Six Questions — June 21, 2012, 9:32 am

A Sense of Direction: Six Questions for Gideon Lewis-Kraus

The last time Harper’s Magazine readers saw Gideon Lewis-Kraus was in 2009, when he diagnosed the diseases of the publishing world at the Frankfurt Book Fair and infiltrated the community of medical-marijuana growers in northern California. A few years ago, he moved to Berlin, where cheap rent had attracted a number of fellow writers and artists, and began using the city as a base of operations for the series of trips he recounts in A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, which Riverhead published in May. Lewis-Kraus’s search for catharsis through meaningful wandering took him to Spain, for the Catholic pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela; to Japan, to walk a circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the island of Shikoku; and to Ukraine, where he joined thousands of Hasidim (and his father) to visit Rabbi Nachman’s tomb in Uman. Harper’s put six questions to Lewis-Kraus about all of these places, and more.

1. Is Berlin over?

Well, what I say toward the end of the first chapter in the book is something like, “What the word ‘over’ really means is that your expectations of a place, your fantasies of who you might have become there, have been confounded by the persistence of you. You want a place to be strong enough to resist the patterns you force onto it, and there are places that can do that for a while.” So that’s the book’s party line on the idea of a place being “over.” But I know that’s not quite what you’re asking. To answer that, I think you have to identify what made Berlin interesting in the first place. And the answer can’t really be “creative ferment,” because creative ferment is something that can only really appear in retrospect, once the culture has made its decisions. So the basic answer has to be something like: it was cheap and a lot of young people converged there to do economically irrational things and see what might happen.

Part of my idea in moving there was to see what it might be like to live a life as little determined as possible by financial considerations. In my first year in Berlin I lived on about eight thousand dollars. I went back in the fall of 2010, just to hide out and work on the book, and it was perhaps marginally more expensive. There are some nicer restaurants there now, though nobody I know goes to them. So I don’t think anything is over. It’ll be over when young people have to give primary consideration to how they’re paying their rent.

From A Sense of Direction:

My friend Tom was trapped at home in a tiny, distant city. He had no Estonian visa, and he knew if he left Tallinn he’d be unable to return. More immediately problematic was the Russian stripper he’d been flirting with, or, more specifically, her boyfriend, who had taken to hanging around Tom’s front door. Tom pleaded with me to visit, confident the guy wouldn’t take on the two of us.

Tom and I didn’t know each other all that well then, nothing like later, but it sounded like a fun excuse for a trip. Unlike Tom, I could leave my apartment in Berlin whenever I wanted—I had a German freelancer’s visa and no cuckolded Baltic criminals camped out on my stoop—and was, in fact, spending more time away than at home. By that point Berlin often left me feeling at loose ends, and one of the things I had come to like most about living there was how easy it was never to be in town.

2. To what extent did you play up a sense of personal crisis as a motivating factor for the book?

I definitely played up the extent to which I “did nothing” in Berlin. I was always reading, was going to see a lot of art and experimental theater, listened to hours and hours of German news and culture podcasts every day to work on my proficiency, and was writing for magazines the entire time, or at least doing enough writing to support myself financially‍—which as I mentioned wasn’t very hard. But it often felt as though I was doing nothing at all, and that was what I wanted to dramatize in the opening chapter of the book, this sense that no matter what I was doing at any given time, I really wasn’t sure if it was as much as I might be doing, or the best thing to be doing.

This ties in to the money thing. When I was living in San Francisco and had to do all kinds of things just to get by—I worked for a long time as a bibliographer, and I worked for minimum wage in a bookstore, and I worked as a copyeditor, and I spent a summer sitting in the headquarters of The Gap writing squibs for newspaper circulars—I rarely stopped to ask myself a question like “Why did I just spend the past hour writing ‘Spring into Fall with Old Navy denim!’?” because the answer was clear: I needed to pay the rent. But once I’d moved to a place where rent was almost a non-issue, I opened the door to a paralyzing self-consciousness about the worth of any given activity. There was no respite from the question, “Am I making the most out of this hour right now?” In reality I wasn’t quite paralyzed by that self-consciousness, but it was a necessary frame for the things I wanted to talk about in the book—about the sorts of structures, and journeys, that might help alleviate, or help us better come to terms with, the pressures and anxieties of freedom.

3. When did you realize how big a role your father would play in the narrative and structure of the book?

I was pretty far along, actually. I didn’t set out to write a book about my father. In my mind, I was going to do something that was a lot more abstract, a lot more quasi-anthropological. Like Tristes Tropiques or something, I don’t know. I wanted to write about what it meant that secular people were taking up these religious pilgrimages in large numbers. But as I went along with the drafts of the Camino and Shikoku chapters, I realized there was something wanting, which was that it’s hard to talk in an interesting way about, say, forgiveness without having a personal story to hang it on. This all came to the fore when I read an academic book about the Shikoku pilgrimage, Making Pilgrimages, by a British professor named Ian Reader. It’s a very smart and interesting book, but in the end it feels withholding, because you have this sense that the author and his wife had a very powerful experience on their circuit of the eighty-eight temples of Shikoku, but that he felt as though it was inappropriate to write about his personal reasons for having wanted to do it. So, to some extent, the story about my reconciliation with my dad was an attempt to use my own life as a case study for the sorts of changes that pilgrimage can effect.

When people have questioned the absence of detail about my reasons for having been angry at my father, my response has been, well, that wasn’t really the point. The point wasn’t to catalogue the good and bad things that had happened, or to set out an airtight legal brief against a parent who was always doing his best to muddle through; the point was to begin with the fact of this troubled relationship, a troubled relationship that any of us might have with our children or parents. That’s why I was content with a level of generality that wouldn’t suffice in a more traditional memoir.

All that said, however, the change in my relationship with my father has been just tremendous. We’re closer than we’ve ever been, I think, and, as I said to him when he first wrote to me about the book, I could’ve thrown the manuscript into the ocean and never published it and the whole thing would’ve been worth it for what it’s done for us. We relate in a much more honest and open way now; there were all these hard things that needed to be said, and maybe even needed to be said in public, and now that they’ve been registered it’s been astonishingly easy for us to move on. He’s been incredibly supportive of and enthusiastic about the book. The one thing he keeps saying, when friends of his pick it up, is that they have to promise to read to the very end, because if you stop halfway through you think he’s just a jerk.

4. Have you taken any pilgrimages that aren’t in this book?

Part of the process of writing this book was figuring out how to winnow. What made me want to write about pilgrimage was how capacious the concept is—it’s travel as pretext, travel with motive, even if the explicit motive conceals murkier ones. But I decided that, partly because I was interested in ritual and tradition, I was going to restrict myself to these three religious, or at least formerly religious ones. That meant leaving out a lot of cultural pilgrimages I’d originally had it in mind to write about: this absurd trip, for example, that I took to the remote Central Kalahari to see the town from Norman Rush’s Mating (a bit that later ended up running in Paper magazine); or the few days I spent in Glasgow with my brother tracking down the various Alasdair Gray murals (the best one is in the rear staircase of The Ubiquitous Chip, the one that reads “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”); or the day my friend Noah and I spent searching Trieste for a Chinese restaurant for Jewish dinner on Christmas Eve. I’m not sure that last one counts, but it was probably the most memorable part of that trip.

5. What were some books on pilgrimage that you found especially useful, and which ones were especially useless?

I found most of the books that were explicitly about pilgrimage to be less than totally useful, because they tended to be so academic—as I’ve described above—and elided the human element. As I write in the book, I got a lot out of the late Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner, but I also read a whole shelf of anthropological literature that never made its way into the book. The books I found most useful were those that weren’t at all explicitly about pilgrimage but were about varieties of structured journey, like Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, which is about this trip he took to the sites where some of his scientific heroes did their greatest work. Or Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which is prima facie about his inability to write a book about D H Lawrence but is actually about our pretexts for doing, and not doing, what we do and don’t do, and what we expect from our visits to the milieus of our icons. Elif Batuman’s The Possessed is another book that doesn’t seem to be about pilgrimage but, for my purposes, was incredibly helpful in figuring out which portions of a life feel inherited and which feel chosen and why. Nicholson Baker’s U and I falls into the same category, as do Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, John Sullivan’s Blood Horses, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, of course. The essays of Natalia Ginzburg, in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s translation, were important to me, too, particularly the one called “A Place to Live.”

glksenseofdirection2006. The Camino and Shikoku sections originated as mass emails. What effect do you think that had on the prose of the final version?

Probably none at all, actually. I rewrote this book from the ground up ten or twelve times, so the final version bears almost no similarity to the original emails. A lot of the jokes are the same, maybe, since I tend not to rewrite jokes. I liked to write the emails mostly because they gave me a structure as I went along and forced me to transcribe my notes. I’m naturally lazy and apt to let jottings fester in my notebooks until they’re unreadable, but I know that once I start a chain of email dispatches I’ll feel just enough pressure and just enough incentive to keep it going that I’ll sit down and do it every day. I also think that the email prompt is a nice trick. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn once told me that the way he gets all of his pieces underway is by sitting down with his laptop in bed and the TV on, with the idea that he’s just going to noodle around, he’s not really going to write, he’s just going to make some notes while he watches TV—this was a few years ago; I don’t know if he still does this—and that he invariably finds himself getting real work done, but only as long as he’s told himself in advance that he’s not going to get real work done. I think email works the same way for me, and possibly my generation more broadly. We know how to write emails; we sit down and see the empty email box and are primed to start filling it. I don’t experience the same terror of the blank page when I’m composing in Gmail as I do when I’m composing in Word. So the email thing is all just an elaborate ruse to fool myself into doing a lot of work as I go along.

The biggest effect was probably that I had to include many more people in my acknowledgements section. But I’m not ashamed that I needed and asked for help. I can think of two dozen more people I wish I’d thanked. As Tom Bissell said to me the first time I ever met him, “There are two kinds of writers in the world: writers who help other writers and writers who don’t.” I’m lucky that so many of my friends are the former.

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