On Big Books and War: A Chat with Bob Shacochis

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Bob Shacochis was when I chanced to read The Immaculate Invasion, published in 1999. It’s an incisive and lucid account of his time embedded with the US Special Forces in their mission to benighted Haiti in a quixotic attempt to maintain some semblance of democracy. A remarkable effort when one considered the nearly universal indifference to Haiti’s long-standing travails (Sean Penn and Dr. Paul Farmer being notable exceptions).

I hadn’t heard or thought of Shacochis since that time, but when I received his new novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, I immediately sat down with it and tore through it in a few sittings. And though I am not a fan of literary beauty contests I thought that this book would surely be recognized by those wings of the literary community so engaged. Well okay, no nominations — but so what.

There is another novel and two story collections in the Shacochis oeuvre, and, as in the case of another underappreciated American writer, Jim Harrison (The Raw and the Cooked), Bob also has a book devoted to food and cooking (Domesticity). Not a huge bibliography, but that doesn’t account for his journalism, found in the pages of, among other publications, Harpers, Outside, and GQ.

The conversation that follows cuts a wide swath through literary as well as biographical subjects: why his latest book took 10 years to write, his knowledge of the CIA, his newfound attachment to elephants, living off the grid, his racist father-in-law, and his three dogs. Enjoy.


BOB SHACOCHIS: … every now and then I get a voice mail and I can’t figure out how to hear it.

ROBERT BIRNBAUM: You need a code.

I don’t know. (laughs) How would I know?

Yeah. Apple just released a new operating system yesterday. It’s not simple. None of this is simple.

If it’s not simple — I’m not a Luddite, I am just stupid.

I like digital technology but I am sure that all my equipment is vastly underutilized.

Oh yeah. All I do is word processing and email. Period. Read, The New York Times.

Okay, this is September 19th — talking to Bob —

— Cha-ko chis. Precocious, Shacochis.

You are Lithuanian?

One hundred percent.

Do you still go to parties and meet people you don’t know?

I have been to so many parties in the last two or three weeks I can’t —

People know who you are at those parties.

Yeah, yeah. Because I am on a book tour they are parties that friends want to have for me.

When you meet someone you don’t know, and they ask, “What do you do?” What’s your answer?

Well, I tell them I am a writer.

And then they say?

They say, “What have you written?”

What do you say?

I say, “You wouldn’t know.” (both laugh heartily)

How do you know?

Well … and then they say, “Oh, I might know.” And I say, “Swimming in the Volcano.” And they say, “I’ve never heard of it.” I say well you’re fine, that’s cool, you’re in the majority of the people in the world who have never heard of it or heard of me. That’s fine. I have done really well for myself. I’ve been very lucky. But I am still under a lot of radars. And maybe with this new book I will get off that. Certainly not being long-listed for the National Book Award —

That list was announced today. I would have wagered that The Woman Who Lost Her Soul would win a major book award.

Ron Charles at The Washington Post just commented on the long list and he said that Claire Messud, somebody else, and my book should have been on that list.

Well, there is still the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle. And the Nobel Prize.

(laughs) Yeah, there you go, the Nobel Prize. I just kicked Joyce Carol Oates out of first place for that one. My wife emailed me — she said, “I don’t care. I am interested in the prizes you have not won. Let’s get one of those.”

Are you a journalist who happens to write fiction?

If you track me chronologically you would have to say that because I started out as a journalist. I realized it would take me 10 years of dues paying, writing obits for the Paducah News or something, and didn’t like the way those 10 years looked. I thought I’d try paying those dues as a fiction writer. And if everything worked out I could come in the back door — I have a degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri — and perhaps be allowed to do the stories I want to do for the general magazines.

Winning a book award early must have been a boost.

Yeah, all the editors from the general magazines called — Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s, GQ, Playboy — “Do you have any interest in doing nonfiction work?” And I said, “You know that’s exactly why I wrote my fiction — so I might be able to do that someday.”

Having set your sights on being a journalist how much effort was it to write Easy in the Islands?

It wasn’t any effort. I just switched one sensibility to another. It’s still the same amount of labor and thought, reflection and agony. I never felt there was any difference except in one way. I am a literary nonfiction writer — I tell literary narratives, a lot of people and stories get developed and the language is just as important to me in a nonfiction piece as it is in a fiction piece. The two sensibilities that were different if you are writing nonfiction — you make an effort to tell the truth and the facts as best you can. Don’t make up shit. And, of course as a fiction writer everything is the same except that imaginary world where you are living in is now like a six-year-old kid’s, with make-believe people that you take very, very seriously. And you have to do a god thing, basically. You have to be a creator. Whereas journalism is reportage and other virtues that you bring to it are because you want to write something of value as a writer but not because you are creating anything the way you do in fiction.

What were your ambitions as a kid?

To be a writer. I have been on so many panels with other writers where they have said — Jill McCorkle said (feigns a female Southern drawl), “Well you know when I was a child, 11 years old, me and my eight-year-old sister would write short stories and we’d go ’round the neighborhood, door to door, selling them.” I said, “Oh my god you were an awful child. What was wrong with you? That just sounds terrible. Why weren’t you selling lemonade or something?”

(Laughs) What’d she say? Or did you say that to yourself?

No, I said that in the panel. She laughed. And then five minutes later I remembered something I had forgotten all these years. When I was in first grade I wrote one-act plays. And would take them to school and, you know, demand that I be able to perform them (laughs).

I hear frequently that writers begin writing unusually early —

— right. Nadine Gordimer wrote her first novel when she was five. I mean ridiculous, right? The thing is all kids at that age are creative. And they make their finger paints and write a poem. And they like reading books and they like music. And then it all starts getting beaten out of them.

I have this sense that British kids can write astoundingly well. And American kids mostly can’t.

They want to do it when they are five and six and then the system hasn’t found the right way to encourage it. On the other hand, it’s only natural that the kids who really want to do it are going to grow up and be professional writers or at least attempt to be. Or painters or musicians. That is sort of there in them at an early age. And not everybody can grow up and be that. Of course, there is nothing democratic about excellence — standards eventually cull out most of the people who say, “Oh I’d like to be a writer.” “A dancer.” “A photographer.” “President of the United States.” Sooner or later reality sets in. But the people who stick with it and persevere are going to make it. It starts early and for writers it starts with reading.

Speaking of Ron Charles (laughs), I like his take on your novel and his comment:

The novel pours forth in Shacochis’s torrential style, festooned by his baroque vocabulary, one indefatigable paragraph after another, the phrases ricocheting into hypnotic fractals of grammatical complexity that would send a sentence diagrammer shrieking in terror.

Yeah, there’s the pot calling the kettle black (both laugh). That’s a beautiful sentence he [Charles] wrote. Now try and diagram it.

A writer in The Guardian made a whole column observing that the new trend was big — meaning long — books.

I saw that. The Edinburgh Festival had all these big fat books. Yeah, why not? A lot of people like them. They are very happy to have a big book.

Did you consider the length issue for your book?

Of course. But I am sort of stuck. My first novel was a thousand-page manuscript too. It printed out to about 650 pages. If this is how you inhale life — I mean every writer inhales experience and then exhales into a form. Haiku, sonnet, short stories, whatever. I exhale into doorstops. And there is nothing I can do about it.

I wonder what it takes to spend 10, 12, 13 years on one project?

Well, that’s describing marriage. (Both laugh)

So you are married to a book for a while. When it ends is that a divorce?

It is a divorce. In fact when, Russell Banks (a friend of mine) finished his novel Affliction, he told me when he finished that writing that novel, “it was like living in an unlit cave with a really ugly nasty woman for six years.”

He does write really dark novels.

Yeah, I know — Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter.

Rule of the Bone and Continental Drift.

Continental Drift to me was just a great book — one of the great books of my lifetime. I really love that book.

There was talk of a movie — was it ever made?

No. But Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter they did.

Great movies. So, it’s not difficult working on just this one project?

I don’t know why it would be, people who design skyscrapers have to hold a lot in their mind also, for many, many years.

There are not a lot of people who design skyscrapers.

There are not a lot of people who write the really big books that are literary and complicated. In terms of the mental wattage that you are burning it’s akin to designing a skyscraper. You have to keep it all in your mind. Sometimes I would get to page 400 or 500 and I would have to flip back and see what the hell I was writing about — how exactly did I end up here? That’s not hard to correct. Most people who go to work have that same feeling of “where am I, what am I doing?”

You don’t start with an outline.

I never do an outline. That to me would just make the writing boring. To know every step that I had ahead. No discovery? The reason I took 10 years — I kept a time log. I would log when I wrote and log out — just put it in the margins of the manuscript. And I added it all up after 10 years and in aggregate it was four years. Why did it take 10 years? For two years I had to take care of parents who were dying. I had a wife who was seriously ill and was in danger of death if she didn’t have colon surgery. I had beautiful dogs and one became very sick and it took a year out of my life. I was raising a traumatized little girl, my wife’s niece — my wife’s sister died and we inherited the kid. I was also building a house in the mountains of northern New Mexico, by myself. So my parents, book six, raising the kid, book seven, taking care of my three beautiful injured sick dogs, book eight … this is how the other six years went.

Do you normally log your writing time?

No, it was only because I knew I had very little time to work on the book. I really wanted to know, ultimately how long — if I had just had the time to write the book — it would have taken me. The answer is four years. The one clear year I had from the time I started writing it, in 2002 until I finished in December of 2011, was 2006. I bet I wrote 35 percent of the book. It was clear, no crisis, no traumas, no responsibilities that you couldn’t run away from in your domestic life.

What did you finally turn in — a complete manuscript?

It was complete.

Meaning no revision was required?

Well (laughs) it didn’t require much revision. What it required was less tonnage.

Oh, it was a longer book?

I turned in 940 pages. Grove Atlantic hired a freelance editor named Brando Skyhorse, who was terrific and I took 60 percent of his advice. And I took a lot of advice from a former student of mine who is a great editor — a guy named Josh McCall. Altogether that took out 70 pages of the book. And Elisabeth Schmitz, my real editor at Grove, asked, “What went wrong with the edit?” I said, “Nothing — Brando was fabulous. I listened to him 60 percent of the time” — I had never listened to anybody, even one percent of the time before. I thought it was successful.

She said that it was still too big. So she took a whack at it and was able to take out 12 pages.

Despite it all, it’s a tight book. And even then I went in and edited myself for the first time.

Was there a page count goal?

She kept saying, “No Bob, we just want the book to be the best it could be.” I said, “Baloney. I am going to go through and return it back to you and what is the first thing you are going to do? You are going to turn to the end and see what the page number is.” She said, “Well, I’d be curious.” Yeah, yeah. I took out 70 more pages. In the end about a 170 pages were taken out.

Had you been left alone with the manuscript would it have made a difference?

Maybe in few very small places. But people say it’s a page-turner and that’s because of all that editing — it made faster. No scenes were lost or anything. Ron Charles should have seen that first draft if he wanted to see some baroque shit.

Is Haiti the worst place in the world?

No Syria is. Or Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’m thinking of that Herbert Gold book.

Best Nightmare on Earth. It is ill-fated but the people are beautiful. They are some of the sweetest and gentlest, nicest people on earth — they have just been made to eat shit for centuries.

I was in Nicaragua in the mid-’80s and felt the same way about the Nicas. How does that happen?

BS: Because they are so poor, they have a different values system. They want to have happiness in their lives. Even if they have nothing they still want to have happiness. Where does it come from? It comes from family and community — other people. Really, being a white middle-class kid from the American suburbs and going to the Caribbean at the age of 21 and living with poor black fishermen — they taught me a lot about how life should be lived. Ultimately, it is the poor people who can teach you the best way to live. Not rich people — they don’t have fuck to teach about how to live the good life.

I was reading Adam Phillips’s little book On Kindness — where he maintains that kindness is innate and that people get genuine pleasure from being kind. Like Mark Twain’s “secret kindness.”

Anybody who tells me that kindness is weakness I will punch right in the face. How do you like this weakness you fuckhead? (laughs)

You were in Haiti for 18 months when you wrote Immaculate Invasion.

With Special Forces. But I was in and out. My wife was ovulating then, and we were trying to make a baby. So I’d parachute back into Florida to have sex with her. And then get back to Haiti with the 3rd Group, Special Forces.

Did people read that book?

I don’t know.

Did it sell?

I don’t know.

That was a risky book for a publisher.

My publisher didn’t like it. It was Viking, and they told me when they saw the book, “This isn’t what we wanted you to write.”

What did they want you to write?

A policy book. I said, “That’s not what I do.”

Who has formulated a viable policy for Haiti that anyone has paid any attention to?

I guess they thought I had the answers.

You spent time in the Balkans —

 — yeah, they are so pretty. Kosovo looks like Vermont. It’s just gorgeous.

And the people?

The people have this problem that they have had for 500 years, or maybe even more.

They hold grudges.

In the 15th century the Ottoman Empire came crashing to the gates of Vienna. And when they were swept back they had been there long enough for a lot of people to have converted to Islam. But they were European people. And there you are — like the Palestinians and the Jews. They are the same people. Different religions but same people, whacking each other century after century. A Serbian woman I spoke to when we were at war in Kosovo — she was affluent, college-educated — I asked, “Serbs are going into Kosovo and massacring this people down there, there are a million refugees now over in Albania, aren’t you disturbed by that?” She said, “No! They are Turks.”

Are the grudges and animus in the Balkans particularly deep and virulent?

Yeah, there is a tribal mentality and tribal mentalities and tribal social structure — one of the reasons the tribe has survived is because they won’t forgive you if you fuck with them. And they will remember when you fucked with their great-great-great-grandfather.

Like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Yeah, no one is willing to let go — someone lets it go on one side and it starts up again when someone does something bad or marries across the boundaries, whatever it is.

Despite the internecine conflicts, one of the highest values in Afghanistan is hospitality — even with one’s enemies.

Yeah, that’s Bedouin. They passed that around as they moved about in Central Asia. It’s ingrained in the culture. In Haiti it’s the same too. People, even if they have nothing to eat, will still share.

I found that to be true in Nicaragua — maybe that’s endemic to peasant communities —

Sooner or later everybody is in trouble. Or far from home — and this is how you want people to treat you.

I noticed that in Cuba, people were nice to each other, seemed to take care of each other.

Cuba is fabulous. I really don’t want the embargo to end (laughs). I don’t want American tourists to be able to go to Cuba. They’ll ruin the place in months.

You think? People do say that but I think whatever ruination may take place it will have a distinctly Cuban style or twist. A Disneyland in Cuba will be distinctly Cuban.

It will be Fidel-land. American culture is toxic. It’s narcotic — with the most potent narcotics ever invented. And what makes Cuba so great is that they have been protected from it, isolated from it. They know about it, but still they have to be hunkered down there with their own traditions and culture. We’ll just poison it. Not maliciously. It just will happen.

The storyline of The Woman who Lost Her Soul, which takes place over a half a century, grew organically? Jackie Scott, the daughter of —

 — she didn’t grow organically. Jackie was not organic, she was real. A real person who I don’t know her name. I spent only about 36 hours with her. Young, blonde, infuriating as shit, and she was a freelance photojournalist. I don’t know her name. I probably knew it a week after I met her but then forgot it. But she asked me if I knew about voodoo and blah, blah, blah — “Will you take me to meet a voodoo priest?” She asked if I believed that people could lose their souls. And I said, “Yeah, sure, what the fuck.” And then she said, “I’ve lost my soul.” And I said, “How the fuck did you, are you kidding me?” Everything that the guy [Tom, the character] says in the book. Then after that the voodoo temple scene is reportage too. What went on there between me and her. I wanted to kill her. And then after that I never saw her [again]. Every other iteration of her in the book, as with most of the Haiti stuff, is made up.

Did you suspect she was a spook?

Absolutely not. I grew up in the world of the CIA — so I know a lot about it. And I did want to write about how our culture became contorted and driven toward this state of permanent war that we are in right now. And those are the places you have to begin looking — the military, the intelligence community, and then religion.

Do you know a book by Don Winslow called The Power of the Dog


It’s a narco-terror novel that includes all the things you just mentioned. Everyone is complicit in this plague.

Well, they are.

In your novel you have three shadowy power brokers (who play golf together and hold important meetings on golf courses around the world) who go under the acronym FOG. I assume that was purposeful —

 — yeah, as in wink-wink.

The Fog of War. Readers will see that as fiction

 — it isn’t. My father was the founder of the International Country Club, where these guys were playing. My dad was busted for some of the things he did with the CIA — he wasn’t in the CIA himself. I went to McLean High School. That’s CIA. I went there before they built Langley High School, so in 1968, we were all, the Great Falls (Virginia) kids and Maclean kids, we were all still together. Every kid I went to high school with, their parent(s) worked for the CIA. And then we all went to college in 1969 — we all came back with long hair, half had dropped acid, were in the antiwar movement, and all those kids got summer internships at the CIA. So it’s been my world forever. I never think twice about it.

I thought Yale was a special conduit to the CIA.

No, it’s everybody. But the people at the top are a little bit different. Like Bill Casey (pauses). Real different.

And they are not controllable?

No, no.

I got the sense the FOG characters were not acting officially.

They were implants. Their official jobs are at State and Defense and one of them is really formally identified as a CIA Deputy Director. I think the CIA has its own people in different government agencies where everybody knows they loop back into the agency.

It’s not a new story — the corruption and self-interested operations in the world’s secret services. There never seems to be any groundswell of concern — even now with NSA spying revelations.

Americans don’t seem to give a shit about anything.


Taxes. America right now is not a healthy country. And it’s something in our spirit that’s gotten tainted. And on top of that taint is the fear. We really got rocked on our heels by 9/11. All Americans did — “So if you want to listen to everybody’s phone calls, we don’t give a shit. Just make sure we don’t have any more planes flying into buildings.” Too much fear!

Privacy was illusory anyway.

Sometimes in a phone call or email I’ll get a bug up my ass about the NSA, the email will just say, “Al Qaeda, dinner at 9.” (laughs)

Even as an immigrant child I never saw the Eisenhower years as a peaceful idyll — Korea, Hungary, Eastern Europe, Suez, Lebanon, Cuba — 

Even WWII was different. Pearl Harbor was a distant affair and the Japanese were identifiable and easy to find and kick the snot out of. To me 9/11 and Pearl Harbor were not similar at all.

I don’t recall 50 years of peace.

There has never been a generation not at war. What astonishes me so much is that Americans don’t seem to understand we are a warrior nation. And a warrior culture.

Gil Scott-Heron said something like “peace is not the absence of war but the absence of the threat of war …” That hasn’t happened, ever.

And now it’s so much about money. Why is Raytheon so excited — they want to rotate their bench stock of cruise missiles like bottles of wine?

What’s the downside — kill a few Arabs?

See any hope in altering the power structure in the US?

I guess you have to “occupy” and then the cops come in and beat the shit out of everybody and then as along as the cops are beating the shit out of everybody, maybe we’ll get a critical mass of converts — “We are not putting up with the police state. Stop!” But I don’t know.

Were you hopeful when Obama was elected?

Of course I was. I cried. I voted for him twice. And I was in Africa soon afterward and people were asking, “So what did you think?” I said, “To me it was the most hopeful moment in my life as an American.” I was in a country that had just been at war with itself for the past 30 years [Mozambique]. A million people were killed, and during the height of it, it was compared to the killing fields of Pol Pot, it was so awful. And right now it’s one of the mellowest places I have ever been. It’s like Haiti with its shit together. And they were very curious about the election. I said, “Your civil war was 30 years long, and so many people were killed. The American Civil War lasted four years and the fighting stopped in 1865, but the war never really stopped. And now this is the beginning of the end of that civil war. Finally. Well, huh, boy was I wrong. Because I really thought there was going to be — well, I hoped — that there was going to be a post-racial America now. And instead we got the exact reverse. We have a more racist America than when I was a little kid with separate bathrooms and all that. I can’t believe the racial hatred in America today. And I want to fire my own hatred at those people — fuck them all.

Lots of young and first-time voters voted for Obama.

My father-in-law is 92 years old, and I banned him from my dinner table long ago for saying (I’m going to use the N word here), the day that Arizona voted for a Martin Luther King Day (the last state) it was announced on the radio when we were having dinner at my house and my wife’s parents were visiting us. And he said, “They are still talking about that nigger. Why are they talking about that nigger?” And I said, “Paul you can not sit at my dinner table and talk that way.” And he said, “I’m not getting up.” And I said, “Good.” Then I got up and ate in the living room.

What did your wife do?

He’s mistreated her all of his life. I’d like to shout this on the street — “Fucking people you can’t stand it that a nigger is running the country.” So these ignorant people think a Black Muslim is running the country —

 — who wasn’t born here.

He wasn’t born here and he’s running the country, I can’t stand them.

At least he is articulate. He brought me to tears when he went to Newtown and recited the names of the murdered children.

And then you see what he is up against, trying to change the gun legislation.

Joe Nocera at The New York Times keeps a tally of the gun deaths since the Newtown massacre — that’s quite discouraging.

Right, it’s astonishing. More people than are killed in Iraq.

So, are you happy with The Woman Who Lost Her Soul?

Oh yeah. Here’s what I really feel — I’ve done good work for the 30 years I have been writing and publishing, since 1985 when I first started. I really don’t think I have written anything that needed to be written or read. I think I might have done that this time. And I think the book might last, this time. There are not that many novelists producing literature about this stuff and how the country has become what it is … A hundred years from now people will want to look back and know. And they can watch the films and watch the newscasts and read the newspapers. There needs to be some novels that tell them exactly too — who we were, what it felt like to be here in the country. And also, just be a good story.

Which it is.

It makes me cry.

You know Haiti well — did you have to research for the Istanbul and Balkans sections?

I have never been to Croatia — I have been everywhere else.

So the WWII material that alludes to the various resistance groups and quasi-Nazi groups —

 — oh, I just have so much fun reading about all those things. The Croatian Army at the time was called the Ustaše and they were Nazi allies. So that was fun to read about and I suppose why I chose a Catholic character who has experienced the atrocities of the Communists and the Muslim partisans and his dad was a powerful Nazi commandant during the war. When my parents became senior citizens (it was their grandparents who immigrated), they went to Lithuania for the first time to look up relatives and they had a hell of a time finding them because they were — this is speculation, but my parents got the vibe that they had been Nazi collaborators and then Stalinist collaborators. And now that the country was finally free (the first country to secede from the Soviet Union) they were on the outs. That stuff sort of transferred down into Croatia.

And Istanbul?

Oh, I love Istanbul — it’s my favorite city on earth. It’s incredible, and Turkey has more Roman ruins intact — stadiums that look like you could go play football in them tomorrow. And temples — some of them sunk into the sea — ancient Troy. Ah, what a great place it is.

Do you sail?


Which allowed you to write about sailing around the Black Sea. You provide a lot of verisimilitude to this story —

 — right and the characters are real to me, they really are. And when they get hurt or die or do something bad I have an emotional reaction to that. Of course, if I don’t or any novelist doesn’t feel that way about the characters, the reader will never be able to make the connection.

I am trying to remember who the [Richard] Holbrooke character was?

It was Holbrooke himself.

Did you call him Holbrooke?

I did, it comes at the very end of the book.

Hmm, I read to the end — was he, in fact, such a brusque, dismissive person?

He was a very abrasive guy. That’s why he and Hillary Clinton never got along.

He is well regarded as a diplomat. He’s responsible for the Dayton Accords.

He was awesome and supposedly did pretty good work in Afghanistan. But Hillary Clinton hated him (that’s what other people say). His heart gave out. I am not surprised. I am surprised that his heart lasted so long. I mean, I am on a 30-city book tour (laughs). I may not make it to the end of it. And these guys are on a plane every day and getting off the plane and working their asses off.

You have given some kind of answer already — what do you want to get from a 30-city book tour?

It’s a way of making noise. I was just talking to Morgan Entrekin (publisher of Grove Atlantic), I said, “Morgan, I am so happy. For the first time in my life, every bookstore I go into I see my book, and it’s out front. I have never had that experience. I am thrilled.” He said, “ Yeah, we talked about that and went back and forth but we decided to spend the money” — They have to pay for that up-front positioning — “but the issue was people really don’t buy a lot of hardback books at the airport. But what it does is that everybody sees it. Everybody sees it. The title sticks in their brain and then maybe they go to their independent bookstore — ”

 — or maybe they buy the ebook version.

That’s what he said. And he said something no one has ever said to me: “Your book is selling right out of the gate. It’s doing really well, and I would never tell you that. If I told you that and it was a lie, you’d really hate me.”

So are bookstore appearances tied to what a store orders?

My publicist asked me about how much stock we should tell the store to order. I said I didn’t know — I didn’t think that many people would show up. But in Oxford, Mississippi, I signed [books] until my hand fell off. I signed 150 books. You never know, but I don’t think there is any commitment from the bookstore.

Once this running the gauntlet, or whatever you call it, is over, what are you intending to do?

Go home and have sex and take naps. And be with my beautiful dogs.

What kind of dogs?

Irish Setters.

I had two Irish Setters but they were too crazy for city life.

Absolutely, they are like thoroughbred racehorses. I am 8,000 feet up in the mountains in New Mexico. My back fence is the national forest. Every morning I walk the dogs three miles up and out and then spend the rest of the day just (makes a snoring sound).

Any desire to continue to travel the world as a journalist?

Less and less.

The thrill is gone. Are there things in the US —

I am going to Africa. I will still do a lot of work in Africa.


Well, I was helping out Greg Carr with Gorongosa National Park. He’s a philanthropist. He is rebuilding that park because it was destroyed during the war. And I have just fallen in love with elephants, and there is somebody who wants me to do a book on elephants and the slaughter of elephants in the 1930s — it takes a lot to kill 3,000 elephants. It became a model for the death camps and mass murder during WWII.

I saw a show on 60 Minutes about an elephant orphanage.

About Dame Sheldrick in Kenya. My wife adopted four of those baby elephants.

Is there something in the United States that needs your attention?


Indian reservations?

I am surrounded by three Indian reservations. That’s where I buy my cigs.


The ones up by me don’t have casinos. The ones down on the road to Santa Fe on the big highway, they are like Atlantic City — really huge. Their revenues are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Indians love it. The people who are filling those casinos are Latinos, Hispanic people … The people who came and took their land — now they are getting them back in the casinos. (laughs). There is a nice little irony to it.

What cultural resources do you draw from to get information? Movies?

Books. Movies, but in New Mexico I can’t stream a movie so I have to get a DVD to watch a movie. Otherwise it’s a two-and-a-half-hour round trip just to watch a movie in Santa Fe or Taos. I’m not into that. That’s why I rarely go out to a restaurant — we’re too far away. So we are hunkered down in a special forces survival camp —

Do you have any close neighbors?

No, not really.

Is there a town that you live near?

No, it’s a 45-minute drive one way to a post office. We just love it. At this time in our lives that’s a fulfilling dream. Last summer we drove to Glacier National Park, and this summer we went to the Oregon Coast. I wanted to see Barry Lopez and [poet] Debra Gwartney and some other friends. But really, we thought it sucked. Oregon is a nanny state. The roads in the national forest are paved. I don’t want to be anywhere in the west where the forest roads are paved and the campgrounds all have some old bastard who is the “host.” You can’t find any primitive camping where the dogs can run around.

Lots of rules?

Yeah, rules, rules, rules. Highway 101 on the most beautiful coast in America is all solid traffic. So we said, like no, we are not ever doing this again.

So you are isolated where you live.

Totally. Really isolated, off the grid. Solar energy. I have a satellite dish for the internet and one for TV — I am a news junkie. I am not going to not have TV because I don’t want to be far from the news.

Other than your wife, are there long periods when you don’t speak to anyone?

Yeah and there are two, two and half months when my wife isn’t there. Her professional life is centered around Florida, and she has to be there. But I am not lonely. I do get horny. My dogs are all I need to be happy. Then her, in that order (laughs). It’s the same for her — dogs first, me second. I made some friends downhill from me — people who live in a village that is their ancestral home. They are Spanish. If you say Mexican, it’s like calling them “niggers.” They told me, “We got rid of the Indians and we are not through yet. You are on our land.” They have grazing rights in the forest and sometimes they will yell at me because my dogs upset the cattle, “Control your dog or we’ll kill it.” I said, “If you kill my dog, I am burning down your house and killing everybody in it. And after we burn down your house I’ll get a bulldozer destroying what’s left and then I’ll be salting the fucking earth.”

(laughs) This is how blood feuds begin.

I’ll be glad to start a feud if someone hurts my dogs. My dogs are so sweet.

Was that just a random threat?

No, ranchers shoot dogs.

Just because they bother the cattle?

They don’t bother the cattle. They just like shooting — they say they bother the cattle. Although the truth is a pack of wild dogs can take down a calf or a young cow.

What have you read lately that you liked?

I just read The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by my pal Kevin Fedarko. It should have been a best seller, but it was totally crunched by Simon and Schuster with Barnes and Noble. They wouldn’t carry any of Simon and Schuster’s first authors or mid-list. So Scribner’s didn’t do anything for him. His book was great. It’s about the Grand Canyon dam almost breaking during the 1983 floods. Record floods.

What’s next?

I already have a contract for another novel. I want to write that and then my book on elephants. If I ever want to write more than that I’ll be pretty old by then.

You assume it will take a while?

Well, look at my record (laughs). Grove Atlantic says “Two, three years Bob. C’mon.”

Do you feel compelled to write every day?


In spurts?

Yeah, I binge. When I did get going on The Woman Who Lost Her Soul the writing was coming easier than it ever had — coming out at a better level. I wasn’t being such a retard the first time I wrote a sentence.

We did begin with you saying that writing was hard and tortuous —

Isn’t it? People who say it’s fun — I don’t know what drug they are on. But I want some of it.


Robert Birnbaum’s has interviewed many writers for LARB and other outlets.