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Gideon Lewis-Kraus: The Powells.com Interview

I started and finished A Sense of Direction in one evening; I couldn't really stop thinking about it, so I couldn't put it down. I found it incredibly honest, messily lovely, and so damn smart — a really deep, intelligent, generous, funny look at life and purpose, which never relied on easy answers. It made me want to go on a pilgrimage, and it made me think differently about forgiveness. I haven't been so impressed with a memoir or travel book since Geoff Dyer — and as much as I love his work, A Sense of Direction frequently felt more thoughtful and self-aware than Dyer's books sometimes can. Thank you so much for publishing it; it genuinely moved me.

—Jill Owens, in an email to the publicity director at Riverhead Books

Gideon Lewis-KrausA Sense of Direction is Lewis-Kraus's account of three pilgrimages: the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain which has become secular and fairly popular; a circular pilgrimage, the 88 Temples of Shikoku in Japan; and a trip to Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah with his brother and father. It's also a sharp-eyed and extremely funny meditation on desire, discipline, friendship, work, family, and the human condition. Gary Shteyngart raves:

If David Foster Wallace had written Eat, Pray, Love, it might have come close to approximating the adventures of Gideon Lewis-Kraus. A Sense of Direction is the digressively brilliant and seriously hilarious account of a fellow neurotic's wanderings, and his hard-won lessons in happiness, forgiveness, and international pilgrim fashion.

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Jill Owens: How did this book come about?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: I was living in Berlin, where I had been for a couple of years, and feeling sort of generally at loose ends, but it was so cheap and so easy to live there that I could just do a little bit of magazine writing and very easily support myself in a very pleasant lifestyle. But I was starting to feel a little stagnant there. I had gone to visit my friend, Tom, whom I write about in the book, in Estonia, and he also had fled to Estonia to try to work on this book that was taking him a few years to finish, and both of us were commiserating about how poorly our geographic attempts to escape ourselves had panned out.

He was working on a book about the tombs of the Apostles, and he had said, "Oh, next summer, I'm going to have to walk across Spain on this medieval pilgrimage route that has become popular with the younger secular crowd. Do you want to come along?" And, just without thinking about it, I said, "Yes, definitely." I pounded on the table and said, "I'm in! Let's do this."

Jill: Which you didn't remember until later. [Laughter]

Lewis-Kraus: Yes. I didn't remember it, initially, so he emailed me about it. We had a conversation about it, and then three or four months later he emailed me and said, "Okay, are you ready to go? We're going to leave in the middle of June." I said, "Uh, you know, I don't know if I can just abandon everything and spend the summer walking around Spain." He was like, "Well, what exactly do you have to abandon?" and I had to concede that that was a pretty good point. The idea of waking up every morning with some kind of purpose, how arbitrary it sounded, was very appealing to me, so I said I would go along.

Then, three days into the trip, I sat down to write an email dispatch to my friends about what it was like, and a friend of mine from Berlin wrote back right away and was like, "I think this is going to be a book!" I asked him, "What are you talking about? I don't think this is going to be a book. This is just an email." He said, "No, no. I think this is going to be a book."

Then the emails got longer and longer and by the time we reached the Atlantic, some five weeks later, I had written 40,000 words of emails, and I thought, Actually, I think he's right. There is something here that can use pilgrimage as a way to talk about a lot of other things, to talk about restlessness and purpose and what it means to travel with an expectation of change.

That was the genesis of it. Then, when I was in Spain, I had heard about this very similar thing in Japan that's also a medieval religious pilgrimage that dates back about 1,000 years that's become very popular with the modern and very contemporary crowd, more or less since World War II, for somewhat different reasons historically. But it also ended up appealing to people with some big sense of crisis or transition.

In Japan, it's a lot of retirees because they're the only people who have enough time to go do this, so I thought, This Camino experience has been so wonderful. I had such a good time. It's been hard, but it's also been really exhilarating. I really want to go do this thing in Japan, which is more rarified and harder, and I'm going to go do it by myself. Then, that was a really miserable experience. [Laughter]

That was in no way as fun as being in Spain. I was alone. I was in a rural place where nobody spoke English. I was walking on asphalt roads. It was raining all the time.

Jill: It sounds pretty brutal.

Lewis-Kraus: It was! It was totally brutal. But at that point, I at least had to focus on the fact that this was all part of a bigger project. So, I'd write these emails to my brother and my mom saying, "This is so awful!" They were actually a little bit worried about me. I was never worried about myself. I just kept reminding myself the fact that it's awful will be good ultimately for the book, but it was not a fun experience.

Jill: I love your descriptions of Berlin. I don't know the city that well at all, but I visited about six years ago, I think. I had an American friend there. Is it the same there now as how you described it in the book?

Lewis-Kraus: I haven't lived there since the fall of 2010. I went back, which I do mention at the end of the book. I had been gone for about a year, and I went back just for four months, in the fall of 2010, just to sit and write, and actually it was the greatest use of Berlin. It was a limited period of time. I never went out. I never saw anyone. Nobody bothered me. I sat in a room, spent no money, and I just worked for 10 hours a day.it was the greatest use of Berlin. It was a limited period of time. I never went out. I never saw anyone. Nobody bothered me. I sat in a room, spent no money, and I just worked for 10 hours a day. Then, when I would finish a chapter, I would give myself two or three days to go out. I would go out and have a good time and then return to my monk-like existence. All of a sudden, after years of dissipation in Berlin, I went back and was there, and I was so focused and so disciplined, it was a completely different experience.

Since then, I've been back twice over the last year, but both times just for three or four days en route elsewhere to see friends. It's a little bit more expensive than it used to be, but only marginally more expensive. It still seems like there are the crops of new arrivals full of expectation and ambition, and then the people who have been there a while plotting ways to escape. I don't get the feeling that much has changed.

Jill: The Camino does sound, obviously, by far more fun than the Shikoku pilgrimage. How much of that do you think was due to the pilgrimage, the walk itself, and how much do you think is due to the fact that you were alone in Japan, away from your friend Tom and a lot more other pilgrims in Spain?

Lewis-Kraus: There were a lot of differences. Yes, part of it was the fact that in Spain I was with this really good friend of mine, and in Japan I was alone. Although, actually, I really think that I would have had a great time in Spain if I had been alone. Because, in Spain, there are so many other people around all the time, and it's so beautiful, and 90 percent of the time you're walking on these really nice, shaded dirt paths. You never go more than a couple of hours without passing through a village, and you could always sit and have a coffee, and there are all these other pilgrims around.

The idea of doing it alone seemed really appealing to me. Tom and I had said at the beginning, "Well, maybe we'll take a day off and just walk by ourselves for a day." But neither of us ultimately wanted to do that.

The nice thing about doing it alone is that you have the option. You can always be with other people or you can just be by yourself. The other thing is so many of the people on the Camino are young people, many are just out of university and trying to figure out what they're doing with their lives or just got out of a long relationship or just quit a job and are trying to figure out what's next.

Whereas in Japan, there were times when I went an entire day without walking through a village. I went basically entire weeks without talking to anybody else. There were so few other pilgrims on foot. The most foot pilgrims that I would ever see in a given day in Japan were three or four probably, and there were days when I wouldn't see any others.

Ninety percent of the Japanese pilgrims are retirees because it's the only time in their lives that they can just take off a couple of weeks and do this. The isolation was really well enforced, and you're walking on asphalt, and you're walking next to cars, and you're walking through these tunnels. With that whole experience, it's hard to get into any real meditative walking state because it's just so harrowing all of the time.
Yes, there were a lot of differences. [Laughter]

Jill: I think your book might well inspire a lot of people to do the Spain pilgrimage and very, very few people probably to do the one in Japan.

Lewis-Kraus: It's funny. There are all these websites. There's information for people about how to do the Japan one in English. There are two pretty good websites, and then there's scattered information here and there, and then there's this guide book, but the guide book is basically just maps. Virtually all of the people who do the Shikoku pilgrimage are people who have already done the Camino. So many of the people who are drawn to go to Japan find it because they've done the Camino, and they want to do something similar, and they search on the Internet, and this is what they find.

I put up this web page — I think it's actually still up — that was tips or suggestions about how to think about doing the Japan trip for people who have already done the Camino. It's just like five or six points of comparison for people to keep in mind. It's the first website I think I ever made. It's gotten a fair amount of traffic because there are so many people who search for "I did the Camino, what else is there" or "I did the Camino, and I want to do this thing in Japan."

Actually, I get emails about it all the time from people who are like, "I just finished the Camino and this Japan thing sounds interesting," and I always have to write back, "You should really give it some thought before you do it."

Jill: Your friend Tom is Tom Bissell, who used to be at PSU [Portland State University] in Portland. What did he think about his portrayal in the book?

Lewis-Kraus: He was reading it all the way along, although he was very good about not being too intrusive. I think there was maybe one thing that he asked me to take out, which I was more than happy to do because he had been so generous otherwise. I think he really likes it. His girlfriend gets a big kick out of it. She really likes the line about him looking like a half-deranged cuddle bear.

He has a few quibbles. He was upset that I represented him as not knowing who Carl Lewis was, and I said, "No, Tom, it was an important moment to emphasize our unathletic amateurism." I'm trying to think if there's anything else that he was actually upset about.

He gives me a hard time for portraying him as a slow and easily defeated walker. I suppose I should take this opportunity to say that Tom really was a trooper, and I probably do exaggerate to the extent to which he slowed us down. But, actually, I don't exaggerate that very much. [Laughter]

Jill: Well, it is a little understandable in light of the problems he was having with his feet, some of the descriptions of which almost made me physically ill.

Lewis-Kraus: My editor was amazing with this book. She was so great throughout the whole process. But the one thing that we had a minor fight over was this scene in the book where Tom is being tended to by the trio of chain-smoking Catalan nurses who are spraying iodine all over his feet. They're speaking in rapid-fire Catalan, while they're smoking, about how he should be dealing with his blisters and how they're nuns who work as nurses, and they've never seen feet this bad. One of them was on the verge of tears. The whole thing was kind of comic except for the fact that Tom's feet looked like he had been dragging them in a Flintstone car.

There was originally part of that scene where I lanced one of Tom's blisters, which was in the medical instructions that we had been offered. And I lanced his blister and the pus hit me in the eye, and Tom laughs and says, "It's like a boutonniere." I turned to him, and I was like, "Do you think that all boutonnieres are trick boutonnieres?" He was like, "What?" Then I was like, "What was your prom like, anyway?"

My editor said, "That's gross! You have to cut that!" I was like, "No, I love this joke about it. I love the fact that Tom thinks that all boutonnieres are trick boutonnieres." She said, "I don't care. That's so disgusting. You have to cut that. I've allowed you to describe your toenails coming off and heels that looked shredded, but I'm going to draw the line at pus shooting you in the eye.You have to cut that. I've allowed you to describe your toenails coming off and heels that looked shredded, but I'm going to draw the line at pus shooting you in the eye."

Jill: That is a really funny joke.

Lewis-Kraus: I caved. But now I can smuggle it back into the world via this interview.

Jill: Did your legs hurt? You talk about your own feet and Tom's feet so much, but you didn't mention your legs as much.

Lewis-Kraus: The thing that you don't realize beforehand is that your entire body hurts. It's not just your feet and your ankles, it's everything. When you're walking 20 miles a day, it really is everything. Your shoulders hurt from carrying your bag; your hips and back hurt. You ache everywhere. Your calves certainly feel sore. Your knees feel sore. But then, on both trips more or less, there was this miraculous day 22 when everything just stops hurting all of a sudden because it just takes two or three weeks for your body to get used to it.

Jill: How did you end up with Brierley [A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago] as a guide to the Camino? I'd imagine the Moreton [Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide] was about the only guide to the Japanese pilgrimage.

Lewis-Kraus: Yes, that was the only one.

Jill: I would think there would be a lot of different guides in English to the Camino.

Lewis-Kraus: There aren't that many. There are a handful, and I think there are even more since we did it. I just left that up to Tom, and God knows how Tom made his decision. The first minute that I looked at this guidebook he bought, I was like, "Have you read this treacly garbage? This is the most sanctimonious guy in the world. There are these meditations every day about all of the things that make him weep." That's one of the jokes in the book, that this guidebook author is constantly talking about how he is weeping. He sees a young goat, and he weeps. He sees the devil, and he weeps. It's just terrible. [Laughter] I was like, "Tom, why the fuck did you buy this book?" He goes, "I don't know. The maps looked good." He didn't really have a good explanation.

Then, it turned out that actually that book exists in a little foldable pamphlet that's just the maps. That probably would have been a lot better to have, except the book gave us a lot of comic relief as it infuriated us.

We found that the German guide that all the Germans had was amazing. It had these incredible topographical maps and information about all of the tunnels and monasteries you walk by and stuff and none of the treacly bullshit of John Brierley.

Jill: It does provide a lot of comic relief for your readers, as well, which is nice. I find it interesting that a part of the book is concerned with your relationships with these guidebooks, which seemed connected to me to the points that you're making as you're trying to figure out what a pilgrim is, what a pilgrimage is, what you should be doing, and whether that's relevant this whole time.

Lewis-Kraus: Yeah. I certainly think that the running bit about hating the authors of these guidebooks had a bigger point, which is... Part of it is the comic position that one is in. It's not like Beckett where you're fuming at this absent god. It's just that all of our spiritual anger was directed at the author of these pathetic guidebooks. But it's also about the figure of the absent authority, because this is also a book about fathers and about coming to terms with the authority of one's parents or the lack of authority of one's parents. To talk about guidebook authors provided what I thought was a pretty good somewhat deflated comic metaphor for one's relationship to an absent authority.

We desperately needed these guidebooks and used them constantly and argued about what was in them. There's a scene in Japan where I accidentally left mine at a temple, and I ended up having to walk back two hours to get it because I was paralyzed to think that I would have to go on without it. But, at the same time, these guidebooks are terrible, and we were always railing against them. I found some symbolic usefulness in that.

Jill: Can you describe your relationship with your dad at the beginning of this book?

Lewis-Kraus: At the beginning of the book, we hadn't talked in about a year and a half. It's interesting, actually. This was never really supposed to be a book in any way about my relationship with my dad, but that's just the way it all sorted itself out. I had done the Camino, and then I had done the pilgrimage in Japan, and at this point I had sold the book, and my editor said to me, "These things come in threes. You did a Christian one. You did a Buddhist one. Maybe you should find a Jewish one now."

I said, "Well, Jews don't really do pilgrimages since the destruction of the second temple, because the Jews in the Diaspora were always in motion anyway, so the last thing that a Jew needed was a further reason to be in motion. Pilgrimage makes sense for a rooted people, not for rootless peoplethe Jews in the Diaspora were always in motion anyway, so the last thing that a Jew needed was a further reason to be in motion. Pilgrimage makes sense for a rooted people, not for rootless people."

But I had happened to let slide in conversation, "Oh, my dad is a gay rabbi and we've had this kind of contentious relationship, but, at the same time, we've always been close." She said, "Your dad's a gay rabbi? Go, take him on a trip and sort this stuff out!"

By that point, the animating idea of the book had become about pilgrimage as pretext, as a pretext to get away from home, a pretext for an adventure, because it's always been this. It was like this even for serious religious believers in the Middle Ages. It was a pretext to leave the cramped up confines of their squalid little villages. So, I thought, Okay, the pretext now is going to be: find a Jewish pilgrimage to go on with my dad, and then, use that time together because it really is this special time. It feels like time outside of time.

I thought, Okay, we'll use this time outside of time to have all these conversations that we've never had before, and hopefully the fact of the pilgrimage as a framing device will help us all rise to the occasion of having this conversation in a really open, candid way.

Then, we had all these incredible conversations. From the first minute that we got to Ukraine, I had set my brother up to say things, because my brother is a very disarming guy. I had said, "You have to start these conversations because I'm afraid that I'll seem too antagonistic." He started them, and then from the first minute everything was incredible. We spent the first day having this eight-hour conversation about my dad's life and his sexuality and what it's meant to him to come out and what it meant to him to be married and all these things, for the entirety of the first day.
At the end of that trip, I got on a train back to Berlin because that was when I was going back to Berlin just to write for a couple of months, and I sat there and I wrote. I'm really resistant to romantic ideas of writing as parturition, or writing as fugue state or whatever, but this is the one time in my life where I sat down at my laptop, in this Ukrainian train compartment, and just wrote for nearly 24 hours. I wrote like 25,000 words. I wrote 100 pages in that 24 hours.

I got to Berlin and sent it to my editor, and she wrote back and said, "This is tremendous material," but so far, at that point, everything I'd had was a pretty dryly detached travelogue. It was the way I'd originally envisioned the book, which was going to be a Geoff Dyer-style, meandering travelogue, and then 45 percent would be abstract, quasi-anthropological digressions about the meaning of pilgrimage historically, and it was only going to be 10 percent personal — just enough to get you interested in the scenario so that you'd keep reading.

My editor said, "This book can't just swerve into memoir three quarters of the way through. You have to find a way to bring all of this stuff back through the rest of it." In my early versions of writing about the Camino, there had been nothing about my dad. She said, "Well, what was going on, during the Camino, with your dad that you can talk about?" I said, "Oh, actually we hadn't talked in a year and a half. He didn't even know I was walking across Spain, and then he wrote to me while I was there."

Tom and I ended up talking about this so much, because Tom's written a great book about his own relationship with his dad, and Tom really encouraged me to get back in touch with him. So, initially I responded to his email and I said, "I'm walking across Spain," and we had a few email exchanges.

Then, later on, toward the end of the Camino, I got an email from my grandfather that my dad was in the hospital. There was this moment, which I describe in the book, where I say to Tom, "Oh, my dad's in the hospital, but I think it's just a gimmick to get me to call him."

Tom was like, "What the fuck is your problem? How could you say that?"

I said, "Well, you don't know my dad."

Tom was like, "I don't care. I don't need to know your dad. And you know what? If that is true, if it is a gimmick, then it's a pretty serious gimmick. It probably means that it should be taken seriously. So, fucking call him." So, I called him. It was the first time I'd heard his voice in a year and a half. Then, after making fun of John Brierley for so long, I ended up sitting on a bench and crying afterward, because he was actually really sick.

All of this had been going on, on the Camino, and I hadn't described any of it, because to me it hadn't seemed that material at the time. Then I looked back at it and I was like, "Wait. I hadn't talked to him in a year and a half, and then I went on this trip that was about forgiveness and redemption and all this stuff, and I got back in touch with him, and I didn't think that those things were connected? Of course those things were connected."

It ended up becoming, I think, a much richer version of that story because the story of being on the Camino had had so much to do with this beginning, inchoate reconciliation with my dad that I hadn't even quite realized in the way that I told it originally. The real challenge of the book, then, was figuring out how to reconcile these three different registers: the travelogue register, the personal register, and the register of the aggressive, quasi-anthropological bullshit.The real challenge of the book, then, was figuring out how to reconcile these three different registers: the travelogue register, the personal register, and the register of the aggressive, quasi-anthropological bullshit. That was why I had to write like 10 drafts of this book, to try to make those things cohere.

Jill: I was going to ask you about that, about making the tone coherent, because it is. It's so funny and comic in some spots, and it's really sad in others. It's also really serious and thoughtful about forgiveness and about how to live one's life and wrangling with those big questions. I think it's impressive that you managed to pull that all together in one book.

Lewis-Kraus: Thank you.

Jill: I also found it interesting that, with forgiving your dad, it seems like you initially really wanted this compelling and cohesive narrative of his life, of his regrets and his betrayals, in order to forgive him. But through your own experiences with order and cohesion, and the lack thereof on pilgrimages, you started looking at it differently.

Lewis-Kraus: Yes, definitely. That's a really nice way to put it. One of the really big revelations, to me, in having these conversations and then also in being forced to figure out what they meant to me, was... I always had this idea that I was going to get his story straight, once and for all, because the story had changed so many times.

When he first came out to me, when I was 19, I basically said, "How long have you known this?" He said, "Well, you know, at some point in my late 30s or 40s, I realized that I thought that I was bisexual, but I thought I could still stay married, and then finally I got to this point where I realized that I couldn't be married anymore." Then, by the time he told my brother, even just six or eight months later, his story had become, "Well, actually I always knew that I was gay, but I never acted on it, and then I got married, and finally I realized I couldn't be married anymore."

Then, two or three years later, the story had become, "Oh, well, I always knew I was gay, and actually I was with men before I was married, but then I gave all that up when I got married, and then after 21 years of marriage I had to go live for myself again."

Each time, the story was developing in an obvious direction, which was what we found out, what we asked him about and found out in the Ukraine, which was of course that he had been involved with men all the way along.

I guess that I had this idea that he had been intentionally obfuscating along the way. But one of the things I understood when I finally talked to him about all this stuff, especially in the context of all of the other things in the book about pilgrimage and meaning and coherence and sense, was that he had never intentionally obfuscated this. It was just that the process of coming to tell himself a new story about his life is not something that happens overnight, and it's very hard to weave together the elements of a life in a way that accounts for everything or that manages to account for something that seems like such a big transformation, and that this was just his ongoing struggle to figure out how best and most coherently to narrate the story of his life.

I had this conversation with his partner a couple months later, where I said, "I guess I always had this idea that coming out was an instantaneous thing." That it was one of the very few examples of an adult experience where you flick a switch and everything is different. I talk in the book about how I think that had figured prominently into my imagination or my kinds of fantasies about how a life could change.

Here I had this example of how one's life changed overnight, and I think that I had always cultivated that fantasy, that even though I was straight, that it was possible, that there was this model of coming out, in which one's entire life changed, and one was an utterly new person, and one instantly became oneself.

I said to his partner, Brett, "I realize that, actually, coming out isn't something that happens overnight." He looked at me and he was like, "Are you kidding? I've been coming out for 30 years." That was all stuff that came out of those conversations.

Jill: I thought what your brother said to you was interesting, that you specifically had this idea that if you did penance in advance, then you would deserve to be happy later, that you think of it as if you have this finite quantity of restlessness that needs to be used up.

Lewis-Kraus: Right. What's interesting is that on the original religious model of the pilgrimage, people think that you'd walk to Santiago — or you'd get to Jerusalem or whatever — and you'd be forgiven for all time, but, even religiously, that wasn't how it worked. You were just forgiven for the sins that you had accrued thus far. It was always temporal and provisional. It wasn't Get out of jail free forever; it was Get out of jail, and now go clean up your act.

I still think that somehow the appeal of that for a lot of people is that if you go and engage in this ascetic, austere activity and take that suffering onto yourself, you will somehow then deserve some more permanent feeling of grace. Of course, it doesn't work that way, which is why most Camino memoirs end with arrival in Santiago, not with going back to your life and realizing you had this ascetic, austere experience that you learned a lot from, but you're still the same person who still does the same shitty things and is still miserable about all of the same things you were miserable about before.

Jill: How do you do it? You talk about attempting to take the "presentness," and the sense of coherence back into your everyday life. Practically, how possible is that?

Lewis-Kraus: I think that, ideally, you do retain some memories of that feeling of equanimity, no matter how ephemeral it was. You can remember those moments where you've, ideally, gone and developed a kind of muscle memory that comes from a moment when everything felt more or less coherent and more or less okay and more or less redeemable. Certainly, there were moments along the way. There was the arrival in Santiago, and there were certainly moments along the way in Japan, also, that I do retain and think about after having returned to the daily landscape of minor misery.

More than anything, I think, with my dad, we managed to... Well, we bolted from this terrible pilgrimage for Rosh Hashanah in Ukraine, and we just went and were tourists for about a week. We went to Odessa and we got drunk and ate a lot of Ukrainian dumplings.

I think all of those memories, of having a really good time together in an un-freighted way, were the first steps towards reconstructing a relationship with him on something that felt like a much firmer, healthier, more sustainable basis.

Jill: Do you think there's a difference between something specifically defined as a pilgrimage, like the ones that you went on, and something less defined, like Cheryl Strayed's journey in her new book, Wild? Do you know that book?

Lewis-Kraus: Yes, I've heard so much about it. I haven't read it yet, but I hear it's terrific.

Jill: It's really good.

Lewis-Kraus: She lives there in Portland, right?

Jill: She does, yes. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, which is not defined as a "pilgrimage," but she did have her own signs and arrows to follow, etc. I wondered how you thought those trips compared.

Lewis-Kraus: The Pacific Crest Trail is a lot harder. What she did is a lot harder. It's basically the same thing. It's just that the Camino presents a relatively comfortable way to do that. You don't have to carry 70 pounds. You can sleep in a bed at night. Maybe there are 100 other people sleeping in the same room, and maybe it's kind of a gross hostel, but you're not setting up a tent every night. You can have a nice coffee every couple of hours.

Jill: You're not going to get attacked by bears.

Lewis-Kraus: Right, you're not going to get attacked by bears. It's terrible Spanish food, but at least there's food. There were computers and Internet and all that stuff. It's basically the same thing, except I'm not sure how she, in her book, deals with the question of arrival and to what extent there is a feeling that something will happen at the end. So much of the experience of pilgrimage is knowing that nothing is going to happen at the end. [Laughter] You're going to arrive at this totally arbitrary place, but still have to work through your feelings that that arrival will be transformative.

I don't know how she deals with that. But, otherwise, yes, it's the same thing. These just happen to be pilgrimages that people have done for a thousand years, so some history has accreted to the whole thing. But maybe in 500 years, the Pacific Crest Trail will be exactly the same way.*

Jill: A passage in A Sense of Direction that I really liked is about the concepts of reason and excuse. You write,

What a pilgrimage does, I think, is complicate this distinction between a reason and an excuse. The story of a pilgrimage is so often the transition from "This is what I had to do" — something commanded — to "This is what I wanted to do" — something chosen. The pilgrim comes to understand that sometimes the only way to fulfill our desires is to hear them as demands. After all, we are driven by our desires, and when you press the question, the distinction between the active and the passive breaks down.

Lewis-Kraus: This was something that I kept having to deal with along the way, which is this sense that you're doing something because, in some way, you're obligated to do it, but then you also know that the sense of obligation is pretty well invented. Nobody is actually making you do it. It's just that the rules of the game stipulate that you have to pretend that you're doing it as an obligation. You can't just get on a bus. You have to follow the arrows. You have to stay on foot.

But, then, every once in a while, especially when I was so miserable in Japan, and my brother sent me an email that was like, "Don't forget that you are actually choosing to do this." I thought to myself, You know what? I actually had kind of forgotten that I was choosing to do this, because you can get so swept up in the sense that you're doing this because you have to that you forget that the fact of feeling like you have to was a choice. So, you had chosen to experience that sense of obligation, and the more you press this issue of "To what extent am I doing this because I have to, and to what extent am I doing it because I want to?" these distinctions start to seem more fragile than one might otherwise have thought.

I have that line where I say, "Sometimes, the only way to experience our desires is to hear them as demands." I think that, for so long, I had been so frustrated by the language which my dad used to talk about his own sexuality. It was so often, "None of this is stuff that I want to be doing. I can't be held responsible for this because it's just my biology. My biology dictates the fact that I had to disappear and go off on that sailor-themed Atlantis cruise to Baja" or whatever.

I was so frustrated by how passive that seemed, but at a certain point, especially after having all these conversations, I thought to myself, No, no, no. He was just doing all of those things because he wanted to do them and the fact that he had to talk about them in a passive way was just the best that he could do in figuring out to what extent those desires felt native to them.

It was a process of reconciling himself to the experiences of those desires. As I say, so often a desire seems something that's discovered and stumbled upon and inherited and arbitrary anyway, so where, then, exactly is that line between an obligation and a choice or a reason and an excuse.

Jill: In your very long thanks at the end, which I think might be the most thank yous I've ever seen in a book, you mentioned that Tom said that he would do the Camino with you next summer. Is that this summer?

Lewis-Kraus: That's just kind of been our joke. This was three years ago that we did it. Every year, I get emails from him that are like, "We're going to do it again next summer, right?" I sort of think that maybe for the rest of our lives, we're periodically going to email or call each other up and be like, "We're doing it next summer." [Laughter]

I think it's plausible that we would go. I certainly want to do it again. I would love to do it with my brother and his girlfriend or with my girlfriend. There are a lot of people now that the idea of doing the Camino with them is very appealing. But in most people's lives it's hard to find that time to go do it. Plus, there are so many places I haven't been and so many other exotic things to do.

I like to at least cherish the possibility that I would do the Camino again. Tom claims that when we do it next time, he's going to break in his boots in advance, walk much faster, and it's all going to be different.

*I spoke with Gideon Lewis-Kraus by phone on April 25, 2012. Four days later, he emailed the following addendum:

Okay, I went and read Wild, and it's just terrific; I'm so glad you recommended it. I — perhaps unsurprisingly — actually have a lot to say about it. For one thing, I was right to say that what she did was infinitely more difficult than what I did, so I feel almost sheepish comparing the two and, indeed, am inclined to suggest we delete that whole section of the interview, because I come off as history's softest person in comparison. But, since we're talking about it, yeah, she makes a lot of the same points that I make, I think, and she also comes to understand in the end that this kind of trip is all about pretext, that what's at stake is much less the why than the that.

As far as her arrival goes — the thing I was wondering about when we spoke — it's actually a whole different thing in her case, because she published this book something like 17 years after she hiked the PCT, which means she has a much clearer sense of how the experience, and her memories of the experience, went on to shape her life. My favorite paragraph of the entire book, actually, is the sweeping panoramic thing she does at the end, where she's just reached the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River, and she's eating an ice cream cone and just sort of sitting there — in a way I totally recognized from my own experiences — and then we get this totally flawless quick zoom through the next decade and a half of her life and see her coming back to this spot with her children, and the whole thing is unbelievably well done and so moving, and I thought, Wow, when you sit on this material for so long you really have something to say about what arrival meant or has come to mean.

The only other thing I'll note — and I'm sorry for going on for so long about this, though I blame you for bringing it up — is that there is one small point of contact between our books, where she meets this Swiss woman, I think it's in Ashland [Oregon], right after the death of Jerry Garcia, and the woman talks about the pilgrim's path and insists on washing her feet, and I thought, This woman is totally talking about the Camino here, because even though these days most people treat the Camino as starting at the French border, there are actually medieval paths that run as far as, like, St. Petersburg, and many of them go through Switzerland. So, I got a kick out of that. Thanks, again, for the great recommendation.

Books mentioned in this post

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One Response to "Gideon Lewis-Kraus: The Powells.com Interview"

  1.  
    Pat Shepherd May 28th, 2012 at 8:13 am

    A helpful interview. A very interesting subject, the pilgrimage. I'm living a life now much like Gideon's in Berlin initially: pleasant, unchallenging, seemingly full but not really (I'm 71, very out of shape, and more or less retired). The thought has crept in now and again that I should (must? Or do I just want to?) do something that might help me define my life. Ironically, the Japanese pilgrimage (or maybe the PCT?) feels more appropriate, precisely because of the difficulty and discomfort. Oh well, knowing me, I'll probably just settle back on the couch with Lewis-Kraus's book on my lap (and Strayer's and Dyer's books on the coffee table) and call it a life. . .

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