a conversation with Pico Iyer      
photograph of Pico Iyer


Bold Type: : Thanks in advance for agreeing to talk to me via email about your new novel, Abandon. A quick disclosure - many of my first questions are about Camilla. I'm intrigued - I must understand more about her! I hope you don't mind the close focus for a little while.

Did you have any hesitations while writing about Camilla's characteristics or personality? I definitely felt her to be a very challenging character to be confronted with.

Pico Iyer: In some ways, Camilla is seen throughout the book through John's (very arrogant and often unperceiving) eyes, and in some ways her unfolding has less to do with her than with John's very gradual sense that she is far greater than his tiny, tidy notions of her, and that she in fact knows more about almost everything than he does.

It was hard for me to try to create a character who was so lost and fearful and without direction, and who hid her fear behind what can seem like self-absorption or manipulation; and yet, in honor of the Sufi notion that transformation can come through the least likely of sources (as it did with Rumi himself), I wanted to choose an outwardly unappealing character who, in fact, gradually shows herself to have more light and more strength--and a much more mysterious self--than we (and John) first imagine. Of course in some respects Camilla stands for California; but she is a California that is made up of other places, and a California that has a hidden beauty that it takes a long time to awaken, and even to discern, beneath all the confusion and the drift.

I often wished I had chosen a more attractive and commanding figure--more like Martine, even, and her sister; and yet, though the story is set so close to Hollywood, I wanted deliberately to sidestep the Hollywood caricatures, and to show someone who is genuinely lost (and yet genuinely rich with something underneath). My hope is that many readers will begin by recoiling from Camilla--and not understanding why John would see anything in her--and then, as the book goes on, come to be more and more intrigued, and even taken, with her. Where the English sisters in the book seem utterly on top of things, and are at heart quite vulnerable, the American ones look lost or vague, and may be less so than we think.

BT: As a young American woman, I had a pretty violent reaction toward Camilla. Did you ever stop and consider how her real-life contemporaries might feel about her? I speak mostly about her helpless, dependent qualities, which are often used in literature (some would say, stereotypically) about women. Or, did you want that to be a challenge for your readers?

PI: I know that female readers in particular have a strong and often violent reaction to someone who seems so lost (or so much a projection of certain male prejudices). The copy-editor who went over the book, line by line, was actually moved to write in horror in the margins about Camilla's character (or her depiction), and one of the people to whom my editor sent the book in galleys, started writing over the text, when Camilla was around, "I hate her. I hate her."

Again, my sense is that this is how a weak, defensive, rather buttoned-up Englishman perceives California and the people of California, projecting his own loneliness and uncertainty upon them. And it was important to me, in deference to the Sufi story that I cite at the beginning, to have a liberating figure, and a mystery, who at first glance seemed so unprepossessing. I was aware that I was flirting with stereotype by making her blonde, and an actress, and so much like the Californian girl of myth; and yet part of my point was that beneath and behind the stereoype, and the masks behind which we all hide, is something much more substantial and interesting.

To me the the important thing about the book is that, at the outset, John is always in the driver's seat, as they go up into the hills, and John imagines that he is the one in control, taking care of this broken, fearful woman. Exactly halfway through, Camilla starts taking him places--to the dervishes and the desert--and suddenly it is she who is doing the driving, even as we, and he, begin to realize that she may know at least as much about Islam and Iran as he does. And then, in the end, it is both of them who are at the mercy of someone else, small and anonymous, in the community of an Iranian bus, forced to defer to forces far greater than themselves (and forced out of their mutual self-absorption). And by then we have seen that Camilla is the one who knows Iran, who truly understands the Sufis, who indeed has incarnated their spirit sufficiently to write the poems that John has long been seeking--even as John, in his typical male way, keeps lecturing her about the meaning of Islam, and turning his head to his desk to learn about Sufism when its real secrets and beauties are standing by his side.

In some ways it was more of a challenge for me to create a central male character who was so defensive and self-deluding, and determined to hide behind his books (though on the surface he seems more together than does Camilla).

BT: Are we meant to believe that all of Camilla's "issues" - sorry about the trite psycho-babble - really stem from her relationship with her mother? Certainly, at the end of the novel, we are led to believe thather issues don't stem so much from that as much as all the things she didn't know (or realize) about her father's ancestry. Or, are we to believe that she is, in some way, responsible for keeping herself in a static state of despair and unhappiness?

PI: I think Camilla is hiding from the better and truer--the stronger-part of herself, as John is, too (though he needs to see her and her confusions to realize the deeper confusions in himself). Like many of us, she is surrounded, perhaps encircled, by fear and the longing for love--she yearns to abandon herself, to let go of herself and all her concerns, and yet fears that she will end up being abandoned if she does.

To me the pop psychology she uses is her main defense--she throws around terms and external forces (like her mother) as a way to hide from the real causes of her uncertainties. The main villains in the book, to state the obvious perhaps, are the academy and psychology: one which encourages John to reduce the world into formulae and dry sentences, the other which allows Camilla to reduce the self into second-hand terms and received ideas. Camilla's tendency to use psychological terms I see as a tendency to try to reduce mystery into easily categorized formulations or cliches, which the book regards as the greatest evil (since it is in effect a movement into mystery, and the more it goes on, the less we can be sure of. The book starts in the bright daylight of California, and ends in the darkness of Iran).

So when I include Sefadhi's pamphlet about therapy and the way it stands in opposition to God, I'm hoping to suggest that, to someone from an older world at least, psychology is a secular attempt to make up for the absence of God, and a way to try to explain and explain away all the things of the world that in fact lie far beyond our understanding. In his view of things--the Sufi view--everything is more mysterious than we can grasp, and everything has a reason, even if it is not apprehensible to us. Psychology is a way of placing Band-Aids on the dark.

BT: Camilla is fond of saying "thank you" to John for the smallest of things - things that people wouldn't normally thank each other for. In fact, John himself begins to pick up this habit. Why did you choose to make that a feature of their relationship?

PI: For two reasons: one, that Camilla is painfully unsure of herself, and grateful for the smallest thing, as you say. She is so fearful that she is convinced that anyone who really gets to know her will run away: a sad condition, but one that I have met here in California (when I wrote a romance set in Japan, the main chracter was very sure of herself, and in some ways an unstoppable force). Camilla is always tiptoing across nails, and has worked her way into a vicious cycle whereby her fear makes her flighty, and her flightiness brings about the very things she fears. The only way she can break through this pattern (and the only way John can break through his cerebral circlings) is to let go and give herself up to the unknown, and even the feared (in this case, Iran).

The other reason was just to show some element of Old World courtesy, or formality--reflecting John's own--to suggest, from the outset, that this typical Californian woman, as she seems to John (and maybe to us), has in fact something different, and a much more ceremonial way of doing things, hiding inside her.

BT: (You probably have guessed this by now...) I definitely found Camilla frustrating at many points in the book. But mostly, I was fascinated by how John could put up with her! Did you find that a challenging part of the plot to construct and write about in a realistic manner? What do you think we are to learn about John through his willingness to deal with Camilla's eccentricities? Is it simply a function of their love for one another?

PI: Be assured, you're not alone! Many or most readers can't understand why John keeps opening the door to her. And yet opening the door is the key act in this book, and what Sufism, or coming to California mean to me. John's come to California for two reasons--to learn about mysticism and to learn to be more open than he would be in England--and even as he hides behind his old habits, his routine, a part of him senses, I think, that if he's ever going to get beyond or out of himself, he has to open up a little; has, in fact, to open up to what he otherwise longs to flee from. This is why I have him half-drawn to, and half-reecoiling, from this romantic mystery who appears in his life (Camilla); his instinct, like hers, is to hide and to flee, and yet something in him thinks that if he hangs on, if he gives her a chance, something amazing might come out (as it does).

He's not quite a lost cause--much like her; and so, for all his guardedness and self-enclosure, he has a small chink of longing or openness, which is what Camilla plays on and represents (and again, this would be too easy if she were an obviously irresistible or commanding figure).

Besides, he spends all his time reading those stories of Rumi and transformation through the "hidden liberator," and a very small part of him intuits what is obvious (I hope!) to the reader, which is that Camilla can free and shake him up if only he gives her the chance.

BT: The far majority of John and Camilla's conversations are purposefully euphemistic and vague. Why? Was it meant to be off-putting (keep readers from being too comfortable themselves)? Or, was it a device meant to draw a reader deeper into their connection?

PI: An important part and point of the book was to show California not as a place of sunshine, the place we see in all the movies, but as a place of fog, of shadows and night. As a place where people don't know where they're going, and can't even make out the landscape in front of them. So I wanted John and Camilla to be lost in this other world, perhaps--the mist of the mountains, as opposed to the noise and harsh clarity of the freeways--and I wanted them to be nosing through the mist in their relations. That's one reason why everything that happens between them--their sudden coming together, their frequent break-ups--is so abrupt and unexplained. My sense of life is that things don't have dramatic reasons (or tidy conclusions); that we suddenly draw closer to someone, or away, not because of any particular circumstance, but for reasons we can't understand. The book is a journey into mystery, and what confounds or surprises us (where non-fiction, which is what I've mostly written before, is a journey into clarity, into understanding and knowledge).

And, as you say, I did want to keep the reader off-balance, as the characters were. Things in life, in my experience, rarely go smoothly unless we tell ourselves we're on top of things (in which case shock soon teaches us otherwise).

BT: Who are Nigel and Arabella?

PI: They are unimportant charcters from John's past who stand only for the world he's left behind him. They belong to the world of comfortable England, of Martine and Dominique, that he's gone to California to put behind him; and, of course, they speak with the voice (which is partially his voice) of his past, always challenging and questioning the openness and vagueness that seems to be his since he went to California.

BT: The idea and feeling of "safety" is central to the book. How did you envision the idea of safety working together with (or perhaps contradicting?) the notion of abandon?

PI: Safety to me is always the ultimate danger, and illusion. When we think we are most safe, we are most leaving ourselves open to being vulnerable. At the same time, safety is what we long for when we're scared (when I was trying to sum up the book on an L.A. radio station some time ago, as guest deejay, I played Jewel's song, "In the Absence of Fear"). We crave the safety, often, that in fact goes most against our higher nature and our deeper needs.

So in this book, as you suggest, both characters have to come out of hiding, and commit themselves to the unknown, and the frightening: John has to do what he is most apprehensive of doing--give himself over to a woman who herself seems fairly unstable--and Camilla has to do what she most fears, travel into the unknown, and indeed into the Iran she's always fled. We get truly anchored only when we let go of all safety props, the book is trying to suggest; as long as we cling to shore, as these two characters do, we're sure never to be transformed and never to move into anything better or more transcendent.

One of the important lines towards the end of the book is the one which says that Camilla (and, of course, John, too) has stepped into her fear as a way finally to walk through it.

BT: I read in the press kit for Abandon that this book began for you with a single idea - of abandon - that you wanted to explore. How did that come about?

PI:As someone of Hindu origin, I felt I ought to learn something about Islam, the Other that so many of my forefathers have fought against or demonized. And one way to translate "Islam," which is often rendered as "submission," or even "surrender," is "abandon." And, having written so much non-fiction, which is about order, and making sense of things--traveling within the known--there was clearly an impulse in me towards writing about things I couldn't understand, traveling, as the book repeatedly says, from darkness into deeper darkness. I wanted to let go myself of some of the safety posts and bearings of non-fiction. Being in love, being in a foreign place (as I've often written in the context of travel) are exhilarating precisely because we don't know where we are, we haven't got our bearings and we don't know where we're going.

I saw an exhibition of Moghul miniatures in Kobe, Japan in December 1993, and, like many of us, I was deeply moved by the sheer aesthetic marvel and beauty of the piece. But I didn't know--and still don't--how much its beauty was just an artist's depiction of the world, and how much it was a believer's urrender and offering to something greater than himself. For those of us who wall ourselves in with assumptions and assurance we know the world, the best thing, I suspect, is to give ourselves over to what lies beyond our reckoning and grasp.

BT: I have to admit - I've been a fan of yours since you wrote a back page editorial on Silence for Time many years ago. Do you remember it? It was such a fantastic, skillful essay. Obviously, now, I've just finished a work of your fiction. What are your main challenges when writing fiction? How about when writing nonfiction?

PI:Thank you for the kind words: the piece I wrote on Silence (which Time was wise enough to publish the week of Bill Clinton's first inauguration, when there was so much cacophony in the air) came out of the many weeks and months I spend each year in a Benedictine monastery in California. And that was the very same impetus out of which this book came. As you no doubt saw, silence is where these two jangled lovers come together; words are where the friction begins. As long as they're being quiet together, there's a real sense of communion; as long as they're talking, they're divided and at odds. Camilla frequently says, almost mockingly, that John can use his words for any purposes he likes, that they're a form of manipulation with him; and John often says that so long as they're not talking, they're as one.

For me, non-fiction is about going out into the unknown and trying to make it known; to make sense of it, and to make peace with it. Fiction, at least in this case, is about going out into the desert, and not knowing what will come next. In non-fiction, the most important thing is clarity; in fiction it is surprise.

Because I've done a lot of non-fiction in the past--I know my tricks and have exhausted my limited repertoire in a way--and because I am a traveler at heart even when I never leave my room, I am drawn to the challenge and difficulty, the unfamiliar terrain of fiction.

BT: I imagine that a lot of people - including reviewers - probably dwell on the juxtaposition between the West and Iran in this book -especially since you had the unconscious canniness to write a novel on the subject before the current state of world affairs. Obviously, John's studies propel most of the action in the book. But how much of the book do you feel is particular to the specific cultures? How much to human nature?

PI: That's a lovely question. And, just as you suggest, the heart of the book is precisely what exists outside time and place: those timeless moments when either or both of the characters is communing with one another, with the Absolute, with something eternal and changeless. My feeling is that at the end of our lives what we will remember and cherish has little to do with resume or career or business-cards; and everything to do with those moments, in travel or love or worship, when we stumble upon Eternity, as a New Ager might say, and are taken out of the temporal and fallen. Those moments that stand out of time, at least.

At the same time, the official public framework of this often secret and hidden book is the dialogue between Islam and America, and, more generally, between the older cultures of the world (Japan and India, for example) and the new. Between past tense and future tense, and between those classical cultures grounded in family and tradition and community and faith and those (California pre-eminently) rooted in the floating, the unknown, a freedom from history and settled faith. This wasn't really an unconscious thing so much as the result of my travels to many older countries, and my going back and forth between Japan and California, Yemen and California, Syria and California, and seeing, well before September 11th, that a fundamental clash of values--and romance--was dividing the globe as a whole. I wanted to spin out a private, very private, love story, but in the context of a much larger conflict and romance.

That's why there are so many lectures and academic papers and pamphlets and clippings in the book, offering the drumbeat of the larger dialogue of civilizations.

BT: The scenes when John and Camilla visit New Mexico are particularly evocative. Did those scenes grow out of your own experience visiting the Benedictine retreat in Santa Barbara? (Again: information gleaned from the press kit!) If not, what was the motivation? I felt those pages to be particularly lyrical, true, and absorbing.

PI: Good; they're among my favorites, too. And they do come out of my extended stays in a Bendictine monastery (not, in fact, near Santa Barbara, but up the California coast a little), though, to protect the sanctuary's privacy, I transplanted the mood to a completely made-up place in the New Mexico desert (the same way I made up an Iran I've never been to, made up an academic scene I haven't witnessed in twenty years or more, made up the main characters).

The monastery is to me the place, almost the first place--an extended, sacred version of the empty abandoned house--where John and Camilla can step into a clearing, out from their defenses, and step into their better, less worldly selves. It is where they are most one, even though it is also therefore the place where John, seeing things clearly, is most convinced they can't be together (as he looks at Camilla at her most golden and unfallen, asleep). It serves as the prelude to the trip to Iran, as a place where they are brought together by foreignness, and by some larger sacred roof, and so get an inkling of what it is to be joined in something outside, and far greater than, themselves. I suppose it's the secret heart of the book: "starlight and silence."

BT: Last, but not least: what's next?

PI: I have a book, already finished, about travels into the poorest countries of the world, and, not coincidentally, into the subconscious or into different states of mind. A travel-book of sorts that tries to challenge or expand our sense of what travel and travel-writing are about. So although it describes Tibet and Bolivia and Haiti and Yemen and Cambodia and Ethiopia and Laos, it sees them also as portals to odd states of being that we never ordinarily meet at home (and suggests that we often stumble upon things when we're lost, or 12,000 feet up, light-headed, jetlagged and disoriented).

A few years ago I made a conscious attempt to visit all the countries covered by the Department of Treasury's "Trading with the Enemy" list, figuring that North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam were places I would never really hear or learn about at home in California. This time, in the late Nineties, when the U.S. was basking in such unprecedented prosperity, and computers were being acclaimed as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, I wanted to see how the other half--or indeed other 97% of the world--lived, and to take myself out of my unreal techno-bubble in Santa Barbara, and into the poorest areas in every corner of the world, where one is quickly reminded that half the people in the world have never used a telephone, and progress is often about going backwards (or isn't a reality at all). At the same time, I journeyed into foreign countries such as jet lag which no humans had ever seen since forty years ago, and which are as strange and displacing as India or Morocco, and yet come without guidebooks or maps.

The main book I'm working on now--my next big adventure--is a novel written from a woman's point of view (a way, again, of traveling into a viewpoint and a world utterly different from my own--though I hasten to add that the woman in question will not be fearful and lost, as Camilla seems to be, but more on top of things, in the way of Martine).

Interview by Allison Heilborn

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    Photo credit: Diana Walker