Days of Heaven

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
An interview with essayist and novelist Pico Iyer.

And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed my familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end,” Pico Iyer writes in his essay Why We Travel. He is admired for such characteristically perceptive and rousing writing. “As a guide to far-flung places Pico Iyer can hardly be surpassed” (The New Yorker); “The rightful heir to Jan Morris, Paul Theroux and company” (Los Angeles Times); “A writer like no other” (Jan Morris).

From his Japanese home near Nara, Iyer tells me he’s living ninety minutes from the beloved Kyoto he evoked beautifully in The Lady and the Monk: Kyoto and the Four Seasons. “A safe distance for keeping the sense of wonder and excitement alive. Even after 25 years here.” The most visited city on the planet bar Mecca boasts 17 World Heritage sites. “You will never get the better of Kyoto or get to its heart; Nara, by comparison, offers silence and emptiness and a vision of antiquity that is perhaps what many imagine when they think of Kyoto.”

The multicultural Indian who wrote The Global Soul (2004) first impressed readers with Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-so-Far East (1988). “Lanterned nights in Kyoto so lovely that I almost held my breath for fear I might shatter the spell.” In this first book he returned to Manhattan and Time: “Homesick—not just for the gentleness and grace that I had found in many parts of Asia, but also, and more deeply, for the gentler self it had found in me… The country of my dreams is still Japan.” Still? “I took a lot of trouble over those lines because, unlike much in that speedy book, they really came from the depths of me. They are just how I still feel, though by now I perhaps feel them so deeply that it might be hard for me to put words to them.”

At home, this contemplative writer follows a routine. “I awaken early, with the light. Alas, in summer this is at around 4:30, so I far prefer winters, when I can stay in bed till much later. I always take a simple breakfast of toast and tea.” He goes to his desk. “Ideally to write, but sometimes just to gather myself and hope that the words will come the next day.” He takes a good walk around the neighbourhood, before reading. “In late afternoon I head out again, usually by foot, for furious games of ping-pong with the local grannies.” He goes to sleep by nine, after dining with his wife Hiroko. “Every day seems to last a hundred hours in this stillness. I can work for five straight hours, read half a novel every day, and take care of often quite complicated business, and still, thanks to the absence of cellphone and TV and car and most Internet, I feel as if I have all the time in the world.”

His sweetheart sells punk clothes from Britain during the day, and is a metal fanatic who devotes herself to Metallica and other loud bands, he confides. “But next to her boom box she keeps a shrine and every day she puts out fresh tea and food for the gods. And, before she goes to work, she meditates for thirty minutes, waving incense around and generally pays her respects to the ancient deities.”

“Every day seems to last a hundred hours in this stillness. Thanks to the absence of cellphone and TV and car and most Internet, I feel as if I have all the time in the world.”

What are the differences between Nara and Kyoto? “Japan has a deeply traditional soul beneath its cutting-edge surfaces and in Nara you’re essentially walking into an eigth century world. Nara is the sleepy, somewhat grumpy, largely forgotten great-uncle of contemporary Japan and Kyoto is his slightly younger sister, chic, still impeccably made-up and a past master of knowing how to charm and seduce visitors. Nara was the capital from 710 till 784, which means it has been the ex-capital for more than 1228 years, a dusty attic in which various old treasures are thrown around haphazardly.

“Kyoto, by comparison, was capital immediately afterwards for 1000 years and so has all the polish and sophistication you’d expect of one of the world’s great cities, which has seen courts come and go, entertains 50 million visitors a year—the most visited city on the planet outside of Mecca— and boasts 17 World Heritage sites. You will never get the better of Kyoto or get to its heart; Nara, by comparison, offers silence and emptiness and a vision of quietude that is perhaps what many imagine when they think of Kyoto.”

The 56-year-old disagrees the 2011 Tsunami has changed people in Japan much, particularly how they think about their government. “Not at all. People around the world have heard about a newly restive and protesting Japanese populace giving voice at last to its distrust of their government. Japan is an old and very seasoned culture that has been through 1000 years of calamity, warfare, natural disaster, and more. And in some ways it is set up for suffering, if only because the first law of Buddhism has less to do with the pursuit of happiness than with the reality of suffering: impermanence, extinction, and loss. Besides, I fear the Japanese were sceptical about their rulers long before the tsunami hit them.”

He tells me his personal observations suggest the Land of the Rising Sun has not been moved as the prevailing media narrative has it. His neighbours have strong memories of deprivation during World War Two and the ensuing occupation. “Everyone was shocked, humbled and rendered bereft by the tsunami, but it’s not in the nature of stoical, uncomplaining, unbreakable Japan to be swayed by a passing disaster.”

Iyer followed the Dalai Lama—his longtime friend and subject in elliptical biography The Open Road (2008)—on his visit to the Fukushima plant a few months after the meltdown. “I met young Japanese who were flocking there to help their country in its time of need. My granddaughter was born in Tokyo fifteen days before the earthquake, and although her home was rendered untenable by the shaking of the ground, she and her parents moved only a short distance away and picked up their lives as before.”

Iyer spends several months a year in California, staying at a cherished Benedictine monastery near Big Sur (a spiritual home of the Grateful Dead scored counterculture of his teenage years), and visiting his mother, Nandini. He confides to me that—“beautiful and seductive though it is, a byword for possibility”— he finds the Golden State increasingly alien. “I’ve always felt that California is best enjoyed by those from outside California, and in the dreaming phase of life… My neighbours in California seemed much more traumatised by the Japanese tsunami than my neighbours in Japan… I’m ever more aware that it’s speaking a different language (morally, emotionally, psychologically and, of course, literally) than the one I know. Nothing I say makes sense to most of my neighbours there, and little they say makes sense to me. I’m not being facetious when I say that I have far more language problems in California, where I think I have words in common with my friends, than in attentive, deep and old Japan, where people prefer to communicate without many words.”

He has written memorably on Leonard Cohen. Liner notes for a lot of his albums, including the 17-set Complete Collection; essays on three of his last four albums; the text to his 2008 tour program; and the illuminating essay that opens Sun After Dark (2007). “A part of me would clearly love to write an entire book on Leonard Cohen, a talisman for me since I was 17 and someone I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a little over the last 17 years.” But, he’s spent plenty of time writing on him already. “Besides, there have been many fine books on him, most notably the huge recent biography by Sylvie Simmons. I wrote a 5000-word review that appeared in April.”

Most of all, Iyer feel his new Graham Greene “counterbiography”, The Man Within My Head, is essentially about Leonard Cohen. “In so many ways, he’s Greene’s twin. I took out the 20 pages explicitly linking the two, but I think Cohen hovers behind every other page.”

Iyer hopes younger people who don’t know about Greene will respond to the idea of “someone occupying and haunting one’s imagination as Jay-Z or Kanye West might.” He hasn’t had a chance to consider the rappers’ music, but enjoyed reading Zadie Smith rhapsodise about Watch the Throne’s twosome. “The power of writing is that it puts another writer inside you—puts you inside a stranger’s head—and you may lose track of where the writer ends and you begin.”

“I sometimes tell myself that all my writing is a feeble attempt to echo the vision of Terrence Malick, whose Days of Heaven, seen 33 years ago, remains the great, lifechanging artwork of my time. He distills his many ideas into images that affect us in some post-verbal way, entirely sensually.”

He responds to praise for The Man Within My Head, and his general importance as a writer, with characteristic humility. “I’m always pleased when someone likes something I’ve written, but there will always be just as many people who dislike my writing. So I don’t think one can afford to define oneself by other people’s responses.” He adds many people find his most cherished writers—from William Shakespeare to Phillip Roth via Herman Melville—insupportable and not worth reading. “A writer has to follow his own instinct and not be deterred by the consequence. If you write to be liked, you’ll write things you never like yourself.”

Iyer worked hard to get his position, starting travel writing as soon as he left school. “I think I did say that, writing for the Let’s Go guidebooks in the early ’80s, I did have to travel as cheaply as my readers did, which meant sleeping in gutters every night. Who knows but, in an imprudent mood long ago, I might have said something about eating rats?”

Iyer finds himself decreasingly detached from Oxford, where his father Raghavan was a distinguished philosopher, he was born, first went to school, and later university. “Oxford, the place, the idea I’ve been fleeing all my life:  Only when I hit 50, did I suddenly notice how beautiful it was and why so many people love to go there. So, as the years go on, I return more and more often to Oxford, if only because so many of my formative experiences, innocent and sometimes challenging, took place there. I don’t love England, but I can’t deny that it made me who I am, and most of my closest and most trusted friends—as well as most wonderful formative experiences—are there. Oxford, like many an Old World spot, can be savoured most by those who belong to its intricate weave of localism.”

Earlier this year Iyer interviewed the Dalai Lama at India’s Jaipur Literary Festival, and headlined the Tokyo International Literary Festival with Junot Diaz (This Is How You Lose Her) and J.M. Coetzee. “It was so exciting to hear Coetzee, especially because he’s hard to catch. He and Naipaul and Pamuk and Walcott are the recent Nobelists I think are true immortals.”

Iyer modestly says Diaz provides better amplification of our “post-national age,” but I prefer his vivid portrayal: “Our world full of shifting borders reminds me of a Jackson Pollock canvas. Everything is happening all at once in every possible direction.”

In Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World (1993), Iyer’s varied, astute explorations included North Korea, Cuba, Iceland, Argentina, and Australia. His friend Paul Theroux conveyed the Routeburn track’s lonesome majesty in The Happy Isles of Oceania. When I first interviewed a dynamic Iyer (at the 2007 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival), he enthusiastically shared his first impressions of New Zealand’s apparent multicultural potential, and independent foreign policy. Might he write about these lonely islands? “I’d dearly love to revisit New Zealand, but I’m not sure I have anything fresh to offer as a travel writer. I’m really trying hard to push myself into new territories, as you can probably tell, so that although The Man Within My Head had many foreign locations, it tried not to make those locations the theme or the central interest: inner foreign states and lonely places are probably more my interest these days.”

For more than 20 years he’s been possessed by Japan’s autumn. “I experience it every year, in all its buoyancy and melancholy.” And the Benedictine monastery in California where he’s spent much of his life. “I actually have well over a thousand pages accumulated on each, and one day I hope to grapple with those pages and write at length on those two locations that have so much made me what I am. But I’m not sure when that will be, and I haven’t even yet decided whether it will be fact or fiction that I write.”

I will contact Iyer again during April. Roger Ebert, another intimate writer, passed away the previous week. I note the last review Ebert filed was of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, and express my hope that Iyer will write more on the director of Badlands. “I’m just gearing up for the new Malick, which I may even get to see here in L.A.” He did, writing in Harpers, “Does To the Wonder reveal a director lost in his own vision?”

Terrence Malick inspires Iyer. “I sometimes tell myself that all my writing is a feeble attempt to echo the vision of Terrence Malick, whose Days of Heaven, seen 33 years ago, remains the great, lifechanging artwork of my time. I love the way that very accomplished professional philosopher and reader of everything from the Bible to Huck Finn was able to tell so straight a story, and to distill his many ideas into images that affect us in some post-verbal way, entirely sensually. As a writer I have to take the too many ideas swarming around my head and somehow distill them.”

UPDATE 26/11/14

AB: The Art of Stillness is your beautifully written new book. The arresting, complementary Iceland images are by Icelandic Canadian photographer Eydís Einarsdótti. She calls the country one of the few places where she finds “perfect stillness in mind and body”. What makes Iceland special for you?

PI: Iceland, more than anywhere I know, reminds you that travel takes you to forgotten, unvisited, amazingly exotic places inside yourself. Of course it is the geysers, the rowdy pubs, the people—out of some ancient Norse legend—and the haunting open spaces of Iceland that transfix one on arrival, and look like nowhere else, with their treelessness and their quaint, boldly coloured little houses set against vast stretches of nothing.

But what that brings home to you is that the external landscape springs a gate open so that suddenly you’re in somewhere new within your memory or imagination. Sitting on a hill in rural Iceland, the wind whistling in your ears, with nothing around you but scrawking birds and maybe the sound of distant bells, you can’t fail to feel taken very far away from your rushed and congested daily life and into somewhere deep and transporting.

“To go out,” as the great Scottish-American naturalist John Muir had it, “is to go in.”

Countries explored at Pico Iyer’s new website include Australia, Cuba, and Japan. Then there’s the ‘Inner World’. Alexander Bisley previously interviewed Iyer about ‘The Open Road’, and ‘ The Man Within My Head’. ‘Badlands’ is screening at New Zealand Film Societies nationwide.
Filed under: ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.