The Collector: Rebecca Solnit on Textual Pleasure, Punk, and More

From a history of walking to post-disaster stories, Rebecca Solnit has had one of the most varied literary careers. She talks punk, textual pleasure, Iceland, and her new book, The Faraway Nearby, with Lauren Elkin.

The great literary critic John Leonard once called Rebecca Solnit “a cultural historian in the desert-mystic mode, trailing ideas like swarms of butterflies.” Solnit writes intensely lyrical essays blending investigative journalism with cultural history, in which idealism, pragmatism, and contrarianism vie for predominance. Her books range from the psychogeographical (2000’s Wanderlust, a history of walking; 2005’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost; 2010‘s Infinite City: An Atlas of San Francisco) to the geopolitical: Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West (1994) gives a gonzo-eye view of the protest movement at the Nevada Test Site, before setting out on foot into the wilds of Yosemite, excavating the mythologies of the American West. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), is an investigation of the joy and positive social change that can emerge from major disasters. Only someone with very deep ethical commitments could have the sensitivity to notice this, and get away with writing about it.

In her new book, The Faraway Nearby, Solnit’s explicit political bent gives way to a more personal, but no less politically charged meditation on empathy, family, and storytelling. It all begins with a hundred pounds of apricots culled from a neglected tree in her mother’s backyard, after her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, has been moved to an independent-living facility for seniors. The bounty quickly becomes a burden. “To keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed.” Harvesting the apricots is “a gesture of salvage, of anxiety, and of generosity,” and it prompts a series of proliferating narratives aggregating around a series of pressure points: Solnit’s troubled relationship with her mother, the breakup of a long-term relationship, Solnit’s own bout with ductal carcinoma in situ, pre-cancerous cells in her breast tissue which she has surgically removed, the death of a close friend, and a sudden invitation to go and live in Iceland in an art installation called the Library of Water. The Faraway Nearby is a book about preservation: attempts to stall time, to capture the fruit before it rots, to hold on to our memories, or survive even without them.

Solnit makes us all more daring and creative thinkers, as she intuits links between seemingly unconnected subjects, encouraging the reader to follow her lead. Like a chemist she adds one disparate idea to another to see how they interact: a trip to Iceland, for example, leads to a consideration of Buddhism. “The coolness of Buddhism isn’t indifference but the distance one gains on emotions, the quiet place from which to regard the turbulence. From far away you see the pattern, the connections, and the thing as a whole, see all the islands and the routes between them (…) Everything travels.” Solnit can take up a thought and follow its meander into as-yet unrevealed territory. Every phrase invites us to stop and reflect on the view.

Solnit and I spoke when she was in town for the London Literature Festival.

This is a much more personal book for you, in that it deals with your mother’s Alzheimer’s as well as a traumatic medical experience of your own. Why did you decide to write this book now?

The apricots made me do it: they were so clearly a call to writing. But it’s also a parallel book to A Paradise Built in Hell, which was an inquiry into civil society and empathy and the collective emergencies that are disasters. This book was a sort of second tour through the same kind of landscape of emergency, in a very different way—a return to another kind of writing I’d done. After A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out, I became someone who spoke out about public life in the Bush years. I would look back at Field Guide and think I want to be her again, I wanted that license to travel associatively, and by metaphor, to explore meanings in those ways, to have that much pleasure with language. So The Faraway Nearby is an experiment in trying to write beautifully about really ugly things, difficult relationships and illnesses and things like that.

What do you mean by “trying to write beautifully”?

There’s always been a sense that beauty is some kind of decoration, or that ugly is more truthful, but I think when you see something that describes the world compellingly, that sheds light in a way that you haven’t thought of before, that’s really beautiful. Beauty for me isn’t just a device or an ornament; it is the heart of things, as well as a way of having fun with language. 

So you adhere to Barthes’s idea of the pleasure of the text.

Writing is incredibly arduous, but there are also these moments of epiphany and illumination: it’s the work I do whereby the patterns of the world becomes clear to me, and I understand things more deeply. Which is a pleasure we don’t talk about very much. I feel like we have a truncated lexicon of pleasure in American English: we’re really good on sex and food and leisure and not very good at the most difficult pleasures, the pleasures of citizenship, of meaningful work, and maybe of insight. This book was about the pleasures of creation, not only mine but everyone’s in making and deciphering stories. Some of the stories I came across as I was writing were so extraordinary, going through them was a kind of beach-combing, and I would find these gorgeous correspondences between them. It felt lucky the way things came together—for example, my friend Annie’s letter about the Easter Island quest for the sooty tern egg and how that resonated with the Arctic terns in the other flight chapter at the other end of the book.

How do you research this kind of a book? How do you find these stories?

In a sense I’m a kind of bricoleur, collecting all the time. You can see that this was a blend of my own stories but also things the apricots prompted me to think about. My exploration of Peter Freuchen’s books about the Arctic came from a contemporary book that I was reading for pleasure in Iceland; that opened up this huge realm of the cannibal incident in the Arctic, and all the ways that story had been told and could be told, what you can do with the nebulousness of a story. I used anything I came across that helped me ask questions about empathy. It’s a book with a lot of recurrences in it, the way a long poem might be; it’s full of doctors, coldnesses, and distances and warmths and closenesses, questions of motherhood and parentage and creation that the different stories let me imagine.

Do you ever think of your work as prose poetry, in terms of your attention to language, and these very deliberate, recurring motifs?

To me poetry is the highest literature in its own way, although there are lots of  prose masters—Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Eduardo Galeano—who matter to me. I read a lot of poetry. When I was growing up, nonfiction was not yet literature, or wasn’t taught in creative-writing programs, so I thought that poetry and fiction were over there on the throne, and nonfiction used the servants’ entrance. It was embarrassingly recently, probably about 15 years ago, that I realized that most poetry is essayistic: it’s not bound by the rules of journalism, but it is essentially nonfiction. Poetry is a philosophical and descriptive foray into the world, and it has some permission that I want to give myself sometimes, to make associative leaps, to ask the reader to work a little, to evoke as well as define. Somebody yesterday was using that phrase of Paul Klee’s, to take a line for a walk: I want to take the language on a walk. So I feel close to poets in a way, for that permission, that freedom, those explorations of what language can do.

In a way your books are story collections, “tales within tales,” but this book makes storytelling its very subject. You write about “stories we tell ourselves in order to live,” but also about stories that do us harm, and the way so much can go wrong when two people who love each other are telling themselves different stories about their relationship.

I’m interested in talking about stories, not just to celebrate them, but to look at how destructive they are: stories about gender, about female beauty, about race, about power, and powerlessness etc. And maybe it’s not fair, but I used as the key example, because it was so revelatory to me, my mother’s fury at me most of my life. I eventually realized it wasn’t really about what I was or anything I’d done, but rather that it was about this terrible burden of stories she had about our gender: what women owe men, what men can demand of women, how important beauty is, what a daughter should be able to give her mother, this sense that I should be the miracle of her completion or was somehow refusing to give her something that was so magical that it was impossible. The relationship completely changed in the course of her Alzheimer’s, when she lost those narratives of comparison and fairness and expectation. It was interesting to enter into that space where her narratives were no longer there, and see that under those circumstances she was delighted to be around me, and she was a pleasure to be around. It took that hideous affliction to remove the even more hideous affliction of destructive and ingrown stories.

One of the things the book tries to do is give the self a much more variegated and unpredictable shoreline, and maybe one that’s constantly shifting as you feel the deep empathy that enlarges yourself to encompass somebody else’s experience, or shrinks as you become numb to someone.

What about the story-within-a-story that runs across the bottom of every page, the one about moths?

Somebody who watches more CNN than me called it “the crawl.” Actually it does a number of things. One is that I love that opening and recurrent sentence that was the title of a science report—“Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds” so much, and I wanted to play with it, but it didn’t belong in any of the chapters. I thought all along that I might construct a 14th chapter that would be a kind of thread that would sew the whole book together, the way that literally books and sutras are bound—this is the suture running through the book. And of course this is a book with metaphors about threads and sutures. Also this chapter contains in one way or another all the themes of the book. And it’s also calling attention to the architecture of the physical book and the way we travel through the space that is a book.

Speaking of threads, it occurred to me on the walk over here that your last name has the word “knit” in it. Also “soul.” I’m sure you’ve realized this but it’s kind of amazing.

It does, it does. As long as it’s the knit of knitting and not the nit of lice. Some people turn nit into “night,” and the sol is solar, though it may be “salt” in Russian.

In The Faraway Nearby you pick up an idea you develop in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, where you play with the paradoxes of “near” and “far.”

Probably every book I’ve ever written could be called The Faraway Nearby. So thank you Georgia O’Keeffe, for letting me borrow her beautiful phrase.

In Wanderlust I wrote about labyrinths, and the revelation I had in the labyrinth on the top of Nob Hill, in front of Grace Cathedral when I walked it, sometime in the 90s, and realized that part of what a labyrinth tells you is that sometimes you have to turn your back on your destination to get there, sometimes the route isn’t the straight route. You don’t see the mountain by climbing the mountain, you see the mountain from the valley. There’s that sense of perspective that’s really important where no matter how important something is to you, by “getting some distance on it,” as we say, you understand it. It’s not, as it’s often portrayed, a form of running away, but a form of putting yourself in a situation to understand it more deeply, to see yourself in relation to it, and to return to it with something that you didn’t have before. So I think that’s the real purpose of travel. It’s very different from the presiding notion in our culture that travel is escape. Not that there wasn’t a little of that for me when that magic invitation to go to Iceland came out of the blue.

I’m interested in talking about stories, not just to celebrate them, but to look at how destructive they are: stories about gender, about female beauty, about race, about power, and powerlessness etc.

When you go to live in Iceland, it's because you've received an invitation to become an artist in residence at something called the Library of Water. What exactly is it?

It’s an installation by the great American artist Roni Horn, who’s gone to Iceland the way I went to the American West, as a space of discovery and inspiration. This is her major permanent monument in Iceland: a disused former library that has a frontage of windows curving around the central space, so it feels like being in a lighthouse or something. It looks out onto a harbor beyond which is this archipelago, in the Breiðafjörður, the great bay beyond. But the really compelling thing is there are these huge glass pillars at least a foot in diameter stretching from floor to ceiling, and they’re filled with glacier melt from all the major glaciers in Iceland. So it’s a symbolic reconstitution of the totality of Iceland and its ice, but in a melted form—it’s elegiac. And each glass pillar becomes this distorting, reflecting, prismatic thing you can see through; people on the other side double and distort. You can also see islands and things through them, and light, so it’s very much a kind of looking-glass house about Iceland. It’s a very beautiful place. There’s a basement apartment below it where they have a residency, and I was the first international resident. It was an extraordinarily beautiful perch from which to contemplate everything and convalesce. The book very much comes out of that residency, it’s full of Iceland.

I want to go off-piste a little and ask you about punk, since it’s very much something people are talking about right now. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, you described yourself as a former “punk rocker,” and some of your earliest writing was on punk musicians. Is there a punk ethos to your work?

I do think of Sid Vicious singing I Did It My Way. Yes there is!

When I got into punk rock in February of 1977, when I was 15, there was the kind of angst and fury and accelerated pace that you live at when you’re that age. It was wonderful to be met by something that was like me.

Very early punk was wonderful, because it was for nerds and misfits and weirdos and people who were willing to embrace something that was for outsiders, not insiders. It was defiant; it was fascinating. I watched as it went from a motley pack of outsiders to insiders, people who knew what to do with their mohawk and their safety pins: it became codified. But what’s behind punk is a sense of betrayed idealism and ethic of adolescence. I’m definitely not an adolescent anymore, but there’s still an ethical idealism in my life, and a kind of ferocity of not caving in to convention. The do-it-yourself of punk rock is I think one of the great contributions to the culture, something that’s merged and hybridized and now has a lot to do with vegetable gardens and things that are deeply not punk.


Yeah. But knitting can be punk.


I haven’t thought about my work that way—I’d be happy to have people think there’s something punk about it. My mother never stopped being Catholic, and I don’t think I ever stopped being punk.