by Emily Howell
Michael Pearson is an American author who teaches at Old Dominion University and is currently serving as the interim director of the MFA program. He has authored seven books – a novel (Shohola Falls) and six books of nonfiction. His newest book, Reading Life: On Books, Memory and Travel, came out in March 2015.
Emily Howell: Do you remember the first thing you wrote? Was there a specific book that served as a catalyst for you—made you say to yourself ‘I want to be a writer’?
Michael Pearson: I can’t remember the first thing I wrote because, as a young boy, the line between what I wrote and what I read was blurred for me. That is, I dreamt so much about being a writer that I probably often imagined I did write those stories that I read. I do recall vividly my first great success as a writer. I was in 7th grade, and Brother Bruce, the principal of St. Philip Neri Elementary School, put my essay — a fictional account of my first babysitting gig (a lie: I never had such a job) — in the school glass showcase. I was an applauded, published author. I loved the feeling that my words meant something to somebody, that someone thought I had made a story worth his time, and I’ve been working for the last ½ century to get work in that showcase.
EH: I know this is a relatively useless question as the two go hand in hand, but I’m curious, would you consider yourself a writer or a reader first?
MP: It’s a fair question, but too hard to answer — sort of like someone saying, “Which of your three sons do you like the best?” Even if you could answer it, you never would. Or, better phrased perhaps, it’s a chicken or the egg question. And I don’t think anyone has ever parsed that one out convincingly.
EH: In your newest book, Reading Life: On Books, Memory and Travel, you revisit books that have influenced you and embark on a journey of self understanding, whereas in Imagined Places; Journeys in Literary America, you travel to the homes of influential writers to try to better understand them. It seems like you’ve done a ‘180’ of sorts; was this the plan all along? Did the idea for Reading Life evolve from Imagined Places?
MP: Yes, it’s a full circle, of sorts. My first book had me going out in the world to seek the books and writers I loved. My most recent book has seminal writers and books pushing me to discover places. In a way it’s the same idea in reverse.
EH: Place and the idea of home are themes you often explore in your writing, and Reading Life is no exception. Talk to me a little about this. What drives this interest?
MP: I wish I knew. It wasn’t a grand plan I began 25 years ago. It just evolved. It wasn’t me pursuing the idea, but the idea pursuing me, I believe. I see the pattern you mention, but I saw it after the fact, not before. Clearly, the idea of home and finding a place that I can see as a homeground is vital to me. Here is some cheap self-psychoanalysis: I spent many years growing up in the Bronx dreaming of escape to the wider world. So, I may have never been fully convinced that the Bronx was home — and I suspected that there was another truer place for me on this planet. I may very well still be looking for that place.
EH: Do you think people feel a similar connection to physical place as they do to the metaphysical place created by the books we love?
MP: For me, travel—new lands, and imaginative landscapes in books — worlds made of words — have always been synonymous.
EH: You’ve been in the Norfolk/VA Beach area for quite a while now. Clearly this is a place you’ve spent a lot of time, but it doesn’t typically come up in your writing. Why do you think that is?
MP: Maybe I need to step outside the boundaries of the known/the present to find a way of seeing the world. Maybe Tidewater feels transient to me because of so much human movement with the Navy and the military. There are many things I love about this area, many dear friends and lovely landscapes, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt that Tidewater is my permanent home.
EH: You read from the chapter in which you take your students on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As hilarious as this was, clearly it was trying at the time. There are also beautiful moments, like your relationship with the hantour driver in Egypt. Overall, despite these ups and downs, do you feel that your travels were enhanced by the preconceived expectations you’d placed upon them through their connection to literature? Or is there some amount of let down?
MP: The word travel is connected etymologically (and logically, I think) to the word travail. Travel involves hardship. If it didn’t, there would be little adventure in it and little dramatic or comic action in the narratives that come from it.
EH: As an educator, you obviously place value in student travel and studying abroad. How does traveling with students enhance your experience as a traveler?
MP: Writing is ultimately about seeing, and one of the best ways to strip away the cataracts is to change your view, and thus jolt your point of view in the process.
EH: I’ve heard you say that before—that writing is all about seeing…based on Reading Life I think you could also say writing is all about reading. Do you think you’ll continue to explore your relationship with books in your writing in the future?
MP: The short answer is YES. Right now I’m working on a novel — The Good Road — partly set in Ireland in the early 20thcentury. It’s a story about discovering lost identities, about family secrets, about blindness (literal and figurative), about the imagination and seeing. James Joyce and Finnegans Wake make an appearance in the story. So, again, the answer is yes.
EH: I’m curious, if you had to only read one author for the rest of your life, who would it be and why? Or if it’s any easier…only one book?
MP: Another impossible question. I could name 50 books. I’ll just pick one — Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I wish I had written that book.
EH: In closing, is there anything else you’d like to say about Reading Life? A shameless plug you’d like to give for the study abroad trip to Ireland you’re leading in the spring? General basketball smack talk?
MP: In order: buy it, join it, play it.
Michael Pearson is the author of six books — a novel and five works of nonfiction. He teaches courses in creative nonfiction and American literature at Old Dominion University.
Emily Howell is a photographer, teaching artist and MFA candidate in nonfiction at Old Dominion University. In her spare time she likes to travel, eat sushi and take long walks on the beach with her dog, Brody.