Monday, March 8, 2010

Writer Interview: Philip Graham in Portugal

Writer Abroad tries her best not to be biased, but once an Illini, always an Illini so she’s more than pleased to welcome University of Illinois creative writing professor and author Philip Graham to her little space on the big wide web. He’s written a lot of stuff, but his latest book is The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, which was penned while he was in Portugal. Philip has also written for The New Yorker, North American Review, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and more. He’s a very impressive guy but Writer Abroad would expect nothing less from someone associated with her alma mater. Anyhow, welcome, Philip.

You spent a year living in Lisbon in 2006-2007 during a sabbatical from the University of Illinois. Can you first discuss why a sabbatical (corn fields got too monotonous?) and then why Lisbon?

Sabbaticals are built into an academic career—and fortunately so, since most colleagues I know work far, far more than forty hours a week! So every seven years, a professor is given a paid semester to recharge those mythical batteries, though usually a sabbatical is devoted to work—most often writing a book or conducting research.

I had been teaching full time at Illinois, part time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, was director of the Creative writing Program at Illinois, and fiction editor of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter, so I was desperately ready for some time off to ease the bags from under my eyes. I’d also received a grant with my wife Alma to work on a second volume about our experiences living in Africa, so a full year’s release from teaching beckoned. As for why Lisbon, I’d long wanted to live in Portugal and felt the call of its culture’s most characteristic emotion: saudade, a word that can only be translated in multiple ways—its combination of sadness, nostalgia, love and longing is a fruitful contradiction of sweet pain.

What surprised you most about Portugal? Any insider tips for perpetual tourists?

Though Portugal is two thirds the size of the state of Illinois, it is extremely diverse geographically, with a long coastline, several mountain ranges, long stretches of low rolling hills of wheat, beautiful river valleys, dense forests. Over two hundred castles dot its various landscapes, the pride of sometimes even the smallest towns (imagine Illinois’ Farmer City or Thomasboro with its own castle!).

But perhaps what struck me the most is how much writers are valued in Portugal. The culture of literature is quite strong in the country, and many of its contemporary fiction writers and poets are household names. Book launches and signings are covered on TV, serious novels are frequently adapted and performed as plays or operas, and even the most obscure literary prizes are covered by the media. In Lisbon, you can buy coffee cups, tee shirts, key chains and notebooks bearing the image of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s greatest poet of the 20th century. In one of the dispatches in my book, I write about the odd experience of attending the taping of a Portuguese realty show, where three of the four judges were well-known writers.

As for a tourist tip, visit the town on Monsanto, a small village perched on a craggy mountain, where enormous boulders dot the slopes and rub shoulders with the much smaller houses, and where the castle at the mountain’s crest seems hewn out of the surrounding landscape.

During your interview with Write the Book, you discuss how living abroad makes you hyper-aware of who you are as a person. How did this affect your writing and does this hyper-awareness stay with you after returning home? If so, is it treatable?

I’ve lived several times in small, isolated African villages with my wife Alma Gottlieb (an anthropologist who also teaches at the University of Illinois), and I’ve found a heightened awareness comes with the territory of breathing in the inevitable strangeness of a different culture. Any sharpened awareness is good for one’s writing, I believe—it helps undermine the habitual filtering of attention we grow accustomed to in ordinary, day-to-day life. Whenever I’ve returned home from any extended trip abroad, I’ve found my own culture now exudes strangeness—which of course it always does, if one only has eyes to see.

Is this condition treatable? Thank God no!

While in Lisbon, you began writing a dispatch series for McSweeney’s. Is this because editor John Warner is also a U of I grad and you’re a loyal guy? Or how did you get involved with the publication? How would you suggest other writers approach it?

I became aware of McSweeney’s interest in dispatches through Roy Kesey, a wonderful fiction writer who I’d published a couple of times in Ninth Letter. Roy also wrote dispatches from China, where he was living at the time with his wife and children, and I became a big fan of that series. As the time for my family’s year abroad in Lisbon approached, I began to wonder if I might try my hand at the form. But John Warner was running the site, so at first I hesitated contacting him, worrying that it might be awfully weird to have an editing relationship with a former student (let alone him having an editing relationship with a former teacher), and, of course, he might not think my idea of writing from Lisbon was worth pursuing. Luckily, my first efforts passed muster, and John proved to be a fine editor.

I’ve since recommended a few writers who wanted to pitch a series idea to McSweeney’s, such as Robin Hemley and Holly Jones, and they’ve both had successful runs on the website, writing from Manila and Washington D.C., respectively. McSweeney’s is especially interested in writers who are living abroad, and the site hosts or has hosted dispatch series from India, Iraq, Moscow and Montreal, and Kevin Dolgin travels all over the world and he writes lovely, witty dispatches about wherever he briefly parks his hat. My advice for any budding dispatch writers out there is to read through the various series on the site, then write one or two dispatches about your own exotic corner and offer your services.

Your dispatch series has been expanded into a book that was recently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moon, Come to Earth. Can you talk about the path to publication from dispatch series to book? I hear in your case, it wasn’t too painful. But since the story revolves around your daughter maybe it was for her. Could you discuss?

Almost immediately after my first dispatches on the McSweeney’s site appeared, I began receiving quite kind letters from readers asking me if I was working my way toward a book, and this gave me added confidence in the series. Especially since I found myself, as the year progressed, writing the narrative of my family’s cultural encounters with no predictable end in sight. It felt as if my wife, daughter and I were developing characters in several interweaving unfinished stories, which, in a sense, we were, especially our daughter, who began the transition from childhood to adolescence during our year in Lisbon. That year took some unexpected, at times difficult turns, and then the writing became an attempt to make further sense of it all. I strove to be honest, but also to protect my family, and I would never publish anything a loved one objected to. Everyone’s still talking to me, so perhaps I managed that balancing act okay.

As for the University of Chicago Press accepting The Moon, Come to Earth, I was already writing another book for them, and my editor there, David Brent, was a fan of my dispatches, so he was a big supporter of shaping the individual pieces into a collection.

What’s the best question you’ve ever gotten from a student at the University of Illinois and how did you answer it?

Though I primarily teach creative writing workshops, I once offered a literature class called “Violence in 20th Century Literature,” which I taught as part of receiving a university grant to write about my experiences as a volunteer near New York’s Ground Zero. I included books from all over the world, in order to expand on the definition of “violence,” from Ha Jin’s Waiting to Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, to Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, Amadou Hampaté Ba’s The Fortunes of Wangrin and Ismail Kadare’s Broken April. Near the end of the semester, a student raised her hand in class and asked, “Professor Graham, when you were choosing the syllabus for this course, were you intending on altering our lives?” The rest of the class nodded their heads, waiting for my reply, curious themselves.

My response? Open-mouthed shock and delight that literature had so moved these students.

You’re a very accomplished writer and teacher. What is your approach to autographs? Do you write personal messages or do you not have time for that?

I always write something personal when I sign a book, and if I don’t know the person I try to start a conversation and glean something of them before I begin my nearly illegible scribbling. Though last fall, after one reading an unusually long line of people queued up for an autograph and I dispensed with the individual touch; in retrospect I wish I’d simply stayed longer. Reading can be a deeply personal experience, and a writer’s autograph should be too, a little door to help open up the book.

Your question makes me think, though—if e-books take over publishing in the future, book signings will join typewriters, eight-track tapes, and floppy disks on the ash heap of history . . .

Anything else you’d like to add?

How much I enjoy your website. I think it’s a great idea—writers living abroad especially need a sense of community, and bravo to you for helping supply that. I can still taste the isolation of living in small villages in Africa. The cliché about writers is that we vant to be alone, and while a solitude of one’s choosing is necessary for creating a world out of its initially invisible threads, we writers are also sustained by our literary relationships, the time we spend with like-minded crazies.

For more from Philip Graham, visit his website or order his book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon.


  1. Thanks for the interview, Philip and Chantal. I can't wait to get my hands on this book!

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  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Kelly. I'm looking forward to reading his book as well!

  3. Wonderful interview! I'm hoping to work with Philip when I go to finish my MFA at Vermont College this summer!

  4. How fantastic to finish your MFA this summer. I think studying with Philip would be inspiring. Good luck!

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