By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
William Least Heat-Moon is one of America's indefatigable travelers, a man on a perpetual quest to know himself and his country. He made his reputation with Blue Highways, a detailed account of a 1,300-mile journey through America. Heat-Moon undertook the journey when his life had pretty much come to a dead end. His college teaching position had been cut and his 600 applications to other colleges all met with rejection. Heat-Moon, who descends from Osage and European ancestors, outfitted a Ford van he named Ghost Dancing, and lit out.
Blue Highways is a record of Heat-Moon's conversations with people throughout his journey, layered with descriptions of the land and towns he visited. It stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for 42 weeks. Heat-Moon's next book, PrairyErth, recounted a journey taken on foot through Chase County, Kansas. Like its predecessor, PrairyErth is a documentary. The subtitle, A Deep Map, a term popularized by Heat-Moon, is a documentary that layers topographical notes with observations on regional life, folkways, and whatever else deepens insight into the region. Heat-Moon's other works include Roads to Quoz and River-Horse.
His latest work, Writing Blue Highways, is an unusual and useful blend of autobiography and writing guide. It is a short, powerful work, written with passion. I was fortunate to find Heat-Moon at his home in Missouri for this in-depth conversation.
ROBERT WOLF: Writing Blue Highways is a very personal book, very honest and revealing. What compelled you write it? Was it cathartic?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: Recently, my four years of writing Blue Highways came to seem to me to have usefulness for other writers or people beginning to write, especially if they were taking up a long work. A big book. During my many months of laboring on Blue Highways, I progressively realized I was too often reinventing the compass. A year ago, I thought distilling my experience in making that book could save others from blind alleys and uselessly circuitous routes toward a literary destination, and thereby allow them to gain time more productively spent on invention of lively sentences and paragraphs and deepening their stories. Now that Writing Blue Highways is out, I think its notions about the emotional demands good writing exacts surpass the more technical aspects of creating a book.
ROBERT WOLF: You say that autobiography is impossible. "Memory," you write, "is a shadowed and warped glass." True, and that may have been part of the reason Goethe titled his autobiography, Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life. If you would not call Writing Blue Highways autobiographical, what would you call it?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: While Writing Blue Highways has a structural base of autobiography, the point of the book is not revelation of a self but presentations of what is necessary for the creation of anything--including things non-literary--the world has not before seen. The author, the protagonist in the story, serves only as a tool to explore the process of creation through a kind of synecdoche--the individual suggesting a whole. A microcosm pointing to a macrocosm.
ROBERT WOLF: It seems that during the writing of the first draft you asked yourself, " . . . what was the role of the narrator, and how did he differ from the actual traveler? Rereading the journal, I was slow to realize he was not me." That is, the traveler was not the man writing the book. Why was this realization important?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: To realize differences between the traveler and the narrator of the traveler's tale was to gain freedom to expand on the perceptions of the person who made the journey--to see and express his limitations and errors in ways that exceeded the grasp of the man who took the trip. It's also a question of honesty--in this case, a writer who is more articulate with a pen than with a tongue. And, to be sure, the writer was able to see further and deeper over four years than did the traveler over the three-month duration of his journey.
ROBERT WOLF: You made Writing Blue Highways a richly textured work, with multiple themes. You describe the many hours spent writing, your frustrations, the rejections, the tricks you devised to keep yourself writing, your relationship with your former wife and her reactions to the book, your descriptions of your own writing practices, and more. Did you write this book using a layering process as you did in Blue Highways, where the layers emerged one at a time, or did you have the weave in mind from the start?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: Absolutely--once I realized how layering worked and how crucial it is to depth in one's work. That awareness happened only after a good many months of banging away. It became yet more clear when I was writing my second book, PrairyErth.
ROBERT WOLF: You wrote, "Revising too early can be another form of procrastination, an avoidance of the day when you at last reach conclusion and have to evaluate the whole." Does this mean that you wrote your first draft of Blue Highways from beginning to end before revising any one segment? And if so, is that that is how you proceeded with subsequent drafts? Talk a bit about the process of revision.
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: I made some revisions during the first draft largely so I could show a few pages to editors in order to learn what the manuscript lacked. Those very early revisions tended more toward tinkering than toward substantial rewriting because I was ignorant of the many ways real revision can work. As I learned how to recast ideas and expression into what I hoped was stronger prose and richer ideas, rewriting became more pervasive, and--this is an important and--the recasting improved subsequent first drafts. That is to say, the dedicated rewriter can teach the writer how to write.
ROBERT WOLF: On page 86 you write that you are not a natural writer but a dogged one. Writing Blue Highways makes it clear that you certainly are dogged, capable of great perseverance. How many drafts did you write of Blue Highways? Thirteen? Fourteen?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: There were eight complete drafts of Blue Highways over four years. But I also made revisions during the lead-up to publication: the first with the copy editor (mostly style-book matters), a second on the printed galleys, and a third on the proofs. These late editings were almost entirely minor changes, less than nips and tucks. However, there were numerous passages in the early drafts I reworked several times within a particular chapter and do not count as a separate draft. The preamble to Blue Highways, for example, just over a hundred words, I rewrote twenty-five times before I could get it to do what I wanted it to do to open the book. In Writing Blue Highways there's a photograph of all the major drafts, a stack standing a meter high and weighing sixty pounds and containing about two million words, each word typed on a manual typewriter. It makes me shiver now to think of how many keystrokes that was.
ROBERT WOLF: Who are your examples of natural writers? What qualities do you find in them?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: I'm unacquainted with any "natural" writers, and I doubt I even understand, in this sense, the term "natural." Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare never blotted out a line, and I don't believe one bit of that.
ROBERT WOLF: At the end of your fourth chapter you write, "I began reading for sentences rather than for stories." At what point in the writing did this begin, and whose sentences appealed most to you? What are some of the qualities in the styles of your favorite writers?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: Reading in a way different from what I'd done for many years began within the first few months of writing Blue Highways. I noticed early that my reading, let's say, less than stellar prose deposited in my brain less then stellar expression. Poor writing taints a mind. We speak of "garbage in, garbage out," but we should also speak the more useful and positive antithesis: quality in, quality out. Several weeks after beginning the writing of Blue Highways, I made a point of keeping my reading--other than research materials--to books of excellent expression, and I focused not on their stories, but on their sentences, on ways the author constructed them. At that particular time, I found Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia (despite its later discovered fictions) a well-written book. Also important was the work of Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) and Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) to name just three then current books. And, just as now, I would read in the classics, from Faulkner to Homer.
ROBERT WOLF: By fall 1977 your life had come to a dead end. You had gone through a divorce, your position at a local college was cut due to downsizing, and you applied unsuccessfully for over 600 other teaching positions. "At age 38," you write, ". . . I was iced in by failed expectations and a cold logic suggesting I should expect no interior spring thaw."
Later you write, " . . . the crux of my failures lay not in egotism but in the more deadly egocentrism, in a me-centric universe. . . . . For a time, I thought I'd come to see this on my own, but as I began writing up the engagements with the people I'd met, I realized how their words . . . were shaping my thinking."
This seems to me the crux of your journey. Can you give some examples of this? Do you recall the impact specific people had on you?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: The 1978 journey presented in Blue Highways describes movement away from excessive self toward greater otherness, and the people who appear in the book were the instructors (although neither they nor I knew that at the time). Of those whom I met, the three most important toward movement away from egocentrism were the Trappist monk, Patrick Duffy; Kendrick Fritz, the Hopi pre-med student; and Alice Middleton, a retired school teacher. A reader who would compare what each has to say will find the best response to the impact others had on the traveler.
ROBERT WOLF: What are you writing now?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: This is a perceptive pairing of questions. I've just finished a novel--about which I don't yet want to talk about--other than to say the story is built upon the ancient and absolutely crucial struggle to control dominance of self in order to embrace an existence massively larger than our own tiny assemblage of fourteen-billion-years-old atoms. If that sounds highfalutin, let me tone it down by adding that it's a story of ghosts, fata morganas, witchery, disappearances, a maleficent ravine, deep sinkholes, everything hung on the question of what on earth is really happening.