a conversation with Robert Wilson      


Bold Type: Is A Certain Somewhere the first book of collected essays from Preservation magazine?

Robert Wilson: Yep, this is the first collection of essays I know about, but the magazine has been around for more than fifty years, and I was only there a little more than six.

BT: Tell us a little more about the Place column that all these pieces were originally written for. When and why was it established?

RW: We started the Place department soon after I got to Preservation in 1996. I wanted a way to get personal voices into the magazine, and also a way to draw in the sort of literary writers that I like best. The idea of place is irresistible to most writers, whereas preservation can be a hard word to wrap the mind around. And yet the two are related.

BT: How so?

RW: Preservation is a way we can hang on to places we care about, by protecting the qualities in them we want to keep. And it's also a way we can reinvent places that have gone wrong somehow. I think, for instance, of the many urban neighborhoods that went to seed in the 1950s and '60s and now are being restored to their former glory. Harlem is a great example of this.

BT: How did the idea of collecting some of the essays from that column into a book come about?

RW: I'd thought about the possibility of collecting the essays almost from the start, and the idea seemed more and more plausible as all the writers we most liked said yes when we asked for essays and we began to pile up some lovely pieces. But it was Mary Bahr, a good friend who is an editor at Random House, who had the idea to really do it. And then a great young editor at the magazine, Sudip Bose, who had begun to assign many of the Place essays, took the idea and ran with it, combing through old issues, pulling together a preliminary manuscript, and even writing a thoughtful introduction to the book.

BT: I read in the book description that the Place essays are by writers of all kinds—essayists, novelists, literary critics, poets. What is the madness behind that method?

RW: We just went after writers we liked, but we were especially pleased when we got a good piece from the sort of writer—a poet or an academic, say—who would not ordinarily show up in other parts of the magazine. One of the pieces we were most pleased to print was by a distinguished linguist from MIT named Morris Halle, who had been an office mate of Noam Chomsky for decades. Halle wrote the most charming piece about a very nondescript World War II-era building in Cambridge in which he and Chomsky worked for all those years.

BT: It must have been so difficult to choose only 30 essays for the book! Can you tell us how you went about choosing which essays to include?

RW: We did have to leave some good stuff out. We tried not to run essays that were too similar to one another. For instance, for a while we seemed to have a lot of what we thought of as "cabin up in Vermont" pieces—I guess a lot of writers have such places and a need to write about them. But one was by Edward Hoagland, who is arguably the greatest living American nature essayist, so it wasn't that hard to pick his. We really just picked the essays that Sudip and I liked the best—with advice from Mary Bahr, of course.

BT: Editing this book must have been quite a labor of love! What challenges did you encounter during the publishing process that you may not have expected? What things did you expect to be hard that, in fact, turned out to be simple?

RW: Editing the book wasn't so hard. For one thing, Sudip did most of the work! Working with Mary was all pleasure. But it was very interesting, because I covered the book business or reviewed books for something like twenty years at other publications, so I wanted to see the process from the other side. And then editing a book is very different from editing a magazine, so I learned a lot from Mary about that. For instance, we thought at the magazine that we were pretty good at coming up with the perfect photograph for a story or a cover, and we put a lot of effort into finding the right image for the front of the book jacket. We kept sending jpegs [digital photos] to Mary, who would send them on to the art department at Random House, but nothing seemed quite right. And then on almost their first try, the art people at Random House found the lighthouse image that is on the jacket. It was immediately obvious to everyone—even to me!—that this was just the right thing for the book.

BT: I feel like the heart of this book exists on a very emotional and visceral level—everyone can relate to having that one special place that just feels like, well, 'home'. What's your take on the common thread that unites readers with these essays?

RW: Place really is one of those big subjects, for readers as well as for writers. Our connection to certain places is as meaningful as our connection to certain people. The thing that interests me so much about it as a subject is that it is both mundane and profound, both tactile and spiritual. Part of our connection to place is clearly nostalgic, and many of these essays flirt with that emotion. But there is also something about our connection to certain kinds of places that goes beyond our own experience of them. I think of how we can go to a place for the first time and feel utterly comfortable there or at home there. Where does that come from? It's a mystery.

BT: Some of my favorite pieces in the book were by novelists who wrote about childhood homes and then how they ended up incorporating pieces of those homes into their future fiction—like the essay by Suzanne Freeman. (see excerpt). What did you find most interesting about how writers—of all types—related their most significant places with their literary lives?

RW: I'm glad you like those sorts of essays. We sometimes worried that we were running too many literary pieces in the magazine, whose audience wasn't necessarily most interested in literary matters or writers' lives. But they work well in a book, I think. Place is really one of the basic tools of the novelist—setting and how it shapes character, in far more subtle ways than the "geography is destiny" sense, being one of the engines of realistic fiction. And of course many novelists do begin with the things they know best. So I guess I was interested in how some pieces showed the ways in which places shaped them, as writers or as people. I think for instance of Jim Conaway's piece, "How a House Restored a Family."

BT: Which are your favorite essays in A Certain Somewhere?

RW: What a devious question. Of course on some level I like them all a lot—given that I chose them once for the magazine and again for the book. But there is one that has a special meaning for me—Noel Perrin's "Something There Is That Loves a Wall." His book of personal essays, First Person Rural, which came out almost 25 years ago, taught me to love that form and also made me begin to think for the first time about the meaning of place. Ned (as he's called) is an extraordinarily pure stylist, and probably the best personal essayist on rural life since E.B. White. Ned collected four volumes of essays about his farm in Thetford Center, Vermont, and his essay in A Certain Somewhere about the stone walls at his place is as good as anything in those books and feels like a bonus to me.

BT: If there was one more writer you could solicit for a "Place" essay for the book, who would it be and why?

RW: I still have lists of writers I would like to have seen write a Place essay, but one who comes to mind is Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic. I admire the confidence and not-suffering-fools-lightly tone of her writing, and it would be interesting to see her turn her fierce critical intelligence on her own experience of place, after spending a lifetime writing about places that architects have created or altered.

BT: Preservation magazine is the publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Can you tell us a little bit about what the National Trust exactly is—and what Preservation magazine's role is in the organization?

RW: The National Trust is a nonprofit organization that agitates to preserve or restore American places that range from the historic buildings to what might be called the authentic-Main Streets, residential neighborhoods, urban neighborhoods and the like. On the national level it lobbies Congress and the executive branch, and it encourages state and local preservation organizations, files or joins lawsuits, and offers technical advice. Generally, it's an advocate for the built environment. It has about 200,000 members who receive Preservation as one of the benefits of membership.

BT: I read that you used to be an editor at USA Today. It must have been quite a switch to move to Preservation magazine. What prompted the change? What are the main differences between working for a national newspaper like USA Today and a very focused magazine like Preservation?

RW: I was the book-review editor at USA Today for 11 years, and before that worked at the Washington Post for six years. I left USA Today in 1994 to become the literary editor of Civilization when it started up as the magazine of the Library of Congress, and I got hooked on working for a magazine, which is an unbelievable amount of fun. One thing I liked most about Preservation was that we were taking a fairly narrow subject and trying to make it broad—to show how many ways the ethic of preservation touches our lives. At newspapers the whole world is coming at you and you try to narrow that down into the day's news or, in my case, the most important books to review this week. What it felt like to me was at the magazine I was always saying yes and at the newspaper I was always saying no. I liked saying yes better.

BT: Let's switch tacks a bit — who are some of your favorite writers?

RW: Some of my favorite living writers are in the collection: Ann Beattie, Thomas Mallon, Edward Hoagland, Jan Morris. Among the recently departed, the short story writer Peter Taylor, who was a teacher and a friend, is a wonderful writer who ought to be better known. I have pretty standard middle-age-white-guy tastes in the canonical writers. I've noticed in myself what I've noticed in others as they've aged, that I read less fiction and more history. I'm reading a lot about the exploration of the American West in the 19th century now. Next on my list: Parkman's The Oregon Trail.

BT: If you had to write a "Place" essay, what would you write about?

RW: If I were to write a Place essay it would probably be about growing up on Air Force bases, where, no matter what state or country you're living in, so much about the atmosphere and even the physical surroundings remains the same. So I moved perhaps a dozen times and yet always lived in some essential way in the same place. That must mean something.

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

RW: That's a very good question, actually, because I left my job at Preservation at the end of September. I have several projects I want to work on, including a biography I've wanted to write for about five years now. I loved the job, but I felt that I'd just about done everything at the magazine I wanted to do.

BT: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us!

RW: Thanks — I had fun doing this.

—Interview by Allison Heilborn

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    Photo credit: Maggie Gamboa