Welcome to the Conversations Series: these are a series of long form, in depth interviews with writers of multiple genres about travel themes. Some of those include place, exile, belonging, home, habitat, quest, and craft. I started the series in 2015 with Tim Cahill, Patricia Schultz, James Dorsey and Raquel Cepeda. This year began with Jeff Greenwald, and today I'm talking with Dr. Harrison Solow. Dr. Solow has been honored with a number of awards for literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, including a Pushcart Prize for Literature for her nonfiction work, Bendithion.
I discovered Dr. Solow through several of her published essays about Wales, and then found out that these same essays are part of her upcoming book. She writes in a such a way that she literally transports the reader through time and space to Wales itself, and she does this so delicately and yet swiftly that you don't realize you are in the story yourself. A magical wordsmith, she also writes about the spirit, academic writing, and outer space, among other things.
Dr. Solow and I are diving into the deep end with this interview and we hope you enjoy it. We'll be talking about her life and influences; her affection and connection to Wales; the context of quest and archetypes in relation to travel themes; as well a bit about spiritual writing,. science fiction, and writing about space...all within in the context of travel.
I'm doing something different for this interview: because her book is not out yet, I've asked Dr. Solow to share excerpts from her work to illustrate her answers to questions. This is more literary than interviews I've done thus far, but works very well for her voice.
And now, for Dr. Harrison Solow!
AGA: The goal of this series is to discuss themes that tie in with travel, such as place and identity--and even to widen what we consider to be “travel writing.”
But before we even begin this journey of exploration together, I'd like to talk about you a little and your life. You’ve done so many things: you’ve been a Franciscan nun, the editor of a Hassidic Jewish magazine, a university professor of both literature and writing, a consultant to the SyFy Channel, and a multiple award winning author. You've fallen in love with Wales, and written about it extensively, in your both own work and as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Wales. You’ve written for everyone from celebrities to NASA, and you are a powerful voice in the literary world. You’ve accomplished and experienced so much, and somewhere along the line, you became a brilliant writer as well. How did this transition into writing happen? When did you know you were a writer?
HS: Well, what a wonderful thing to say. I think “brilliant” is in the eyes of the beholder, but to answer your question about the writing part, or rather to not answer it: I don’t know. I can’t remember ever wanting to be a writer. I don’t consider myself a writer, as such, now.
AGA: But you have written about being a writer, and calling yourself one--or not. Can you share a bit of that here?
HS: Yes: “For me, and for me alone, calling myself a writer feels like calling myself a commuter. Yes, one commutes (I don't now, but I did) but that's just a way to get somewhere. It doesn't begin to describe where I am going, why, or from whence I came… "
AGA: That's very interesting, to say it is like calling oneself a commuter. I can see that: it does leave a great deal out, when explained that way.
HS: I just don't feel it is a badge of identification. All my fellow academics write and most of them write well, but if you asked them what they do, they would not call themselves writers. They'd identify as academics or professors. I'm certainly an author. That has a clear definition: Someone whose writing is published. I have no difficulty with that.
But my doctors and lawyers have written books and are also authors. My priest and rabbi friends have written books and they too are authors. My husband, the former head of three movie studios and a producer/director, and elder son, a designer/design professor, have written several very highly regarded books. But none of them would answer a question about who they are--or even what they do-- by responding, "I am a writer." Nor would I. I call myself a writer because it is practical to do so at times, but with regard to Wales, I’m a stenographer. I take dictation from a voice I cannot hear and I don’t know from where it comes. Or from whom. And so to return to your question, Gigi, “When did you know you were a writer?” I guess the answer to that has to be, “Not yet.”
AGA: So you don’t consider yourself a writer, “yet.” Do you consider yourself an adventurer? You seem to have an adventuress in you: your life has moved from one place to another, and some of those places have been quite extreme, taking you all over the world.
HS: Actually, I am a colossal wuss. I really don’t feel like an adventurer – at least not the intrepid kind like you – or most travel writers. I don't have external wanderlust - only the internal kind. And although I admire my sons, friends and colleagues who have stunning adventures in so many places on earth, I don’t feel the urge to emulate them. I don’t want to climb mountains or go to Machu Pichu or traipse through jungles or float down the Amazon. I only want to explore places that I can’t – outer space, inner mind.
AGA: Well not all adventure is external. In fact I think the great adventures in life are internal, and sometimes—only sometimes—do these move outside of a person, into the larger world and seen. But the unseen or not readily seen is also important. Did this internal quest ever translate at some point into wanting to see the world?
HS: I used to want to see the whole world but now I think that my purpose is still best explained by Blake’s--regrettably overused--lines:
As I wrote from Wales once:
“What is difficult to explain is the magnitude of the invisible here. The portent in a smile. The small milestones on the road to trust, the breathlessness of achievement in intimacy, the secrets of the clan. Traversing the chasm between people - mapping the landscape of language, finally, being able to discard even the best of American attributes--efficiency, productivity, pro-action--even for a while, in order to experience purely, another mentality, a foreign heart, the right to claim inheritance from an ancient code. These are the journeys I undertake.”
On the other hand, I was at a party with Dan Goldin, the former Director of NASA, with whom I was working on a project some time before I went to Wales, and we were talking with astronaut and science fiction writer and actor friends about laypeople, so to speak, going out into space. He was calculating the number of years before it would be possible, and it was pretty far in the future. I remember telling him, “Well then, I would like to be the first old lady in space.” And I meant it. He said, “Deal.”
So you see, the microcosm or macrocosm is fine with me. I just don’t feel as much at home in the in-between.
AGA: I don’t care much for the in-between either. And I like the idea of you being in space—but more about space travel later. Going back to the travel you have done, you made a big move, from one world into another. You left Malibu – and what many people would consider an enviable life, in the entertainment industry-- to go to Wales. Why was that?
HS: Well, Wales is another planet. If you can’t go into outer space, you can always go to Wales. But I also left California for Nova Scotia, Canada many years ago, and Nova Scotia for Berkeley, Berkeley for Malibu, so there was some precedent. In fact, I have gone through many large transitions in my life – from the secular world into the convent, from the convent into the world--much harder--from single life into married life - from married life into single life and later back into marriage - from one country to another - from one culture to another. All those times, I did not stay in one group or comfort zone, like some expats I have known going from one country or one marriage or one kind of work - to another, and yet all the while staying within a cultural bubble, which really isn't a real change at all.
AGA: I'm glad you bring that up, the way that some people travel and only "stay in their own cultural bubble." Sometimes I'm not sure that is traveling at all...but change is difficult and complex, especially when is moving from one life to another, or one place to another.
HS: For me, many of these changes came in complex and barely discernible packages - evil mixed with good - good which would harm someone dear - opportunities at the wrong time - burdens that might have been easier at twenty than at forty. What I learned out of all this is that somewhere inside there is a core that is you and if that you is not being fed and nourished and if it isn't healthy and happy and vibrant in the circumstances, marriage, ethics, profession, job, circle of people, religion, climate, culture, country or region of the county that you are in, then you must travel to where you can thrive – internally or externally.
AGA: Out of all of these things, what has been your biggest adventure?
HS: The adventure that I feel is most significant is that of the indomitable spirit - which, even when it seems barely alive--and at times that has been the case--has the power to grow strong and bright again. Overall, my life has been very happy - but it is the deep happiness that comes from conscious adherence to principle and not happy jolly easy effortless events that give momentary pleasure.
However, my greatest adventure has been raising my sons. Nothing, absolutely nothing, overshadows that.
AGA: Back to Wales, it does feel, from reading your writing about the country—which we will be discussing shortly—that it was calling you.
HS: I went to Wales for two reasons: to read--or in American terms, to study--for a PhD and to teach. I had applied to several universities I had been offered a place at a very prestigious one, but when I was interviewed by the Trinity Saint David University in Wales, something inside said “This is your place” and so that is where we went. Because I had taught at UC Berkeley before I met my husband, Herb, and moved to Malibu, I was also offered a position at Trinity, teaching literature and writing and some theology.
As for the deeper why – I’d always wanted to earn a PhD and the British Research Doctorate was most appealing, but for many years after my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, the universe had other plans for me. It wasn’t feasible when my boys were young, and then after they grew up a great many unforeseeable transformations in my life took place and I had other things to do, but underneath it all, the call to that quest--if it can be called that--persisted. Finally a number of things converged to make it possible. And, as my husband is always ready for adventure, off we went.
No one in our social or professional circle thought we would do it – and they all thought we were crazy – we had a super life in a super place, but it just seemed like the right time to do this. We finished up what we were working on--an international film project with European investors and so many lawyers and translators that it took months and months just to have a conversation-- didn’t take on any others, sold the house and leapt into the unknown. If that is adventuresome, then I guess I am adventurous but not in the spider, snake, heat, flies, malaria, camping, drinking cow blood, mosquito sort of way. I’m not the Indiana Jones type.
AGA: I think leaving one’s life entirely behind, or at least choosing something new, without knowing what it is, in another culture, on the other side of the world, is adventure. Even if you aren’t drinking cow blood and battling insects. A lot of people never have the courage to do something like that, and yet, that is what a traveler does, at least once: they say yes to what is about to happen. Did you come from a family of adventurers or people that lived fully?
HS: Thank you. I hope I have developed a certain fortitude over the years, but I am clearly not physically brave. Certainly my great-grandparents were grand adventurers, given their willingness to leave everything they knew in Europe and Madeira at the turn of the 20th century to come to America. I think that to board a ship for an unknown future that would take an arduous six months--and also the health and sometimes the lives of their fellow passengers--to take up an entirely new life in a place they had never been, required an extraordinary adventurous spirit.
The next generation went through the depression and the Second World War and while I think it’s a bit flippant to call a war an adventure, there were certainly components of adventure within the terror and madness of a world war. The stories I heard in my childhood were absolutely incredible.
When it was done, though, I think my family had had enough adventure to suit them and spent their days creating stability and order and not in exploration.
AGA: My grandparents were much the same: they had grand adventures, although they were more economically motivated or simply looking for stability and possibility. Then they settled down and never shifted from that spot again. My generation seeks for different reasons, and I think yours did as well.
HS: Yes – so many young people backpacking through Europe and flitting off to Asian countries to meditate and study Eastern philosophy. I’m not sure that everyone went out of an adventurous spirit – there was a lot of conformity and bandwagon mentality among the nonconformists of the day. Some certainly did, of course. But not me. My idea of adventure was, even then, quite different. I entered a convent.
AGA: I want to address that, for I also wanted to be a nun for many years—although I did not become one, like yourself. I think this part of your life is very important, especially after reading some of your work. It makes me want to ask who were some of your early influencers, especially as a young adult?
HS: Well, when I was a very young adult, I was in the novitiate, so my influencers were limited to the works of theologians and philosophers for the first two years of our novitiate, a limitation I actually loved. Later, the range was extended to whatever literature we were assigned in various academic classes. And of course, one admires writers for different reasons – and one is inspired by writers--who may not be the same as those one admires-- for an even greater range of reasons. But for those two years, the writers I admired were: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Newman--his The Idea of a University remains one of my all time favorites even today. I loved Thomas Aquinas – read the entire Summa in English and almost all of it in Latin.
I admire Aquinas for his clean legal/logical prose and for the way he develops a thought. I admire him for the structure of his work, the form, the argument. I do not admire his--and other Doctors of the Church--horrible misogyny and peculiar scruples, but it is impossible not to respect their minds when focused on a clear line of thinking, however wacky the premise may be. I admired Hildegard of Bingen. Jacques Maritain, Raissa Maritain’s beautiful work Les Grandes Amitiés [ Note:We Have Been Friends Together is the title in English.] I was not able to read it in French at that time – my French wasn’t good enough, but I did read it many years later in French and it was even more beautiful. Thomas A Kempis, Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine, Ignatius, all the classic theologians. I admired them for their depth and passion and discipline - and for their exploration of an unseen world and for their journeys. I did not always, quite often in fact, admire much of what they said. Those were the years we read prolifically, methodically, comprehensively. It would be impossible to recount all these works. If you Google the Catholic Classics Reading List at Loyola, they’re all there. When we resumed our academic work I found myself enamored of Kierkegaard, Homer, Chaucer, Dante and more…Chaucer in particular.
But if you mean people and not books, then Brother Joachim Grant, my soul-brother and a Franciscan friar with whom I have had the deepest and most loving spiritual connection since I was 14 years old was my greatest influencer then.
AGA: I was very inspired by Augustine’s journeys at young age, and am even today. He reminds me of some travel writers I read now, whose journeys I admire and envy, but whose summations of peoples and places I do not. What about after your novitiate, who influenced you then?
HS: In my later twenties, when I was no longer in the convent, and was under the tutelage of a special delegation of Cambridge professors at my university, I began a profound relationship with English literature that extends to this day, thanks to one of my greatest influencers, the truly brilliant Professor Christopher Terry. I couldn’t choose a few authors from that vast treasury. It is the history, the tapestry, the body of literature itself that is most inspiring. Dramatists, novelists, essayists, poets, sermonists, short story writers…The fact of them was - and remains - inspiring.
Of course prior to the “young adult period” and subsequent to it, my reading encompassed an enormous range of subjects, eras and genres, as it does today. As a very young adult, for example, I was in love with Walt Whitman, ee cummings, some of the dazzling poets of the day in San Francisco and the Bay Area, where I grew up. Also Virginia Woolf. And I was mesmerized by Shakespeare. But that was when I was 16 or 17 and that isn’t really a young adult. That’s an old kid. And having been deeply involved in the Jewish world for the past couple of decades, rabbis and Jewish writers have recently made a profound mark on my life.
AGA: There are many travelers among those writers of your teens, too. Many on quests and journeys, in exile and searching for home or having a need to discover and get lost. What was the first real journey you recall taking?
HS: The first trip that was real to me, I took when I was under two years old, In Hawaii. My mother had put me down for a nap and I wouldn’t sleep so she lay down with me on the bed. She fell asleep and I got down from the bed and decided to go see my grandmother whose house was across the railway tracks – about a half mile away. My mother found me when I was about halfway there, actually on the railway tracks, and snatched me up in panicked relief. My own feeling was outrage. I actually remember that. I was going somewhere – I had a plan and it was thwarted. I was furious, which my mother said was very clear.
AGA: The thwarted journey! I love that story!
I want to talk about how I found your writing. How I came across you was by discovering your series of essays about Wales. You’ve written extensively about the country, and are entranced by it: its people, its literary traditions, its language and its culture. You even learned to speak Welsh! When I read your writing about Wales, I could not imagine you anywhere else: it seems as though you were always there. Why are you so taken with Wales?
HS: That’s a bit like asking, why you are so taken with your husband or wife or child. There really isn’t any sufficient explanation. I could say any number of things and other writers of other countries could say, “But Romania is like that” or “I experienced exactly the same in Japan!” And that might very well be true. But our definitions and our needs differ. One person might say, “My husband is so thoughtful – he always leaves me alone when I am down” and another would say, “My husband is so thoughtful – he never leaves me alone when I am down”.
I am taken with Wales because it isn’t always there and I don’t know where it goes. I am taken with it because the Welsh word for “never” is the same as the word for “always” [erioed]. I am taken with it because it is taken with me, and that’s pretty much irresistible.
I’m taken with it because, as I have written elsewhere, it is “Wales, where the leaves on the ground lift in response to a wind that isn’t there and uncover for a millisecond, small vibrant worlds.” Those worlds are there. Those worlds are real. Wordsworth saw them. Welsh poets and writers see them. But you have to have the eyes for them. You have to have the ability to see, not just to look.
AGA: That's very intriguing: that "you have to have the eyes to see them."
HS: We talk about seeing things in 3-D but Wales is about 50-D with no end in sight and there is no greater journey for me as I see it – not even into space, which has been a passion of mine since childhood - than the journey into the heart of Wales. I don’t know why. I don’t have strong affinities to other places. But I have the ability to see Wales and to write it…
“All I know is that in Wales, I have been standing right next to someone or other, when something in the culture leapt into fire and beauty, blown into sight by the lifting of such a wind, and it remained out of sight to them. I found my friends in Wales – or they found me, in these moments of wind and revelation, when, in a classroom or a crowd of a hundred, someone else's eyes widened or he suddenly jumped or she smiled with delight or there was a sharp intake of breath somewhere in the group. These are the kindred spirits (and I mean spirits) who, not "became" my friends, but were revealed as friends. Suddenly ancient lineages came into view, old connections, previously unknown. It was in those moments that I met those who saw and inhabited the same small worlds as I.”
AGA: I’m collecting my breath for a moment, because your wordsmith ways are so stunning and clear, they simply take me somewhere else and I have to think about the next question for a moment!
So, with Wales and you, I can see that there is a strong sense of belonging, and that is also something the traveler is always searching for. The traveler who finds it sometimes stops traveling altogether, and other times, they are simply connected to the place, forever, whether they stay or not. It seems people can fall in love with a place and feel that they always belonged to it. Do you long for it, as you would long for a person?
HS: People who live in Wales also long for Wales. This is called hiraeth and it lives in the heart of every Welsh-speaking Welsh-person. I share that. It makes no sense, except that it does, and the only reason I know that is that it exists is that I have heard and felt it. There is a song, only sung in Welsh, about the ‘old unblemished Wales’ which is the object of profound hiraeth. But you won’t find it anywhere in English. I put the phrase into Google, just to see what would happen and got 87,500,000 results and no results for the phrase in quotation marks. [Note: hiraeth sounds elusive, but to hear hiraeth itself, you can listen if you have the Soundcloud app to Timothy Evans in this song that has been translated into Welsh.]
AGA: When you leave Wales, do you feel you’ve left a piece of yourself behind?
HS: No, I don’t feel that I’ve left a piece of myself behind. Friends in Wales say, in their inimitable way, that I am still entirely there. I feel that also, so rather than being divided, I feel fully present in both countries. And I don’t long for it as one would a person. I don’t, in general, feel for people the way I feel for larger entities. That is to say, I might miss a person, but I only actually long for things like knowledge and outer space and virtue. Clearly, that “in general” encompasses notable exceptions but my default position is that rather than anthropomorphize places, I tend to do the opposite: to eschew the anthrocentric perspective.
AGA: That’s interesting because I often anthropomorphize places that I visit, and in turn, write about. Sometimes I also write about places as beings, creatures, organisms. Can you explain a bit more what you mean by “eschewing the anthrocentric perspective”?
HS: I don’t think that humans are the pinnacle of creation. I think there are more compelling beings. I wouldn’t feel that comparing a place to a person is a compliment to that place. Maybe this passage from my correspondence will clarify what I mean:
“Earlier today, I saw Amy Tan on TED. She said that when she was in China last year, the elders sent a dozen men on ghost horses into the underworld to find the solution to a problem. I have been living in liminality so long that I have no trouble believing that. None at all. I did, after all, fall in love with Wales. I fell in love with Newman’s The Idea of A University, and with the significance of Timothy’s voice. These things are all, in a sense, fiction. They are all imaginary in some measure. But how true they are.
I genuinely fall in love with statues and dead people, lines of poetry, the shape of a wrist, a voice, a streak of light, an aberration of thought, the scent of watercress. I form meaningful relationships with stone and spirit, fragrance and bone, the quick revelations in a word or a glance. Not – I want to be clear – with the writer of the word, but the word itself and its original referent. Not the person who gives the glance, but the glance itself. Not the singer of the song, the teacher of the taught, the painter of the painting, but the sound, the pedagogy and painted. The disembodied entity – the voice, the interstice – the liminal – the non-time between the first stroke of 12 and the last. Not the name of Saturday but what that interval would be without a name.”
AGA: So, describe your love of Wales in other terms for me.
HS: It has more to do with the inexplicable and irrefutable connection among the land, the people and the language than it does with any component of that indivisible whole. The notable travel writer Jan Morris, who is Welsh, describes it thus:
This is true. I’ve seen it. I’ve had many moments of pleasure and meditative respite in and with the natural world – in almost all the places I have lived or visited. But my deepest experiences have been in Wales. Every blade of grass, every stone has a sound – a music that you can hear. At times I’ve walked alone there, through the woods and meadows listening to that music and it brought tears to my eyes. But that is true of the people of Wales as well. They move me. There is great mystery here.
AGA: You’ve been nominated for 3 Pushcart Prizes, and you won one for your creative nonfiction essay, Bendithion, which is about Wales. What does Bendithion mean, and why did you choose that title?
HS: Bendithion is the plural of “bendith”, which means “blessing” in Welsh and thus means “blessings”. I honestly chose it because I liked the sound of it, I liked the way Timothy sings it in one of his songs and when I learned what it meant, I thought it appropriate for the title of the piece. [ Note: You can read the full piece. here.] Wales has been, and remains, a blessing to/for me.
AGA: Bendithion is masterful at creating a sense of place almost from the first sentence. You use dialogue and descriptive language of gesture and landscape to describe both people and place. Can you share a few paragraphs that you feel capture a sense of Wales, of your Wales?
HS: Thank you, Gigi. I appreciate the kind words. Here is a piece from Bendithion [not the excerpt you refer to but from the original long piece within The Bendithion Chronicles] I divided it into sections so that it is easier to read:
“I don’t think I shall easily forget that afternoon at the top of Pencarreg. Cerys and I travelled up a long hedge-rowed, one-lane, rural road that I had never seen before (but she had always known was there) with an incremental sense of enclosure – as it drew in, closed in, shut out whatever was behind us, like a wormhole in a galaxy far far away. The deeper we went into the land, the more unreal seemed even the memory of the rest of the world. Even Llambed, geographically a part of this same land, faded away.
The parts of me that belong to Llambed also faded away – and what remained, very strangely, was my own past — not just Cerys’. Whatever was peeled away in that microcosmic journey left me, the essential person, approaching the age of reason – at five, at six, not yet corrupted by thought. And so, able to see the fairies and imps in the hawthorne, the history in the plum. Able too, to pick up the scent of Druidry, green and smoky, in the air around the oaks along the way. There may have been mistletoe. There was certainly a golden flash of sickle.
When the parish road ended and the earth and pebble track began, the sheep fled in terror at our approach. This flock from another century, isolated by time and contained only by hedge and cattle-grate, fenceless, defenseless — seemed never to have seen a car before. Indeed the car seemed to me out of place and just as I began to think of it as such, it turned into a pumpkin, so to speak – the engine grew quieter and we may have been in a carriage for all I could tell. Or a cloud.
The moss on the trees may have muffled the sound or the wild rush of the brook, drowned it out. But I heard songbirds. Or birdsong. Invisible chatter and whispers. Revels in the wood. Saw the red kites flying three feet off the ground, like predatory butterflies. Or maybe that was later, on the way back. Everything is one, in Wales. Even time.”
[ Note, for more, read here.]
AGA: Bendithion skillfully takes the reader to the same spot you are standing, looking through your eyes. You use your senses a lot when you are giving a sense of place to the reader. How do you capture those senses and put them on paper?
HS: I honestly don’t know. I’m a very literal person in some ways. I write what I see and I write what I hear. I have been called a “chronicler of the invisible” but it’s all very visible and audible to me. I don’t like to know about things. I like to know things. That is my passionate absorption. I never write about Wales. I just write it. There is a difference between describing a song and singing it. This is the singing.
AGA: I’d like to talk about how to write about a place or a people, which you do very well in The Bendithion Chronicles. So often, in travel literature, we read an account that tells us who someone is, more than actively shows us who they are. Can you give an example from your story that you think shows a person and loosely gives us an idea of Welsh-ness?
HS: I will give you two examples, which are also just examples from real life, as all my writing of Wales is. This is what actually happened and I just wrote it down.
"One day, a distinguished university colleague of mine came out the Post Office (which is the heart of the village and just across the street from the entrance to the university) just as I was going into it. I had spoken to him earlier in the day, so he knew that I was going in to see Alun [one of the two postmen there who are lifelong friends] to get a particular official form. He said to me, “If you’re looking for Alun, he isn’t there.” I said, “Oh that’s okay, I have to buy stamps anyway.” When I walked up to the counter, there was Alun. This is how the conversation went:
Me: “Oh, hi, Alun. You’re here.”
Timothy, butting in: “Well, of course he’s here. Where else would he be?”
Me to Timothy: “Well, John was here just a second ago and he didn’t see Alun.”
Timothy: “Not everyone does."
There is nothing more Welsh than that conversation.
Here is the second example:
With regard to the creative nonfiction essay, Bendithion, I was in the story that I wrote and that story was real life, which I simply described in that essay. It was reportage. I couldn’t control the real story, since it was unfolding every day, so later, I turned it into fiction--or what looked like fiction--to see what would happen. It wasn’t really fiction, since everything in it actually happened, but I could play with time and metaphor. That “fictional” parallel story was a first prize winner in an international fiction competition. It starts like this:
“Storytellers usually say “Once upon a time” when they start to tell a story, which is a pretty good way to start. It tells you that there is a story coming and that it happened a long time ago. But how do you tell a story that keeps happening?”
AGA: Hmmm..how do you tell a story that keeps happening? That is a very good question, and one I'm sure will take more than this interview to answer, if at all. Let's segue to The Postmaster’s Song, another work of yours: I read it. To me, it was a travel story. Can you briefly describe what it is about?
HS: Yes. It is about immersion in another world and about the tender friendship between Timothy Evans, a world class tenor, who for some reason, simply preferred his life in the post office and never stepped on the world stage despite entreaties from all over the world to do so, his best friend Alun, who also worked at the post office, and me.
I imposed an omniscient narrator. I described the unseen. I made myself younger and unmarried in the story to emphasize the nature of this delicate relationship – to demonstrate that it would remain the same chivalrous mystical friendship whether I was young and single or older and married. I felt that the nature of this innocent bond would be thrown into greater relief when there were no social obstacles to any other sort of connection.
When the first draft was done I gave it to Alun to read and when he finished, he looked at me, puzzled.
“What?” I said, responding to his look.
“I thought you said it was fiction,” he answered.
Now, in that story, there is a magical boy, an allegorical pregnancy, light that carries sound and a host of other things that would prompt any reader to define it as “fiction”. But not in Wales, where “magical realism” is another word for daily life. If anything describes Wales, this does.
AGA: I’d like to move away from talking about a physical place for a moment, and talk about a spiritual one. You’ve done a great deal of spiritual writing, and I like to delve into that a little. That is another kind of travel. While some would say that it is not travel writing, I would argue that if science fiction can be considered travel writing, then spiritual journeys can be as well. Quest figures highly into travel writing, as the mythical creation of a way or a path. Talk to me about a spiritual quest you took, and how you wrote about it.
HS: I agree with you. Spiritual writing is travel writing in is most elemental form. The poetics of space do not end with physical boundaries. I’ve always thought that the final frontier is the human soul.
As for my quest, I have, in the past, described it thus: “I would find it impossible to describe my philosophy or belief system. I think everything is a metaphor for everything else. I think god/s exist/s. I think it is entirely irrelevant whether there is a power or many powers at work. I know that we don’t understand anything really, […] and having spent hours, days, months on end with astrophysicists, astronauts, astronomers, scientists of all kinds as well as science fiction writers […] I have come to think that it’s not our right or our place, stunted little earthlings as we are, to make cosmic decisions […] All we can do is to be ethical. To behave well. To heal, repair and improve the world we live in. I believe that form is content. Or rather that lifting a chalice or a Torah Scroll is as sacred and or profane as the lifter, the intent and the implied recipient. Irrespective of what is in it. Transubstantiation is our daily condition. All of us everywhere.”
AGA: The spiritual journey is a quest. And the quest archetype is typically a journey where the hero or heroine must overcome their own faults and weaknesses and then reemerge as something new. How do you think travel does this?
HS: I don’t think it necessarily does. I’ve known people who have travelled the world and have remained as un-self-aware and as limited in scope as they were before they left. Of course it certainly can, and most often does, transform one. But you can go into the world or into a room and be changed or remain the same. It really does depend on what you take with you, as I believe Yoda once said. ["What's in there?" "Only what you take with you."] I just think you have to be ready for the journey.
Conversely, you can go nowhere and explore myriad worlds. My late and very much missed friend, Isaac Asimov, with whom I enjoyed a vigorous exchange of ideas, was afraid to fly and after his compulsory flights while in the army during WWII, never went anywhere in a plane again. He rarely went anywhere, period. Most of his life was spent writing in a closet in an apartment in New York. I’ve been in it. I say “closet” because his office, in the middle of that apartment was very small and had no windows.
And look where he took us…
AGA: Asimov took us farther than we ever had been, and that’s so interesting that he rarely went anywhere at all. At least physically…it does sound awful, though, no windows!
But moving back into the idea of place, let’s talk about the interplay of archetypal stories that also run through travel writing: for example the theme of paradise. What are some of the archetypal themes that run through your own work about Wales? Or other places?
HS: I write not as much to describe or explain the Wales I experienced as to document and illuminate the existence of it. It is pre-archetypal in that sense.
AGA: Maybe it is happening to us. Tell me about this experience of documenting and illuminating the existence of something, of a place.
HS: For over four years, I watched people walk by doors they could have opened, songs they could have heard, beauty they could have seen, credos they could have admired and people they could have loved – people who worked with them, for them, on behalf of them – people whose world they were inhabiting without so much as an invitation, and whose culture they were eroding, often without even realizing that it was there.
It seemed imperative, then, to shed some light on what danced unseen before their eyes. And if illuminating this ephemeral and largely invisible panorama seems like an inconsequential or ignoble task, it might be well to consider this: millions of people dedicate their lives to making the invisible visible: archaeologists, astronomers, quantum/particle physicists, artists, priests, nano-technologists, physicians, nuns, microbiologists, filmmakers, rabbis, oceanographers, astronauts, psychiatrists and writers --and, depending on viewpoint, some people in other professions--all in pursuit of truth, all on a pilgrimage to somewhere they haven’t been before. I just happen to be on the same pilgrimage.” [From The Bendithion Chronicles]
AGA: When you think of archetypal themes in classic quest stories, what are a few titles that come to mind?
The first stories that came to mind are the Grail stories – Arthur, Percival, Gawain, Galahad. I loved Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. And those same tales as represented in Welsh literature – in the Black Book of Carmarthen, The Mabinogion, and Culhwch ac Olwen. The Odyssey, of course. The Canterbury Tales. A Pilgrim’s Progress. Siddhartha. The Seven Storey Mountain. David Copperfield. So, so much spiritual literature – the 19th Century Russian classic of indeterminate authorship, The Way of a Pilgrim, comes to mind. Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, and some of his other works. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Antonia White’s work as a whole…But almost at the same time I thought of The Little Prince, The Wizard of Oz, The Bourne Trilogy, Star Wars, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Red Balloon and so many more.
AGA: I'm sighing, because those are all books I love. A Pilgrim's Progress, The Cloister Walk, Siddhartha..these are all books with a permanent place on my bookshelf. I especially appreciate that you are bringing children's and young adult literature into the conversation about quests. I heard that you have just completed a children’s book in which the none year protagonist is on a quest? What sort of quest?
HS: He’s on a quest to the inside of his mind, to find out what he really knows.
AGA: How would you describe the nature of quest—or at least, the majority of them?
HS: I think the nature of most quests are similar: the search for place – one’s place in the world, one’s true home - whether that home is seen as heaven, or just a safe place in the world. Or a homeland – a neighborhood, a culture, a city, a level of society; a piece of land to call one’s own; a new planet where one might finally thrive. One’s own tribe. Home can also be interpreted as “feeling at home” in one’s own skin – the search for self knowledge or identity - a level of embodiment or understanding or enlightenment that allows that feeling. Something as simple as Jason Bourne’s journey to find his own name or as complex as Star Trek’s “New life and new civilizations” - navigating an alien landscape and culture. And of course “home” as/in another being, whether friend or lover or mate or pet - as a metaphor for love.
AGA: Can you share a bit of your writing to illuminate this? I know you have written about it.
HS: “Everyone finds his place or wanders discontent forever. This is the substance of religious sensibility and its pilgrimages, this is the quest of literature — the urge to reflect, to investigate, translate human journey — this is the impetus for and of science fiction — to arise from the tribe of earth or history, or myth and encounter another world: another set of commandments, another history, another set of perceptions and parents and sights and smells and thoughts and environments which will confront us with their legitimate claim to existence, their right to their visions of truth. Or relative truth. And then what? Then we find our place, wherever it may be. What is valued is retained. What is inclusive is shared. What now longer holds meaning is respectfully discarded. And then, and only then, can we do the work that is ours to do.” [Excerpt from a letter written to a friend. Wales, 2009]
AGA: Saving the best for last… I’m dying to talk to you about the greatest quest of all, the greatest journey, to outer space. You’ve written for NASA and other agencies/institutions and you’ve described the experience of space and time. I know you can’t talk much about it for copyright and legal reasons, but at least tell me: what is it like to write about a place so intangible?
HS: It is exhilarating. There is no other word for it. I’m always fascinated with the conjunction or juxtaposition of disparate worlds, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write both fact and speculation about the unknown. This is where science and science fiction meet and it’s a tremendously exciting place. As for how to write about a place you’ve never been – this is a little like raising children for a world that will no longer exist when they are adults. You do your best with the tools you have at hand --current information, reasonable prediction, imagination, and love-- and rely on the best knowledge and wisdom of the time. You’ll probably still be wrong about the future --all you have to do is read an etiquette book or dating advice from the 60s, 70s, 80s to see how wrong!-- but you deal with what you have.
I’ve written about space for many different purposes and for disparate institutions, and for my own books and articles. For institutions like NASA or JPL, at times the information is provided and my task would be to translate it from particular kind of tech-speak to the kind of English that government, politicians and the general public would understand. At other times, I’ve been given a free reign to inculcate the feeling of being “out there” – in the hearts of those who read it. To make that siren call audible. The only way to do this is through science fiction.
AGA: Hmmm "to make that siren call audible." That's very powerful. Share something which shows this skill of writing about space, that talent to be able to touch a place you've never been..that makes the siren call heard, to you.
HS: From my first book:
“There is a sense in which time is always present as space. Quantum physicists and astronomers describe the time/space differential as the result of space travel at --or near-- light speed. And yet the point at which space becomes time (and the reverse) exists as a constant in everyday life as the verb "to be".
"Where are you?" carries within it the word, "now."
"What time is it?" implies both "now" and "here, in this space."
Among the many unanswerable questions I have pondered over the years was one posed by my son when he was about six years old:
When asked: "What time is it?" he replied, "What time is what?"
This is the very heart of the spiraled and unending quest of both science and science fiction: "What does it mean to be ? In this time, in this space, who are we?"
Our struggle to answer those questions is a tale of time slippage and alternate space; a delicate and determined unraveling of current quantum theory - physics to metaphysics and back again.
Quantum theory gives rise to the postulation that the universe consists of several linear, simultaneously active dimensions which coexist as interweaving patterns of timespace that are not relative to each other except at "weak points" where they meet. It indicates that several worlds may cohabit the same space at the same time, and remain unperceived because the "fabric" of one dimension is atomically dissimilar to the pattern of another.
Only at random points of exceedingly low probability, could the non time non space between these dimensions ever be traversed. Our quest is to somehow leap over that chasm called "between" - to discover the random, the serendipitous, the luminous light shining through the tight woven cloth of our timespace reality; to break through, as it were, and leave our swaddling clothes behind.”
AGA: Let's return to your favorite planet, Planet Wales, as you called it earlier. You do write about that planet with a fine hand, and it seems rich and vast: a lifetime of exploration would not be enough to discover it. Let's end this interview with a visit to that special place through your words.
HS: To bring both those worlds together for a moment, here is some connective tissue from The Bendithion Chronicles:
“The place I am writing about doesn’t exist. That is, it doesn’t exist for you. You’ll never see this place or these people. You’ll never hear them say the things that I have heard them say, sing the songs they sang to me, carry the scent of lanolin on your skin – or hear the hum of small cities in the loam beneath the oaks.
If you had gone into the post office, the heart of my village in those days, in that captured time, you might have caught a glimpse of a boy – a lost and beautiful elfin boy, as fleet of foot as he was, as they all were. But probably not. He would have disappeared from view, as he usually did, as befits an Adept in the ways of a world that disappears regularly, but is not gone yet. Not yet.
It lives still, safe in a language, so if you come to Wales from Thailand, Somalia, England or Brazil, from any foreign country, and you don’t speak Welsh, you’ll see something. But you won’t see Something Else. You won’t see Cymru [Wales].
I have read --and written--enough science fiction to know that there are ways for spaceships, worlds and men to vanish – to refract light, warp space, bend time, elude vision. I’ve read enough science to know that too. But the science fiction writers and the Welsh knew it first. Besides, I have seen it happen.”
If that’s not travel literature – and science fiction - I don’t know what is.
AGA: I always like to ask something personal at the end of an interview. What is one thing that you own that symbolizes your own personal quest?
HS: I have only one thing that symbolizes my quest and that is a ring I wear every day with four initials on it. Those initials stand for a phrase in Latin that is both impetus and emblem.
AGA: What are you working on now? What is next for Harrison Solow?
HS: Just two days ago, I sent off the children’s book manuscript I mentioned above to my agent, Laura Strachan. She is also currently shopping a North American edition of my latest book Felicity & Barbara Pym- published in the UK - to relevant publishing houses.
I’ve begun a book of short stories and a book of odd sermons, and of course, I continue to do my usual highly confidential work for private clients, most of them under non-disclosure agreements so I can’t talk about these either, but I travel daily through a lot of different worlds – each with its own private culture, language [jargon/terminology] values, mission and members. And that is an ongoing adventure.
And thank you, Gigi, for this interview, speaking of adventure. These were very challenging questions, and I had to take a few trips into the past and the future to answer them. I appreciate the invitation to be part of your fascinating series.
AGA: Thank you for spending this time with me and sharing so much of your work. It's been an extraordinary conversation. I look forward to the book!
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A bit about Dr. Harrison Solow: an author, university lecturer, creative and strategic writer/consultant to a wide variety of institutions, she has to date written/edited/executed over 500 publications and projects. I mention her Pushcart award and nominations above, but her most recent award is First Prize, Short Fiction in the Carpe Articulum Literary Review International Competition, and her most recent distinction is the acceptance of her PhD Dissertation, The Bendithion Chronicles, "As Written: No Changes" in 2011.
Her latest book, Felicity & Barbara Pym (about literature, reading, literary criticism, education and incidentally, Barbara Pym), hailed as "the treasures of a cultured mind" and "a work of art about art" was launched in London in September, 2010 and has enjoyed considerable success in both the UK and North America. She was a faculty member at the University of Wales--as well as a Writer-in-Residence, and much of her work is focused on Wales, including her forthcoming book.
You can read more of her work on her Medium page, or follow her on Twitter.