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Jonathan Raban

Jonathan RabanWhere were you on Tuesday, November 7, 2000? Jonathan Raban was watching election returns late into the Seattle night.

On Wednesday, he traveled 175 miles to Portland to meet fans and read at the City of Books. First, however, he visited our Internet Annex. For forty minutes or so, we made believe we weren't living through a preposterously strange moment in history - our conversation focused on his books. But as Raban has spent much of the last decade writing about America and I'd spent the previous eight hours surfing news sites watching vote tallies, soon enough we got to the election.

In Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings, Raban leaves behind his wife and daughter to sail from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Alaska along the Inside Passage, a thousand-mile sea route rich in history, sublime scenery, natural resources, and danger. "I had a boat, most of a spring and summer, a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle," the narrator explains as he sets out. Little does he know that his life is about to capsize. As the author explained succinctly, Passage to Juneau is "the story of a traveling fool."

Dave: I didn't know much about Passage to Juneau before I started reading, only that you'd written about sailing the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska. It wasn't what I thought it would be, but then I didn't know exactly what to expect.

Jonathan Raban: In all my books, with the exception of Foreign Land, which very clearly sits in the category called "novel," I'm interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what is roughly called nonfiction and what is called fiction. I always want to remind people that the word fiction doesn't come from some imaginary Latin verb meaning I make things up as I go along. It actually comes from a real Latin verb which means I give shape to. The essence of fiction is shaping, patterning, and plotting, using symbols, handling narrative, all those things.

This book, like two or three others of mine, is really an attempt to write a kind of nonfiction novel. The grist of the material is factual - a narrative with people whose names you can look up in the phone book or who have historically verifiable existences - but it's fiction in the sense that it's heavily patterned and plotted; it's structured like a novel. There's a reason why it opens with a lummox on the first page, the fool on the dock. The whole book is about somebody who turns out to be a lummox, himself. It's the story of a traveling fool.

The book is written in the first person, but that I is the most deceptive, tricky pronoun. There are two of us. I'm a chronicler of this character at the center who is me, but in the necessary sense is not me; he doesn't have my retrospect nor my leisure. He doesn't know what's around the next bend. He's ignorant of consequences. He moves through the book in a state of innocence about the future, whereas of course I as the writer, from the time I begin writing the first paragraph, do know what the future holds. I know how the story is going to turn out.

With Passage to Juneau I knew the last two chapters in my head before I began to write the first, which was an enormous convenience. Usually I struggle toward an ending. So the book may have been more full of conscious artifice than you'd expected.

Dave: The artifice was part of it. Also, the amount of history and context you bring to the story. But not having known in detail about what happened during your journey...well, near the beginning, the narrator says, "I set out to explore the sea and its meanings," when in fact your personal story, the internal travels but also the very real family life of the storyteller, is what drives the narrative.

Raban: Yes, and logically so. Right at the end of the first chapter there's a translation from Levi-Strauss where he talks about a tradition in Indian stories: turbulent natural features like tide races and whirlpools are intimately metaphorically related to turbulent events in the family and in the tribe. There's a correspondence between them, and you can see it in Indian storytelling.

The Indians of the Northwest spent most of their time on the water; they were aquatic creatures. Canoe management, how you avoid whirlpools, how you navigate...people talk about the "ship of state," a tired metaphor, but for the Indians it was a very real thing.

I knew from the beginning it was going to be a book about turbulence. I wanted to use that Indian sense of navigation of a boat as metaphor for the navigation of a soul through life. I then had granted to me two pieces of extreme turbulence in my own life which I could not have possibly predicted. I found plenty of turbulence to write about, the equivalent of two major hurricanes coming a month apart.

Dave: That metaphor gains a lot of power when you're writing about the way the Indians navigated. They tended to be much more in tune with the natural world. Their navigation was intuitive, whether it was mapping a foggy passage by the sound of echoes against hidden shores or charting direction by the patterns of waves. They shared an innate connection with the sea that's been made obsolete by technological advances, whether it's a depth-sounder or any of the other modern tools available to sailors.

Raban: It all started with the invention of the compass. People used to find their way across the sea by literally feeling their way across the waves. The moment you had a magnetic compass in your boat, you didn't need to look at the waves like that. A huge body of knowledge was lost. People forgot how to interpret swell direction, for instance, or how to figure out where they were in relation to land by the way the swell was tending. Primitive navigation was entirely based on natural history and observation; the moment a compass was installed, you could just look at the instrument. That tendency has become infinitely magnified in recent years by the invention of things like the GPS, the Global Positioning System.

Even in my own very short time sailing, nineteen years...I sailed around Britain in 1982, before GPS and fancy electronic systems. I sailed with a chart and a hand-bearing compass; I sailed by the look of the coastline. More than anything else, I was constantly taking compass bearings on particular points of the coast, drawing them on the charts and making what sailors called "cocked hats," three intersecting lines forming a triangle containing your position on the map.

My charts from that voyage are covered with pencil lines which depend on very close observation of headlands. Even now, I have a damn-near photographic memory of every major headland around the British Isles because I studied them very closely, as if my life depended on it.

Now I have on board something that costs about $250, a GPS, which gives me a precise reading, within about ten yards, wherever I am on the surface of the globe. So whereas in 1982 I was constantly picking up binoculars to identify the next headland and matching it to the charts, studying the shore, now I put on a pair of reading glasses and look down at this thing that looks like a tv remote. Consequently, I have none of that memory. What a headland looks like is hardly more important now to somebody sailing past it than the view out a train window is to a passenger. That's a real loss, but it didn't suddenly start in the twentieth century. It dates back to the tenth century when some Northern Europeans were sailing around with primitive but effective magnetic compasses.

Dave: That point segways into one of the main focuses of the book: how differently nature has been interpreted by various cultures. You write at length about the Romantics, and Captain Van, who has no concept of the sublime - the coast of British Columbia is ugly to him. He calls it "sterile."

Raban: He was a child of a much earlier age than his own.

Dave: Ages change. What do we look at the landscape for now?

Raban: The Portland painter Michael Brophy has some very funny paintings about just this question. They show the landscape of the Northwest, logged but still green and utterly unpeopled, the environment; masked in the foreground are people who have just come to stare at it as a sort of empty spectacle. They're just looking at the land. The enigma of what we're supposed to make of the land - it's the Northwest, it's nature, it's supposed to be good for you - he captures that terribly wittily in his paintings. They deal very nicely with a postmodern moment in the history of landscape.

We've passed through all these relationships with landscape and the land, and painters have presented it as such, selectively observing, wiping houses and even cities out of it in order to achieve a dramatic effects.

Dave: Which reminds me of the artistic rendition of the Inside Passage you refer to in the book in which the artist actually adds a hundred Indian canoes to a waterway, for atmosphere it seems.

Raban: Which is actually the opposite of what usually happens. Usually artists take people out rather than put them in, which was not the case from those illustrations of the Vancouver voyage where they added this ridiculous fleet of kayaks.

Very early on, the Northwest acquired scenic viewpoints where Romantic painters in search of the sublime set up their easels. You see painting after painting, not to mention postcard photography, from the very same spots. The proper place from which to paint Mount Ranier was from the southeast beach, at the southern end of Vashon Island, so you could see the mountain reflected in the water of Commencement Bay.

Sanford Gifford painted the mountain in 1873. There was a slight snag, however: a city called Tacoma was emerging, blocking the view of the mountain. In 1873, there wasn't very much of Tacoma, but there was a new dock, there was a timber mill, and there were ships waiting to load. Sanford Gifford managed to erase all that activity and paint instead two native canoes in placid water. That's what the Romantic landscape demanded.

Much later on, in 1889, Albert Bierstadt came to exactly the same spot. By this time, Tacoma was a city of 30,000 people, the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, lying under a heavy bowl of smoke and steam - it was a big industrial concern. The whole of Commencement Bay was jammed with timber schooners. Nevertheless, Bierstadt achieved the miraculous: he painted the scene with only one Indian canoe! He completely depopulated the land.

Dave: Our vision of nature in the Pacific Northwest comes up repeatedly in the book. I found it interesting to read your British perspective. You mention, for example, that the original timber was gone from Britain hundreds of years ago.

Raban: By about 1480.

Dave: Because of the area you're sailing through, particular environmental issues arise in the book: the spotted owl, salmon and the demise of the fishing industry, timber and the euphemisms now so common to that industry that we take them for granted...

Raban: "Wise use."

These are issues you cannot help but sail through, and the character who is narrating the book tries to make the best sense of them that he can, but they're not the issues of the book. They're not the primary matter of discussion.

I do think it's interesting that because the Pacific Northwest - and I'm speaking of southeast Alaska and British Columbia, as well - because it was visited by whites later than anywhere else in the continental United States and because it was settled later than most parts, because there are still patches of old growth timber to remind you what the forest once was, because the Indian past is closer here - witness the Makah whale hunt last year; it keeps bubbling up to the surface, an intransigent past that won't go away - and I think most importantly because there's hardly a person in this area who doesn't have a daily view of mountains, forests, and snow fields, you are constantly being reminded of nature and what we've done to it, what we could do to it, and what we shouldn't be doing to it. I've never felt that in any other part of the world, where when nature is so omnipresent.

I used to have a view in Seattle from where I was living, on the eleventh floor of a building on Second Avenue, where the Smith Tower, this monumental achievement of American architecture circa 1910, would stand plum in the middle of Mount Ranier - on a good day, of course, when it was out. Smith Tower was dwarfed by this great big slab of ice cream mountain. That's a characteristic Northwest view. We're constantly being reminded of nature and what we've done to it.

Also if you're a gardener. I'd never met anything like blackberry until I came here. You only have to turn your back for five minutes before it's on to you. You've got to fight nature back in order to keep your plot of tended ground. You can feel the encroaching jungle. In most parts of the country, in most countries, you get rid of those plants and they're gone; but they're not gone here - they just come back. The sense of nature being able to wrap its tendrils around you and grow through your roof and demolish your house is very powerful here.

Dave: Passage to Juneau is the second book in a trilogy about the Pacific Northwest. [After Bad Land, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.] I wonder, coming here from Britain...you talk about leaving Britain behind and starting over. What is Seattle for you now? Is it home?

Raban: I wake up each morning aware that I'm in a slightly foreign country, which on some mornings seems more foreign than others. I have to say that on this morning, November 8, 2000 - Florida had belonged to Bush when I went to sleep last night and had ceased to belong to Bush by the time I woke up - I felt like I'd woken up in a very foreign place. The longer I stay in this country, the more I know that the official title the American government has bestowed on me, resident alien, fits.

I know I'm an alien here, but I think that's a useful position for a writer to occupy. I was an alien when I lived in London, but I didn't have the title or the sense of justification. I just felt detached, outside looking in. It's something a lot of writers feel themselves to be. This is not my country, yet it's a country on whose literature I have grown up. As a greedy consumer of American culture from my earliest memories, it's not bad thing to be in my position.

Dave: A contemporary of yours, and a friend, Paul Theroux has made himself an alien in any number of places - you could say he's made a career of it, being the American abroad.

Raban: We've known each other since about 1970, and I'm always thrilled to see Paul, but apart from the fact that both of us have written about abroad, I think his sensibility is very different from mine.

Dave: Your writing is different, but in the universe of literature I'd still say you're fairly closely aligned. You're both articulate thinkers about place and a person's position within place, and I think someone who read Passage to Juneau would likely enjoy some of Theroux's books.

Years ago, you taught American literature, so clearly this isn't a new fascination for you. After studying it for so long, and writing Bad Land and Hunting Mister Heartbreak, what feeds your fascination now?

Raban: Hunting Mister Heartbreak is the book that got me to Seattle, completely by accident, but once getting there, it's been natural and inevitable for me, I think, to try to write about the place where I am, to figure out where, if at all, I belong here.

I think Bad Land does that. It reaches back into Seattle's own past. The line of that railwork, it winds up in Seattle, and it's a classic route of European immigration that brought an enormous number of people to Seattle after they had failed back on those patches of miserable eastern ground. They were people I could identify with. It was like setting myself up with a bunch of vicarious ancestors, to follow them and put myself in their shoes.

Passage to Juneau simply continues that route. If Bad Land was what led people from the east into Seattle, Passage to Juneau is about the world on Seattle's doorstep and that peculiarly proprietary attitude Seattle has towards Alaska, which is reciprocated. When you get up to Juneau - it's about 700 miles as the crow flies but you can't actually sail it as the crow flies so it's closer to 1000 in reality - you can't understand why the whole town has gone hushed because it's watching a Mariners game. The Mariners is the local team! You meet someone who's going to hospital and he says he's going to Harbor View for tests; he's talking about Harbor View in Seattle. Where else? Trying to figure out what one is doing in Seattle leads pretty naturally to Alaska.

Now I'm engaged in a book [Waxwings] set inside Seattle, though not quite within the city limits.

Dave: What's its focus?

Raban: It's a historical novel that starts in November of 1999 and ends in March of 2000. The history is relatively recent.

Dave: How do you feel on November 8, 2000, with the events of last night, now continuing into today?

Raban: I'd be talking into the 9th of November if I really started in on that.

The Gore campaign likes to say that Clinton was "the ice on our wings." I think in a funny way, and in a way they don't mean at all, they're right.

I spent a week on Clinton's campaign plane in 1992 and wrote a piece about it for The Los Angeles Times Magazine. I actually talked to one-on-one with him for about twenty minutes, and I was bowled over.

He's a consummate at what he does. That capacity to snuggle into a crowd...It's seven thirty in the morning at a farmer's market in Philadelphia, and I'm thinking what hell it must be to be a politician, and there's Clinton meeting and greeting. You see him snuggling into this crowd as if he needed the body warmth of those people to sustain him. He has a tremendous appetite for this huggy-feely political stuff.

He was the first United States President who just about everybody except The New York Times instinctively starting thinking of as Bill, the first first-name American president. He brought to the Presidency this extraordinary capacity for seeming to be the kind of guy whose shoulder you could cry on or whom you might go have a beer with. He communicated. That was a new element he brought to the Presidency, the idea of a President as your pal.

I think the curse of Clintonism over the election we've just suffered is that this is how the Presidency has widely been seen. One candidate has this "I don't know much but God I'd be fun to have a chat with at the local bar," and the other guy exudes a kind of very old fashioned, painfully self-conscious authoritarian politics. Gore is wonderfully well-informed. He knows more about issues and has had more experience dealing with Presidential issues than probably anybody who's stood for President since God knows when, but that doesn't count. It's the huggy-feely thing, the Clinton factor, in its perverse way. Bush has gotten much more mileage than it seems to me he's deserved by being more like Clinton than Gore. Do you think?

Dave: He comes off as more easygoing, more personable, no question. There was an interesting "Talk of the Town" last week in The New Yorker arguing a similar point, basically that the American political system has devolved into a high school student council election where it doesn't really matter if you're experienced or talented or skilled in any way that's fundamental to the job, only that we like you. And it's true to the extent that Bush would be a lot more popular. You get the idea that Gore would be asking for more homework while Bush would probably be cruising around town with his friends.

Raban: Nobody thought they could go out for a beer with John F. Kennedy. Nobody wanted to go out for a beer with Richard Nixon. Reagan was a star, but it was Clinton who brought the Presidency up close and personal, in all sorts of ways - some of which we'd sooner he hadn't - but he brought to it this terribly dangerous, poisoned gift, a dangerous thing to introduce into American politics. I pray that it will go away, but I doubt it will. It belongs. It's part of the smiley face - : ) - of Internet culture, the informality. George W. Bush is the latest manifestation.

Dave: Is the Presidency in danger of becoming a figurehead poistion, then? Ultimately, whoever wins the election will have to appoint capable people. Big government or small government, one person won't be running the country.

Raban: I know the Middle East is in a hideous mess as we speak, but I think it would be in an even worse mess if Clinton had not been President over the last eight years. Just watching Clinton being there, physically, with those two guys at Camp David...the embraces, the handshakes, the capacity for Clinton to create a social bonding between Israeli and Palestinian, it comes out of this peculiar combination of qualities, one of which is being astoundingly knowledgeable about the politics of the place. With George Bush, what's it going to be? Are you somewhere near those Grecians? From what one sees of Bush's personal acquaintance with foreign affairs, I think one has to be concerned.

Dave: I think another way that Clinton doomed Gore is that the last eight years have made enough Americans so secure in their economy, so confident of their place in the world and in peacetime, that the threat of war or hard times seems very far away. Everything goes away with Clinton; things work out in the end. For eight years, it's seemed so damn easy, so what's the threat of Bush being in charge? It's hardly as if Gore ran a strong campaign.

Raban: All elections are interesting if you look at them as snapshots of the nation. Forget about the elected, just look at the nation and what it's saying.

The classic example for me would be what the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 told you about Britain. Here was a country that wanted the smack of firm government. It wanted a severe, no-nonsense nanny that would send it to bed early without any tea if it misbehaved, and that's what it got. There was a yearning for a certain kind of discipline and order and rules that the election made vivid.

If you try to look now to see what the face of America looks like in this election, I would say it looks extraordinarily smug. Contented with itself. Not troubled at all about the rest of world. Gore's self consciousness has cost him the Presidency. He's a man who communicated across a television screen that he's self conscious, but self consciousness is a vice of the intelligent. My suspicion is that George W. Bush isn't intelligent enough to be self conscious.That America appears to be interested in its own comfort level is not so strange to me as its need to maintain that comfort level with its President.

Raban visited the City of Books on November 8, 2000 to celebrate the release of Passage to Juneau in paperback. He drinks his coffee with just a splash of cream. Suzanne scored him a large paper cupful from Anne Hughes before the conversation got rolling. After an hour or so, he looked at his watch; his reading was scheduled to start across the street in five minutes. Oops. I need to find a watch I like enough to wear, I really do.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. My Holy War: Dispatches from the... Used Hardcover $7.95

  2. Waxwings Used Trade Paper $3.95
  3. Hunting Mr. Heartbreak: A Discovery... Used Trade Paper $3.50
  4. Bad Land: An American Romance Used Trade Paper $4.95
  5. Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi Used Trade Paper $8.95
  6. Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its...
    Used Trade Paper $7.50


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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