Excerpted from Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach. Copyright © 2004 by Alice Steinbach. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation With Alice Steinbach
Tell us what got you started writing EDUCATING ALICE. How is it different from your first book, Without Reservations?
Although I didn’t know it until after I’d written it, the first book, Without Reservations, was the story of a woman in transition, a woman who was trying to figure out what the next step in her life should be and how to take it. That woman, of course, was me. Although I sensed something stirring inside me, it took the trip and the writing of the book to confirm that I needed to move on in my career and personal life. The new book, Educating Alice, is about the same woman but this time she’s taken quite a few steps away from the old life: left her job at a newspaper where she worked for 20 years, switched from daily journalism to writing books and discovered she enjoys the semi-nomadic life.
Did you have any reservations about quitting your steady job at the Baltimore Sun and taking off on your trip?
Yes, I did. Quite a few. I was scared I’d never find another job that would fit me as well as being a reporter and worried that no one else might want to hire me if the book-writing enterprise turned out to be a disaster. But as scary as the idea of quitting was to me, I was more frightened by the idea of not doing it. This was my shot at trying to do something I’d dreamed of all my life. The timing was right — my sons were grown — so I took the chance. And I’m happy I did. It’s clear to me now that I’ve chosen a career that I can sustain and that can sustain me.
How did you choose the destinations for your trip and the lessons you took in each country?
Although from the very beginning, the premise of my book was simple — to study things I found interesting in places that interested me — it was surprisingly difficult to narrow down my choices. I did a lot of research and subscribed to such esoteric publications as “Scottish Farm Life” and “Border Collie News.” I sent away for hundreds of university brochures and talked to friends, strangers and experts on subject matter that interested me, including one of Jane Austen’s descendants in Hampshire, England. Sometimes in the middle of the night I could hear the ringing of my fax machine, promising answers from some elusive group in Cuba or Prague or Kyoto. After months of this, I made my final choices. Some of the lessons were taught in organized classes, others were learning experiences where the approach was more about teaching learnable rules in an unstructured setting.
Do you have a favorite of all the places you visited?
Not really. Each one offered its own rewards and pleasures and they were all so different that I can’t think of comparing one to the other. Having said that, I did enjoy studying very much the world of Jane Austen at Exeter University. I never tire of reading and re-reading Austen’s novels. And when you put together a great Austen professor with 26 students who adore this writer as much as I do, what you have is a room full of kindred spirits.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced along your journey and how did you overcome them?
Actually, the biggest challenge was to adjust to the role of being a student again. Learning new things — particularly in foreign countries where the culture and sometimes the language are different — adds to the essential humility that always accompanies being a student. I coped with such challenges — sometimes more successfully than others — by keeping a sense of humor at the ready and by immersing myself in the task at hand.
Aside from the skills you took away from each lesson, what did you learn about yourself and about the world?
That I love being at home in the world, not just in my native land. The more I travel, the more I feel a sense of belonging to a larger family. It is a very reassuring way to feel in a world that is increasingly splintered and fragile. But traveling as I did, studying things that are important to different cultures, the divide narrowed.
Do you think women, more than men, tend to feel stifled in their everyday lives and seek adventure and change the way you did?
I don’t think men feel less stifled than women in their day-to-day lives. The need for change during the different stages of a life is equally important to both sexes. In fact, I think in the Greek language the words “change” and “growth” are basically the same. But I do think that men, because of cultural expectations, feel less free to seek out new ways of looking at things, especially changing their work lives. But it isn’t easy for either sex to take that first step away from the life they know, the one that offers security, however boring or unchallenging.
How has this experience changed you as a person and as a writer?
For one thing, I relearned to experience the world as a child does, to enter the ticking moment fully and look with fresh eyes at even the most familiar things. It is a gift, this reclaiming of the child’s ability to enter fully into the experience at hand and to bring to it all your senses, intellect and emotions. And in my writing I try to do that as well.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. For years Alice Steinbach was a reporter and columnist for the Baltimore Sun, but quit her job in order to take the journeys described in this book. In what ways is her background as a reporter evident in the way she writes and travels? In what ways has she managed to make a break from the habits of her former career in some of the adventures she describes in Educating Alice?
2. In the piece “Cookin at the Ritz,” Alice gives us a good sense of the seriousness with which the French take their cooking. Can you imagine an American equivalent to “Chef,” in the same profession or another one? Do you think it is part of our culture to hold teachers and professionals in such reverence, or is this a more old-world, traditional attitude?
3. In what ways did “Dancing in Kyoto” change your attitude toward Geishas? Alice writes that she would not want a daughter of hers to be a Geisha, and yet many Japanese see it as a highly desirable profession. Can you explain why they feel this way?
4. Alice quotes an admonition by Henry James, that a writer must be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” In what ways does Alice’s own writing reflect her belief in this remark? Do you think the majority of authors would subscribe to this point of view, or can you name some would probably disagree with it?
5. In The Mystery at the Old Florentine Church, Alice becomes fascinated by the story of Father Domenico’s Church. In The Unreliable Narrator, she is absorbed by the story of “Lily.” What similarities do you see in these two experiences, and what do they reveal about the way Alice travels?
6. Think about Alice’s relationship with Naohiro. Why do you think she seems to focus on it only intermittently? Do you believe she is content with it? Have you ever had a distant-yet-close relationship with someone, and do you consider overall as a positive or negative experience?
7. Most people find it lonely and sometimes frightening to travel alone. If you were given the opportunity and time to take the same trips Alice took in this book, would you go? How do you think your experiences would compare to hers?
8. After much deliberation, Alice chose the subjects she would study and the places where she would learn about them. If you had to make a comparable list of half a dozen subjects and locations for your journey, what would they be?