Interview with Michael Pearson

Michael Pearson answers CNF's questions about his essay, "Innocents Abroad, 2002"

Innocents Abroad, 2002
An Interview
with author Michael Pearson

Q…What pleases you about the way your essay turned out? Are there ways in which it fell short of your original goals?

Pearson…My original goal (with the longer narrative) was to describe each of the 10 countries we visited on the Semester at Sea voyage around the world by focusing on one dramatic moment in particular that summed up each place for me. In the section on Japan, that moment was the exotic character of the culture and the otherworldly aspect of the fight that one of our students was involved in. Somehow that fight dramatized, for me the contradictory nature of Japanese culture but also the mysterious reality of travel, of attempting to understand the other. So, I feel fairly satisfied with the way the narrative turned out.

In a larger sense, though, I’m not certain I’ve done all that I want to with characterization in the story. For a writer who takes such a trip—3 months, 23,000 miles, 700 students, and 10 countries—the cast of characters, the possibilities for dialogue, for development of different themes, the opportunities seem infinite.

Q…How did your essay develop, both in your initial thinking about it and in the revision process? What happened in the writing that you didn’t expect would happen?

Pearson…At first, I thought I would have a book-length narrative, but after I worked on the story for a while it felt like a story that needed to be sharpened and focused into an essay. Therefore, the task became how to condense a lot of material into a shorter space. I determined that the best way to do such a thing was to discover what dramatic moment summed up the emotion and meaning of a given country. Then I had to find a way to connect the various moments with fluidity. Of course, one of the beauties of travel narratives is that they have a built-in shape—departure, initiation, and return.

Q…How does your experience writing creative nonfiction depend upon or depart from your work in other genres (poetry, fiction, playwriting, literary criticism, etc.)?

Pearson…I just published my first novel, “Shohola Falls,” so I’ve thought about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction. For me, writing fiction was much more difficult but also exhilarating. I would describe the difficulty this way: in fiction the page seems more blank—a whiter shade of white. Everything has to be imagined—this makes for a wonderful freedom but it also creates a powerful responsibility. When one writes nonfiction, there are interviews and research, there are notebooks filled with information. The writer is still responsible for shaping, and thus creating, the story, but there is the solace of having something specific to work with—something specific that the writer must work with.

Q…Speculate about creative nonfiction as an emerging genre in American literature. Where do you see it going?

Pearson…It seems to me that nonfiction has its place alongside fiction, alongside all literary narrative. Writers like John McPhee, Tracy Kidder, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, and others shape narrative as fascinating, mysterious and enduring as writers like John Updike and Toni Morrison. The challenges for a nonfiction writer are somewhat different than they are for a fiction writer, but finally for both it is all about the enduring quality of the story.

Q…What advice do you offer new writers?

Pearson…New writers: be honest, be passionate, be unyielding, be ready to fall and try again. Read. Read. Read. And don’t stop writing.