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Powell’s Q&A: Geoffrey Wolff

Describe your latest book.
To refer to The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum as a labor of love would be to dramatize the cost of it. Rather, shipping aboard with Joshua Slocum as he sailed the seven seas during the last half of the 19th century was an indulgence of loveshipping aboard with Joshua Slocum as he sailed the seven seas during the last half of the 19th century was an indulgence of love, sparked almost 50 years ago when a friend gave me his copy of Sailing Alone Around the World. I never felt a moment's regret reading or studying this master mariner and his prose, his schemes and adventures, his escapes from disasters and his audacious achievement: first to sail alone and around and for no reason other than he felt like doing it.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Oh, Honestly!: A Son of the Duke of Deception

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
My fanciest job title was bestowed upon my person at United Aircraft's Sikorsky helicopter factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut: "Engineering Communications Co-ordinator" (I was the mailboy). My oddest job, also in the Agents-of-Death business, was at General Dynamics-Astronautics in San Diego; I was an Engineering Writer, which meant that I was overpaid to put to practical use my Princeton summa in English in the service of translating the efficiently plain English written on engineering drawings of the components of Atlas ICBMs into Air Force-ese. These translations demanded my knowledge only of the alphabet: the words to be jargonized were underlined; I looked up their solecistic equivalents in a dictionary. The workday was eight hours, and I was to leave my desk, bare save for the drawings and dictionary, only to eat at a supervised cafeteria and go to the bathroom. My workload was modest (Astro's missile contract with the Pentagon was, of course, cost-plus); my pace could be slowed to fill five or so hours of the mandated eight. I spent much time in the bathroom.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Thomas Powers: The Killing of Crazy Horse

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Speak, Memory Two passages: the first is Vladimir Nabokov's recollection of his father — before the family's exile from Russia — being lovingly blanket-tossed by admiring villagers gathered outside during lunch at the family's country house:

"In the dining room, my brother and I would be told to go on with our food. My mother, a tidbit between finger and thumb, would glance under the table to see if her nervous and gruff dachshund was there... From my place at table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin."

The second passage about soaring — of the imagination rather than of the body — concerns the arrival from Switzerland by rail and sleigh, during the Russian winter, of "Mademoiselle," who will instruct the Nabokov children in language and deportment:

"For one moment, thanks to the sudden radiance of a lone lamp where the station square ends, a grossly exaggerated shadow, also holding a muff, races beside the sleigh, climbs a billow of snow, and is gone, leaving Mademoiselle to be swallowed up by what she will later allude to, with awe and gusto, as "le steppe." There, in the limitless gloom, the changeable twinkle of remote village lights seems to her to be the yellow eyes of wolves. She is cold, she is frozen stiff, frozen "to the center of her brain" — for she soars with the wildest hyperbole when not tagging after the most pedestrian dictum. Every now and then, she looks back to make sure that a second sleigh, bearing her trunk and hatbox, is following — always at the same distance, like those companionable phantoms of ships in polar waters which explorers have described. And let me not leave out the moon — for surely there must be a moon, the full, incredibly clear disc that goes so well with Russian lusty frosts. So there it comes, steering out of a flock of small dappled clouds, which it tinges with a vague iridescence; and, as it sails higher, it glazes the runner tracks left on the road, where every sparkling lump of snow is emphasized by a swollen shadow.

Very lovely, very lonesome. But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland? How did I get here? Somehow, the two sleighs have slipped away, leaving behind a passportless spy standing on the blue-white road in his New England snowboots and stormcoat. The vibration in my ears is no longer their receding bells, but only my old blood singing. All is still, spellbound, enthralled by the moon, fancy's rear-vision mirror. The snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers."

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
The question captivates me and I wish I could answer it with precision and grace because it goes directly to the distinction between expository writing as mere inventory (name-dropping Lobb boots, say) and expository writing at its best, as description and process (how lasts are designed and fabricated, how hides are selected, cured, and manipulated). John O'Hara versus Victor Slocum.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Eavesdropping as my grandchildren make up stories and play make-believe; I love the fantastical plots that underlie their tales, how they ground them in persuasive detail, and the music of the voices they use to convey imaginary characters.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
The Wire, hands down and no contest. I'd put it up there with the great serial novels of mine or anyone's age. Snoop's dialogue with a hardware salesman regarding the quiddities of competing nail-guns; Omar's audaciously perjured testimony in Season One; the union scenes at the Baltimore waterfront, including the terminal screw-ups of Ziggy Zapotka at Delores's bar… My favorite few minutes of television belong to Deadwood, Ian McShane's Al Swearengen attempting to specify the identities of road agents who have stolen the opium of his Celestial confederate (Mr. Wu) by their nuanced dialogue using all of the English lexicon they share — a single denigrative compound-noun. Or — perhaps even more inspired — his expostulations about the misuses and evils of telegraphic communication, hurrying bad news (there is no other kind, in Al's view) hither and yon.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
For those who would casually castigate life-writing as a new-fangled devil's contrivance, and altogether unworthy of serious practice or study, I offer these eight titles and — what the hell — let's toss in Montaigne's essays and Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets.

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Boswells London Journal 1762-1763 by James Boswell
Aubrey's Brief Lives by John Aubrey
Dispatches by Michael Herr
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
The File by Timothy Garton Ash
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy
Stop-Time: A Memoir by Frank Conroy

÷ ÷ ÷

Geoffrey Wolff is the author of five works of nonfiction and six novels. In 1994 he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Bath, Maine.

Books mentioned in this post

Geoffrey Wolff is the author of The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum

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