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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Pilgrimage, Writer Jealousy, and Piss-Filled Mission Laundromats

Posted By on Thu, Aug 23, 2012 at 10:00 AM

  • Rose Lichter-Marck

Gideon Lewis-Kraus's A Sense of Direction is a mesmerizing and manic dispatch written before, after, and during three pilgrimages the writer began in 2009. In a kind of blissful, domestic purgatory in San Francisco, Lewis-Kraus exiled himself to Berlin. There he enjoyed a hedonistic last hurrah, the type that usually precipitates an ascetic life. The novelty of libertine Berlin, with its woodland raves and abundant romance, was infinite, and suffocating.

Held to a drunken promise, Lewis-Kraus joined fellow writer Tom Bissell in Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. They bickered and collected notes, rallying in playful competition over who could come up with the better anecdote. Gideon's recollections became rambling emails to family and friends about the experience, and more broadly, about his life. They weren't immediately book-worthy.

On the next pilgrimage in Japan he went solo, wandering around the secluded island of Shikoku and ignoring most of the island's 88 Buddhist temples. And finally in Ukraine to visit the tomb of an 18th century Jewish mystic, Lewis-Kraus tried to reconcile with his father, a former rabbi who concealed his homosexuality well into Gideon's adulthood.


A bad travelogue-memoir asks the reader to project their own "soul-searching" into the text, to fill in for the author's garbled or vacuous meanderings. A Sense of Direction is more evolved, meticulous in its thought experiments, funny, and conversational in its delivery. The narrator's curmudgeonly wit is targeted at himself and others, but he cycles back to compassion.

We spoke with Gideon about why anyone would want to become a writer, let alone a perpetual pilgrim.

You were in California to attend Stanford, then in San Francisco for a spell before moving to Berlin. What was post-grad life like? In the book you describe the minor humiliation of living with your younger, financially stable brother.

Oh, that's funny, it never occurred to me that it should have been humiliating; I just felt lucky about our arrangement. (As I note in the book, he paid two-thirds of the rent and I did the cleaning and the laundry. We lived at 16th and Guerrero and I used to do our laundry at the place catty-corner from the 500 Club until I saw somebody systematically pee in all the washers.) Post-grad life was idyllic: I worked at McSweeney's for a while and those people are all still my closest friends and most trusted editors, and then I started freelancing and copyediting and doing all sorts of writing-related things for money. I lived cheaply. Deciding to split probably had less to do with courage than with some variety of late-twenties masochism. It was more like my life felt too pleasant and unchanging. My life's comfort felt somehow unearned.

How were you making a living in Berlin?

For the first year I had a Fulbright. The German government gives more Fulbrights than any other country, so they're not that hard to get if you speak some German, though it means they give you just enough money to enjoy a frugal student lifestyle. But I also continued to write for American magazines, and money went almost infinitely farther there. In my first year I lived on about $8,000.

At the end of the Camino de Santiago, you're given a certificate of completion, where they ask you why you did the pilgrimage. The popular answer is weight loss, the noble one is religious. Your motive wasn't readily knowable. In a review of your book, the author suggested that the motive was to "fix" your relationship with your father, a gay rabbi whose sexuality didn't upset you as much as what you perceived to be his deception.

I don't think that's why you went on the pilgrimage, especially since your father was nearly absent from your first drafts, and only came to be included at the suggestion of your editor. I don't even think it's necessary to have much pretext for trekking through Spain. Would the why of such a trip be important at all to you, as a reader?

Well, a big part of the book -- a big part of pilgrimage -- is that the why is less important than the that, and the book is about grappling with the that. When it came to my dad, I think I spent a lot of time wondering and worrying about why he'd done what he'd done -- how, for example, he'd used his sexuality (first as a closeted man, later as someone newly open about being with men) -- that, when we finally got a chance to talk about it, it was a kind of relief to understand that the why was largely irrelevant, that the point was to move forward in the context of the that. If that makes any sense.

No, the point of the book was not to "fix" my relationship with him. The point, or at least one of the points, was to talk about how thinking of something as a pilgrimage invites us to rise to the occasion. The storyline about my dad just dramatizes that: We both rose to the occasion.

How would you contrast being a pilgrim with being a sightseer? Are the two so different?

This is one of the arcs of the book. In the beginning, I, along with most other pilgrims, differentiate myself by saying that I may be a traveler but I'm not a tourist. Basically the worst thing you can call a pilgrim is a tourist. But by the end of the book I come around to complicating this, to suggesting that tourists and pilgrims are generally after the same sorts of things. A pilgrim sets out to travel with some expectation of change, but doesn't a regular tourist do that too? We all just want to set ourselves up for encounters that will surprise us, and move us, and that we'll remember.

I wonder how this narrative would have been framed had you not been a writer. What might you have been? Would you have moved to Berlin, gone on a pilgrimage, reconciled with your father?

I don't even know how to begin to answer this question! So much of this book -- or at least the subtext of this book -- is about how the fact of my dad's struggle with his own sexuality was one of the things that made me want to write nonfiction. Like, writers love to quote that line of Proust's that's something along the lines of, "The best training to be a writer is jealousy." In my case, it wasn't about jealousy, it was about accountability. My childhood made me want to do a job that involved the ongoing performance of accountability.

How much did you and Tom Bissell talk about writing? I thought the exchanges between the two of you, time spent mocking the other's bad habits, were fun and got to the very real sense of competition between writers, no matter how brotherly their predicament might seem.

Oh, Tom and I talked about writing constantly. Our whole relationship, from the beginning, has been about writing: I first met him in 2003, when he was on tour for Chasing the Sea and I was working at Cody's on Telegraph (of blessed memory). I bugged my manager to let me introduce him, and then I spent like three weeks working on my four-minute introduction. I think I freaked him out a little. But we became friends, and we still show each other early drafts all the time. And naturally we bitch constantly about other writers, which is what writers do best.

Each day whenever you stopped walking on the pilgrimage, you loitered in rest homes and Internet cafes, and checked Facebook. A lot. Which feels like a necessary but maybe evil part of our world. Your opinion is that it actually might deepen our experiences. Can you elaborate?

I think that people talk about Facebook and e-mail as distractions, but I think that the natural follow-up question is rarely asked, which is, distractions from what? I mean, one could probably argue that anything besides sitting in an unlit room and meditating on your own death is a form of distraction, but it's unclear where that's going to get you. In the book, what I wanted to do was show that there were ways in which these technologies deepened our experience of the transient moment more than it drew us away. There was something special about meeting someone on the Camino, spending an hour or two talking to them about their lives, finding them on Facebook, and then getting these drifting intermittent reminders that they continue to exist and worry about the same things they told you about when you met them. I'm glad I have those flurrying reminders of those fleeting friendships.

Is the Eat, Pray, Love comparison beginning to grate on you?

Not at all. The tone of that book is a real achievement. It takes a lot of work to sound that effortlessly conversational.

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