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Powell's Q&A

Dan White

Describe your latest project.
The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind — and Almost Found Myself — on the Pacific Crest Trail is my contemporary take on the hero's journey. I set out to write a real-life dark comedy about vision quest that goes ridiculously awry in the wild American West. I wanted to talk about the costs — as well as the benefits — of being obsessed with one goal and trying to reach it no matter what. Part of the book is about the fraying relationship between me and my girlfriend at the time, and how it evolved (or devolved) as we struggled with "The Quest." But the book is also about deep ecology, place, and the wild characters we met out on the trail, as well as the emigrants, pioneers, and moguls that once populated the West.

  1. The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind -- and Almost Found Myself -- on the Pacific Crest Trail (P.S.)
    $4.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "White's vivid prose and hangdog humor make readers want to keep up." Publishers Weekly

    "White polishes up these memories, serving them forth with brio and dash....Brings a fresh perspective to the timeworn adventure-travel genre." Kirkus Reviews

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I used to flip burgers at Marineland of the Pacific, a now-defunct seaside amusement park in Palos Verdes, California. My place of work was the Burger Galley. That name always bothered me; it evoked Viking warships and galley slaves, and that wasn't too far off from working there. As part of my job, I would plop these vile disks of rock-hard, frozen meat onto a conveyor belt, and the burgers would roll into a wall of high flames. It's funny, because some customers would come up and ask for fancy things that we couldn't do — rare meat, medium rare meat. I would nod my head and say, "No problem," and five minutes later I'd hand them a burger so charred and black, you would really need to Carbon 14 date it to know that it was a burger at all. Eventually I got fired because I had a hard time with the cash register; I once charged someone $125 for onion rings.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I thought that My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead — an anthology of love stories, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides — was astonishing. I picked it up because I'd overheard a lovelorn stranger talking about it in a book store on, of all days, Valentine's. These stories tell you more than you will ever want to know about love, commitment, heartache, and the delirious misery of infatuation. You won't find one schmaltzy story in the bunch, and the William Trevor story, all by itself, is worth the price.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Hiking with my wife through the redwoods and coastal fog of Marin County, then ending up at the Tourist Club, which is a fully functional beer bar right in the middle of a forest. It looks like a Swiss hunting lodge. Once you get there, you can order up a nice tall bottle of something fizzy and dark, then hike back out again. They don't really serve food so it helps to snack beforehand.

Why do you write?
Writing lets me reclaim — and assume power over — certain experiences that seemed painful at the time. Writing helps me understand my life, and the lives of other people.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
This is from Joan Didion's The White Album. I re-read this line every time I'm about to embark on a travel story:

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
I'm always outside. I run four to eight miles a day, usually in Golden Gate Park, past the bison enclosure and all the way to the ocean. I do a lot of freelance work that requires me to explore forests and do some very strenuous activities. For that reason, I try to stay in shape all the time.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
When I was in graduate school, I worked very hard to elevate my landscape and natural descriptions. I spent hours at museums in Manhattan, looking at pictures of mountains, seascapes, forests. I was especially interested in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of hills and mountains in New Mexico. Looking at her work helped me realize that writers and artists are giving their "take" when rendering landscape. O'Keeffe created living pictures, not inventories of places.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
I love books that center around some kind of pilgrimage, especially if the journey is on foot. Some of my favorites are Footsteps by Richard Holmes, Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (which is not a first-person account; it's really a lyrically written history of walking, including pilgrimages and walking philosophers), Travels with My Donkey: A Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago by Tim Moore, Tracks by Robyn Davidson, and Where Bigfoot Walks by Robert Michael Pyle. The last book is — believe it or not — an extremely well-written and intelligent examination of the Sasquatch within. It's also about exploring the Cascades.

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Dan White is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Backpacker magazine. He received his MFA from Columbia University, and he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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