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Walled In with Robert Sullivan

Last time we heard from Robert Sullivan, he was crossing the polluted Meadowlands in a canoe. Robert SullivanNow, in Rats, we find the author in a lower Manhattan alley, watching Rattus norvegicus in its natural habitat for a year to learn what he can about Earth's most disparaged mammal. Rats can mate up to twenty times a day, for example. A British rat-fighting dog named Jocko once killed one hundred five in five minutes and twenty-eight seconds. And this: Perfumes were invented as a response to plague.

"Thinking about rats," the former Oregonian writes, "as low-down as it seems, can easily lead to thoughts about larger topics, such as life and death and the nature of man."

"Some people call me a nature writer," Sullivan explains. "My books often get shelved in nature sections. I didn't think that's what I'd been doing. If you're from New York or New Jersey, I didn't think you were allowed to be a nature writer. I thought, If I'm getting put in the nature section, I'm going to try to write a nature book about something that nobody thinks of as natural. I'll write about rats." The result is funny, gross, and more than a little profound.

Dave: When did it strike you that rats are maligned more than any other mammal in the world? How did you decide that it might be worthwhile to observe them?

Robert Sullivan: In part, it was writing A Whale Hunt. I went up to Alaska just to do a short piece for the New York Times magazine, but I thought Neah Bay was the most amazing place. It took me a whole year to write that short magazine piece, and by the time I finished the Makah were going out to actually hunt. The piece I'd written was about what to expect. I realized, I can't leave. I have to see what's going to happen. Then nothing happened, and that was the most amazing thing, so I stayed up there.

I started reading about whaling and whaling protesting, and I started to think about how we went from being a whaling nation to a country that wants to put whales on coffee mugs and what have you. People want to go whale watching and swimming with cetaceans in general, swimming with dolphins; I saw people racing up from California to go to this town that nobody wants to go to otherwise. They have no economy, no tourism, nothing; everybody's racing up here on behalf of whales.

What's the creature that nobody is going to race around for? It's rats. What's the creature that nobody wants to swim with? Rats. I wanted to figure out why nobody cares about rats.

I know they're disgusting, so that's part of it. But it got me thinking about the whole natural-versus-unnatural split, which is kind of the high school essay assignment I've never finished. When they told me to analyze man versus nature in Hawthorne... Did you get that assignment?

Dave: I grew up in Massachusetts, and in New England I think it's part of the core curriculum, yes.

Sullivan: The whole man-versus-nature thing is part of why we try to stop whaling, but then we drive up in SUVs. We think that's different somehow.

Some people call me a nature writer; my books often get shelved in nature sections. I didn't think that's what I'd been doing. If you're from New York or New Jersey, I didn't think you were allowed to be a nature writer. So I thought, If I'm getting put in the nature section, I'm going to try to write a nature book about something that nobody thinks of as natural. I'll write about rats.

In the city, the natural history is all the mammals that are walking around in that place. The rat is perfect for illustrating that because the rat is not there unless the human is there. They need each other. They're commensal. They share the same table.

Dave: How did that idea turn into this project of spending your nights in a Manhattan alley?

Sullivan: I was reading a lot of the transcendentalists, a lot of Emerson and Thoreau, and I thought of Walden as the archetypal nature book. In a way, it's America's nature book people look to it as a way to experience nature in that quotes-in-your-daybook way but in fact if you read it, you see that it's really about living in society. Thoreau was kind of freaked out by living in nature, frankly. He went to the pond to think about how we live in society.

So now I think I'm going to go and do a bad Thoreau imitation, but instead of going out to the so-called wilderness, I'm going to go into the city, which in its own way is just as wild as anything, and I'm going to look at the rat, this most reviled creature, this example of what simply can't be natural. I'm going to try to show not just that it's natural but that we live right next to it and we're part of why we don't like it. All these things man versus nature, natural versus non-natural, disgusting versus eloquent, and rats there's a lot there. Rats are kind of amazing.

And here's a little joke: Walden Pond is a joke on the walled-in-ness of that pond, surrounded as it was by those hills and woods. So here's the walled in alley; I had my own walled in space to look at.

Dave: The book is more or less the product of your observations in that alley. What you find there drives the research you end up conducting. The alley shapes the narrative.

Sullivan: I never would have found these subjects to research if I hadn't been in that alley. If I'd been in another alley, I would have had a completely different rat book.

When Thoreau died, Emerson said, "That guy loved the plot of ground he stood on more than anything." Thoreau himself said, "I think that we haven't explored the pellicle" that's the word he used that I like "the pellicle of land that we stand on." You don't have to go to Mount Katahdin, where he went [see The Maine Woods], where he may have seen God or may have flipped out, it's not clear which; you can just look where you're standing. That's the amazing thing. We think we have to pay all this money to experience nature, and yet we can probably just go into our backyard.

Liam O'Flaherty, an old Irish fiction writer, at the end of his life came back to the town where he grew up in the Aran Islands. This story may be apocryphal, but it's the story I heard. There was a huge rock where he landed, and he clapped the rock with his cane, and he said, "If this rock could tell the stories that it knows... If this rock could tell us everything it's seen, all the people that have come and gone from this island..." I feel like that's the thing: What are the stories in the rock? Likewise, what are the stories in the disgusting alley?

Cities are where people have been living and are living now and will continue to live in the future. In cities are all our courses and trails; we've been going over the same ground over and over again. One time I wrote something about a light rail station. It was about how that trail was probably an animal track first, then a Native American path; then early white settlers came in and by the fifties it was a paved highway; now it's a light rail track. All this history in layers.

Dave: And the rats bring you to the idea, literally, of what's underneath us.

Sullivan: Literally. When you go down underneath cities, you see the way the city was built.

Dave: There's a memorable, if revolting, anecdote in the book where they send a dog underground after the rats, and the rats eat the dog.

Sullivan: In Riker's Island, right.

Dave: Do any of those anecdotes stick out in your mind? Any personal favorites?

Sullivan: Amazing things that rats did? I always think that I've heard the most amazing thing, then another story comes along. Rats having sex twenty times a day seems to be the fact that everyone embraces, for lack of a better word.

I'm on the "Rats Over America Tour" now that's what we're calling it at home, in my house so I go on talk radio shows and people call in with rat stories. It's so much fun. Yesterday somebody called up and said that one time in the financial district of San Francisco they saw four businessmen standing over a sewer grate, and there was a rat stuck in the grate. These four men in suits had their white handkerchiefs out and they were trying to help the rat out of the grate. That story is not in the book, but it could have been on the shortlist had I heard it in time.

The ones I wrote about were the ones that amazed me personally. The woman who was attacked by rats near the entrance to Theatre Alley that was interesting in a lot of ways, including the fact that you don't really know what happened. She never checked into a hospital, as far as anybody knows, although maybe she did. It's fun because it's true and an urban myth at the same time. I like that.

Dave: Some of the statistics you present beg to be read a second time. For example, one pair of rats can create 15,000 offspring in a year. And other things too, not statistics but facts: If you remove part of a rat population, the others will breed faster.

Sullivan: It's amazing, huh? So don't use poison, which is a good rule of thumb.

Dave: But what the book keeps pointing to is sanitation. Essentially this comes down to what we're doing with our garbage.

Sullivan: Yes. Which comes down to our presence. What does our presence do? In Medieval Italy, there was a plan at one point... They thought it was amazing how much garbage rats ate, and they thought, What if we just give all our garbage to the rats? Then the rats would eat it and make it into these easily managed little... scat. Then they could just sweep it away and that would take care of all their garbage.

We think rats are disgusting, but they're not. They're just another creature. It's not their fault they live in our garbage. In fact, our garbage is our fault, if there's any fault. The reason people are so disgusted by rats is that rats point to what is disgusting about us. We always have to have something bad in our sights to highlight our goodness. You need evil so that good can exist. Really, in nature, it can seem evil, but it's not.

Dave: Rats got a pretty bad rap with the whole Plague thing.

Sullivan: No question.

Dave: Something I thought was funny: You're spending all these nights in the alley, but at one point when you're trying to count the rats, you admit that your estimate might be too high, "factoring in [the] possible hysteria" of standing among them. I'd think after hanging out in the alley that whole time you'd have grown accustomed to them enough that hysteria wouldn't be an issue.

Sullivan: No. You're like, Oh my God, it's a rat! I don't know what it's going to do. It might go up my leg!

Dave: What kinds of precautions did you take?

Sullivan: I was kind of nervous, but it's not as if I was sitting down on the floor of the alley having my dinner. My shoes were always gross. I left my shoes outside a lot. I was really worried about the shoes. But I wasn't touching anything, except when we were trapping.

Basically, I was just standing there. I was observing. I was in the alley, and the rats were right there, but if I got close to them I'd be like, Oh my God! I'm getting close to them. I should get away. An easy fallback was, I'm just observing. I don't want to upset them. I don't want to affect their habitat. Which is kind of funny because as a human I'm making their habitat.

Dave: It's a very different book than Meadowlands, but at its heart is the same premise of investigating something that's right in front of us and completely overlooked.

Sullivan: Right, and I always joke that they're all funny books about death. Rats ultimately point to decay and deterioration. So does garbage. But rats really offer hope in that no matter what you do to them, they survive. They survive en masse, not as individual rats they're each going to die but they survive, incredibly, in some instances, like with nuclear testing.

It's the same thing with the Meadowlands. The swamp seems to be a gross, disgusting place, and we always thought Just fill it in, get rid of it. But the joke's on us because it's clearly the spot where so much happens. All this decay brings new life.

With a whale hunt, a whale dies, but there's a ritual around that. If the ritual works, it's to help people get through life. Some people say, "Well, they just killed a whale. What does that matter?" But other people would say that it meant something to these people. Rituals are about facing death. You probably think I'm nuts on that one.

Dave: Well, rituals ceremonialize what might otherwise be forgotten. They're markers.

Sullivan: They're markers. They're attempts to remind you, to help you deal with things. We could all come to work in the morning and not say hello, but these are ways of saying, Oh, right, I'm with other people. That's one level. On another, you go to a funeral, which is one way we deal with death.

Dave: In Meadowlands, you say at one point that "the Meadowlands had become a bad habit for me." And you're referring to a time before you decided to write a book about them.

Sullivan: I liked to go there. My wife was pregnant with our son. We lived in Brooklyn, but we had to get down to New Jersey to her doctor. It's a long way, but I figured out these routes, shortcuts, and I could do it quick because there was never any traffic on the roads that I would drive. That was incredible to me. Here we are in the midst of these freeways and turnpikes, and there was no traffic certain ways. It was a scenic route, too, because you got to see all this industrial decay.

I told the doctor, because she was getting close to having the baby, "Don't worry. I can get us there. I can do it in forty-five minutes even at rush hour, through the Meadowlands." And he just looked at me. She wasn't allowed to leave the hospital after that.

Dave: You have a friend named Dave who seems to be a willing participant in whatever you cook up.

Sullivan: Dave is my friend from high school. He's an artist, a painter in Brooklyn. For me, the written Dave symbolizes when you just want to go out and check things out with a friend at lunchtime or just take a walk and look around, the idea that it's even more fun if you say, "Did you see this? Come check this out." Also, basically, my wife doesn't like me to go alone to these things and I don't either. He's up for it.

Dave: Your canoeing trip across the Meadowlands was spectacular.

Sullivan: Thank you very much. It was really fun, but it also was a little like, "Are we going to be okay?" When we were carrying the canoe across those tracks we were wondering, "Are we going to die? What are we doing?" But it's fun.

And we do all sorts of things just for fun that we don't write about. It's fun just to go look at stuff. Just check stuff out. One really fun thing about having a kid is that it doesn't seem that ridiculous that you're going to check stuff out. My father did it with me. Let's go look at the railroad track or Let's go watch the planes land. Mundane stuff that doesn't cost any money.

Dave: If there's an author that you think more people should read, who would it be and where would you tell them to start?

Sullivan: A guy I love to read is Colm Tóibín. He wrote a novel that blew me away, The Heather Blazing. It's such a beautiful novel. It's pyrotechnical, almost, in its lack of pyrotechnics. It's like still water, so beautiful. After I read that novel, I wanted to read everything that he wrote.

He's written some nonfiction, too. The nonfiction book that I read by him that really affected me was called Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, where he went around Europe and looked at the different kinds of Catholicism and how they informed each country. They're so different. It was funny and revealing and not funny at the same time. How do you get undressed when you're going to take the healing waters at Lourdes? Where do I put my underwear? I love the mundane, loopy quality. Then he went to walk the martyr walk in Spain, and he says, "I don't think I'm going to make it. I think I'm going to hitchhike this last part."

I love that he mixed the high and low in that book. And I thought it was a really great example of putting yourself in a story that's not talking about you or how you feel or your personal life, but just putting you in the story the way Thoreau does, as a real person that feels representative and people can identify with... looking for a spiritual path but not being able to remember where you left your car keys, not being able to reach the full spiritual enlightenment.

He's an amazing writer. His last book, The Blackwater Lightship, that was great, too. A great novel.

Dave: You've written about whaling and rats and industrial decay. What other kinds of subjects interest you?

Sullivan: So many. That's the problem. Sometimes people say, "I've got a really good story idea for you," but that's not the problem. The problem is not writing about things.

Dave: For example?

Sullivan: Anything to do with flight. Anything to do with printing or typesetting or fonts or the history of language.

Ireland is a real problem for me. I'm very happy that I've only written one thing about Ireland, and that was an assignment. I'm afraid that I'll try to write something about the whole ancestor thing, and I'll get all misty and weepy and start crying and it'll be really bad writing. I'm doing my best not to write about Ireland.

I hiked to Mount Hood for ten years, every season on the same trail. I've done so well in not writing about that.

Dave: Which trail?

Sullivan: The Topspur Trail, on the backside. I like it because it hits both climates, the dry and the wet. I have a bunch of things I'd like to write about Oregon, but I try not to. It's the other way around. You have to not write so the ideas get thicker and you realize what it is you like about them.

Dave: Are you working on something now?

Sullivan: I'm doing a biography of Thoreau. Hopefully it will be short because me on Thoreau for a long time will be a problem for more than just me, even.

Then, I'm not really sure. I've written about the city in Rats. I've written about the country, a faraway place, in A Whale Hunt. And with Meadowlands I wrote about the stuff in between that everybody is racing over.

I always wanted to be a painter. I've always been fascinated with landscape painting, especially the Hudson River School. Even though I'm not a painter and will never be a painter, I want to try to paint a landscape of the United States, something between a map, a painting, and a book.

Dave: Any impulses or directions for that?

Sullivan: On the literal level, it's kind of about roads. Traveling. We've gone back and forth across the country so many times. Recently, I went across and back, five round trips, in one year, so I feel like I've got something to say about it.

I have no expertise in anything that's my problem but it could be said that this is my area. I know all the rest stops on Route 90. I know where to get the best burrito between here and Minnesota. Even if I were just to write a travel guide, it might not be great but it wouldn't be bad.

Robert Sullivan visited Powell's City of Books on April 21, 2004. He won us over immediately with his colorful shirt and tie.

÷ ÷ ÷

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. A Whale Hunt Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. The Meadowlands: Wilderness... Used Trade Paper $4.95
  3. Rats: Observations on the History...
    Used Trade Paper $8.50

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

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