Who taught you to write?
My first full-time teaching job, at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, was offered to me by the novelist John Gardner. He held a degree in medieval literature, and so did I. We taught together; we staged a performance of the “Second Shepherd’s Play” in a local church, complete with a live sheep, that went out of control in all ways, running through the church and defecating on everything it could.
Many nights I would sit alongside him at his house and he would go over my writing line by line, word by word, comma by comma. He would fill a water glass with gin, jam Dunhill Number 9 into his pipe, and proceed to work over my writing. One night, very late, in the midst of the smoke and the drink, I looked over at him and asked if he thought I was a writer. He answered, reluctantly, Do you want to be? I said, yes. And he snapped back, Then shut up and keep working.
I owe him a lot.
Your degree is in the Middle Ages. Why do you write about all those other things–death, war, blacks, race, laughter, and disappearance?
Funny you should ask. Medievalists are weird creatures: they roam all over the landscape, finding different and interesting topics along their pilgrimages. This is true of someone like Umberto Eco and it is equally true of C.S. Lewis—both medievalists. The training involves learning several languages, the approach to literature is always comparative. It makes a person look at the world in the broadest way and to pay strict attention to language and to the changes happening in language from, say, the ninth century all the way to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.
Who shaped your vision, your way of looking at history?
I used to think that I had the great privilege of always meeting the right person at the absolutely right time. I now think that happens to everyone, but one must pay attention to those meetings and to those people. Everyone meets the right person at the right time. At any rate, one morning in the Claremont Colleges library I had a chance conversation with Ivan Illich. He was the smartest person I had ever met in my life. He, too, had been trained as a medievalist—in history. We became fast friends. Augustine says friendship requires one thing in particular, and that is austerity. Illich practiced that: when he was with you, he paid strict attention, without drifting off to worry about cell phones or email messages or mundane chores. He was there.
It turned out that we were both interested in the same subject: the shift from orality to literacy in the European Middle Ages, and what profound changes that move had wrought in religion, literature, memory, and so on. We decided to write a book together; we wrote it while living together in a small village in Mexico, while walking fire trails in Los Angeles, while sitting together in Berkeley. We published it as ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. We wanted to write a small book: each sentence carrying the weight of a paragraph, each paragraph a chapter, and each chapter a tiny book. I learned a lot about writing.
What about your research methods?
Illich inadvertantly changed the way I go about researching a subject. I went to see him as he was getting old and somewhat tired. He experienced quite a bit of pain, from a malignant tumor that had taken over his right temple. I asked him what he had in mind these days (one never asked Illich, How do you feel? He believed one’s health only reflected the person at a moment, and he never used terms like “good” health or “bad” health). He said to me that soon he would be back in the bosom of Abraham. After I recovered from the sheer beauty of that line, I asked him what it was like growing old. And he immediately told me that he could no longer distinguish what he had experienced from what he had dreamed. The boundary had become blurred. I asked if that frightened him. And he most emphatically replied (Illich could be most emphatic), No! It was exhilarating, exciting. It made so much more possible.
That response affected me greatly. It changed the way I pursued a subject. I found, in fact, that more and more ideas came to me in that twilight space between sleeping and waking. The idea for The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism came to me in that liminal space. I woke up one morning and wondered how much greenhouse gas the military pumped into the atmosphere each and every day. (A gross amount, by the way.)
Unsuspecting Souls came to me the same way—a wonder about the collusion of drugs and aesthetics in the late nineteenth century. That wonder came right on the heels of the image of Humpty Dumpty falling off a wall and the shattering of the dominant world view in the Victorian period.