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Behind the Article: “On the Road” with Kat Clay

October 8, 2012 in Behind The Article, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Travel Writers

Jack Kerouac display at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco. Photograph by Kat Clay

After reading about Kat Clay’s cross country road trip in our September 24th article, “Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck on the Californian Coast,”  we couldn’t wait to chat more with the author about her incredible experiences and how her literary predecessors paved the way for her own adventure.

Literary Traveler:  What was it about Jack Kerouac’s cross country journey that initially drew you in?

Kat Clay:  It’s the sense of freedom you get from his novels. There’s a grand sense that everything will work out, as if time stops for these young people to get on the road. I’ve always longed for that kind of freedom. The books are almost fearless; there’s no worry about getting mugged or losing your passport. Kerouac paints a picture of America that captures an era when people were making their own rules. The messages of his books still ring true today.

LT:  How has Highway One changed over the years?  What can travelers expect as they traverse it on road trips today?

KC:  Highway One has become busier, that’s for sure. When we drove it there was a lot of road work around Big Sur, which slowed the traffic down to 25 MPH. It’s not good for your sanity to drive around winding roads at a snail’s pace! And road trips themselves have changed – we now have GPS units to help instead of maps, but I think that’s a good thing. Many a marriage has been saved by the GPS. But there are still places on Highway One that haven’t changed at all. I remember stopping in at a general store when we got lost that was straight out of Jaws. There are still 1950s bungalows and weatherboard shacks. The state parks still have the same coastline. And the fog is most definitely still there.

LT:  While Kerouac’s words can’t replace the personal experience, literature seems to have a unique way of representing the magic of place.  If maps, as you so eloquently put it, “are statistics of natural beauty,” what is literature?

KC:  Good literature will always capture the feeling, the nostalgia and the wonder of a place. I could read a book and imagine a place completely different from how the author has described it, but still get the same sense that the author felt in that moment.

And good literature can somehow capture a part of you that can’t be expressed. It’s incredible when a writer connects with your soul, as if they are writing just for you and you alone. My writing instructor told me that every writer is looking for their perfect reader. I think when you discover your perfect writer you need to hold onto them!

LT:  You talk about the limited power of photographs.  Do you think writing helps to preserve aspects of a powerful experience where a camera may fail?

KC:  One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a photographer is to know when a moment is simply there to be enjoyed. Writing helps capture the spirit of place, which is infinitely more difficult to do in photography. While photography can capture the intricate details of a rock, writing can compare it to the texture of a mottled ostrich egg.

But for me, writing and photography are inextricable. On display in the art gallery in Jackson, Mississippi are some of Eudora Welty’s photographs – who knew she was a photographer as well as a writer? She inspired me, because I’ve always struggled with the thought that I might need to separate my two passions in order to have a career in one. Lewis Carroll was also a prolific photographer. I think the two art forms compliment each other perfectly; photography is a wonderful tool for documenting moments to inspire later writing. I use it as much as I would take notes.

LT:  What are some of the other highlights from your trip across America?  What was the most inspiring thing you saw or experienced during your travels?

KC:  Can I say the whole trip? Three months in the states is a long time! The southwest National Parks are incredible reminders of our own small place in the universe. I fell in love with Utah. I also got to celebrate many of the American holidays that we don’t have in Australia, like Halloween in New Orleans and Thanksgiving in New Jersey. One particular highlight was giving an impromptu rendition of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire in a Louisiana Cajun Café.

The most inspiring moment: One of my husband’s relatives is a flight instructor and he took us up in his Cessna over New York City at night. I got to co-pilot the plane. It was incredible and also very moving to fly over the city.

If you’d like to read more, my husband and I documented our USA trip (and our continuing travels) on our travel website, Two Monkeys in a Tent.

LT:  Navigating roads once traveled by Kerouac and spending the night in a campground once frequented by Steinbeck seem like incredibly profound experiences.  How did the knowledge that you were following in the footsteps of these literary greats impact your experience?

KC:  Traveling to these places made the books more real for me. I think it’s important not just to follow the same paths as writers like Kerouac, but instead to pursue the same spirit. For me following in their footsteps wasn’t always a literal go-here-do-that, it was also a spiritual pursuit at emulating that great sense of freedom you get from being on the road in America.

With Steinbeck it was the opposite. A month after Highway One I was reading Travels With Charley in Search of America and I realized we’d stayed in the same place as Steinbeck. It was an epiphany, because I had felt the same as he did atop Fremont Peak. He also expressed a lot of my feelings about traveling in America.

LT:  It seems as though Kerouac acted as a muse of sorts in inciting your desire to drive across America and take your own journey.  What advice do you have for literary travelers looking to find their own travel inspiration?

KC:  Take inspiration from literature to blaze your own trails. The most important lesson I learned from Steinbeck and Kerouac was to break free of expectations.  Break free of the clutches of television and social media— because someone’s status update about being stuck in traffic seems pointless when you’ve just seen elks playing in the sunrise over Yellowstone Lake.

I met a lot of people in America who were amazed by our trip and wished they could do something similar, but there was always an excuse. My career won’t survive.  I don’t have the money . I’m going to do it when I’m old.  Do you know what the RV crowd told us repeatedly on our trip? You’re so lucky to do this when you’re young.

The same goes for writing. If you’ve ever longed to be a writer, you need to travel. Gather experiences— experiences are more valuable than any graduate school. I love reading stories of how writers became writers, and for many of them it was the experiences that made them. Try reading about James Ellroy’s road to publication, which involved stealing ladies panties and passing out in a public park (I don’t suggest you emulate this!). Travel is an investment in yourself and your person. You can’t put a price on that.

LT:  I think I have just found my travel inspiration in this interview! Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.  Readers, check out more from Kat Clay at her fabulous website and then power off your computer and find your own adventures.

Behind the Article: The Life Lessons of Peter Pan

September 29, 2012 in Behind The Article, Paul Millward articles

In his September 9th article, “JM Barrie and the Gardens of Imagination,” Paul Millward took readers on a literary journey to London’s idyllic Kensington Gardens, where JM Barrie first conceived of his much loved character, Peter Pan.  A fond recollection of childhood memories, Peter Pan may have even more to offer adults.  Millward’s article piqued our interest in Barrie’s creation, and what we could learn from the boy who refused to grow up.  Join us as we talk with Millward, a writer whose quest for spirituality has taken him from Never Land to Venice, Italy.  We couldn’t wait to hear more about his fascination with Peter Pan and how we can experience the magic for ourselves.

Literary Traveler:  When was your first exposure to Peter Pan?  Were you a fan as a child, or did you become more interested in the character as an adult?

Paul Millward:  It feels like Peter Pan was always there. The story and character are so deeply embedded in our culture that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of it. But I didn’t have a particularly strong attraction to it as a child. The fact that Peter could fly and went on adventures was definitely appealing to me, but from a literary point of view, I was more captivated by C.S. Lewis and his Narnia stories, and also with The Wind in the Willows.  It’s since becoming an adult that the story has become increasingly interesting to me – maybe it speaks to adults more than children. It’s only since I’ve become more spiritually enlightened that I realized that Barrie is actually saying something of importance – that our reality is shaped by what we believe. In other words, we create our own reality and we create that reality through our imagination. I think Barrie understood that really well, and although it’s expressed in the book in a simplistic way meant to be read by children, the book speaks a deep truth – it’s not just escapist fantasy.

LT:  Besides the statue of Peter Pan, what other attractions should visitors to Kensington Gardens make it a point to check out?

PM:  These days when I’m in London I love to just wander around Kensington Gardens aimlessly, but there are actually some major attractions in the park for people to enjoy. I would say the biggest attraction must be Kensington Palace which lies in the grounds of the gardens. This is a prime London attraction in its own right, so I would recommend a look around the Palace for anyone visiting Kensington Gardens. It’s probably most famous for being the home of Princess Diana but it’s got a long history, it was the birthplace of Queen Victoria and she spent her childhood there. And don’t miss the Orangery where you can have afternoon tea, it’s a charming spot. Then there is the Albert Memorial on the far side of the gardens opposite the Royal Albert Hall. It’s one of London’s great Victorian monuments built by Queen Victoria to commemorate her husband Prince Albert. For art lovers I’d recommend a look at the Serpentine Gallery, another popular London attraction which exhibits works of art by contemporary artists. But one of my personal favorite spots in the park is the Italian Gardens, a wonderful concoction of fountains, pools and statues – a joyful place to be on a nice day.

LT:  Barrie’s personal life is much debated and the events and circumstances of his life and personal relationships inevitably impacted his writing.  How do you suppose this can be seen in Peter Pan?

PM:  I think it’s sometimes easy to read too much of a writer’s real life into their fiction but with Barrie it’s just irresistible. The death of his older brother David, when Barrie was a young child, something his mother never got over, led him to try and act as a sort of substitute for his brother. Apparently Barrie would even dress as his dead brother and copy his mannerisms in order to try and alleviate his mother’s grief. Then there is the story of how his mother said that by dying in childhood, David would remain forever a boy. The parallels between these events and the Peter Pan character are just too striking to be ignored. Apparently Barrie stopped growing at the same age his brother died – he stayed just five foot the rest of his life. It’s also been suggested that Barrie didn’t develop sexually, that he remained asexual all his life, and that his marriage to Mary Ansell wasn’t consummated. How much of this is true I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating to speculate on how these factors may have fed into Peter Pan. One of the most intriguing aspects of Peter Pan in the book is his strange formless state.  Peter is constantly evolving but never actually becomes anything, he stays undefined and androgynous. It’s easy to see Peter Pan as a projection of Barrie’s own undeveloped condition, both physical and emotional.

LT:  Barrie’s character has been reinvented throughout the years. Do you have a favorite manifestation – second, of course, to Barrie’s original?

PM:  I really love Steven Spielberg’s film Hook.  It is an absolute joy. I don’t understand why it’s not considered a classic. It received such a panning from the critics when it was released that I didn’t even bother to go and see it at the cinema. Then when I saw it on TV I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be so wrong with the film and regretted not seeing it on the big screen. But then I have always loved Spielberg, ever since I first saw Close Encounters, which is still one of my favorite films of all time. He has a genius for evoking childhood and is the ideal person to do a film version of Peter Pan. I love the spirit of the film – it’s a celebration of positive thinking.

LT:  What lessons can adults learn from Peter Pan?

PM:  Lighten up! Enjoy your life and don’t take it too seriously. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the day to day practicalities of life and forget the pure joy of life. Peter Pan helps adults to see that life should be an adventure and not a chore. He reminds us of just how much we have lost by growing up. Children live such rich lives because everything is still open to them – everything is possible in the child’s world, nothing is closed down. Adults lead such boring, predictable lives. Peter Pan reminds us that life can be magical and exciting if only we could let go of all our striving to achieve worldly success and social status. We can never be more than what we already are and all our attempts to better ourselves do not lead to happiness. Peter Pan instinctively knows this, which is why he hates adults and refuses to grow up.  He knows the real joy of life lies in the freedom of the imagination.

LT: You recently published a book, Finding God in the Celestial City. Can you tell us and our readers a little bit about the book and the experiences that inspired you to write it?

PM:  Yes, it’s about Venice and the extraordinary effect the city had on me the first time I visited it. I had a series of spiritual experiences there which completely changed my life. I was quite an inexperienced traveler at the time and I had never been to Italy before. The beauty of Venice totally overwhelmed me, and then when I started exploring the churches to find the works of art I wanted to see— I’m a great art lover, particularly the Italian Renaissance) something remarkable started happening— the scenes depicted in the paintings became a living reality to me. They reached into my soul, quite involuntarily. I suddenly understood what these great artists like Titian and Tintoretto were really trying to say and it totally blew me away. But the most significant moment was on San Michelle Island where I entered a very remarkable spiritual condition in which I realized that the world was in reality very different to our normal perception of it – that it was actually a place of profound peace and harmony, overflowing with love. You can never quite be the same after you have experienced something like that!

LT: It seems like an amazing and profound experience. Thank you for sharing it with our readers, as well as taking us deeper into the fascinating world of Peter Pan.  It appears that Barrie’s character still has a lot to teach us.  After all, as he wrote, “all the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”

Behind the Article: Catching the Travel Bug along the Mosquito Coast

September 11, 2012 in Behind The Article, central america, Travel Writers

After reading the September 3rd article, “Man’s Last Chance: Impressions of Central America,” we couldn’t wait to catch up with the author, journalist Klas Lundstrom, and get his thoughts on Theroux, traveling to Central America, and the best ways to experience the Mosquito Coast.  Sit back and enjoy, as we take a look “Behind the Article.”

Literary Traveler:  How did you first become interested in the landscape and culture of Central and South America?

Klas Lundstrom: I’ve been back and forth to Latin America for the past ten years now. The first time was in 2001, as a teenager writing an essay on Nicaraguan youth and their future prospects. What I saw then, and the people I met, changed my life forever. Since then, I’ve been in love with the continent, its people and fascinated by the political and social progress, and also have the luck to have been able to live and report from Central and South America on a regular basis.

LT: Our Literary Traveler book club selection for September is Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder, which involves a pharmaceutical company doing research in the South American rainforest.  For writers, what do you think is the fascination with this area?

KL: I truly believe that any person who visits a rainforest understands that a rainforest is a shifting place, that it’s full of life and mysteries. For any writer, the rainforest is the perfect setting for any story; not only novels, but also pieces of reportages, travel stories, history books or plays. I guess that this fascination is a sort of colonial mindset that make us so thrilled by the rainforest; its people, its nature, its culture—we look upon it as the farthest away you can get from an urban environment. Although, my experience, after living and working in the Brazilian Amazon for six months, was that people were having the same thoughts and opinions on life and love, they were as worried about kids education as you are in, say, Stockholm, and they also return home from their jobs feeling exhausted and longing for a peaceful Sunday afternoon.

LT:  You refer to Theroux’s novel as playing a part in the “cultural contribution to the false picture of the world’s hidden pockets,” unintentionally as it may be.  Do you suppose there is any way to rectify this “false picture?”

KL:  Paul Theroux’s novel, The Mosquito Coast, is one of the best stories ever written about Western colonialism in theThird World. He challenges the notion that imperialism is a product of a church, a multinational company or henchmen of the C.I.A.—instead he tells you a story of a man who wants to improve the lives of farmers in the Honduran jungle.  Imperialism, in its most dangerous form, I think often can be found inside the best intentions, e.g. those Allie Fox arrives with to the Mosquito Coast. Just have a look at the growing micro finance market, often supported and funded by billionaires with a bad conscience. Instead of helping people to form a strong public sector they create a new market that often bring rural people even further away from public facilities.

LT:   Do you have any suggestions for further reading for those whose interest has been piqued by your insightful article?

KL:  For any person interested in Latin America, the Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano’s classic, Open Veins of Latin America, Joan Didion’s, Salvador, and Gabriel García Márquez’, News of a Kidnapping, are three great books that capture and explain the diversity and political complexity of the continent.

LT:  Do you think the tourism industry helps or hurts the worldview of places such as Tierra del Fuego?

KL:  That is totally up to each person.  Traveling now is such a normal thing to do for most Western people that, by now, we should be more aware of what the situation really looks like in places we visit. The tourism industry tends to forget the culture and society that it’s a part of, and in many ways depends on. It’s up to us if we want to visit places like Tierra del Fuego and return home with more than just an updated photo album on Facebook.

LT:  What advice would you give to literary travelers who do want to experience these regions for themselves?

KL:  To have the time to travel by road, take the bus, and have coffee, some yerba mate or a beer at the local pubs and cafes. It’s easy to say “skip the guide” if you speak Spanish, but sometimes a guide can be a helpful friend to you. In Central America, and especially along the Mosquito Coast, it’s wise to make friends with people who can show you places and tell you when and where to go. An absolute must in Patagonia is to visit Chile Chico and listen to the silence after the coal mines have shut down and left nothing but questions to an aging population.


To read more from Klas, check out his website.


Behind the Article: Rediscovering James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Legacy

September 4, 2012 in American History, American literature, Behind The Article

Join us as Literary Traveler takes a look “Behind the Article” with Victor Walsh, author of our August 17th article,  “James Fenimore Cooper: Cooperstown’s Literary Ghost.”  We were fascinated by the town’s oft forgotten literary history and were eager to hear more about the writer, whose father gave the town its name.

painting by John Wesley Jarvis, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY

Literary Traveler:  What first piqued your interest in James Fenimore Cooper?

Victor Walsh:  Probably seeing the film, The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye. I thought the cinematography, the acting and sets were superb, although the film does take literary license with the novel’s plot and characters. As Michael Mann, the director acknowledges, the film was based on the 1936 film version starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye.

Cooper is part of a larger theme. He didn’t go West, but others did, venturing beyond the trans-Missouri frontier into a world they could scarcely imagine. What they saw—vast herds of bison and antelope, the great horse tribes, the incredible geological formations, the maddening prairie winds and hailstones big as turkey eggs—had an irrevocable impact on them and our national heritage. The overland experience—its astonishing range of landscapes and numbers of never before-seen animals and the first signs of their decimation—caused some westward-bound  ’emigrants’ to question the very notion that the westward advance was a “march of progress.”  No other experience in the 19th-century Republic with the exception of the Civil War elicited such an outpouring of letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, and reminiscences—a veritable ‘folk literature.’ It’s a story that I hope someday to write about.

LT:  How do you think Cooper’s imagined West compared to the reality of the West?  How do you think his writing would have been affected had he personally experienced the frontier?

VW:  I think his prose is too elaborate and sentimental; the action too slow—you are forever waiting—and many of the situations too contrived and invented. In an essay entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,”  Mark Twain skewered the Leatherstocking tales, dismissing them as “a literary delirium tremens.”  He faulted Cooper for 18 literary ‘defects,” among them, “Use the right word, not its second cousin,” and “Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

Cooper’s work has literary merit. He not only gave voice to one of the seminal themes—the ongoing tension and struggle between civilization and wilderness—of 19th-century America, but he was also far ahead of his times in terms of his characters. He was the first major American novelist to include African and African-American characters. In The Last of the Mohicans, Colonel Munro’s eldest daughter, the raven-haired Cora is the daughter of a West Indian mulatto woman, not the typical sentimental European heroine. Cooper certainly used stereotypical and often idealized characters in his portrayal of native peoples and African Americans, but he portrays many of them with positive human qualities.

LT:  You talk about Natty Bumppo being a precursor to Huck Finn, as well as Western dime novels. What can you say about Cooper’s impact on such a wide range of works?

VW:  The impact of Cooper’s most renowned character, Natty Bumppo, on American literature is not something that I can summarize in a few paragraphs.  Cooper, suffice to say, grasped the essential myth of America: the ‘white Indian’ and the allure of the wilderness.  It was vanishing before the oncoming pioneers like a mirage. This was Cooper’s basic tragic vision.  Natty Bumppo embodies Cooper’s vision of the frontiersman as the preeminent individualist, a “natural aristocrat,” who is better than the society he protects. Poor and isolated, yet pure, he prefigures Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.  Cooper’s novels reveal a deep tension between the lone individual and society, nature and culture, spirituality and organized religion.

LT:  Does your love of frontier literature and the Western genre extend past Cooper?  If so, can you suggest any other authors or texts for further reading?

VW:  The westward advance during the 19th-century was fundamentally a story of paradox, as the historian William H. Goetzmann notes. Something precious and irreplaceable—a continental wilderness—would be lost as the Young Republic advanced further westward. Some early westward-bound ’emigrants,’  the wildlife artist John Audubon, the Indian painter George Catlin, the English adventurer George Ruxton, the trapper Rufus B. Sage, the Mormon leader Brigham Young, and the Austrian nobleman Alexander Maximilian expressed a prophetic regret over what would surely be lost as a result of crossing and settling the Last West.

Primary accounts left by those who saw a vast, unspoiled West before it was forever overrun and changed by California’s great Gold Rush of 1849 are a rich lodestone of literature  Among the best are John James Audubon,  The Missouri River Journals  (1843); Rufus B. Sage,  Scenes in the Rocky Mountains  (1846); James Henry Carlton,  The Prairie Logbooks; George Frederick Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains  (1847); Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834  (1843), and George Catlin,  Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians  (1841).

LT:  How do you feel about James Fenimore Cooper, an American legacy himself, sharing his Cooperstown legacy with the Hall of Fame of our National Pastime?  Is the town big enough for the both of them?

VW:  I don’t really have a problem with that. As mentioned, the family’s physical connection to Cooperstown had disappeared before the town’s transformation as the home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  The 600-acre Glimmerglass State Park overlooks the northern end of Lake Otsego.  Just up the hill from the parking lot of Hyde Hall, an early 19th-century limestone mansion with no association to Cooper, is a hiking trail that plunges into a dense forest of white birch and hemlocks. It evokes to some degree the setting of the great forest that once surrounded the 18th-century village. Perhaps, something could be done here to commemorate James Fenimore Cooper and his father, Judge William Cooper.

LT:  Next time our literary travels take us through Cooperstown, we will be sure to check it out and pay homage to the Cooper family, and I am sure our readers will be tempted to do the same.  Thank you!


Behind the Article: Taking a Closer look at “Literary Brooklyn Heights”

August 18, 2012 in Behind The Article, Literary Festivals, New York Travel


Join Literary Traveler as we go ‘behind the article’ with Norm Goldstein, author of our August 13th article, “Literary Brooklyn Heights.”  After reading about the wealth of literary history in Brooklyn, we were very excited to learn more about the past, present and future of the borough and all it has to offer the literary traveler.

 Literary Traveler:  So much is written about city life at the turn of the century.  Do you think more attention needs to be paid to Brooklyn?

Norm Goldstein:  Brooklyn, I’m pleased to say, certainly is getting its share of attention these days. It’s the new “in” place; Brooklyn is cool. And it is deserving of the attention. It’s changed dramatically for the better, especially in the last dozen years or so. Its history is fascinating, from the days of the early Dutch settlers through the Revolutionary War to its growth after the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, then the subway extension.  And it all started in Brooklyn Heights, called Breukelen by the Dutch.

LT:  You mention a few books on the topic in your article.  Is there one book on the subject that you would recommend to those interested in reading more?

NG:  I recommend February House  by Sherill Tippins for those interested in more about that unique gathering of talent in one Brooklyn Heights house in the pre-World War II years and Literary Brooklyn  by Evan Hughes for the broader picture.

LT:  How do you feel Brooklyn influenced the work of the writers who have lived there?  Do you think this has changed over the years?

NG:  In earlier times, there’s no question that the lure was cheaper rents. In 1939, W.H. Auden was talked into moving to the so-called February House from his apartment a few blocks away because he’d save money.

This has certainly changed over the years; rents in Brooklyn Heights are far from cheap today. But there is the lure of a quieter space than the usually frenetic Manhattan, the peaceful views from the waterfront, and, of course, Brooklyn’s unique idiosyncrasies — and characters — enough literary fodder for a lifetime of novels.

LT:  Who is your personal favorite writer who lived and worked in Brooklyn in the 19th or early 20th century?  Tell us a little about your choice.

NG:  For that period, I’d have to choose the poets, Whitman and Hart Crane. The latter is a personal favorite for his poem about the Brooklyn Bridge.  I often walk to the Promenade overlooking the bridge and the East River for substantially the same view he had when he described the fusion of “harp and altar” and feel his passion.

LT:  For those unfamiliar with Brooklyn, what is the best way for a new visitor to experience the area?

NG:  Brooklyn is a huge borough, a conglomeration of hundreds of distinct neighborhoods; it’s impossible to see it all. There are bus tours for an overview of some of it, but I suggest a walking tour of Brooklyn Heights, beginning with a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get there.

LT:  For Literary Travelers visiting Brooklyn, do you have any off the beaten path suggestions of things they should see and do?

NG:  Plan a visit during the Brooklyn Book Festival.

(Editor’s note: The year the  Brooklyn Book Festival  is taking place Sunday, September 23rd, with preliminary events beginning on September 17th.  According to the Festival’s  website, “The Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York Citypresenting an array of literary stars and emerging authors who represent the exciting world of literature today. One of America’s premier book festivals, this hip, smart, diverse gathering attracts thousands of book lovers of all ages.”  This year’s festival boasts appearances by Dennis Lehane, Mary Higgins Clark and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.)

LT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.  I look forward to exploring Brooklyn in more depth, and I have a feeling that our readers will be similarly inspired.

Behind the Article: A Further Look at Sir Philip Sidney, Penshurst Place and the Study of the English Renaissance

August 3, 2012 in Behind The Article, English Renaissance, Travel to England

Take a glance ‘behind the article’ as Literary Traveler  speaks with Ann-Maureen Owens, author of our July 16th article, “Rediscovering Sir Philip Sidney at Penshurst Place.”  After reading about Shakespeare’s brilliant and yet largely unexamined contemporary, we couldn’t wait to dig a little deeper into the writer’s history, his family home and what accounts for his absence from academia.

Literary Traveler:  How did you first become interested in Sidney?  What drew you to him?

Ann-Maureen Owens: As an undergraduate in the late 70s, I was introduced to Sidney as a man of action: diplomat, politician, and soldier, maybe even a spy!  He had planned to accompany Francis Drake on an adventurous expedition to America when Elizabeth I required his services in Europe. He was also a patron of other writers and had a finely tuned artistic sense and eloquent writing style but wrote for himself, his family and friends. He packed all this into a short life, Only two of his poems were published before he died, gallantly, at age 32, but he was so well regarded in literary circles so as to be considered “a poet’s poet” and the posthumously published Arcadia, An Apology for Poetry and Astrophel and Stella were held in high regard.

I considered Sidney to be an exciting figure of the English Renaissance, but as the title of my article suggests, I had not paid particular attention to him – Shakespeare dominates our idea of that period now – until a country walk outside London brought me to Penshurst Place.

LT:  What do you think accounts for Sidney’s absence from the majority of college curriculums?

AO:  There are many writers and works vying for inclusion in the current undergraduate curriculum and it may well come down to the preferences of professors or their need to attract students in the postmodern era. My son, Kevin, just completed an English degree that, except for a few foundation courses, concentrated on works of the last two centuries. Another son, David, certainly did not meet Sidney on his English survey course in college.

LT:  If you had to suggest one of his works for an undergraduate English Renaissance literature class, which would you choose?  Tell us a little about your choice.

AO:  The sonnet cycle, Astrophel and Stella, is my favorite and it is perhaps the most accessible to younger readers. It is an unfulfilled love story about the one that got away, modeled on Sidney’s own experience. It show’s Astrophel’s discovery of what it is like to fall in love with the immediacy of the present tense, and previews the dramatic speech of the Elizabethan stage.

LT: Penshurst Place seems like an incredible site to experience first hand.  Do you think reading Sidney prior to touring the property enhances the experience?

AO:  It is a beautiful place with extensive grounds, well-tended gardens and an amazing house that anyone can enjoy in many different ways. However, it certainly helps to appreciate the history of the writer’s home, which is still owned by the Sidney family, if one is familiar with the man and his work.

LT:  Besides Penshurst Place, do you have any off the beaten path suggestions for literary travelers visiting the London area?

AO:  I have written another piece that is to be published by Literary Traveler about Down House in the village of Downe, Kent, where Charles Darwin wrote most of his scientific books. It is within the London circular M25 and buses run from South Bromley rail station.

I can also recommend the recently refurbished William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, North-east London. Once the childhood home of this writer and artist, it is situated in the grounds of Lloyd Park and can be reached by way of the Victoria Line on the London Underground.

LT:  You are an author of non-fiction children’s books about Canada.  Do you have any books in the works right now?

AO:  Besides a children’s picture book that is currently under consideration by a British publisher, I am working on two at the moment. One is a biography of Frances Ann Hopkins, whose paintings of fur-trading voyageurs are so iconic and the other is about bird science, co-authored with my wildlife biologist son, Luke.

LT:  Would you ever consider writing about Renaissance England?

AO:  Yes, I would, as it was a fascinating time in England, a place close to my heart where I lived for three years and continue to visit my eldest son, Brian, his wife, Abby, and my granddaughter, Ivy.

The Tudors were on the throne, politics revolved around exploration and sea power, and then there were the writers: Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne and Ben Jonson – who wrote an “Ode to Penshurst Place” – as well as Sidney. Quite a gold mine for a writer interested in history and literature!

LT:  So, on the subject of the chivalrous knights and courtly love, is chivalry dead?

AO:  Not dead just transformed to reflect the realities of our current age. Now it means being kind and courteous to anyone, whether there is a romantic interest involved or not. Romantically, it can be practiced by men and women, and works best as a two-way street. Chivalry occurs when we reject self-centeredness to put another’s comfort and wishes ahead of our own, showing appreciation when someone treats us in this way.

LT:  Beautifully stated. I agree that there is far more to the concept than having doors held open.  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.  I know that our Literary Traveler  readers look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

Behind the Article: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Groundling Experience

July 27, 2012 in Behind The Article, Travel to England, William Shakespeare

Globe TheatreTake a peek “behind the article” as Literary Traveler talks with Michael Hartigan, the author of our July 23rd article, “I am Not an Original Groundling.”  We had a few more questions for the writer concerning his love of Shakespeare, his advice for literary travelers taking a jaunt across the pond and his fascination with the Globe Theatre groundling experience.

Literary Traveler: Have you always been an avid Shakespeare devotee?  When did your enthusiasm for his works begin?

Michael Hartigan: When my high school English teacher had our class memorize Marc Antony’s, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” speech from Julius Caesar, I, unlike most of my classmates, was hooked. I was infatuated by Shakespeare’s devotion to the word and enjoyed peeling away the layers to reveal the complex themes, symbolism and humor laced throughout his works. I took my enthusiasm to college and as an English major, dove head first into the folios. I have Dr. Stephen Lynch, professor at Providence College, to thank for teaching me the finer points of the Bard. It all led to me writing my senior thesis about honor and gender roles in Shakespeare’s works.

LT: As you mention in your article Shakespeare wrote for the people, but other playwrights of the day such as Ben Jonson were not so accepting of the groundlings. Making a derogatory reference to them in one of his plays, Jonson refers to them as offering “popular applause / or foamy praise, that drops from common jaws.”  What do you think accounted for these varying impressions of the groundlings?

MH: I think the groundlings may have been caught up in a little bit of class warfare. Going to the theater was an activity on the wrong side of the Thames, so to speak. Artists need to eat and perhaps some other playwrights of the day knew that they needed to lure in a different, wealthier, more aristocratic audience in order to keep their inkwells full.

LT: Can you share with us any more “behind the scenes Elizabethan gossip” or fun facts about the Globe Theatre that you learned either on your tour or elsewhere?

MH: The tour and our tour guide at the current incarnation of the Globe were both fantastic. Our guide was more than willing to share his extensive knowledge and did it with a flourish that only stage actors possess. One of the more interesting things I remember him mentioning was that Shakespeare himself was a shareholder in the original theater, which actually began its life across the Thames before being moved. And also that the fire that burned down the Globe was reportedly caused by a canon used during production of Henry VIII. I also enjoyed the story about how some of the more upper class patrons were allowed to sit onstage, at the rear.  It didn’t provide for the best view, but perhaps it was necessary to stroke a few egos.

LT: Your wife seems to have taken one for the team by donning the period costume.  If she asked you to reciprocate by dressing in the garb of one of Shakespeare’s characters, which would you choose? Tell us a little bit about your choice.

MH: I’ve always been partial to Iago from Othello, mainly because he is such a complex character. I’d be interested to see the wardrobe choice of an evil mastermind. If not him, it would of course be fun to wear a donkey head a la Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

LT: Aside from the Globe Theatre, do you have any suggestions for Literary Travelers visiting London?

MH: It’s hard to go anywhere in London and not experience some historic or literarily significant person, place or thing. Everything is interconnected – someone did something great in one location, his or her portrait is hanging in a museum down the road and the person is buried across the river.

I would recommend a stop at Westminster Abbey (and not just because of Will & Kate). Some of literature’s heavy hitters and history’s great philosophical, musical and scientific minds are buried here. Standing in Poet’s Corner, there truly is a feeling of awe as you’re in the presence of Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, composer George Handel and so many more.

After a long day of running around London, I’d stop in for a pint at Ye Olde Mitre Tavern located in Ely Court. It’s almost hidden down tight alleys and definitely keeps with the traditional British Pub feel. It is on the grounds of what used to be Ely Palace. For the literary traveler, Shakespeare references the location in Richard II and Richard III, via his mentions of the Bishop of Ely and Ely Palace. There are quirky tales about this pub and some of the things in and around it (some legend and some fact).

LT: If you could take a time machine back to sixteenth century England and experience for yourself a play at the Globe Theatre, which play would you choose?  Tell us about your choice.

MH: This is a tough question because I’d be happy seeing any. If I got to choose, I’d probably pick Macbeth. To watch such confident characters unravel onstage, played by the people Shakespeare originally intended, would be incredible. I’ve always been intrigued by how Shakespeare manipulated and exposed the flippancy of gender roles, all while using a totally male cast. It adds layers of complexity to any character, and Lady Macbeth is a perfect example. Besides, any story with conspiracy, murder and witches is something I want to watch.

LT: Given the opportunity, would you want the full groundling experience?

MH: Absolutely. It may not have been the most sanitary of ways to watch a play, but to have front row seats for the cheapest price is something you usually can’t get these days. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed in that kind of atmosphere. It would be refreshing and unique to experience it as it was originally intended, with the wall between stage and audience broken down.

LT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, and we agree that lax hygiene is a small price to pay for the up close and personal experience of literary greatness!


Behind The Article: Becoming Dostoyevsky

November 8, 2011 in Behind The Article, Existential Literature, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian Literature

Dostoyevsky | Photo by Yewco

Please enjoy an accompaniment to Literary Traveler’s November 5th article by Veronica Hackethal, Becoming Dostoyevsky. This addition of Behind The Article is packed with existential quandaries inspired by the man himself. 

Literary Traveler: You give the impression that being unwary is especially dangerous in Russia? Why do you think that is, and do you think it’s a theme of Dostoyevsky’s work?

Veronica Hackethal: The word “unwary” seemed best to describe my experience of a winter-time dawn in St. Petersburg. During night, we are asleep, unwary of the world around us. The December dawn creeps over St. Petersburg, encroaches so gradually that if you don’t have a clock, it can be difficult to realize that dawn is occurring. This can be very disorienting.

I think that being unwary (thoughtless, unalert, unmindful) is dangerous in and of itself, not just in Russia but everywhere. Someone who is unwary is indeed asleep. Not having a sense of oneself, one’s relationship with the larger world, and the effects of one’s actions on others is a very dangerous state of being. One cannot, then, predict one’s actions to future events, or even to one’s own behavior.

While I’m not sure if being unwary is one of Dostoyevsky’s main preoccupations, I think it is connected to one of his major themes: catharsis through introspection. It is through introspection that one gains self-awareness and takes responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. I think this is a major theme of Dostoyevsky’s existentialism.

An example is Raskolnikov’s reaction to having murdered the pawn broker. Though he had rationally thought out the murder beforehand, he was unaware of the power of his conscience, unaware of his irrational reaction to having committed the act. Through introspective wandering, he grapples with his conscience, and takes responsibility for his actions. It is through the compassion of Sonia’s love that redemption is ultimately found, another of Dostoyevsky’s major themes. In The Idiot, he wrote, “Compassion is the chief and perhaps the only law of human existence.”

LT: Where do you think the Underground Man exists in contemporary literature and art? Can we suffer from existential crises today, considering our propensity toward technology, specifically technologically expressed human emotion?

VH: You mean “Do I still exist if no one responds to my facebook posting?” Just kidding. Regarding Dostoyevsky’s influence on existentialism in contemporary writing, where do I begin? Some consider Notes from the Underground to be the first existentialist novel. Its descendants include Camus’ “The Stranger”, Sartre’s “Nausea”, Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” and Richard Wright’s “The Outsider.” Films like “Clockwork Orange”, “The Matrix”, “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, and “Up in the Air” all contain elements of existentialism. Then there is the Theater of the Absurd: Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Sartre’s “Huis Clos”. And don’t forget Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead”. More recent books that contain elements of Dostoyevsky’s existentialism include “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, and my recent favorite “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart.

I think that Dostoyevsky predicted the existential crises from which we suffer today. In his later work, one of his preoccupations was with science and technology: the accoutrements of modernity are inadequate substitutes for religion, love and human understanding. I wonder if the rise of religious fundamentalism is a backlash to the inability of science and technology to assuage the irrational in us. There is alienation and loneliness in connecting virtually with others. But I wonder, do issues of existentialism even register with us anymore? Are we too overloaded with information, rushing too much to keep up with the mundane (e.g. bullet-point top ten lists) to question the meaning of our lives?

LT: I’ve never been to Russia, is it equally stark and opulent? Can you characterize your trip through St. Petersburg in a passage from one of Dostoyevsky’s novels or essays?

VH: I suppose my essay could be considered a light-hearted nod to Dostoyevsky’s wandering, introspective characters, like the narrator in “White Nights”, Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment”, or Stavrogin in “The Possessed”. Here I am wandering aimlessly, almost dreamlike, in this unknown city where I can’t speak the language and where I don’t know anyone. Do I really exist as I thought I had? How do I define myself? Much of independent, solo travel is like this. At such times, the insights into oneself and others are particularly valuable.

I think the following passage from “White Nights” sums up the alienation and loneliness of suddenly becoming a wandering outsider, a foreigner in a society into which I’d plopped down by way of Aeroflot:

“For though I had been living almost eight years in Petersburg I had hardly an acquaintance. But what did I want with acquaintances? I was acquainted with all Petersburg as it was; that was why I felt as though they were all deserting me when all Petersburg packed up and went to its summer villa. I felt afraid of being left alone, and for three whole days I wandered about the town in profound dejection, not knowing what to do with myself. Whether I walked in the Nevsky, went to the Gardens, or sauntered on the embankment, there was not one face of those I had been accustomed to meet at the same time and place all year. They, of course, do not know me, but I know them. I know them intimately, I have almost made a study of their faces…”

That said, Russia is beautiful, and I encourage readers to visit! In the last decade, many of the buildings neglected during Communism have been spiffed up. My jaw dropped when I saw the extravagant buildings along Nevsky Prospekt. The Bolshoi recently reopened after a six year, billion dollar renovation. The Hermitage, Mikhailovsky, and Stanislavsky theaters all sparkle. So, I would say the word for Russia today is opulent. What is stark about Russia is past history, Soviet times, and the sky during winter. The food can also be a bit wanting.

LT: Please briefly elaborate on the significance of a crossroads in Dostoyevsky’s life and work with a historical or literary example.

VH: Aside from living at a physical crossroads during the last years of his life, Dostoyevsky lived at a time of rapid change, a crossroads of history, when Russia was deciding whether to turn toward the rationalism, industrialization and modernism of the West, or to conserve the traditional Russian culture embodied in the mysticism and faith of Russian Orthodoxy. Cross roads are places of transition, liminal zones, and are dangerous places in many cultures. Dostoyevsky’s preoccupation with crossroads as opposite extremes can be seen in the dualities he develops in his writing, the themes of Western materialism vs. Russian spirituality, rational vs. nonrational, sacred vs. profane. Many of Dostoyevsky’s characters grapple with such dualities; they live at crossroads, in a metaphorical sense. These themes can be seen in the moral struggles of The Brothers Karamazov. The patricide can be taken to symbolize the death of the tsar and traditional Russian society. Ivan’s atheism/rationalism is juxtaposed with Alyosha’s faith, while Dmitri grapples with the guilt produced by his sensualist/materialist ways.

Literary Traveler Talks to Bill Bryson

October 27, 2011 in American literature, Behind The Article, Bill Bryson, British literature, Contemporary Literature, Uncategorized

There are few writers who can so seamlessly marry information with a strongly absurdest sense of humor. Bill Bryson is one of those rare authors. Unlike the dry, factual essayists we read in school, Bryson’s books are not only sidesplittingly funny, but also deeply authoritative and observant.

As you might be able to tell, we have been reading Bryson for years, and admiring his singular style and voice. From the first book we picked up on the Appalachian Trail, the 1998 A Walk in the Woods to his wildly popular A Short History of Nearly Everything.

In 2010, while traveling across the Atlantic on the Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, Literary Traveler got to meet the famous writer. Bill was taking the cruise as a special guest for their Liners & Literature series. During this time, he had a few duties: relax, enjoy himself, and speak to the other passengers about his impressive career, his thoughts on Britain, and his unique views on writing and reading.

“Everybody likes books that are about them,” he observed during our interview. “My book about growing up in Iowa seemed to really resonate with Americans. The other book that did very well in America was A Walk in the Woods… but the book that sold in Britain was Notes on a Small Island. I suppose it’s natural that people are most attracted to something about them.”

He also revealed the genesis of his writing career. “My dad had a great collection of hardback books from the 1930s and 40s, and he had a lot of books by PG Wodehouse. He had books by people like James Thurgood, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman—four really, really funny writers. I picked up these books when I was thirteen and fell in love with the idea of being able to use language as a way of making people laugh.”

To learn more about Bill Bryson, take a few minutes to watch our full interview with the author, shot on board the Queen Mary 2. Covering everything from baseball to the Brits, it’s the perfect way to get to know one of the most beloved humor writers living today. See the clip at Literary Traveler TV here.

Behind The Article: Stieg Larsson's Sweden

June 27, 2011 in Behind The Article, Scandinavian Travel

Frozen Lagoon, Sweden | Photo courtesy of Andrew Buswell

Sweden has a long tradition of Scandinavian laws that attempt to enforce social harmony. Literary Traveler and author of our latest article, Andrew Buswell, discuss how art can shed light on a country’s darkest secrets.

Literary Traveler: Do you think the islands of Sweden appear to divide the country’s society, and do you believe crime is partially the result of modern sensibilities clashing with a historical disposition?

Andrew Buswell: I don’t think Stockholm is hugely different from any other city in the respect that it has different areas heavily populated with either a different culture or different class. For centuries, classes and cultures have stuck together in quarters of major towns or cities. The origins of such violent crime that we see from time to time, could be said to come from a state more interested in creating a socialist heaven for itself than for the people. Whilst many are in agreement with measures brought in, there some who disagree. These people are often don’t dealt with or listened to. It seems to be a “one way or the highway” kind of system; however the political pendulum is beginning to swing slightly. Just look at the recent coalitions [government parties that aim to cooperate] being formed.

LT: Do you think the global success of the Millennium Trilogy is based on the characters, who were mostly based on people Larsson had contact with, or that the intrigue the novels have created around underground culture? What do you think draws a reader into the story?

AB: The characters Larsson created are very strong personalities that can be endearing, inspiring you to read on and discover about them. Knowing that they are partially based on reality makes it all the more intriguing and compelling, as the trilogy is such an unbelievable tale. Herein lies the key to the Trilogy’s success: the fact that something so unimaginable is actually happening around us is incredible. The domino effect of global interest and intrigue has served to bring many important issues to light. For example, there are now conspiracy theories floating around the web and global media motivated by discovering the extent of the problems facing Sweden (if they are actually serious). For latecomers to the novels, this is surely one of the reasons they’re drawn to the books.

Personally, it was a simple recommendation. After reading about 20 pages I had forgotten who had made the recommendation in the first place, because I was gripped for the next few months in the whole trilogy. Months of conjuring up images of the main players was only satisfied again by Lisbeth Salander’s character in the film version.

LT: What inspired you to travel to Sweden? Do you recommend any sites that are particularly relevant to the Millennium Trilogy?

AB: Well, my travels date back over ten years now, when my brother first moved to Stockholm. I’m a regular visitor to the capital (roughly thrice yearly) now. I was an addict before the Larsson novels and even more so since reading them. Beyond the complex layers of society represented in the books, which are apparently either at war or crumbling apart, I enjoy being a tourist strolling around the streets of Sodermalm (where a lot of the action takes place).

Sodermalm has taken on new significance, as I imagine Salander’s view from her new apartment near the Mosebacke bar, or how Blomqvist would have fit into the distinctly arty area of Bellmansgatan, had he actually lived there. There are a number of sites all in the south side of the city. It would be a fitting end to a day to sip a pint in Kvarnen, where Salander’s friends play regularly in their band Evil Fingers.

LT: Have you bore witness to Sweden’s ‘dark side’? Do you believe art serves to unite society, and do you think it can avoid derision considering Sweden’s long-held goal to protect its unique culture?

AB: Sweden’s model society is famous across the world and the goal of this society is to provide its citizens with the best quality life, and in many cases it does so. The maternity and paternity laws, for example, allow children and both parents to be together for extended periods of time (at the state’s expense). Whilst some people consider Sweden’s alcohol laws Draconian, they at least attempt to put a lid on all day drinkers. Whether this pushes people into binge drinking is a different matter entirely.

They are all laws well laid out, adhered to and governed and maybe this is where the bouts of extremism come from, groups unwilling to accept the odd law in three. Although I haven’t personally bore witness to its dark side, the recurring assassinations (Olaf Palme is one) and acts of violence speak for themselves.

In this way, I believe the arts can only be a positive influence. Yes, it highlights inadequacies in the so-called utopian society of Europe, but it helps make people aware that not everything is perfect.

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