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20 Questions: Pico Iyer

Photo© by Derek Shapton

The compassionate, prolific writer and traveler, Pico Iyer, talks with PopMatters 20 Questions, about the Dalai Lama, Benji, Keith Richards, and Paddington Bear.

The Open Road

Publisher: Knopf
Subtitle: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Author: Pico Iyer
Price: $24.00
Length: 288
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0307267601
US publication date: 2008-03

Pico Iyer is a lifelong traveler -- born to Indian parents in England, partly raised in California and long resident in Japan -- who has spent much of his time exploring the condition of global living, and the possibilities it opens up. His tales of adventures from North Korea to Easter Island are included in such books as Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, The Global Soul and, most recently, The Open Road, a record of more than 30 years of talks and travels with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Though he has not been asked -- yet -- to write Benji's autobiography (or even that of Paddington Bear), he has written liner notes for several Leonard Cohen albums. He writes here, to PopMatters 20 Questions, with an eye toward an invite to dinner at the Ritz with Keith Richards.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

My Life Without Me, one of the many remarkable movies brought to us by Sarah Polley, the radiant Canadian actress who has decided to throw herself into all those emotional places that most of us shy away from. By the fifth or sixth viewing, I was determined not to be moved by it; but yet again I failed to contain myself, so complex was the mix of vulnerability and strength, escapism and reality that Polley brought home to me. On the book front, What is the What by Dave Eggers, and the recent Dog Man by Martha Sherrill, take us so deeply into their foreign characters that soon their every heartbreak becomes ours.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I'd better deftly sidestep all the incriminating answers, and alight on Paddington Bear. Small, foreign, often to be found standing alone at a foreign train station with his suitcase, this near-contemporary has been my alter ego for almost 50 years: grubby, eccentric and given to doffing his hat. At the age of 18 I went all the way from England to Peru in search of such bears -- or their aunts -- and was told that none had been seen in the vicinity for quite a while.

3. The greatest album, ever?

The worst choice imaginable would be something from a sappy singer-songwriter in the dead days of the '70s, now routinely mocked for his decency and sincerity, yet how can I not choose Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne, which has chided and haunted and serenaded me now for more than 30 years. In his youth Browne seemed touched by a genius like no other -- a Mozart of contemporary relationships -- and saw breakdowns and separations on every side of him with a grown-up mind and an open heart. Other albums have been more stirring, more beautiful, more musical and more complex -- but I'm not sure any has traversed the distance between two people close together more rendingly than Browne's.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Oh no! Star Search, at most.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Silence. For more than 17 years now I've been retreating into a monastery four times a year, unplugging myself from every blinking device and cleaning my mind out in a blue stillness above the Pacific Ocean. I don't write, I don't go to services, I don't practice any meditation or yoga or mindfulness, but just the quiet and the spaciousness make everything around me look like Heaven. The brain shuts off, and the ideal food comes flooding in.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Once, while writing long pieces on world affairs for Time magazine, I slipped out of the office during my lunch-break and met Benji, star of stage and screen. More to the point, I shook his paw and even posed for a photo with the canine superstar, as he made a cameo appearance at a local record store. Upon returning to the office with my prized Polaroid, though, I was informed by a fact-checking colleague that I had met only the second, perhaps the third, Benji to appear in the eponymous movies, and that this Benij might even be a "she". Celebrity sightings are never what they seem.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Being forgettable.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Alas, those six unfortunate souls who have made their way through my books know that every one of them is about Emerson and Thoreau, and their dark counters, Melville and Emily Dickinson. Try as I might, I can't get their inspirations, their challenges and sentences and wisdom and questions, out of my head. Everything I write is written in their shadow and their light.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Days of Heaven, the transcendent American epic filmed by Terrence Malick in 1978. Who would have thought that the Great American Novel would in fact be a movie, and one that threaded together the Old Testament, Huck Finn, childhood, dancing classes, locusts, fires and strange archaic rites so hauntingly that, after 30 years, and more than 30 viewings, the film still takes me to a place that no other work has begun to touch? All the writing I've done has been a feeble, always failed effort to try to get even a piece of Malick down on the page.

10. Your hidden talents...?

I'd love to be considered an actor, but those who know me best know that the only part I can play (and not very convincingly) is myself.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Look for what lasts. I've been talking to the Dalai Lama (subject of my recent book The Open Road) since I was 17, and have absorbed more from him than I could possibly put down. But much of it comes down to just not being distracted by externals, changing surfaces, byproducts, and trying always to look to what's beneath them. The falling leaves, I've learned from him, speak for a season that in itself does not change so much.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

A copy of The Quiet American. Who could have guessed that a Bible could be so portable, so human, so romantic, so rending and so fallen?

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Whatever is torn, cheap and not worth thinking about.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

It would be hard to turn down Keith Richards, even if he managed to tear down the Ritz long before the appetizer course. Most of my other candidates -- Thomas Pynchon, Terrence Malick, Van Morrison -- probably appeal precisely because they'd never be seen at the Ritz.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Right here, right now, when I can do something useful that might make a life or two (even my own) marginally better, healthier or more fun.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Abjure all accretions and turn off the lights. Put on some music -- Leonard Cohen, say, perhaps his Various Positions -- and let your mind cool down. Soon you'll forget there's a word called "stress".

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Tea, of course -- the one stimulant and sedative that could make me feel at home on a mountaintop, in Easter Island, or even in the place where I spend most of my days, my room.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I've voted with my feet (as someone lucky enough to do his job anywhere), by choosing a two-room apartment in rural, suburban Japan, where I can more or less imagine myself off the map -- and forget all maps entirely (I don't even have a bicycle there). It could be city, it could be country, but nearly everywhere I've seen in Japan is so polished, so still and so full of a quiet shine that it hardly matters what you call it. It's all the same.

Photo© by Derek Shapton

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Who are you and what is our country? Where can I find it on the map? Or is it just somewhere in the soul, the imagination or the conscience? I think of myself as living so much outside borders or old categories that I choose as my leaders U2, the Dalai Lama, Vaclav Havel, Sigur Ros, Desmond Tutu, Barack Obama and the girl next door. By definition, in short, my leaders are the ones who think in terms larger, and more intimate, than any country. By definition, perhaps, my leader is one who'd never want to lead (only to listen).

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

A book on the autumn in Japan -- melancholy and radiance, changelessness and change, and how all of this might possibly connect to the 30 or so very elderly retired Japanese people with whom I play furious games of ping-pong every night (the youngest by 20 years, the tallest by several inches -- and the only foreigner -- I win a point once every full moon). Also, a book on Graham Greene, which is really about hauntedness, the people who live inside our heads, accompanying us everywhere (even if we've never met them), 'til we can't tell if they've scripted our lives, or we've just invaded theirs.

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