Describe your latest book.
Tip of the Iceberg
is a hybrid of travel and history, in which I follow the route of the 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska. You may remember a few years ago President Obama went to Alaska and there was a surge of stories about how powerfully Alaska was already being affected by the climate Armageddon that half the country likes to pretend isn’t coming: glaciers melting, roads bucking from thawing permafrost, and native villages eroding into the sea. I saw a parallel to the Harriman Expedition, on which American conservation legends such as John Muir and George Bird Grinnell went off to Alaska for the summer on a railroad tycoon’s dime, expecting to enjoy an Alaska boondoggle. Instead, they discovered that the territory was facing ecological disaster much like it is today, due to unregulated mining, industrial hunting, and overfishing.
Unlike the Harriman explorers, I didn’t have a luxury steamship. But Alaska, because its road system is so limited, has a flotilla of ferries that travel from town to town along the coast, sort of like aquatic Greyhound buses. I spent a summer hopping ferries, retracing the 1899 expedition, talking to experts and dreamers and dropouts about the things that make Alaska unique and how the state was changing. And because it was Alaska, I got to see some incredible scenery and sleep near glaciers and have a run-in with some hungry bears.
What was your favorite book as a child?
When I was about 11 or 12, I randomly picked up a copy of The Making of Kubrick’s 2001
, which was a mass market paperback that collected reviews, interviews, correspondence, photos from the filming, storyboards, and Lord knows what else. A real blue jay’s nest of material. After hearing 2001
described as a masterpiece made by a reclusive genius, this book demystified the creative process for me and I think, unconsciously, assured me that things like classic movies were made by people who put their pants on one leg at a time and ordered tuna sandwiches for lunch and got crumbs in their beards.
When did you know you were a writer?
When I worked as a fact-checker at GQ
in the early ’90s, the magazine briefly held a contest for unpublished short story writers. Hundreds of submissions poured in from places like the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I submitted the only short story I’ve ever written, under a fake name, and somehow made it to the final five. I figured I was going to get fired for mendacity, but when I fessed up, the literary editor, Thomas Mallon (now the author of novels such as Watergate
), just laughed and said, “Well, I’ll be damned, you little sneak.” Then he went to the boss and got me a writing assignment instead of a pink slip. My entire career has been a series of fortunate accidents like that.
The moment I finally felt like a writer
writer was around 3 a.m. on March 17, 2009, the date my first book, Mr. America
, was published. I couldn’t sleep, and so was downstairs lying on the couch surfing the web on my fancy new iPod Touch. Naturally, I googled my book and boom!
a review from The Washington Post
came up, unexpectedly. It was such a blow-the-doors-off rave that I read it about 10 times, by myself in the dark. I left for work early so I could buy a hard copy of the Post
at Grand Central Terminal and the review was on the front page of the Style section with a picture of my book. I thought I was going to cry, I was so happy. That’s when I knew I could do this for a living. The confidence boost came in handy because Mr. America
sold about 16 copies and my publisher declined their option to purchase my next book. That turned out to be a huge stroke of luck because Dutton grasped immediately what I wanted to do with Machu Picchu when the concept was still a little slippery, even to me.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I recently moved into an office in a 1920s factory building with high ceilings, and let me tell you, it is awesome
. My neighbors are an electrical supply company, a recording studio, an interior designer, a personal trainer, a sculptor, a painter, and a guy who sells exercise bands. My desk is an Ikea dining room table that could seat eight. It’s completely covered with books and papers. Jill Krementz would not approve.
I sometimes miss my old, small office above a dentist. The walls were like the interior of a cedar closet. On snowy days it felt like being holed up in a North Woods cabin even though the commuter train line was 20 feet away and people were getting molars drilled one floor beneath me. I once got to interview the great novelist and noted bon vivant and cabin lover Jim Harrison on the phone while sitting in that office, and when I told him about the décor, he asked, “Are you by any chance enjoying an end-of-day libation?” When I said yes, I was in fact drinking a large beer, he was so pleased you’d have thought I’d promised him a pony.
I can’t work at home. My wife is a veterinarian and we have herds of animals wandering all over the place, most of whom want to be fed or walked or let outside to relieve themselves. It’s like the African savanna except with dogs and rabbits.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu
is probably my best-known book, and is apparently very popular in Cusco, Peru (the gateway city to Machu Picchu) because people who live there seem to think, based on their daily experience, that in cities all over the world, Americans march around carrying copies of Turn Right at Machu Picchu
. Which I would have no problem with, to be honest. But the truth is that I have never, ever seen anyone reading a copy of any of my books. Even my wife does it surreptitiously, between spays and neuters. The closest I came was sitting next to someone at dinner a few years ago when I started complaining about a minor illness I’d suffered in Peru, because that’s exactly the sort of thing people want to hear about when they’re eating. My dinner partner recognized me as the author of the book he’d just purchased. And then he told me that he was waiting for a double lung transplant, which made my maladies seem somewhat less severe.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I outline books all the time to see how they’re put together. It may be a holdover from the years I spent diagramming sentences under the tutelage of nuns. I’ve read Eat, Pray, Love
twice to try to figure out how Elizabeth Gilbert structures the narrative. She’s an extremely deft writer with a really wide range. I opened my old copy of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys
recently, planning to give it the old ABCD treatment, and found inside a copy of an outline I’d done 15 years before.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
While doing the initial research for Tip of the Iceberg
, I came across a book that was similar in theme that had been published a few years earlier, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire
, by an Alaskan named Kim Heacox. His best book is probably The Only Kayak
, which is a flat-out masterpiece of outdoor writing. It’s funny and lyrical and captures the essence of Alaska — especially Glacier Bay, which even John Muir admitted was many times more impressive than Yosemite — so beautifully that the state becomes a character in the story. By the end you’re rooting for Alaska to overcome its obstacles. Stay green, Alaska! Don’t melt!
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
My first book, Mr. America
, was about the early 20th-century health guru Bernarr Macfadden. It took so long to finish and required so much reporting that I have trouble parting with the unusual research materials I assembled. It’d be like throwing out your kid’s baby teeth. Macfadden’s health ideas were probably two parts visionary (he was promoting vegetarianism and strength training 100 years ago) and one part nutty (he thought fasting could cure kleptomania). So I have several shelves filled with his original works, including copies of his magazine Physical Culture
and three sets of Macfadden's Encyclopedia of Physical Culture
, which offers natural solutions to any physical malady imaginable, interspersed with photos of men and women in scanty clothing, often himself.
From the 1920 edition, in which Macfadden lifts a large man after fasting for a week.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I had all sorts of weird jobs before moving to New York from Chicago to seek my fortune in the magazine business. I operated rides along with other hungover teenagers at a low-rent amusement park. I drove pizzas for Domino’s. I was a deckhand on a tour boat on the Chicago River for five summers. I painted closets for the lady across the street, who wanted me to use this old lead-based paint that I assume was intended for US Navy dreadnoughts in World War I. The fumes once knocked me out cold on an especially hot day when I forgot to open a window. I pedaled an ice cream bike, which is like an ice cream truck except for people much lower down on the frozen dairy treat sales pecking order. (To this day, I am unable to look at a Fudgesicle without feeling nauseous.) I washed dishes at a dormitory throughout college. Every Tuesday was exterminator day, and this sort of hipster dude with a giant canister of liquid poison would come in at five minutes to seven as we were finishing up and start spraying. Roaches would pour out of the ceiling as we sprinted down the hallway screaming to punch out our time cards. That job was hilarious, though, a mix of Central Illinois “townies,” as they called themselves, and suburban college boys working side by side, mixing giant vats of cherry Kool-Aid and instant mashed potatoes, and making up funny lyrics to sing along to the Top 40 radio that played all the time and soaking each other with dishwashing nozzles that could strip paint off a car. I’d do that job again for free if I could.
Jacket from summer job, circa 1988.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Well, most of my books are literary pilgrimages of a sort, even Meet Me in Atlantis
, for which I traveled around the Mediterranean talking to people who thought they’d figured out where the lost city of Atlantis had been located. The original Atlantis story actually comes out of two dialogues by Plato, and I went to Athens and visited the site of the Academy, the school of philosophy that he opened. Considering that Plato was probably the most important thinker in Western history, and that Aristotle was his prize pupil, and that I was probably walking the hallowed ground where the Republic
was composed, the site of the Academy was pretty underwhelming. It was just a slightly seedy city park with swing sets and slides, and some slabs of ancient rock with guys sitting on them, day drinking.
What scares you the most as a writer?
The most terrifying thing to me as a writer is the possibility that I’ll get six or twelve months into a project and realize that it isn’t worth finishing. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve definitely had some dark thoughts.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Following in the Footsteps of the Guy Who Was Always Following in Someone’s Footsteps
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
From Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop
"Mr. Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right, he said, ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, ‘Up to a point.’
‘Let me see, what’s the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?’
‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’
‘And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?’
‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’"
Describe a recurring nightmare.
Jim Harrison returns my phone call, asks what I’m drinking, and the answer is herbal tea.
My Top Five Great and Funny Novels.
I was delighted when Andrew Sean Greer’s Less
won the Pulitzer Prize not long ago, because great novels that also happen to be funny are hard to come by. Here are five excellent ones I’ve read recently and will probably get around to outlining eventually:
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
This Could Hurt
Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
by Maria Semple
Lost for Words
Edward St. Aubyn
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the acclaimed history Mr. America
, which The Washington Post
named a Best Book of 2009, and the New York Times
bestsellers Meet Me in Atlantis
and Turn Right at Machu Picchu
. A writer for many national magazines, including GQ, Men’s Journal
, and New York
, he lives near New York City with his wife and children. Tip of the Iceberg
is his most recent book.