Brian Hall

Brian HallBrian 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.

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.

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


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?

brian hallBH:

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.

BH: Right.

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


RB: He referred to it as "perfumed."

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.

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.

brian hallBH:

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


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


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.

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


RB: Okay, I expect we may talk again. Thanks very


BH: Thank you.

Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum

All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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