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Powell's Q&A

Tracy Kidder

Describe your latest project.
I am making a few last revisions to a book about the year I spent (June, 1968, to June, 1969) as a soldier in Vietnam. I was a junior officer and commanded, in a manner of speaking, a detachment of eight enlisted men. Like the majority of American soldiers who were sent to Vietnam, we were never in combat, at least not in combat with the prescribed enemy. It's a book, I think, about various lunacies of youth, or at least of my youth, especially the romanticism that accompanies wars, that seems indeed to help make wars possible.

I started work on this book nearly twenty years ago. I used to turn to it in between other books. I think I'll miss having it to work on, in part because it has partially filled an old yearning of mine to write fiction. Memoir, as has often been said, is named for the most plastic of human faculties. In my view, it occupies an undefinable area between non-fiction and fiction. The title of my book is My Detachment, all possible meanings intended. Random House tells me that they plan to publish it in the fall of 2005.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good place to start.
I eagerly recommend Stuart Dybek, the author whom I recommend to practically everyone I meet. I should confess that he is a personal friend, but a friend I endeavored to make first of all because I greatly admired his writing.

Chicago is one of the few American cities with a discernable literary tradition, staunchly realistic and focused on place. Dybek has extended that tradition. At the center of almost everything he's written there is a Chicago neighborhood of Mexican and Eastern European immigrants. His depictions of the place and its people are economical and vivid; people and place come to life on the page. But while his stories and poems are anchored in realism, they all have another dimension, a haunting, parable-like quality. His synthesis of the realistic and fantastical is distinctive. Indeed, it feels wholly original. For all their literary virtues, his stories and poems seem like genuine responses to his own Chicago, capturing not just the visible, audible life of his neighborhood but also the old folkways and dreams abroad in the place. What he creates is a mythical world, like Joyce's Dublin, or Faulkner's Yoknapatawphaw County, or Kafka's Prague.

Dybek has published two collections of stories (Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and The Coast of Chicago), a collection of poems (Brass Knuckles), and many stories and poems and other short works that are difficult to classify. His second book of poems, Streets in Their Own Ink, will be published in November this year. Last fall he published another book of fiction, called I Sailed with Magellan. It's labelled "a novel in stories," and in this case the label seems apt. I think it's the best of all his books, which is saying a lot, because I like all of them immoderately. So I'd start with I Sailed with Magellan.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
In Moby Dick, Chapter XXIII, "The Lee Shore." I'm afraid it makes sense only in its entirety. I'm not sure that you want me to type out all of it, but I will, complete with all its exclamation points, just for the pleasure:

Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of, a tall, new-landed mariner, encountered in New Bedford at the inn.

When on that shivering winter's night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves, who should I see standing at her helm but Bulkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man, who in mid-winter just landed from a four years' dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yeild no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights 'gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea's landlessness again; for refuge's sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God — so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing – straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

What section of the newspaper do you read first?
The sports pages. Out of old habit, which began in my childhood when I was crazy over baseball. Maybe I hew to the habit now in order to put off reading the other news, which is of course mostly dreadful these days and often, or so it seems to me, inaccurately reported.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Fahrenheit. A couple of years ago I was in Siberia, and found myself trying to figure out how cold it was, to put a number to the cold. Ultimately, I had to get help making the conversion from Celsius. This was worth doing, because the number in Fahrenheit sounded much more impressive. As for Kelvin, I can't say I've ever used it. I have only the most rudimentary training in science. The sting of ignorance has goaded me, from time to time, to do research and write about people involved in science and technology.

What do you dislike most?
I hate the appalling poverty of Haiti and the poverty of the many other places like Haiti. I know more about Haiti than about those other places. This is a country formed through a revolution of African slaves, a country that abolished slavery at the beginning of the 19th century and has been punished for it ever since. Haitians created their own vibrant art and music, their own language, their own much misunderstood and maligned but deeply spiritual religion. All of that seems endangered now, along with the place and its people, largely thanks to the greed and ideological stupidity of the great Western powers, which have interfered in Haiti and generally impeded progress there for centuries.

In the wealthy countries, there are many people, many groups, who want to help in places such as Haiti. Too often they go to work in an impoverished spot; they discover that it is very difficult to get anything done in the absence of the most basic necessities, such as clean water and roads and electricity; and then they rather quickly declare defeat, blaming the people they were supposed to help. I dislike that pattern, largely because I have witnessed the work of one group, a Boston-based charity named Partners in Health, which has had remarkable success in improving public health in one of Haiti's most impoverished regions.

Partners in Health goes about its business in a way entirely different from the depressing norm. When, as inevitably happens, they run into problems and make mistakes, they try to figure out what they, not the Haitians, did wrong. They don't leave. They fix their approach. Moreover, they insist that Haitians be involved at every level of every project. Their approach has worked, and goes on working. I've seen it with my own eyes. For that reason, I also dislike the pessimism that some experts in various fields continue to express on behalf of people who live in the desperately impoverished places of the world. And, of course, I dislike the pessimism I still sometimes indulge in myself, on behalf of people far less fortunate than I am. spacer

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