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Interview: February 2009

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An ice cream man. I loved the idea that I could drive around in a truck and eat ice cream all day.

When did you first start writing?
When I was nine, I folded stacks of paper widthwise, stapled the crease to bind it into book-form, and then drew pictures with captions that told a story. I sold the books to my classmates for twenty-five cents apiece, earning money for video games.

Why do you write?
Because it’s fun. I enjoy it. It’s time well spent. For me it makes life more meaningful. Besides, when I don’t, I start to feel anxious. I’m not sure why that happens. But it does.

If you were a full-time writer, how would your life change? Would you like to have a writing career?
As far as I’m concerned, I already am a full-time writer. I write two to three hours a day, every day, and have been for a long time. I relish writing, and reading too.

Regarding a writing career, if I ever achieve financial stability from what I write, I think I’ll continue teaching. I like teaching. It gives me direct contact with real people while writing involves imaginary people. If I reach the age of 80, I want to look back on my life and remember concrete experiences. I think that’s why I write only two or three hours a day. So I’ll have time for other things. I never want writing, or anything for that matter, to dominate my life to the point where I lock myself in a room for ten to twelve hours a day, slaving over an obsession. Even when I have the whole day free, reading and writing occupies maybe five or six hours of my time, and then I take walks, play the harmonica, or just sit around and think about things.

Of all your stories and books, which is your favorite?
The Cosmonaut. It’s a book about a caveman.

Why did you write a book about a caveman?
Because I’m as confused as a caveman would be if he was frozen in time and revived in the present day. I’m in a fog, wandering around in a blur half the time. Sirens in the night, horns in the morning, tax forms, social security and license plate numbers, passwords, codes, receipts, health insurance, identity fraud, terrorists, telephone wires, antennae, electric bills, computer viruses and everything else involved with surviving in the 21st century. Heaven forbid if you lose your cell phone and all the problems that can cause.

Look what I have in my pockets. Keys, a pen, some folded pieces of paper, a tissue, my wallet. Inside that there’s cash, coins, credit cards. Here’s my California driver’s license. It expires soon. I’m going to have to deal with that.

So the protagonist in The Cosmonaut is me and that book is my refuge. I belong in that world, running from a tiger, climbing a mountain, always one step ahead of death.

How did you come to write the book?
The idea about a caveman writing on the walls of his cave and what he wrote being discovered and translated 300,000 years later came to me in 1997 when I was 26. I worked on it for about three months but, being overwhelmed with other writing projects, I set it aside. Over the years, while working on other ideas, I took notes whenever I had something that related to it. I always anticipated the day I’d finish the story. From concept to completion it took me over a decade.

What were the main challenges involved with writing it?
The main one, because the story takes place 300,000 years ago, was being limited with what words and terminology I could use, and also with how to indicate time and distance. Saying minutes and miles seemed inappropriate. Also, because the story’s simple, I wanted the writing to reflect that.

You sometimes talk about ‘a philosophy of hope’. Is that from The Cosmonaut?
Well, no, it’s not exactly from The Cosmonaut but the idea is in there.

What’s the idea?
The world is riddled with worries: global warming, overpopulation, air and water pollution, famine, AIDS, terrorism, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, and other doomsday alerts. It’s difficult to live your daily life without fearing for the future. That’s not what the book’s about but the idea is that, if you focus on the present, the future takes care of itself. Like the protagonist in the story, well, you can learn what he learns.

What does he learn?
He learns a lot of things and one of them, I think, is this idea that it’s important to live your life as it’s happening. You know, ‘seize the day’.

Are you saying we shouldn’t be worried about global warming or AIDS?
No. I’m saying you should accept life for what it is, and accepting life means accepting death, because that’s part of life. Tragedy too. Accepting it doesn’t necessarily mean being idle and allowing catastrophes to happen but it does mean being at peace with things. Whatever your situation, no matter how horrible, you can choose to see it as beautiful or ugly, good or evil, but it’s both. I’m not saying it’s easy to be optimistic in the face of adversity but it never hurts to try.

What happens when dreams die?
Do dreams die? Or are they, in the words of Langston Hughes, deferred? Why would a dream die? Did the dreamer give up on it?

What about a child who wants to grow up to be a professional athlete and then at the age of 20 or 30 has to face the fact that he or she wasn’t good enough?
Sometimes we want things that aren’t right for us, like a child who gorges on chocolate or a smoker who smokes fifty cigarettes a day, and when the universe tries to nudge us onto a healthier path, we get bent out of shape and lament because we want what the ego wants. But if you wake up to the real world, you’ll find yourself in a place of infinite possibilities. Dreams are in the air, everywhere, but you have to constantly reevaluate them because you’re changing all the time, and that means concentrating on who you are now, not who you wished you would have grown up to be. Likewise, everything is in a constant state of flux so you have to consider that too.

To the grown-up child who wanted to be a professional athlete, I’d say, “Your dream life is now and you’re missing it because you’re focusing on what didn’t happen instead of what did. Meanwhile, a dream is trying to realize itself through you but, because you’re focused on the old one, you’re missing it.

Isn’t it easier for you to say so? After all, you’ve written your book. Your dream came true.
Has it? To tell you the truth, my dream’s just beginning. It’s always beginning, and ending too. From an ice cream man to an astronaut, to a teacher, a storyteller, my dream evolves and I flow with it. Meanwhile, I have many dreams to realize and writing this book is only part of the process.

What makes you think ‘a philosophy of hope’ will work for everyone?
I don’t think it’ll work for everyone. Nothing works for everyone. I only know that it works for me. Anyway, people have to decide for themselves. You choose what does and doesn’t work for you. Ideally, if only one iota of something I say or write affects someone in a positive way, hallelujah.

When did you decide to be a writer?
I didn’t decide. I just realized I was one.

When did that happen?
In 1994, I was in Egypt. I was in the back of a pick-up truck, riding along the coast of the Red Sea to where I was staying in a village called Dahab. I remember it was hot and I was tired. I’d been to a coral reef called the Blue Hole and had spent half the day swimming in the sea and exploring the reef. Anyway, I was in the truck, not thinking about anything, when suddenly a poem appeared, all at once it was there in its entirety.

When I got back to my bungalow I opened my notebook and while writing the poem down, I could hardly write fast enough to keep up with the words. It was a mystical experience and nothing since has ever made me feel the same way.

Where does your inspiration come from?
Who knows? Maybe it’s always there and I just have to tune into it. When I don’t write it’s like there’s a river inside me with a dam obstructing its flow. I feel the water backing up and the pressure building. Writing’s a release.

When, where and how do you write?
Any and everywhere. I keep a pen and folded piece of paper in my pocket so I can jot down ideas and even sometimes sentences or paragraphs wherever I am: driving, riding on a bus or the subway, walking down the street, eating in a restaurant.

Most often, I write at home and, because my work schedule is different every day, the hours vary. The first thing I do is empty my pockets and take off my shoes or sandals. I usually sit in a particular place, which is currently on my couch in the living room of my apartment in Rome. For some reason I feel the most at ease in that spot. I like to have my feet up, supported by a leg rest or a chair. I often write with music, classical or jazz because words distract me. Also, I tend to listen to the same song or sequence of songs as I begin writing each day. Writing The Cosmonaut, I listened to Beethoven’s 5th almost 200 times. I also listened to The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi and Mozart’s 40th.

Do you have any advice to writers?
Write everyday. Be receptive to everything and everyone around you. Use strong verbs. Write with the senses. Show more. Tell less. Read as much as possible, especially the writers you’d like to emulate.

Think of writing as digging a hole. Everyday you dig deeper and though usually you just find dirt, sometimes you unearth a jewel and stash it away. As the hole deepens, you find more and more precious stones and that’s when you know, as long as you keep digging, you’ll eventually amass a chest full of treasure.

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