William Least Heat-Moon: Participatory Armchair Rivering
Dave Weich, Powells.com
Author of one cult-classic road novel, Blue Highways, and one remarkable portrait of a small county in the American Midwest, PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon stands as one of the most influential travel writers of our time. His latest achievement, River-Horse, the third book of a trilogy which has taken him more than twenty years to complete, documents the adventure of a coast to coast journey from Elizabeth, New Jersey to Astoria, Oregon, made entirely over the nation's waterways.
From Newark Bay to the mouth of the Columbia River, River-Horse is at once a contemporary update on the American landscape and a throwback to the explorations of past centuries, before planes, trains, and automobiles rendered a traveler's subordination to the whims of climate and topography largely obsolete. It's a modern travel book unlike any you've read before. You float across the country, you drift back in time.
"In everything I write," the author explained, "my primary wish is to make the reader feel that he or she is there. I want readers to feel that they are at my side. If I accomplish that, then I think I have a chance at getting some of the other things across, but if I fail in that, I'll probably fail in everything that really counts."
Least Heat-Moon: A good portion of my library came from Powell's, a good many things that helped me
research this book came from here - a lot of my Northwest section, but other things, too. The Americana pieces and a lot of neat things in the Rare Book Room. I found just one today.
Dave: What did you find?
Least Heat-Moon: A nineteenth century travel account. That's the main thing I look for. This one is by a Frenchman. I'd never seen it before.
Dave: Obviously, a lot of research went into River-Horse, but you're still reading nineteenth century travel accounts.
Least Heat-Moon: Travel accounts of America, regardless of what century, if I don't have them I buy them. I'm trying to collect a complete bibliography of traveling in this country - an impossible job, but that's the goal. I have twelve hundred books that are just about traveling in America.
Dave: In River-Horse, you write about spending four hours here. A number of people wrote in and said, "Four hours isn't enough!"
Least Heat-Moon: The first day I try to get about six hours in. Then my back starts getting tired, and I go over to Jake's and eat. I come back the next day - there's always something I couldn't quite get to - and I'm here for another two hours. So it's usually eight hours, which has kept me from seeing more of Portland than perhaps I should have, but I don't regret that.
Dave: One of the first things that struck me as I was reading was your fascination with naming. A reviewer in the New York Times Book Review, writing about Blue Highways, said, "He is a little too taken for my taste with picking a destination simply because it has a funny name." Even your own name, your pen name, is a creation.
Least Heat-Moon: Some of it is just the sheer love of eccentricism. But some names seem to be capsule histories of what's happened in a place, once you know why the name is there. I comment in River-Horse about the Anderson River in Indiana. That's got to be one of the most boring names for a river imaginable. Maybe Mr. or Mrs. Anderson lived there, but the name doesn't convey anything. There's no picture. When you get into a river named Bad River, immediately you wonder why it's called that. In what aspect is it bad? And some names are just plain funny. I think Humptulips, Washington is a humorous name. It's so unassuming, it seems almost self-mocking.
Dave: When I finish a book, I almost always go back and read the beginning again. It wasn't until I reread the beginning of River-Horse that I remembered that Pilotus, your co-pilot on the trip, was in reality more than one person. Seven people, actually. But you treat Pilotus as one character. Writing it, how did that evolve for you? How did you turn seven people into one coherent character without undermining the credibility or authenticity of the story?
Least Heat-Moon: It was a serious problem for me. When I got off the trip, it stopped me from writing for more than a year. I just couldn't figure out how to present these seven friends of mine honestly, showing what really happened between us and the river, without perhaps risking losing a friendship by offending or embarrassing them. It was a real problem. And I finally decided that I must give them some cover of anonymity. I'll give them one name, a name the reader would immediately know wasn't real.
At first, I tried to make them all male; in reality, Pilotus was six men and one woman. But I decided, No, I don't like that, it's more interesting if Pilotus is like something out of Virginia Woolf - we don't know what gender this person is. That was the hardest thing about it, just trying to avoid pronouns: hims and hers and hes and shes.
To me, it's far more important for the reader to know the truth of what happened with Pilotus than it is for the reader to be able to connect Pilotus with a particular name. They don't know the person anyway, so what difference does it make? But it is important for them to know that Pilotus was afraid, or Pilotus came near to tears. That was the truth I wanted to pursue. But also, the reader knows right from the beginning that Pilotus is seven people. The first page after the title page says it.
Where they shared characteristics, those are the things I shared and presented. Where they were radically different, those are the tales I left off. I tried to make Pilotus a unified character. You found it worked, so I'm glad.
Dave: It reminded me of the feeling I had the first time I read Lolita, going back to the beginning and realizing that Nabokov told you everything you needed to know in the opening pages, being so caught up in the machinations of the story that you completely forget.
Your first few books are very much about solitude in a lot of ways. Blue Highways is people-oriented, meeting people and talking to them, but you 're living and traveling in that van alone, whereas in River-Horse, you're never really alone for an extended period of time.
Least Heat-Moon: No, this is my book of companionship, and as you say, I'd never written one like that before. Initially, I even thought about making the trip alone, but I decided it was too much; I couldn't do it alone; I needed help. Then I thought, Why do I have to keep writing books in which I'm the sole traveler? Why can't there be someone else there, especially if that person can change from time to time? That idea became attractive to me.
There are people in River-Horse, but the portraits are not as extended, as developed, as they are in my other two books. The portrait that is extended and the characters whom I deal with at length in the book are the rivers, themselves. Yes, I'm personifying rivers, but there's no way you can be on a river for more than a day or so without starting to feel that the river is a living presence. It may not have a human face, but you feel the life.
The Ohio River is a great character. The Missouri, perhaps, is the greatest character of all. It's many characters, actually, as its flow and banks change.
Dave: It's been interesting reading reviews and commentary about the book. It has that strange ability to be popular reading without reducing itself to easily digestible portions. It takes time. What amazes me is how well the book conveys the feeling of the journey. What did you call the short stream-of-consciousness section? Armchair rivering . . .
Least Heat-Moon: Participatory armchair rivering.
Dave: Which was fantastic. But you're doing the same thing with more subtlety all along. When I think about what all those lazy miles must have been like, the fact that you've translated it into an interesting story that people would want to keep reading, that's almost the greatest accomplishment of the book. There must have been so much to sift out.
Least Heat-Moon: It was very tricky. To take the reader to the edge of tedium, which we often were faced with in the slow ascent - I mean, at times, the canoe was making only about a half-mile an hour! - to take them to the edge of boredom so they'll understand that, but not take them so far that they want to stop reading.
In everything I write, my primary wish is to make the reader feel that he or she is there. I want the reader to feel that you are at my side. If I accomplish that, then I think I have a chance at getting some of the other things across, but if I fail in that, I'll probably fail in everything that really counts.
So it was important to let the reader know that there are times when you're crossing this country by water when you better be prepared to keep from falling asleep. Given that water's moving underneath you all the time, inattention is the enemy. We couldn't afford to slip off, but it was really hard at times not to. The going would get easy and dull at the same time. That's the perfect equation for trouble.
Dave: It seemed like the nature of the trip changes at some point, maybe when you reach the Missouri. The narrative becomes filled with more Native American lore, which is relevant to the land you're passing, and environmental concerns come to the front a bit. Something switches when I read it. Did it feel that way to you?
Least Heat-Moon: I think two things happened. When we hit the Mississippi, suddenly we were no longer going downhill. There was some upstream voyaging in the eastern part of the country, but it was a small. Once we reached the Mississippi, from that point on, we were going uphill, really, all the way to the Continental Divide. And those first two rivers were both in flood. We were really starting to struggle with some fierce water coming against us. Going against a river instead of with it changes the nature of a journey, which, I would hope, would change the nature of the narrative about the journey.
But something else also happens when one gets into the Mississippi: the country becomes wilder. It's much less settled, even today. Not so apparent when you're on the highway, but when you get on those rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri feel like much wilder waters than the Ohio. The Ohio, first of all, it's not a free-flowing river anymore. In that sense, it's not a river at all; it's a series of dams and pools like the Snake or a good bit of the Columbia. When you go from a dammed pool to a reasonably free-flowing river, Whoa!
And the farther we went up the Missouri into the Great Plains, especially into the Dakotas, even white civilization begins falling away. The Indian presence is much more obvious there. We could pull ashore, and if anybody came down to the river, it wasn't the same kind of so-called river culture you'd meet in the east, the people who call themselves "river rats." These were Indians coming down; those are the people who use the river at that point. So we felt very much we were in Indian country once we left Omaha.
I think the book, in that way, reflects with some accuracy what the countryside was like.
Dave: Any amount of driving and preparation you might have done beforehand couldn't have entirely prepared you. How much of the trip was just plain surprising to you as you moved along?
Least Heat-Moon: Driving along the banks of the Ohio, you have a sense that you know what the river is like because you've seen those miles from the road, but being on the river is different. The Missouri, which was more than two-fifths of our voyage, you couldn't prepare for it because you can't drive along it except here and there, so it was strange country for us. Of all the rivers, it gave us the most surprises because it was the one I could prepare for least.
I don't think we got hit with anything I didn;t think might happen, but some things were more frightening than I thought they'd be. Lake Erie was six hours of hell. We looked out from our hotel window, and it didn't look bad. But once you're on it in a 22-foot boat, it's another world.
Dave: Almost every day, when you wake up, the first thing you think of is the weather, what the skies are doing, the clouds, the condition of the river.
Least Heat-Moon: All of my co-pilots, when they returned home, all of them conveyed a message to me which was the same - I like to cite one which was in the book: they just had no willingness to deal with pissants and nitwits. The river reduces everything to the basic question: Are you going to make it or are you not going to make it? Everything was so fundamental in a way that it isn't when we go about our daily lives off the river. It gave a clear purpose to existence: we just wanted to get through another day. In that way, it was a relief to be finished. But it did make it hard for us to come back; each of us had adjustment problems coming back.
This was an America we had never quite seen before. I'd never seen the country look like this, mile after mile. Emotionally, it's a different place to spend so many hours each day, bobbing on water. Even if you do see shorelines, it's not a land voyage, and you're very much aware of that.
Dave: Did the trip change your opinions? What did you learn?
Least Heat-Moon: I came away much more optimistic than I was before I left, in part because the country looks better from the rivers than it does from our highways. It's far less junky, fewer billboards and so forth. And I also came away feeling that when we dedicate ourselves to trying to make improvements - in any environmental situation, but in this case, in our waters - we can do it. The Clean Water Act of the 1970's has made tremendous improvements upon our waterways. The East River is not an unpleasant place to be anymore. The Ohio has big problems with litter, but even it, for the most part, was a beautiful waterway. Then places like the Salmon River: we just felt that was virtually pristine water; we were drinking from springs up above on the hillsides, drinking straight from the hillsides.
A lot of that is the gift of people working and trying to implement the Clean Water Act, lots of individual actions. I came away feeling that if we really turn our minds to something, we really can make a difference. I don't think, beforehand, I was feeling quite so good about that.
Dave: I hadn't read PrairyErth until recently. I was surprised how funny it is. The scene where you're sitting in the van, hiding in there for twelve hours with a box of Fig Newtons, a deep supply of coffee, and a pencil, just watching what happens outside - and virtually nothing happens, of course, because you're in Cedar Point, Kansas. That whole experience must have been completely different, writing a book that was so focused, grounded in one place, rather than documenting a trip.
Least Heat-Moon: I think the two books are just about as different as one writer could produce, given that I'm working in the same format - that is, nonfiction, and specifically, travel. I do think PrairyErth is a travel book, albeit in a small place. Otherwise, other than maybe stylistic considerations and concerns I address, they seem like books by two different people. Or certainly a person attempting to do two different things.
I think most travel writers are attempting to penetrate the landscape. PrairyErth is an attempt, almost literally, to get inside the land, itself. There's that one scene in there in which I tried to look down a gas well that was so deep it went down to rocks that were a billion years old. I wanted to see, in a sense, the basement of that prairie. In this story, the depth is of another sort; I'm trying to probe into the depth, or the nature, of rivers. But they're very different books.
Dave: Was that a conscious decision? How far along were you in your conception of River-Horse as you were finishing PrairyErth?
Least Heat-Moon: When I finished the actual writing, it wasn't there at all, although the ideas for all three of my books all came about, the seed for them, at least, together - I think it was in 1974. They all came about from studying road maps, trying to see what things I could learn from maps. As I say in that book, I read maps maybe the way some people do holy writ: I read it again and again, the same map, looking for new discoveries, and I'm always surprised every time I look there's something there I hadn't noticed before or I see it in a different way. The three books came out of that same Rand McNally road atlas. Best book purchase I ever made, I guess.
Dave: In River-Horse, then also in the Afterword to the new edition of Blue Highways, you mention working on a novel.
Least Heat-Moon: Well, I haven't begun anything yet. I'm not sure that I'm going to turn to fiction, but I think there's a good chance I might. I need to make a change at this point; I need to do something a little different. How different it's going to be from the kind of nonfiction that I write, I don't know, but it seems to me it's not going to be as big a change as some people think.
Like so many people in the New Journalism, I'm using techniques I learned from fiction writers: plot, character, certainly setting galore. Those things will be similar; it's just that certain other issues will become more prominent. The big thing will be not having the plot already laid out for me simply because it's what happened; the big thing will be using the imagination to find the plot that might happen. In terms of writing character and setting, I think it will be a continuation of what I'm doing now. But I must say, it's enough of a difference that I'm a little intimidated by it.
Dave: I'd imagine you were intimidated by River-Horse before you began.
Least Heat-Moon: I was intimidated by the voyage, yes. I'd wanted to make a trip like that since 1991. I sold the idea for the book to Houghton Mifflin when I was in Seattle on the book tour for PrairyErth. I said I'd do a nonfiction book about water. One of the possibilities was to do a make a journey, or several journeys, on water. The one I really wanted to do was coast-to-coast, but I thought I couldn't do it, it was too hard. I don't have it in me to do that. It took about three and a half years to make up my mind that that was the one I had to do to get to some of these issues I wanted to talk about. It was the most intimidating undertaking I've ever made.
Dave: How long did it take you to write the book after the trip was finished?
Least Heat-Moon: I wrote the first draft of this book faster than either of the other two. It took just about two years to do it. The others took about four. But what that meant was I re-wrote River-Horse ten times; I re-wrote the others just eight.
Dave: I thought it was great that you included some of the original logbook entries. They provide context; a reader can see where the narrative started. You talk about someday writing fiction. Everything from turning Pilotus into one consistent character to the way you present the boat - the boat is as big a character as anyone or anything in the story - that, in itself, is storytelling; that's novelization.
Who are the fiction writers you admire?
Least Heat-Moon: In terms of being influenced for a good number of years, William Faulkner and James Agee. I went through a Hemingway period, but that didn't last very long. I was quite young.
But in terms of influencing River-Horse, I felt much closer to nineteenth century river travelers. I've even attempted to give more of a nineteenth century cast to the style of the book because that was a time when we, as Americans, were really in touch with our waterways. It was the great American river century, at least in white terms. So I thought that seemed appropriate.
Also, the form of the book is a logbook - the subtitle is The Logbook of a Boat Across America - so I tried to build the form of the book around that of nineteenth century river travel.
Dave: The book seems more environmentally conscious than your past work. Maybe not more than PrairyErth, but in a different way. Maybe just more up front.
Least Heat-Moon: Issue oriented, yes, and more clear on my positions. Particularly on issues that affect the west: The Grazing Act, The Mining Act, The Clean-Water Act, though that one affects us all. And as you know, the book has, at the end, a section called "If You Want To Help." I picked out six groups that deal with issues that come up in River-Horse with the idea that if somebody wants to go beyond just reading about these issues, if somebody wants to do something, here are some addresses and phone numbers. In that way, I wanted to River-Horse to be a kind of service book to help along some of these environmental causes that have so much to do with the quality of life we're going to face in the next century.
Dave interviewed William Least Heat-Moon prior to his appearance at Powell's City of Books on November 16, 1999.