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Powell's Q&A

Scott Huler

Describe your latest project.
In June 2001 I read an essay on the radio show All Things Considered in which I made the simple claim that I would forever give up trying to read James Joyce's Ulysses. But the universe is a trickster, so my public claim landed me exactly where I had promised never to be — in a reading group slogging through Joyce's impenetrable modern masterpiece. But that reading group resurrected an old obsession with the book's inspiration: the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, and with the lonely homebound journey of its Everyman hero, Odysseus.

At the time of The Odyssey, its hero is in his mid-40s; so was I. Negotiating the complex shoals of midlife, I turned to The Odyssey and found much more than I had expected: in its well-known adventures with monsters and goddesses, The Odyssey became something of a guidebook for a person facing the challenges we all face in adulthood. Before long I wanted to do more than just read about my hero. So I took a page from the playbook of Ulysses fanatics. Every year they go to Dublin on Bloomsday to celebrate the book and even retrace the steps of its characters. I thought, why not do the same, only for The Odyssey? Odysseus made a long journey, and for millennia people have speculated on the Mediterranean sites where those adventures occurred. Seeking heroic adventure before I was completely too old for it, I stuffed a backpack with clothes, guidebooks, and The Odyssey. And I headed for the wine-dark sea.

No-Man's Lands is the result.

  1. No-Man
    $6.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Part travelogue, part lit-crit, part self-discovery, part paean to home — and all in all, a most fantastic voyage." Kirkus Reviews

    "This is an epic tale about an epic tale. Scott Huler writes with much learning, passion and humor (if not dactylic hexameter). I can't think of a better guide to this journey." A. J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically

  2. Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry
    $9.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Scott Huler's obsession with the scale is a match for Beaufort himself. Part history, part textbook, part memoir, Defining the Wind explores how we think about the currents that shape sea and landscapes." Los Angeles Times
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Am I Missing Something?

Or, All That Effort, for This?

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
True, and you can trust me on this. Or, no — false. Just kidding. Actually, the current problem among nonfiction writers is an inability to tell the difference between truth and falsehood. I think good writers of nonfiction probably make poor liars; their doggedness in determining what the truth would be before saying anything would give them away. As for fiction writers, my wife, June Spence, writes very fine fiction, and she tells me I'm a good writer. Is she a good liar? I'm probably the wrong one to ask.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
I was thrilled to see this question because for some reason I actually keep, in a little drawer in the top of one of my bookcases, a series of photographs of favorite breakfasts that I took during a period of my life when somehow it made sense to me to periodically document my breakfast. I could not explain this then and cannot explain it now, but this question in this Q&A suddenly lends the pictures a kind of mysterious cosmic meaning, n'est-ce pas?

The first photo was taken about 10 years ago at my favorite diner, which has since closed: the photo is a bird's-eye shot of a waffle with margarine and syrup, two pieces of crispy bacon, a mug of coffee, and a glass of icewater. Others include a bowl of Kix with one of my oldest friends' preteen daughter; a variety of combinations of donuts, orange juice, coffee, and newspapers; a cup of coffee and a pan of birthday cake. The last one, snapped on the trip I took for this book, is another bird's-eye view: a fabulous croissant, ripe fruit, cappuccino, jam, a variety of other pastries, a book (Thackeray's Vanity Fair) and the pleasure of my own company on a breezy portico on the island of Vulcano, just north of Sicily. You can actually see this picture on my website.

Gallery owners wishing to display "The Breakfast Series" may contact me through the website.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
My last book, Defining the Wind, was about the Beaufort scale of wind force, a lovely, poetic, even lyrical descriptive scale of wind force ("small trees in leaf begin to sway," say, or "telegraph wires whistle; umbrellas used with difficulty" — smashing stuff). In the book I took a stab at my own scale, describing the difficulty of lighting a cigarette under different wind conditions. Since the book's publication, rarely does a month go by during which I don't receive from somebody, via email or the U.S. Postal Service, another personal wind scale, describing surf conditions, or what happens to the smoke from someone's bong, or the effects of the wind on bird poop in a prison exercise yard (these are all actual examples of things I have received; I can show them to you if you come over).

Receiving things like this, I think, is why people write books. It's perverse and ridiculous and lovely and thrilling, but it means you've taken something you love enough to have spent years wrestling it into a book, and you think you're the only one crazy enough to care so much about it, but then someone else actually responds. I think this is how it will feel when we receive the first message from some other civilization out in space — we'll suddenly have that sense of gratitude, relief that, after all this, finally, we're not alone.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Fahrenheit, for sure. I love the spirit of this scale, trying to connect the freezing point of water, the average human body temperature, and natural powers of two all in one almost alchemical scale. Of course it fails, but doesn't that make it even more lovable? Celsius has logic going for it, and Kelvin obviously is vastly useful to physicists. But Fahrenheit has faith. So you might use Celsius in high school science classes and Kelvin in advanced research, but if you're looking for a temperature scale you'd like to hug, you're going to reach out for Fahrenheit.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
Firefly, the genius-level outer-space series by Joss Whedon that lasted about three months on Fox several years ago. It takes impossible and almost magical conditions and instead of just inventing more boring crap about robots and wizards, tells stories that are beautifully, ultimately human. In fact, it may be the impossibleness of the setting that allows the true humanity of the stories to come out. You won't believe that I've just now made this connection, but I have: isn't it the fabulousness of the settings of the Odyssey stories that enables them to uncover the true humanity of the actions of Odysseus and his friends and foes, the archetypal quality of his situation? Really, I'm not kidding: I just thought of this while I'm writing. Thanks, Powell's!

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
"Well, at least that's done with."

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Books You Might Like to Own if You Wished to Indulge in or Develop a Deep but Sporadic and Ultimately Pointless Fascination with Samuel Johnson:

Life of Johnson by James Boswell. Obviously the place to start, but the abridged Literary Guild volume is just fine; you don't need to go crazy.

Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings. The story all idiot Johnsonians really want to hear, and here it's extremely well told.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. Of course you want the whole thing, given that it's probably the greatest thing ever produced in English. Just the same, if you can't afford the skillion dollars or so that would set you back, you can console yourself with distillations by Jack Lynch or E. L. McAdam and George Milne.

Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage by Richard Holmes. A thorough creation of the friendship — that to Johnson scholars defines Johnson — with the crazy young scribbler Savage, who committed a murder.

Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing by Paul Fussell. Most Johnsonians are writers, and this book discusses Johnson as a writer rather than as the larger-than-life personality with which we're all familiar.

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Scott Huler is the author of three books, including the acclaimed Defining the Wind. He is a frequent NPR contributor and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, the writer June Spence, and their son.


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