What Philip Graham Knows

Today I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Philip Graham, author of the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, the story collections The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and three other books of memoirs and prose poetry. His latest book, about to be released from The University of Chicago Press, is titled The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon.


October 1, 2009

Today I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Philip Graham, author of the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, the story collections The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and three other books of memoirs and prose poetry. His latest book, about to be released from The University of Chicago Press, is titled The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon.

This book was written during Philip’s recent sabbatical year from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches creative writing. He is also a co-founder and the current fiction editor of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter at UIUC, and for full disclosure I should say that he has an office down the hall, and that it’s much, much nicer than mine. The other thing we have in common is that we’ve both written for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, where most of the dispatches in his book first appeared.

Philip’s writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, North American Review, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and many other venues, and he’s won a bucket of awards, including an NEA Fellowship and an NEH grant. He’s also an awfully nice guy.


Hi, Philip, and welcome. Thanks for so generously mentioning me in the acknowledgments for your new book. I see my name comes right after those of your immediate family, and way ahead of Roy Kesey’s.

Actually, you were included in the acknowledgments well before Roy Kesey because your editorial comments were way, way, way better than his. True, the letter G [For Griswold, my real name. –Churm] does come before K, but I believe the universe works in mysterious tandem with the alphabet. I’ve noticed that the best and smartest people all have last names that begin with A.

That accounts for Aaron Aardvark then. Speaking of Roy Kesey, who once wrote his own dispatches from China, there have been several who did excellent work in that form, but only a couple of you have gotten book deals. How’d you make it happen?

I’d never intended to write a book of dispatches. The whole idea started as a sort of experiment. I’m a big admirer of Roy Kesey’s writing—as fiction editor of Ninth Letter I’ve had the pleasure of publishing a couple of his short stories. When I came upon Roy’s dispatches, I flipped at how well he expressed the various strains of his humorous and insightful soul as he traveled through China (though, alphabetically speaking, his dispatches are not nearly as humorous or insightful as yours).

Around that time, I knew I’d be spending a year in Portugal, so I thought why not give it a try myself? I asked John Warner at McSweeney’s if he wouldn’t mind looking at my first attempts and he graciously agreed to do so. (John is gracious about nearly anything he does, have you noticed? I’ll bet he’d be gracious even when jimmying a parking meter.)

I once saw him being gracious at an AWP conference.

After my first few Lisbon dispatches appeared, people started writing to me, wondering in the nicest way if I’d be turning the series into a book. That began to seem like a reasonable idea, and so I found myself working toward this suggested book that didn’t yet exist. And strangely enough, a narrative began to appear, one in which Alma and I, and our then eleven-year-old daughter Hannah were the main characters.

When my family and I returned from Portugal, eventually I continued working on the dispatches and I asked my editor at the University of Chicago Press, David Brent, if he’d be interested in looking at a book proposal. The press had published the paperback edition of a book I and my wife Alma Gottlieb, an anthropologist, had written about our experiences living in small African villages, Parallel Worlds, and has kept it in print for over fifteen years, and David was already working with Alma and me on our sequel to that book, Braided Worlds (which we’re finishing up now). Since David was a fan of my Lisbon dispatches, the whole process was fairly straightforward.

Kevin Dolgin has a book of dispatches out too, The Third Tower Up from the Road. It’s a lovely book detailing his travels around the world and among its oddities, whether that’s a street in Barcelona where all the human statues ply their trade, or the canals in Copenhagen when they’re flush with jellyfish (ugh, jellyfish). I read them one a night to Alma, before we head off to sleep.

How’d you come to be in Portugal for your sabbatical year in the first place?

I’ve long loved the culture of Portugal, for reasons I could never quite pin down, though I suspected some part of it was connected to my own psychological makeup and that country’s pervasive embrace of saudade, a deeply untranslatable emotion that mixes longing and sadness, love and regret and passion in mysterious combinations. So it seemed a decent idea to take advantage of an upcoming year’s release from teaching and live there for a while. Also, I’d just finished a stint as the director of the MFA program at Illinois, and I wanted to drag my exhausted soul far, far away. A thousand miles of the continental United States and the entire Atlantic Ocean seemed like an adequate distance.

I’m not sure that’ll do it.

And if my own needs weren’t reason enough, Alma had come to a crossroads in her career. The people she had long studied, the Beng of Ivory Coast, in West Africa, lived on the border between two main factions of the country’s civil war, and there was no way we’d be able to return to what had become a kind of no-man’s-land for outsiders. Because my wife seemed stuck, unwilling at first to entertain the idea of moving on from a people we’d both grown to love, I suggested (she would say nagged) that she might want to switch her fieldwork interests to Cape Verde, an archipelago of nine African islands that were once a Portuguese colony (and the home of some of the most beautiful music on earth). Scads of Cape Verdeans live in Lisbon, so Alma thought this might be a good place to start, and she hit pay dirt when she discovered how many Cape Verdeans have a Jewish ancestry. The idea of African Jews so intrigued her that we took a trip while in Lisbon to explore a couple of the islands of Cape Verde, and this subject will be Alma’s continuing fieldwork for the next several years.

Yes, you use the previous Africa experience several places in the book on Lisbon. You also mention other adventures, such as crewing on a staysail schooner and driving a New York City taxi for a short time. One of your colleagues, speaking out of turn in the privacy of a public bar, once told me you’d done some daring things as a young man: Hitchhiked across the U.S. and Japan, worked as a trapper, rowed solo across the Pacific in an open boat. Do you need and go looking for material sparked by difference?

I don’t know about trapping, but I did canoe for about 400 miles on the Yukon River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Almost drowned at a place called Five Finger Rapids. Good times. As for that open boat across the Pacific, never happened—I’m afraid of jellyfish.

I grew up in a family that wasn’t much for venturing past the front lawn, so I was wound up and ready to go by the time I turned eighteen. Besides that traveling, I did try some odd jobs, too: An upholsterer’s apprentice; a Santa Claus for Saks Fifth Avenue, complete with my own throne; a bartender for a dinner theater housed in a remodeled mansion that once belonged to the gangster Dutch Schultz. I felt at the time that the suburban setting of my childhood had left me unmarked by history, so I set out to get me some.

Very little of this has found its way into my fiction. The internal journey matters most, not the geographical scuttling about, though I was too young at the time to understand that. The overwhelming experience of living in small African villages taught me how to take my first steps toward fusing those two types of travel. Strangeness elsewhere can lead you to your own strangeness.

My mom always said, “You can lead a horse to strangeness but you can’t make him think.” But this gets at the heart of your new book. In the press release it speaks of “the allure of a dispatch from a foreign land,” where you were “neither a tourist nor a local…forever between cultures, fascinated and admiring, but at the same time separate and uncertain.”

As you well know, there are a couple of schools of thought on attempting to write other cultures. Many admire the attempt and even feel that being an outsider provides an opportunity for important insights. Others think the dangers of misrepresentation are too high. How do you try to avoid the pitfalls, especially when writing wryly (“the whole country qualifies as the shrimps of Europe—only the island of Malta boasts smaller citizens”) about some aspects of Portuguese life?

I think the dangers of misrepresentation when describing a conversation you had five minutes ago with a family member or friend are high, too. Because the thoughts of others are unavailable to us, humans have to make do with varying skills of interpretation. We’re all fiction writers of a sort, throughout our lives shaping characters out of the selected and often misleading signals we receive from the people we think we know. A spotty business at best, this. But what’s the alternative except deepening isolation?

The same goes for travel, since every country on the globe shares a second, secret name of Pitfall. Yet sometimes where you live doesn’t give you what you need or want or whatever you’re secretly searching for, and when you find a place that does, that becomes the most rewarding travel, the kind where each footstep on the outside is accompanied by an echoing footstep within. These steps are necessarily tentative. In The Moon, Come to Earth, I tried to separate from myself any notion of being an expert. I was and remain simply your run-of-the-mill flawed fellow, awkwardly nosing about another culture, never quite sure what I might come upon, what might resonate inside me, attract or appall me.

So one’s needs or wants may be negative too? There’s always a tug between repulsion and attraction?

There is when you’re paying attention! I think I first traveled to Portugal with an unspoken assumption that our year there would be an uninterrupted idyll, because I wanted it to be. How impolite of the universe not to go along with my expectations. Soon enough, I began to notice aspects of Portuguese life that amused me, as an outsider, or troubled me. As the months passed, I settled into these contradictions, and the fit was more honest, the country became an old friend.

It is the writer’s problem, in a more general sense, this attempt to see into other cultures, historical periods, families, or even those closest to us, isn’t it? What do you tell your students—in fiction or other creative writing classes—about the challenges and responsibilities of sympathetic portrayal?

I tell my students that fiction is the art of imagining others, and through them, oneself. A risky business, to be sure. And I remind them that the word “self” both reveals and conceals. “Self” certainly helps us draw a useful parameter around our confusing impulses, and those of others, but at the dangerous expense of too much ignoring that most interesting multiplicity within.

We are all of us several selves. The great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa recognized this. He created a number of alternate poetic selves, which he called heteronyms, and gave them names and biographies, physical details and distinctive obsessions, and let them write their own different poetic oeuvres. One of the many things I love about the Portuguese is how they deeply understand Pessoa’s entire enterprise, and how their acceptance of his multiplicity enables them to explore their own.

As you say, you also portray in this book the experiences in Lisbon of your immediate family, including those of your daughter, Hannah, who had what the back cover quietly calls a “challenging transition” into adolescence. I believe you asked that local publicity about that be kept to a minimum. But the book looks directly at the stresses for her of a new language, being bullied at a new school, her isolation from home, and more. The cover copy invites us to “ache alongside” your family. How does the physical distance of readers change your feelings about revealing what’s intimate, even when the book is from a major academic press, you’re touring with it, and there will be many more readers outside this town than in it?

So much of my dispatches examined the life of my family in the face of another culture, so when some of that experience turned raw, I didn’t see how I could turn away. Though at first I abandoned the entire project. I’ve tried my best to write with honesty and yet delicacy, honoring privacy when necessary. But so many of the dispatches had already appeared online, and the general impression given off, I think, was what a peachy life one could lead during a year in Europe. I’d already confronted my own fantasy, I didn’t want to encourage someone else’s. Yet this was indeed a tough decision, and one not made without the support of my family.

It’s certainly sobering to read your comments on “academia’s great fantasy” of living abroad with children, and the “assumption that the richness of the experience itself will be a gift to one’s child.”

We are all connected to the world by invisible threads, but these threads are especially delicate for children. When a child is brought along for a year living abroad, so many of those threads are severed, and what remains are the strands connecting them to their parents. A child is very vulnerable at this time, more so than most parents might suspect. Since our year in Lisbon, Alma and I have heard many stories of other families whose own year abroad caused greater or lesser distress in their children. The barrage of change in Hannah’s year in Lisbon was compounded by her entry into adolescence. And this too became part of the travel book I was writing, because a child’s journey out of childhood is some of the toughest travel there is.

That said, I have to say that Hannah also managed brilliantly in Lisbon: She plunged into the language so well she’s now fluent, she earned some of the best grades in her school and made several Portuguese friends, who she keeps up with to this day. Just last week Hannah—now a thriving fourteen—startled me when she said that she felt her true soul was in Lisbon, that the city would always be the place where’d she’d feel most comfortable.

The high point of the book for me is in the chapter titled “Salvage,” which starts in a shipwreck museum on Cape Verde. Working on the motif of what’s priceless, lost, and seldom recovered, you end by seeing Hannah at a distance on the seashore, assuredly sweeping wind-tangled hair from her forehead, suddenly “the young woman she’s about to become.” Your wife sees the change too and catches her breath, “and then—surprise—Hannah skips. She skips, and I count each step.” What are you trying to do, Philip, break my damn heart?

That was a moment I’ll never forget. It was Hannah’s twelfth birthday, and because we celebrated it during our two-week trip to Cape Verde (a time that corresponded with the spring break of her Portuguese middle-school), the moment seemed heightened, especially that setting of the beach’s eerie tidal pools and the cliffs of a nearby island nearly lost in the mist offshore. She wore an African dress we’d picked up for her in the market as a birthday present, a very adult-looking dress that she coveted, and yet she wore it with sneakers. She looked so betwixt and between, this newly-minted twelve-year old, already edging up to the teen years, her gestures half young adult and half child. Alma took a photo of this skipping, this border crossing, and when I look at it I understand why the camera was invented.

You return several times in the book to the idea of being an American abroad in the Bush era. You’re snubbed unfairly by writer Jose Saramago for being a citizen of this country, your daughter is looked at as a “norteamericana object of intense curiosity in her school,” and a Portuguese TV crew even blames you, as an American, for the game show. But you’re even harder on the States. You refer to at one point to the “cultural poison” of U.S. movies and to “the stink of my own country’s shit: the illegal spying on Americans, the knifing of habeas corpus, and the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’—a creepy euphemism that echoes the apple-polished Gestapo term for torture—at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.” When you find yourself walking past the U.S. embassy in Lisbon, having read that the ambassador is “a longtime fundraiser for Bush and a businessman from Florida, of all states,” you briefly fantasize about “standing in front of [him], red-faced, giving voice to the long list of all the curses I’ve ever learned, followed by a longer list of all their variations.” You mention a parade to celebrate the anniversary of the Portuguese democracy revolution and say, “I intend to be there, waving a carnation and wishing I were waving it for my own country.” Do you feel like a stranger in your own land too? Has that changed since the book was written?

This was the fourth reason we lived in Lisbon for a year: We wanted some brief respite from the toxic cloud of Bush & Co. As it turned out, there’s no escape, the United States is simply a pervasive political and cultural presence throughout the world. While abroad, I ended up writing political satire pieces for The Morning News, donating obsessively to Net Roots Democratic candidates, even making get-out-the-vote phone calls on my Skype account from Lisbon on the day of the 2006 mid-term elections. My Portuguese friends, ever-polite and generous, kept reminding me that Bush only had two years before he left office. The whole world, it seems, was holding its breath for that moment. What’s changed since the book was written is that we’ve now begun the necessary digging through the wreckage.

As for that Portuguese TV crew, they felt I was responsible, since they were suffering through working on a Portuguese version of one of the most ridiculous American reality shows ever conceived: Beauty and the Geek. And there I was, a convenient cultural representative, watching from the sidelines as a guest of one of the show’s judges, the writer Rui Zink. Though I put my best Smiley-Button face on, I resented the accusation while at the same time I couldn’t deny it a portion of fairness. The violence and vapidity of too much American popular culture travels abroad easily. At least 90% of the movies released in Portugal are from the United States, as well as a hefty slice of the TV programming (though telenovelas, home-grown or from Brazil, are popular). How ironic, that I’d hoped to dig into the difference of another culture, only to find my own often looking over my shoulder.

The book is full of the most delicious-sounding seafood, sausages, fresh bread, peppers, cabbage, puddings. You also sample many events, such as a soccer match, a fireworks display, a stage play of Moby Dick, a cruise for dolphin-watching, etc., and you get to meet many Portuguese of course.

I was thinking in all this of where you portray the attempt to learn stock phrases in Portuguese but then call the enterprise into question by realizing you would never use similar clichés in English, such as “The grass is always greener….” Since the food, events and the language are where any of us might start, even as tourists, where does authenticity reside for you when you think of your immersive time abroad?

I was happiest when I found myself in places tourists rarely ventured. We lived a few blocks away from one of the minor soccer stadiums in Lisbon, home of Os Azuis—The Blues. Until the team started moving up in the standings late in the season, home games were attended by sometimes only a handful of dedicated locals, and I loved sitting among passionate fans defying the odds. And I highly recommend the crispy pig-ear sandwiches available at the concession stand. Once, I found myself at an agricultural fair in the small town of Santarém, wandering the exhibits among local farm families, making my way to a small arena where a local band belted out fado songs in anticipation of a bullfight, feeling as if I were swimming in waters not meant for me.

For Día do Pai, the Portuguese version of Father’s Day, my family gave me a great gift, an architectural atlas of Lisbon. This marvelous book contains the most detailed maps imaginable of over 50 neighborhoods in Lisbon, and I would study these maps in our apartment and settle on a section of the city that Alma and I could explore while Hannah was at school, some area that was way off any guidebook’s radar. Nothing fancy, just the unexpected gifts of another culture’s ordinary.

One consequence of being a writer abroad, constantly on the lookout for meaning and connections, appears to be a kind of animism that credits life to bad plumbing, faulty wiring, and beat-up cars. “I contemplate the notion that no matter where you are in the world,” you say, “you’ll find objects—so-called mere things—that, just like people, are skittish in the face of newcomers or a novel situation.” Elsewhere you speak of “magic” and say, “…I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being stalked by the invisible seams of the universe.” You feel this at home too, or only when traveling?

Sometimes Alma thinks that instead of traveling to Africa to study the Beng people, she should have simply stayed home and studied me. Certainly I’m an unreconstructed animist who walks through a thicket of shifting symbols with a tribe of fictional characters in tow. By animist, I mean that I believe there’s no such thing as an inanimate object, not because they are indeed alive, but because every object was initially an idea, a human thought that was then put in action to give that object shape. That’s why it’s so easy for people to have a relationship with an object—a favorite pen, some cherished vase or comfy chair or pair of well-worn shoes, any secretly beloved tchotchka—because we recognize the human touch, the human invention within it, as our own memories join with it.

Objects, I think, are outposts of the vast unknown of the human mind. And when traveling abroad, those invisible relations and correspondences are the ones I most look out for. It’s all part of the great quest, our endless imagining of the other.

Many thanks, Philip.


Check out Philip Graham’s The Moon, Come to Earth, and look in periodically at his new author’s website and blog, going live today.


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