Interviews March 2006

Terra Incognita

Essayist Rebecca Solnit, the author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, discusses the art of falling off the map
book cover

A Field Guide to Getting Lost
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Rebecca Solnit
224 pages

Five hundred years ago, when the Texas Gulf coast was a wilderness of salt marshes and sand dunes, the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on Galveston Island. Enslaved by Natives, he and his crew spent their days eating fish and roots under the burning sun. Nine years passed before the lost sailor encountered Europeans again, and by that time, he had grown so accustomed to Native life that he could hardly speak Spanish or sleep in a bed. As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her new essay collection, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

He had gone about naked, shed his skin like a snake, had lost his greed, his fear, been stripped of almost everything a human being could lose and live, but he had learned several languages, he had become a healer, he had come to admire and identify with the Native nations among whom he lived; he was not who he had been.... He ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.

The peculiar moral of this story is typical of Solnit's field-guide-in-reverse. Unlike conventional field guides, which affix labels and definitions, Solnit's aims to unname and undefine. She takes readers on a tour of destinations that cannot be visited: the blue strip at the edge of the horizon, the half-transformed caterpillar inside a cocoon, the face of a long-dead ancestor who was never photographed. As a guide, her intention is not to lead her audience into oblivion, marooning them at sea like the castaways in the television show Lost. Instead, she encourages readers to submerge themselves in the manner of Cabeza de Vaca—diving into the unknown and resurfacing as someone new.

Anyone who has read Solnit's eight previous books will not be surprised to see her taking on the theme of terra incognita; each seems to foreshadow her Field Guide. In Savage Dreams (1994), Solnit explored the untamed American west with all its clashing characters and historical contradictions. Book of Migrations (1998) chronicled her journeys through Ireland, depicting the Emerald Isle less as a landmass than as a fluid body of myths and identities. Wanderlust (2001) charted the history of pedestrian travel, beginning with an anatomical explanation of walking and ending with the tourist-packed streets of Las Vegas. Each of these books, along with its themes of travel and exploration, drew attention to Solnit's vast array of interests and her mercurial way of sliding from one into another.

From the archives:

"A Close Read: What Makes Good Writing Good" (March 2006)
Christina Schwarz considers Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost stretches this tendency even further. In a chapter called "Abandon," Solnit begins one paragraph by reflecting on urban ruins, the next by discussing the origins of punk music and the next by musing, "I wonder now about Demeter and Persephone." Deeply personal memories about a lover who lived in the desert or a friend who died of a drug overdose alternate with facts from anthropology and history. Yet somehow the structure holds. All of her stories and facts come together like a series of well-plotted lines, hinting at the shape of ineffability.

Solnit, who grew up in Marin County, California, and now lives in San Francisco, has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Mark Lynton History Prize. We spoke by telephone on January 13.

Jennie Rothenberg

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit. (Photograph
by Jude Mooney.)

I was surprised to learn from this book that you were once a fan of punk music. Your writing style is so introspective and nuanced, not exactly three chords and a bunch of angry screams. Is there anything about the punk aesthetic that still informs your work?

When you think of the best punk bands, there's a kind of lyrical, poetic, esoteric aspect to what they did. They just did it at a thousand miles an hour, which is what the angst-ridden adolescent metabolism moves at. And I was definitely a very angst-ridden adolescent. If you look at my political writing, there's a certain sense of outrage that's very much a part of punk rock and is still part of me. I was a kid who was in love with the countryside and wished I'd been raised on a farm—someplace remote where I could have raised goats and joined 4H and all those kinds of things. But the urban was what was available to me for escaping from suburbia.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost has no plot, no characters and no real storyline. How did you decide which stories to tell and how to arrange them?

There's a real belief that writing has to be linear—that is, if my subject is X, I must keep writing about X, I must never detour into Y. But I love the kinds of conversations you have with your friends, the best conversations where you start out talking about what's wrong with Bush, then you start talking about alcoholism, then you start talking about your great-uncle, then you start talking about family stories, then you start talking about your childhood landscape, then you start talking about the nature of memory itself. I love those kinds of meandering trajectories, and I've often used them in writing. It's the way we think and the way we put the world together for ourselves.

With this book, I wanted to let personal stories lead to the impersonal, to break out of memoir as the trap I often feel it is. I've read enough memoirs that sound like what you tell your therapist—the kind of "all me, all the time" solipsism. Traditional memoir is usually a story of overcoming. But I feel that the version of self you often encounter in memoirs is, in itself, something that needs to be overcome. Part of how you overcome that limited sense of self is by connecting your personal story to these larger stories—remembering that other people suffer, that there are other things going on in the world, that even when you're going through a huge tragedy, you can be enchanted or bewitched by some fascinating thing that comes along and forget yourself. Which is also a way of getting lost.

Do you subscribe to Jack Kerouac's method of "spontaneous prose," or do you do a lot of careful editing?

I'm kind of against the Kerouacan notion of spontaneity. You know, there are moments where everything just flows. But I've always been surprised by those people who produce the big, monstrous, sloppy, half-thought-out first draft. When I talk to students and people who are still flailing with their writing, I encourage them to make lots of notes, to collect their sources, put their Post Its in the books—but to wait until they really have a strong sense of pattern and tone and purpose before they start writing. Because although I'm all for getting lost, I'm not for getting stuck, and I've always found you can get very stuck with spontaneous writing.

So I spend a lot of time beforehand. I edit a lot, but it's usually fine-tuning. I try to avoid that situation where you've essentially put together a Frankenstein's monster and you say, "But I didn't want those legs! I need to take out all the organs." You can really get into some nasty hacking and chopping. That's what creates a lot of the misery of writing for people. It's very uninspiring trying to smash up something you've just built.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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