The good folks at Random House asked me to do an occasional newsletter in the run-up to my new novel, APEIROGON (coming Feb 25, 2020), a glimpse behind the curtain, a step behind the pages, to give a little glance into my world.
It strikes me that I’ve never really written publicly like this before: it feels like a private letter to my family. Decades ago I used to write letters from the road when I was cycling across America. I wrote them quickly, heart on my sleeve, bad grammar and all. There I was, on some far-flung American riverbank, scribbling away on blue airmail stationary.
Actually here’s a glimpse from my days in the late 80’s in Colorado … Ah, nostalgia .. and how odd to see myself with hair!
I suppose in many ways the bike journey was the beginning of it all. I rode an 18-speed Schwinn with four pannier bags, two front, two back. On the back of the bike I also carried a tent and sleeping bag. Along the way – from Boston to Texas to Mexico to California — I met all sorts of incredible people, all of whom had stories to tell. I suppose those were the days when my ideas about story-telling began to germinate.
I have never really written directly about that journey, back in 1986, primarily because I think those stories still inhabit the fictional stories I create. Everywhere we have been, everywhere we are.
It is a democracy, this world of stories. This October I was a guest speaker at the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association, and I also happened to make a trip south to Colorado Springs where my novel TransAtlantic had been chosen for the Pikes Peak One City One Book. Waiting outside the hall were Tom and Ruth McGuire. “Remember us?” they said. Of course I did. In 1987 they had rescued me after I snapped a number of spokes coming over Raton Pass. At the Bike Doctor store in Trinidad, Tom taught me how to true and build wheels. I wasn’t very good at it, but it saved my hide a few times when I went further west.
They opened their doors to me. I stayed with their family a month. Thirty-two years on, Tom and Ruth looked the same. What a pleasure it was to hang out with them and their son Shawn for the evening. And what a wonderful thing it was to get the photographs they had taken long ago.
A lot of things can get taken from us, as Jim Harrison said, but not our stories.
It got me thinking about those random moments of kindness that we experience in our lives. That journey was about 8,000 miles (12,000 km) long but it still trills in me.
I wonder what might happen if took the same journey again? What sort of America might I find? How have things shifted? How have things gone redward and how they have gone blueward? How has the landscape been transformed? It’s tempting to think that the country has changed dramatically and that I wouldn’t find the same openness anymore, but a secret part of me also believes that it is still there. I am wedded to Walt Whitman’s idea that we are large and we contain multitudes. Those multitudes may be hidden in certain respects, but I’m fairly convinced that there is something in the American character that – despite the appearance of overwhelming evidence on our public forums and our TV screens – indelibly remains, something fundamental and true.
It would be fascinating to investigate the supposed fracture that is this country now. (Perhaps that could be an article or even a book once I’m finished with APEIROGON!) But one thing I know for sure: we’re certainly not as stupid as our political representatives seem to want us to be. And indeed need us to be. We are far closer to each other than anyone gives us credit for. The nuances are there. The loudmouths in the corners get all the soundbites these days, but I still think that we are fundamentally aligned with one another. Every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.
I don’t intend to get too deeply political here — we have enough of all that from others — but perhaps this redward and this blueward stuff could be guided more towards the purple? One of the most powerful moments I’ve had recently was attending a Narrative 4 (narrative4.com) summit in Connecticut. The long and short of it is that the non-profit Narrative 4 brought students from University Heights High School in the Bronx together with students from Floyd County High School in Kentucky. There you have it. Red. Blue. Rural. Urban. Primarily African-American. Primarily white. Supposedly liberal. Supposedly conservative.
These groups came together as the third pilot project of its kind and each time it has been remarkable. The kids stepped into one another’s shoes, told stories, shared their lives – and came out united. What an extraordinary thing to see young people meld with and understand one another. Of course, they feared each other at first. But fear is born not from ignorance, but lack of opportunity, lack of chance, lack of vision. At first they were scared that they would not know each other. In the end they realised that they had known each other all along, even when they had not met each other. This, then, is the essence of democracy.
Soon these two schools will get together again when the students from the Bronx go down to Kentucky. The prospect of it gives me the best possible chills. Listen to the river and you will catch fish.
For those of you who haven’t yet heard of it, Narrative 4 is a global network of educators, students and artists that I co-founded with the visionary Lisa Consiglio and several other writers and activists. We began it the best part of a decade ago and now it is spreading across the world. We use storytelling as a means to build empathy so we can improve our communities. Teachers are the heroes in all of this. Their students are the ones who embark on remarkable journeys. And the artists and writers are the glue that hold the whole thing together.
I get to work closely with Terry Tempest Williams, Ishmael Beah, Marlon James, Rob Spillman, Darrell Bourque, Assaf Gavron, Ruth Gilligan, Andy Sean Greer and several others. We have a number of musicians onboard now too, not least Sting (who actually launched N4 six years ago), Mickey Madden and Colm Mac Con Iomaire.
At the reading in Trinity College in Hartford I got to be onstage with Frederick Douglas Knowles II, the poet laureate of the city; Felice Belle, the N4 Communications Director; Babalwa Tetyana, a monumental young poet from South Africa; and the incredible Deacon Art Miller, a civil rights activist.
We read to the high school students and a few other guests. A small gesture, one might think. But it ended up feeling larger than just about any reading I have ever been part of. At the end of the evening the audience was in rapture. These are the young minds – and the older minds too — that change the world. These are the ones who reach across the expanse.
Every atom belonging to me …
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