining on the tenth day that they were not paying enough attention to him. For someone like Lewis this is really maddening. Clark is more easy going on every level, and he is also less intellectually attached to the Enlightenment ideas because he is a less intellectual person. Temperamentally, it is easier for him accept the Indian and the Indian culture the way it is.
RB: And yet his attitude toward blacks—he believes in slavery.
BH: It would be safe to say for Jefferson, Lewis and Clark all together that all three of them, it would never occur to them to think of Blacks as inherently equal to whites. Jefferson is very clear about it in all of his correspondence. He hated slavery as an institution and he thought it was distorting American society, but that in no way implied that he thought Blacks were equal to whites. And that is partly one of the reasons he wanted to ship to them all off if we could get rid of slavery. And he was very clear about it. He thought the mix of white and red skin blood would be perfectly fine and in some ways beneficial to us because he admired the culture. But mixing with black races would bring us down.
RB: Upon what was Jefferson’s knowledge of native Americans and their culture based?
BH: It was an entirely intellectualized and from a distance. He’d been fascinated all his life by it. So he knew about it from reading lots of books. He had the largest, we think, private collection of Indian-related artifacts and books in the United States.
RB: How accurate were those books?
BH: Oh, the whole range. When he was governor of Virginia he was constantly getting delegations. He heard his first Indian oratory when he was very young. Not insignificantly he was totally blown away by this oratory, but he didn’t understand a word of it. It was just the sound of the voice and the gestures, the dignified lordly bearing—which, of course, he didn’t associate with blacks—just profoundly affected him. I think the very fact that he didn’t understand it added to the solemn majesty of it. In his typical way this impression into a principle which he then drew from for the rest of his life, which was that the Indians had fabulous oratory and they were majestic and lordly, etc., etc.
RB: I would believe the tricky part of writing a book like this is an allegiance to historical fact on the one hand, and on the other none of these characters, other than Indian woman guide, tells the truth.
RB: And there is the way the book ends with the slave York’s observations from his seemingly safe home with a native American tribe.
BH: Even at the end—of course, I am very sympathetic with York, which is why I decide deliberately to give him a happy ending, which is historically quite possible.
RB: Contrary to Clark’s fabrications.
BH: There is always an interesting question with fiction and for everyone it’s a different line. At the point at which large heartedness as a writer can start to look like heartlessness because if you are empathetic enough with your characters that you still love them no matter how faulty they are, what to me then feels like large heartedness because I feel a lot of empathy for these characters, to some readers can look like, since I am not hiding how flawed they are, I am looking down on them and therefore shutting them out. A great example is Ulysses. Some people think that that is a heartless book, I cannot see what they are talking about. To me the heart of that book is everywhere. But it’s so much everywhere but includes so much everything, all of the dirt, nastiness of human life. To me it feels like he is accepting that. To other people when he outlines just how petty, vain, and silly people are they think then that it is heartless. It’s true everyone in the book does fabricate. Sacagawea, in the sense that the theme of telling stories is to make life more bearable of course, comes with the stories she heard as a child. And it’s not a coincidence that I choose in the book that as she gets closer to death these stories take over more and more of her consciousness because she is retreating into this legendary world that she grew up with—what else is she going to think about? She doesn’t have her son anymore. She is dying. She’s young and she is alone. She starts to imagine those old stories that kind of make sense of the world. Coyote and how he created the people and how he is going to protect them and always look after them. Someone like Lewis does a lot of lying but there too—for me, by my way of thinking, a lot of it comes out of his need to repackage things. The core lie for him, which he can never face, is what the direction of his emotional life might take: if he lived in a culture where emotional attachment, romantic attachment where there were more options to crystallize your feelings. So he’s got that screen deep inside that he has completely hidden behind, and it starts to infect almost everything about the way he sees the world. One of the reasons that he can’t write the narrative afterward is he starts to think of polished narrative as something feminine.
RB: He referred to it as "perfumed."
BH: Yes. He doesn’t analyze these feelings. He also associates civilization with women. Whenever he thinks of civilization, it has to do with women’s dresses, bed clothes that women care about, and nice little dinners that women do. It’s the feminine, he’s fleeing that without putting his finger on it.
RB: And he hates French woman most of all.
BH: They get into his ego space even more than the Anglo women because they presume to talk politics.
RB: Your description of Lewis grappling with writing an account seems to me a foray into meta-fiction. You mention other people have written and tried to cash in and then Lewis is realizing there are some things he can’t tell. It wouldn’t make sense or he couldn’t truly give us a record.
BH: Part of it is, yeah, there are things that would not fit the heroic narrative, and again, so the straightforward things like that the fact that they really did start to like dog meat, and yet in the standard heroic narrative you can’t say that. Instead, it really has to be packaged as "we had to eat dog meat because we were starving." This shows the sacrifice and it just wasn’t that way. They loved it. Once they got used to the idea, it was their favorite meat on the Pacific coast. They would trade for puppies and eat them in preference to elk. Elk was the standard frontiersman diet. When Daniel Boone discovers Kentucky he eats the loin of buck. And here they are eating dogs. Of course, some of the native Americans abhorred the eating of dogs. And so they had this interesting encounter with native Americans who looked on them as barbarians for eating dogs. That kind of confusion of who is the explorer here and who is the savage, is something you can never put in your standard 19th century narrative. Lying behind that is the problem of packaging of himself and the expedition as heroic. In the letter that does exist there is a place where he says I never felt less like a hero than I do now, is at the time when Clark gets married and it’s obvious to Lewis that he is never going to get married. He knows that this is where he doesn’t fit the heroic mold. That’s why he displaces that kind of uneasiness when he can’t write the narrative. He casts it in masculine/feminine terms. It’s the feminineness of polished narrative that he can’t do. And it’s because it’s associated with this fault he thinks is in his character of not being attracted to women, fleeing women.
RB: Was this expedition the greatest exploratory accomplishment of the time?
BH: For sheer miles covered and new stuff seen it was the big one. But what happened to it obscure for a long time was precisely the fact that Lewis never wrote the account and then once he died it took a while to setup a new version and then the war of 1812 came out and screwed up the publication. So it didn’t come out until 1814 and then hardly sold anything. By then it was old news. An earlier account had come out from Sgt. Patrick Gass which was not a scientific account at all but it was packaged in ways that people could easily consume. And other explorers had gone out since then. For example, there was an expedition that no one has heard about now, the Long expedition, which was around 1821. As an expedition it doesn’t have anything like the satisfying sweep there and back that the Lewis and Clark expedition has. But there the account was actually published shortly thereafter and so a lot more scientific information—because three or four trained scientists went along. So Lewis and Clark saga faded in to obscurity. Clark in his later life was certainly known as the guy who went on the Lewis and Clark expedition, but the actual knowledge in any kind of detailed way, of what had gone on was very meager.
RB: What about their status in American history? Perhaps as celebrities before the invention of celebrity…Clark continued to live in St. Louis as governor.
BH: He was first appointed when it was a territory and then Missouri became a state. They had an election, he ran and he lost. It has been argued, and it is the argument that I adopt for the book, that one of the reasons he lost was because there had been this shift from the elite fur-trading types who wanted the native Americans to still be out there, for obvious reasons—they were trading with them. And you had then the settlers, who looked on the fur traders as this entrenched elite that had to be brought down. Of course, they were not interested in trade, they were interested in land. For that you didn’t need any Indians. Clark by that point was looked on as a relic of the old elite system that was tied into Indian trade.
RB: And Lewis, his grave was in some obscure place in Tennessee?
BH: They had a simple wooden fence for a while, that some locals had put up—Alexander Wilson went by in 1821 and found the fence all broken down. So he had the grave-site cleared off and cleaned up. And it wasn’t until the 1840′s or something where they built an iron fence and eventually someone put up this broken column memorial. That might have been quite some time afterward. So now it’s this neat little well-kept National Park Service site. And the body is still buried there. There has been this argument about whether to dig it because some people still think he was murdered, and they think if the body is dug up, we will be able to figure it out…
RB: Another mystery. You choose to take the narrative of the novel into the 1840′s.
I wanted to tie up all the biographical ends. Fortunately it was
something that worked very well thematically. Lewis dies in 1809.
Then there is still about forty pages of the novel left. Sacagawea
dies in 1812. Clark lives on, dying in 1838. Even the straight biographies
of Lewis and Clark are really books about the expedition and the
lives before and after are given very short shrift. I did not want
to do that for this novel. I really wanted to let people realize
that this trip was only one part of their lives and, of course,
it was—for Lewis an extremely damaging part of his life. Because
he has this experience that means so much to him and then he descends
into this anticlimactic period. Which can be short or long—Lewis
makes it short by killing himself. Clark lives on and on. He is
more equable, much less reflective. There is something oblivious
about Clark that allows him to float along. When he gets depressed
about something, it is a much less deep depression because his character
just doesn’t work that way.
As far as ending in 1840, I also wanted to round off York. We have no idea when York died, but if we accept the idea that he did get out to the Crow Indians, that account is actually in 1832. I wanted the main parts of the book to be relentlessly chronological because so much of Lewis’ despair through out the book is the fact that you can’t stop time. Everyday ends and that’s it. You can’t go back. And I wanted the book to mirror that by not backing up. I wanted to end with York because he is the invisible man of the narrative. Who never speaks. Very early on he starts to say something and Lewis cuts him off. After that you hardly ever hear a word from him. He is in the background cleaning up Clark. He’s setting the table. You hear him get called now and then to do something. You don’t hear a thing. And I found it thematically very pleasing when everyone has been swept off the stage to have York suddenly sit up and speak. So I wanted that after the death of Clark in 1836.
RB: To me the most fascinating accomplishment of your novel was Sacagawea, the Indian guide. You are giving voice to a young girl whose language you can’t know, so you write her point of view in a kind of imaginary translation and also about an area that is unknown, even to her. So her voice has this spaciousness and airiness…a mystery that is really compelling.
BH: Great. Those passages have been troublesome to a number of reviewers and I don’t think it’s a surprise because it’s there I try to embody in its starkest form this idea of the mind trying with quite a lot of difficulty to confront in the most naked way possible the shear chaotic incomprehensibility of the world. And I can’t do that with out making those passages—untransparent. If they are transparent to the reader it completely fights against what I am trying to do. I am pleased when people like them because I like them but I am aware that the difficulty of them for some people strikes them as some kind of a problem. And my response always us is, "I’m not sure who said difficulty in fiction was inherently a problem?"
RB: Well, yeah, those are challenging sections, but so what? What would the correct way to handle this be? I think this at least a valiant attempt at presenting an almost unknowable character.
BH: A lot of the response has been good to it. The consistently expressed caveat of a subset of reviewers has been that they find it too difficult. I love those sections. I was very intimidated when I was writing them. They were certainly the hardest to write. I worked over them far more than any other section. I wrote the book pretty much from the beginning to the end. Every time I had to start another one of hers there was always a much longer break there. I had to breathe all the other stuff I had written in her voice. I had to look again through a lot of the ethnographical material, the Shoshone dictionary that I used to orient me. And then it was always scary, starting the new section again.
RB: Are you relying on Indian folktales?
BH: In general I stick to the documentary record as much as I possibly can. Indian stories, in particular—I felt free to make up aspects of her band’s culture in some ways because there is so little known even by modern day Shoshone about the pre-contact culture. I make sure I distinguish in the book between things that are just locally her band’s stuff. Whenever she is actually thinking of a story that is printed in italics, those are real. The stories that deal with culture heroes as the anthropologists call them, gods, I really didn’t want to mess with those. Those are really important cultural artifacts that still have quite a lot of resonance and meaning. To go in and fool around with those—I don’t change any elements at all in those—I have changed the sentence lengths and some of the words here and there because I wanted to make them conform to Sacagawea’s voice. But that’s all I’ve done.
RB: How long did this book take to write?
BH: Three and a half years.
RB: I suspect that at the completion of any novel the writer who has lived their characters for a good chunk of time has some kind of feelings of separation. What’s it been like for you?
BH: The way I have mainly felt it is that this is a more complicated book than any of the others that I have done. I think I have put more energy into this one. To me what it feels like is I find it hard to believe that I am going to figure out another book to write. Salman Rushdie was asked something like this and he said, "When you are done, you have this book-sized hole in your head." It’s very hard to feel at that moment that you are going to find something to fill that hole with. Especially, like now when you are doing the tour, it maintains that feeling. So starting next month I have to sit down and imagine what the next project is going to be. This book still looms very large in my head, the themes of it. The truism about a lot of writers is that they keep writing the same book over and over again and certainly is true. We all have themes that really fascinate us that we really come back to. The challenge is to be re energized by some of those same themes, but really try to at least adjust them enough that it really does feel like the next book is another new book. Like so many of these great themes it’s very banal to actually state them. The point is just what you do with them in the book. So the theme of how human beings have to create narrative to allow themselves to think and to operate and to feel not too protigenous and paralyzed by the incredible chaotic and threatening incomprehensible world. That’s not a new theme, by any means. But it’s one that really appeals to me. and the idea is to try to call that up in novels without —making it seem fresh again.
RB: Will you be looking at history as source point for your next fiction?
BH: Yeah probably. I really got a kick out of this. I am a nerdy enough control freak that I love doing fairly detailed historical research. I love being able to track down these little things. And think up arcane—things I think are real but fairly arcane arguments about what really happened by looking at the record really carefully. Temperamentally, I love that stuff. I am hoping that the next project that excites me—that’s what you have to follow—I am hoping that it is not historical because I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a historical novelist.
RB: Do you try to flex other muscles? Essays, short stories, poems?
BH: I do journalism when I am asked and I need the money. Or if it’s something that particularly interests me. I do book reviews occasionally. I read somewhere the distinction between writers and authors, writers just spin off all sorts of stuff. Taking that distinction I am definitely an author. I just write books, really. Not even short stories. My metier is this longer narrative. It’s what satisfies me.
RB: A month from now you will go to your room, a coffee shop, what?
BH: I go to my study, which is a one-room thing behind the house and often—I read a lot. Unfortunately, I read incredibly slowly. So it takes me a long tome to cover territory. But that’s how I often get my ideas, reading not anything in particular but books that seem to excite some back part of my brain at some point. For example, right now I am reading [Ron Hansen's] Mariette in Ecstasy. Most people have read that a long time ago. But because I am toying with the idea of doing something that has to do with spirituality. This theme of attaching meaning, I have never done it any kind of overtly religious way. I am not religious. I am fascinated by that impulse. So was curious to see what Hansen does in that book. I have also gotten interested in spy fiction. The next one I was going to read was The Untouchable by John Bainville.
RB: A fine book, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a spy novel.
BH: When I said spy fiction I instantly thought, "Of course there is a whole genre." But I didn’t mean that.
RB: Okay, I expect we may talk again. Thanks very much.
BH: Thank you.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing