Many of us here at Powell's keep a list of authors with whom we'd most want to get together for dinner. My own list has changed quite a bit over the years, but the one constant has been Geoff Dyer. He is a true original — intelligent, unpretentious, deep-thinking, and often hilarious. He has written 14 award-winning, unclassifiable books on subjects as diverse as jazz, World War I, D. H. Lawrence, photography, and life aboard an aircraft carrier.
His new essay collection, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World
, is the type of book that will alter the way you look at the world around you. In it, he visits places that are well known, like the Forbidden City in Beijing, and others that you've probably never heard of, like the Lightning Field in New Mexico. He follows in the footsteps of Gauguin in Tahiti and makes an impromptu pilgrimage to the former home of a German philosopher in Los Angeles. He describes each of these places in his own unique style and with enough Dyer-esque tangents along the way that you'll soon feel compelled to pay visits to these places yourself.
In a starred review, Kirkus
raves, "There is an undeniable joy throughout Dyer's writing, an affirmation that travel and the experience of place — not merely being
someplace, but being present
in it — is a gateway to the humanity of past, present, and future." The Boston Globe
adds, "Echoes and residues and lingering resonances thrill the author, which is ultimately the wonderful thing about Dyer’s racing, wildly associative mind...When Dyer’s insights gain altitude, they are transcendent, reminding us that every square inch of the planet shimmers with the magnetism of its former life and former meaning."
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At the beginning of White Sands
, you have an author's note that states that the book is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, which was also the case with your previous travel writing collection. Why do you choose to use this approach?
I have this long-running idea that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is not just, Did it happen or didn't it happen?
It's one of form. I feel that form determines how readers read a book and how they judge it.
It's a way of trying to get the book judged on its own terms rather than according to some sort of grid into which it doesn't quite fit or some preexisting boiler plate of how a book should behave. It's a kind of plea for it to be read on its own terms, I guess.
Along those same lines, in the forward you wrote to Annie Dillard's new essay collection, The Abundance
, you describe her writing as genre-resistant nonfiction, which is a style that has become much more prevalent recently. Why do you think that more contemporary writing is falling into this category?
As I've written in various essays, there have always been people doing this kind of thing, but I think at the moment, it's reached some sort of critical mass. As opposed to just a thing that a few people have been doing in a scattered way, it's now become an observable phenomenon.
You've written candidly about your struggles with procrastination. Yet, by most definitions, you're quite prolific. What is your motivation to push through despite the frequent urge not to?
The question contains the answer. It's a question of endlessly postponing the real desire, which is to give up. I think it's that, really.
I remember asking John Berger
, I was interviewing him on stage somewhere, if he had any sense when he was a young man that he'd be the author of this amazing body of work and how he kept going for so long. It was a great answer. He said, "I always think each book will be my last."
There's a bit of that going on with me. I remember being interviewed about my first novel, The Colour of Memory
. They kept using the expression "your first novel," and I said, "No, I object to that phrase, because this is it for me."
It's just a stepping stone to something else. This is it.
I've had that feeling now for quite a long time.
I always know that something special is happening to me when the temporal is manifested in the spatial, or when history is apparent in geography.
In your essay on visiting Watts Towers, you talk about the ambition and punishing labor it takes to create something big. Do you feel there are similarities between the writing process and the creation of obsessive projects like Watts Towers?
Yeah, except I feel in some way I've not created something big. As a reader, I most like reading these great, whopping books, like Robert Caro's The Power Broker
or Taylor Branch's trilogy of books about Martin Luther King
. I love these books that take up a decade or something.
While writing I'm always so happy in the middle of a book or finishing a book and really hate starting them, so I often think, I wish I had a really big book to write to which I could devote seven years of my life
I'm just not that kind of writer. In a way, I would say I'm not really like Rodia [the creator of Watts Towers] with his big, life-consuming project. I've tended to work on much smaller things which get completed in a much smaller time frame, to my regret, in some ways. Nothing has ever come up which has demanded that kind of epic scale.
You've written books on a vast array of subjects. Are there any topics that you would like to write about but haven't gotten around to yet?
There's the perpetual disappointment of my tennis book, which I was commissioned to write, and then I didn't feel like it. So I handed in the book about Tarkovsky
instead, which the publishers were gracious enough to accept.
That's quite a switch, from tennis to Tarkovsky.
We always hear from writers about how publishers are forcing them to make their work more commercial. Actually, I really have to offer deep thanks to my publishers in the UK and in America that they were so cool about it, really. They could have, quite justifiably, taken exception to this.
There's actually something I'm keen to do. I've got this idea for a book which needs three people. It's about artists of various kinds. Unfortunately, I can only think of two people who fit the bill. I should just write about these two, but in some weird way, until I can come across the third part of the triangle, I'm reluctant to embark on it.
There are always things bubbling away. Thankfully, in a way, that feeling of regret that I haven't managed to do this or that is a good thing. Better that than this awful thing of scanning the horizon for some sort of ship. [Laughter
In one of your essays in White Sands
, you make a pilgrimage to the former home of German philosopher Theodor Adorno
, who you refer to as a badge author. I've never heard of this expression before, but I immediately related to this concept that there is a badge of honor connected to having read certain challenging authors. Who are some other writers you'd consider to be badge authors?
There are the ones I mentioned. There's Roberto Calasso
. I think Knausgård
is a badge author. I mentioned him as well. Bolaño
. He's a badge author. I think they have to be somebody who has escaped from academia. That's why I think it applies to Adorno. Habermas
is really only read by people in the industry, whereas Adorno is somebody that you can read as a nonprofessional.
I don't know how Heidegger
fits into this. It's almost unreadable without some sort of assistance, but to be seen sitting in a cafe reading Being and Time
is pretty cool. Then, some authors used to be badge authors, but they no longer are thanks to their immense popularity.
There was a time when Walter Benjamin
could have been considered a badge author, but I don't think he is anymore because everybody is turned on to Benjamin now. A badge author is a cult author, but with an extra degree of difficulty thrown in.
I'm never happier than when I see that I've got the opportunity for a gag.
Before each essay in this collection, you include a brief personal aside, often dealing with the meaning of place and its role in our lives. What was your purpose in including these observations?
They seemed, to me, to do at least two things. One, they were nice little bits of stitching between chapters. They slightly altered and connected the chapter before to the one that was coming next thematically. Also, they provided a narrative link.
I hope they did a bit more than that, in that they provided some sort of barely visible underpinning for the thing as a whole, and provided it with a coherence. We could say that they're stitching the individual bits together, but I like the idea of it providing some sort of net or web underneath the linear progression of the book.
You visited Walter De Maria's Lightning Field
and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty
, which are two of the great land art projects. What is it that attracts you to this type of art?
First of all, it's not just that I'm attracted to the art. I'm really attracted to the landscape, which is not an uncommon thing if you come from this cloudy little rock in the middle of the Atlantic, England. You're predisposed to love this idea of big, empty, dry places.
I love the landscape that these places are put in. Also, I love the idea of things that you experience as opposed to just looking at. They make me realize the deep, long-running fascination of mine, one of the things that goes through all my books, which is that I always get moved or I always know that something special is happening to me when the temporal is manifested in the spatial, or when history is apparent in geography.
Although I didn't quite realize it in those terms when I wrote the First World War book
. The absolute origin, the moment when that book started to happen, is when I approached that memorial in the middle of the landscape of the Somme and saw those big letters on the memorial, "The Missing of the Somme."
That thing where, there it is — this landscape, this geography — and it's memorializing this thing that happened in history. The two things came together. I also think there's a lot of it in a novel like Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
. My god, there's so much history in Varanasi.
You mentioned some of your previous books. The Missing of the Somme
, for example, isn't a book that's been widely read here in the U.S. Do you ever reread some of your books after they've been published? Are there any you feel more proud of than others?
I don't suffer from that masturbatory practice of rereading my old stuff, except when The Colour of Memory
and The Search
were being reissued. They're so old, those books, no digital file existed. I reread them and actually slightly edited them for the Graywolf reissue.
At the time, I was so amazed that they weren't being published in America. Now I can see that maybe there are things in them I like, but they're not earth-shatteringly important novels. From the early books, I think The Missing of the Somme
was a really big book, even if it's a short book. Formerly, it was an important book for me.
One of the things I always end up saying when people say, "He's so influenced by Sebald
” or “That's a very Sebaldian book," is that it came out before anything of Sebald's appeared in English.
Also Out of Sheer Rage
and But Beautiful
. I still have a great fondness for those first three nonfiction books.
There are essays in this collection that are some of the funniest stuff I think you've ever written, such as when you're attempting to see the Northern Lights in Norway or picking up a hitchhiker in New Mexico. Being funny in person and writing humorously are two very different things. Do you find comedic writing challenging?
No. Any writing is inherently challenging, but I'm never happier than when I see that I've got the opportunity for a gag. If I had to sign a thing whereby somebody said, "All you're able to do in this life is make jokes; you can't ever speak seriously," I'd be happy with that.
But I wouldn't want to be condemned to just being a funny writer, because there's other stuff I want to do. But I love funny writing, as long as it doesn't preclude the serious stuff. Ideally, something is going to be devastatingly funny and serious at the same time.
I quite often don't find comic novels funny, but The Forever War
by Dexter Filkins has one of the supreme examples of comedy. He just comes across the head of the suicide bomber at the Baghdad market. It's awful. It's devastating. He just says, "Well, I thought it was in surprisingly good condition considering what it's been through." Then, he looks at it again and says, "The really odd thing, though, is the expression of surprise on the guy's face, which is strange given that he's the only person around who had any sense of what was coming." That seems to me to really be so exemplary. The horror of it is, if anything, enhanced by the humor.
Photography, film, music, and literature are topics that have been incorporated into almost everything you've written. Through your work, I've been introduced to artists of all types who I might not have discovered otherwise. Who are some of the authors you turn to in order to be introduced to new artists, musicians, and filmmakers?
It's been one of the great sources of happiness in my life recently to have gotten these teaching gigs, teaching grad students at Iowa and then the Michener Center in Austin. Now I'm teaching at USC.
I know I'm there to teach them, but I just love the way that they turn me on to new things. For example, to my shame, I had never read Joy Williams
Shawn: The Visiting Privilege
has been really popular.
That collection of stories is just genius. I'd also never read Mavis Gallant
before. I'd thought she's just one of these straight-ahead Canadian writers but then realized, Oh my god, it's really wild what she's doing
. Just recently, courtesy of another grad student, I read Leonard Gardner's Fat City
That's a great California novel.
Isn't it? In that great NYRB way, and its pairing with Denis Johnson's introduction.
Whereas music, I think because of my age, I'm one of these people who have really struggled to adapt to the new way of finding out about music. I've really been floundering a bit. I'm just about getting the hang of Spotify, the way that one thing leads you to another.
Because so many of the people that I've relied on in the past for musical recommendations, they're also...
That's right. As we know from Miles Davis, it's fatal to stagnate like that. Fortunately, one of the bands that I discovered a while ago, they're still amazing us: The Necks. That Australian accent that I'm always banging on about. They played a gig in Los Angeles recently.
I've seen them a load of times. They've never been better. They're in their 30th year now. Increasingly, reviews are saying, "Jeez, they're just one of the most important bands in the world." The Necks are really still delivering.
In the last essay in White Sands
, you talk about a stroke you had two years ago at age 55. What effect has the stroke had on your approach to writing?
None at all. Obviously, when it happened, I did that great writerly thing and converted this calamitous event into a source of revenue by writing about it. There was that opportunist quality. Then, for a little while, I was really worried that I was going to have another one that might leave me half paralyzed or something.
I got over the physical side of it really quickly. Psychologically, I would say it has had no impact at all.
It hasn't changed your approach to life, either?
No, I don't think it's changed anything much. At least, any lesson contained specifically in the stroke episode has dissolved into the more general thing of getting older, whereby time is passing so much more quickly. When Bowie died, 11 years older than me, and then when Prince died.
Was he around the same age as you?
Yeah. I was born two days ahead of him. These kind of things give you much more of a pronounced actuarial sense of time speeding by and potentially running out, whereas that stroke thing was such a totally anomalous event. Apart from watching out on the doughnut front, it didn't reveal some sort of deeper problem that I needed to address.