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OFF THE PAGE III - TETHERED TO THE FORTUNES OF WRITING

"I have lots of fears as a writer -- that what I write isn't good enough. A huge fear, because mostly, what I write and think about first time is rather poor, and has to be improved upon. I'm not sure if any writer is ever satisfied first time around, but I'm certainly not. So this demands nerves of steel; one has to think: 'it's terrible now, but hopefully one day it can be good.' Writing demands faith."

Kimberly Nichols interviews bestselling author Alain De Botton

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


"In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity."
   -- Marcel Proust quoted in De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life

At age 33, author Alain De Botton has already seen his work translated into 16 languages. His books are dissections of particular aspects of the human condition in fiction and non-fiction form. His works include the complex romances On Love and Kiss and Tell, and the dives into philosophy with How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations Of Philosophy. His most recent publishing success was The Art of Travel.

Interviewing De Botton is like chewing a piece of multi-flavored various-textured taffy.

3AM: Let's start with the Art of Travel. A friend of mine moved to Italy recently. She goes to school to learn Italian and her classmates are from various parts of the world. I think it is interesting to be in that dynamic. I think travel is a very miniature version of that dynamic. Why did you decide to write this book?

AD: I've never been a big traveller in the classic sense. I haven't climbed Everest etc. However, like most people in the developed world, I've done quite a bit of travelling as compared with previous generations. And it seemed to me that the process of travelling, though much described, isn't very analyzed. There are tons of guidebooks to tell you what to see and do in a place, but almost no books analyzing WHY we might want to go somewhere, what it does for us to go and so on. In short, there are not many books analyzing the psychology of travel -- and that was the starting point for the book.

3AM: What is the difference between learning about other cultures by, say, writing to a peer somewhere across the world and comprehensively learning about another's life experience through an internet connection, and actually being the physical traveller to learn about another cultural experience? What are the impacts of travel on personal psychology?

AD: I'd tend to be much more restricted than you in assessing the impact of the Internet in the area of cross-cultural experience. Yes, the Internet has made communication easier -- but understanding remains tricky. And there's something bland and same-y about the Internet -- everything fits on the screen and looks similar -- whereas real travel can lead to real differences and encounters with the weird and the wonderful. I think most of us travel because we're bored at home and we're bored because we tend not to notice things when we've been living somewhere too long. Travel is a way of re-igniting our senses and our interests. To use a horrible but useful term, we feel more alive.

3AM: You have been described by the press as a metaphysician. What about your writing do you think causes them to view you this way?

AD: I never knew I'd been described as a metaphysician: in the classic, philosophical sense, a metaphysician is someone who wants to build a philosophy of life explaining absolutely everything, including the functioning of the universe. This isn't my project at all. I'm not even a philosopher in the modern sense: I don't have a PhD in the subject. However, my interests are philosophical in the tradition of, let us say, an Emerson or a Montaigne. I'm interested in thinking deeply around certain topics of everyday life -- birth, love, work, and death. The big, but familiar concerns, which have all too often been abandoned as subjects of study by academics, and are simply dealt with by novelists or, in non-fiction, by journalists.

3AM: Why DO you think that the big philosophical questions of life have been abandoned? It seems like we want others to take care of unravelling our mysteries, and we in turn tend to rely on these summations in the long run for a sense of comfort. I'm sure many people, like myself, have been inspired by books like How Proust Can Change Your Life, but ten days later find ourselves losing the lustre of inspiration that was fresh in our minds at the close of a book. Those moments of inspiration are truly worth enough in themselves to make the impacts of a writer important and maybe that is why we can keep generating cycles of literature and thought without ever saying we've had our fill or that everything has been said. What do you hope to impart with your writing, beyond the processes that it takes your own psyche and system through in the writing?

AD: I'm familiar with the way that you can read a book and seem to agree with its conclusions, then ten days later, your life seems out of synch with everything you read and agreed with. That's why re-reading is important and also creating environments in which certain ideas you have sympathy with are given currency. The problem with much mass media is that it subtly forces us to abandon our thoughts in order to concentrate on things which we actually don't care that much about -- but are made to feel as if they were important. As for my ambitions with my writing, I'm just trying to make sense of the world for myself -- so as to reduce my levels of anxiety.

3AM: Philosophy has had a huge effect on the evolution of the concept of people living passion to passion well and thinking morally and effectively. It seems like there are many blueprints out there now for living well. A few years back Utne Reader published an article about Cultural Creatives evolving in the world and Richard Florida just published an excellent book on the Rise of the Creative Class about people creating more of their own lives to suit their selves. It seems like personal integrity produces a balance that creates peaceful co-existences. Both Consolations and Proust point to these same theories in earlier history. An obvious road to happiness, fruition, and why do you think people have such a hard time with philosophy?

AD: Personal integrity is of course enormously hard -- challenged on the one hand by economics (how can we pay for it?) and on the other hand, by our psychology (we are too messed up internally to put up with the demands of a balanced psychological life). Philosophy really gave up on the project of teaching us how to live in the early 19th century -- it started to pursue a more scientific, less humanistic goal; much to my regret. In my work, I look back to an earlier, Ancient Greek and Roman conception of philosophy as a guide to everyday life.

3AM: It seems that in your own writing, in a sense, you are taking up where you say these philosophers gave up. And in saying that you think we are too messed up internally to put up with the demands of a balanced psychological life, why will you continue to write and explore these particular topics?

AD: I'll continue to explore these topics so long as they interest me -- that is, so long as they trouble me. It's very useful to be troubled by things a lot if you want to write.

3AM: I am curious about your interest in Ancient Greek and Roman life. I am fascinated by it as well. I am particularly interested in the reliance on a variety of gods to worship and the ripeness of sex and also the intensity of the violence. When you say you are fascinated by these times, what are you specifically referring to? The philosophy of everyday life as seen through the eyes of Ancient Greeks is both very wise and very frightening in the best possible ways. It really embraces our psychology as a whole both our good and bad characteristics with respect and wonder. It seems like we have lost a lot of wonder for our shadow sides and I tend to think that causes some of our worst repression, character defects and sterility between human relations. What do you think?

AD: What you're talking about echoes some of the things Nietzsche valued in the ancient world -- he believed that the Greeks in particular were much better at handling the passions than we are, in modern language, that they didn't repress things the way we do. He admired the Dyonisiac festivals of Athens as a chance for everyone to let out their shadow sides. Fascinating stuff.

3AM: Has everything important been said or does the cycle of comprehension and re-interpretation actually create an evolution?

AD: I don't believe that everything has been said because the way that one says something is an integral part of what one is saying -- and there are an endless number of ways of recombining messages that might have been partially stated, but never combined in this way. It's like saying; has every dish been cooked in world history? And clearly the answer is no, bits of dishes have all been cooked, but there are always new ways of combining them.

3AM: Tell me about On Love. It was a beautiful dissection of relationship. What inspired this book?

AD: On Love was inspired by my severe confusion about relationships. I wanted -- through writing -- to sort out my thoughts on the subject. This motive is present in all my work: I am inspired to write either by a painful situation like love, or a very beautiful one (like the experience of landscape etc).

3AM: Having written On Love have you been able to walk through the interactions of relationship any differently or did it act as a piece to give you enough knowledge to go through the workings of relationship with more of a sense of acceptance of the cyclic nature of love?

AD: On Love definitely helped me to sort out one or two things -- and so helped my relationships. But it's of course a book that only looks at a miniscule section of the full range of things that goes on in a relationship -- so there's plenty more to write about, and to worry about.

3AM: Your characters are very emotionally naked by the end of your books. So instead of a metaphysician, you could very well be called an auto-physician, using your writing to work your own things out.

AD: I like the term auto-physician. Self-healing is definitely part of my project in writing. And if this helps anyone else along the way, then the pleasure is doubled.

3AM: Which reminds me of another trait of yours. Tell me about the diagrams and exhibits that you display in your work as a means of symbolizing with visuals, deluxe and complex concepts of emotional existence that we have.

I loved the diagram of Alice's mind in Kiss and Tell that you created around an elevator:

"Her mind could have been compared to a lift shaft connecting many floors, where the contents of one floor didn't necessarily negate those of another. Quite incompatible things might be happening at each layer, the lift simply shifted beneath floors without logical continuity."

AD: I've always been saddened by the lack of pictures in books. There are of course large illustrated coffee table books, but most ordinary books, fiction and non-fiction are devoid of any illustrations. I think I have a rather visual mind, in that I tend to SEE concepts in three-dimensional form. My urge to present diagrams etc is just a symptom of that. I also like to parallel texts and images to create interesting juxtapositions between them.

3AM: I wonder what a diagram of an interview would look like? Perhaps a head with the top half of the skull hinged on like a cap and different hats floating in the air above to choose from?

AD: That's a nice image; I think you should draw it.

3AM: Tell me a little about yourself. Your background . When did you know that you would write?

AD: I was born in Switzerland in 1969 and spent my first twelve years there speaking French. I then moved to England, to London, where I still live. I felt aware of a desire to 'be creative' from a young age but didn't focus my project on writing till my last year at university. I also toyed around with the idea of making films. Nowadays, I still dream of diversifying my interests -- and am looking into the idea of running a bookshop.

3AM: You were educated at Cambridge and were in your twenties when On Love was published in thirteen countries and became a finalist for the LA Times Book Award for Fiction. That must have felt like fruition to a young writer. Tell me about it.

AD: I was incredibly lucky and privileged to have my first book published in so many countries -- and it gave me the confidence to carry on. But of course, writing is a very scary and lonely thing to do; and I would love to be part of a wider community of thinkers, like in a university.

3AM: If you ran a bookshop what would be five books that you would have on stock at all times?

AD: At the front of my bookshop would be:

Stendhal, On Love
Montaigne, Essays
Schopenhauer, On the Wisdom of Life
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

3AM: You mention the great romantic philosophers and writers in the majority of your work. What are the things you get the most out of Descartes, Rosseau, Plato, and D.H. Lawrence?

AD: I am very attracted to sincerity in writing. One of the favorite things I ever read about one of my favorite authors, Stendhal, was Lytton Strachey's remark that he combined the emotional intensity of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl and the penetrating vision of a high court judge. That's definitely a combination I admire -- and aim for.

At the most basic level, using other thinkers in my work is a way to signal: we are not unique, what is happening to us has happened to others, and been a subject of reflection for others. This is a lovely thought for me.

3AM: What is your life like right now?

AD: My life is quite comfortable now, I'm reaching the end of a new book, which isn't a complete disaster. I've just moved into a new house, which is freshly painted and in a quiet part of town. I can't complain too much for now.

3AM: Do you spend much time researching or do you turn to life experiences for inspiration?

AD: My books proceed from a mixture of my own experience and research. But at their origin, there's always a personal issue. In that sense, my work is totally unacademic. It's motivated by feelings.

3AM: What are you currently working on?

AD: I'm currently finishing a book called Status Anxiety, which looks at our anxiety about our position in the social hierarchy; the theme of ambition etc. It's a topic that concerns so many of us; it felt interesting to tackle head on.

3AM: I know that America is definitely suffering from status anxiety but am not that aware of its grasp in Europe. Can you tell me a little about that?

AD: The United States and Europe are very similar in having a lot of status anxiety around. It comes from living in societies which are very turbulent economically, and yet which are also very unsympathetic to the idea of a failure. To fail economically is to be a 'loser', which no one wants to be. Hence the worry...

3AM: Your books have no problem selling. Your talent and your craft is obvious. So tell me about ego and fear and all those things that writers go through.

AD: I have lots of fears as a writer:

a) that what I write isn't good enough. A huge fear, because mostly, what I write and think about first time is rather poor, and has to be improved upon. I'm not sure if any writer is ever satisfied first time around, but I'm certainly not. So this demands nerves of steel; one has to think: 'it's terrible now, but hopefully one day it can be good.' Writing demands faith.

b) a worry that my work, even though it satisfies me, will be hated by others.

c) a hurt about the nasty things that some people write about my books. A fear of humiliation.

3AM: Do you write everyday?

AD: I try to write most days -- though often, I'm in a research mode, which will mean taking notes and reading more than proper writing.

3AM: Tell me a little bit about how writing has changed your day to day life?

AD: Writing imposes itself very much on day to day life. When things go well at the desk, I'm happy. When not, I'm inconsolable or anxious. My mood is totally tethered to the fortunes of my writing.







Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland in December 1969 and educated in Switzerland and England. He speaks French, German and English and now lives in London. He has written five books. His first novel, Essays in Love (entitled On Love in the US) was published in November 1993. His second novel, The Romantic Movement was published in September 1994. His third novel, Kiss and Tell was published in September 1995. His fourth book (and first non-fiction title), How Proust Can Change Your Life was published in April 1997 – and was a bestseller in the US and UK. The Consolations of Philosophy, was published in the UK and US in April 2000. He has made a television documentary for British television (Channel 4) which accompanies the book. The Art of Travel was published in the spring of 2002. Alain de Botton’s works have been published in twenty languages. He is currently at work on a book about social hierarchy in the West, Status Anxiety, to be published in the spring of 2004.


photo by Lisabel MacDonald











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