Kavchak: John, I've just completed my third greedily satisfying reading of The Desire Notebooks and must delightfully confess that I remain in awe of its multi-layered poetic, spiritual and mythic complexity. Most critics have shared my response: the book was chosen, in 1999, as a Top 25 Favorite of the Year by the Village Voice, and was a finalist, that same year, for the Heekin Award.
Lisa Bourbeau, a reviewer here at Web Del Sol, had this to say about the book:
"John High . . . pushes prose past myth's exploitation and across a protean inner landscape, where vision explodes on impact with the yearnings of body and soul. The story of two lovers and their passage on a train through the harsh Siberian winter, this is also the story of the Notebooks, notebooks that contain the story within a story, one that folds over-and unfolds from-a journey into the fractal of spirit."
A critic for Rain Taxi reviewed it in these terms:
"[High's book] is a difficult, haunted, heartbreakingly lyrical book, fraught with allegory, agile at 'wandering in and out of history'; it winds concentrically along parallel tracks in search of 'a language of desire that outlives each desire in and of itself."'
And in what I see as the most accurate and penetrating description of the book by Publisher's Weekly: "a story of love and death, always and everywhere."
This description resonated so vibrantly with me for this reason: despite the desolation of the book's setting and the tragedy of the main storyline, I was never once overcome with despair, but instead felt myself infused with the most intense emanations of spiritual clarity, truth and hope. I found this amazing. I mean, let's just take a look at what happens to the two main characters as they find themselves in the epi-center of the Soviet Union in the violent aftermath of its collapse. Both of their spouses, as well as the woman's father and a group of monks have been slaughtered in a final wave of terror by the retreating fascists. Then, in a blind heat of revenge and spiritual deadness, the lovers accidentally kill the woman's daughter when a bomb intended for the fascists detonates prematurely. If that isn't enough, the woman herself is dying from cancer and in the end, actually dies. But in the midst of all this chaos and death, they somehow manage to connect on the most intimate soul-level and in this way are, on the most profound level, transformed. Was this your intention, the main "message" you wanted to get across in the book?
High: The story is one of journey and transformation, there's no doubt about that, Lisa. It's simple in this way: they're traveling on the trains and falling in love. Yes, in a crucial way, you are right. The woman's journey through memory and passion and timelessness itself is what becomes the man's teaching to carry on in the world once she is gone. This is what sets him on the path of the dead monks as well as that of continuing her father's work as a translator of the lost and paradoxically 'religious' notebooks of desire.
But the various plot lines, which are admittedly complicated, weren't the most important thing, at least for me when working on the book. When it was first published, in fact, some reviewer's "unofficially" contacted me in order to get a "plot summary."
So whereas the so-called plot in the trilogy of novellas is tragic and violent and historical in nature, the central motif of the book speaks to the deeper reality that plots are illusory in their fundamental nature-they are as infinite as time itself, insignificant on the most primitive level of understanding. D.N, in its own weird way, attempts to present the illusion of narrative, and the tragedy that occurs when we believe in our stories, our personal stories as well as the political and cultural stories we are fed by the propaganda of our media and political machines. It's like an ongoing film, but our lives are not movies. For the most part these plots aren't real, and often they are out and out lies, extraordinary fictions.
The lovers have to wrestle with these questions and their inner struggles are what became important for me in the writing. Who says we have to believe in war to be a good person, for instance? The woman comes to understand that, and so does her lover, albeit he does so at a slower pace. Who says we have to take sides in any conflict to be a so-called good citizen? The lovers confront this in every act of their being because they no longer have any choice. It's an old story, and we-as in humanity-keep repeating it and so we suffer.
So you might say that in the opening novella "The Book of Mistranslations", the characters live in those lies, suffer because of them and the wars and hardship they bring about because the world around them is crumbling and deception is ravaging everyone. In "The Face of Desire", they begin to enter a lightness of journey and acceptance, of love. In "The Monks Overlooking the Story", the dead speak and give their mirthful account of all this living and dying.
I chose the motifs of death and war not only to reflect something real in my own life at the time, something that was happening in my inner and outer life, but to expose the inevitable loss that occurs when the world goes blind with its own struggle of greed and power.
We make the stories-or we buy into them, not only in art but in our daily lives, mostly because of our pain and delusion and desire and heartache. We want to believe in something, anything to make us think our lives are safe, in order-but real freedom comes in letting go of all that. The characters are really on the edge, so there's no use in bullshitting anymore. Someone points a gun at your head, or you wake up to find you're dying of AIDS or cancer, and you really want to know the truth. The lovers in D.N. gradually wake up to the raw reality of their moment-to-moment lives and that's why they can love the way
they do. It's brutal, but redemptive because there is love as well beauty in the sheer presence they share with one another. They come down to only that, the pure presence of one another in the face of all this ravage and suffering.
Kavchak: I'd like to talk a little about the form of the book. It's divided, as you mentioned earlier, into three distinct novellas or elongated prose poems. Each of these sections is a montage of the most skillfully executed, elliptical yet always evocative and compelling fragments of dialogue, scene, dream, epistle and ancient wisdom that gradually build one upon another as they move in and out of time and memory with no authorial intrusion. How did the form evolve and how would you describe what it accomplishes that a chronological, descriptive and author directed approach could not have?
High: What started as a love story between the two characters was interrupted by a vision of monks walking across Siberia when I was on the Trans-Siberian Express in '91. They hold the key to the language the lovers are attempting to translate from the forbidden and ancient texts they carry. These monks, Ezekiel, Mika and the others, and Hezhen the Witch, just came into the dream of the book and wouldn't leave. They were laughing and talking and walking along the railroad tracks as if they were used to this kind of tragedy, the kind of tragedy that was going on in the former Soviet empire and Yugoslavia. The monks overlooking the story were accustomed to it though, because they've seen each generation of humanity ravage itself out of hatred and fear again and again. Still, they're always trying to help people. But there's no use in getting worked up over it, that's what the monks try to tell the man and the woman before initiating them into the rites of compassion. That's why they're so happy and
ultimately, full of hope.
You see, because I wanted D.N. to be a simple love story at first, I tried to edit these monks "out." I had a dream and I had a plan and I didn't want them messing with my ambition. Finally, I accepted them because I had no other choice-they wouldn't go away. Yet in doing so I had to rewrite the story which was one I hoped to be uncomplicated and quick in the telling. Something with some love and sex and poetry in it. Instead, I spent seven years on the book and saw the bottom fall out of everything I ever knew or believed in. I was living in the same false reality as the characters. I just thought I was right, so I was justified in believing in the dream.
Kavchak: Is that what your characters mean when they say that "ideology has exhausted itself in the plight of humanity?"
High: Yes. We all think we're right-the Fascists, the Communists, the Capitalists-Democrats, Republicans, whatever . . . the characters in D.N. saw language itself, the propaganda of all that rightness collapse on itself. People die when that happens and sometimes they die of a broken heart.
Kavchak: Speaking of a broken heart, is it really true that in the span of those seven years you destroyed a major part of the book?
High: Yes. At some time, while traveling throughout the former Soviet empire, I threw out a thousand pages of writing, including the section called "The Book of Mistranslations" that begins the trilogy. It is told from the woman's point of view as she is dying from cancer and trying to discover her past, using morphine to kill the pain while she travels on the trains, and falling in love for the last time in this world, at least, with a partisan in the war who was formerly a priest. Ultimately she is reckoning with her own life and the violence around her and the spiritual awakening she has sought since being a little girl.
Kavchak: So you had to recreate what seems to me that very essential section-from memory?
High: Thankfully, no. In 1994 after I worked on the book for several years, I returned to the U.S. and I found the original handwritten version of the woman's diary. I immediately understood that it was the beginning of the book after all. So the monks had to move over. It was something of the miraculous for me to find these pages because the rawness of the couple's love and the finality of their passion and their sex actually foretells what will happen in the subsequent novellas. In other words, I worked backwards and the form created itself.
Kavchak: An intuitive and hard-won method that I know from experience would have never survived the "reach the largest audience possible in the most accessible manner possible" rhetoric that unfortunately, drives most conventional creative writing workshops.
High: I think you're probably right. Some editors and other writers did encourage me to revise the narrative into a more traditional format of a novel in order to reach a larger audience. I couldn't do that. I was writing into the past and the future. Both are vanishing and all the characters, all anyone, has is right now, this present moment. So you could say that the form not only exposes the illusion of narrative and time but the improvisations of the mind in the midst of terror.
I don't think we can go on confirming that illusion in art, and perhaps exposing it is the best we can do-or at least the best I could do. Without compassion, how can we heal these wounds of history and self?
Kavchak: There are so many exquisitely realized moments of poignant truth, being and beauty in this book that I couldn't waste the opportunity for giving new readers a taste of what they'll discover once they've immersed themselves in your myth. The following scene is the final one before the redemption and transformation in time of the unnamed "she" into Hezhen the "witch," the "fishwoman," the "mother of us all," and is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful of the book. Since it's taken out of context and may resist the most sincere attempts at analysis, I'd like to ask you a few questions before I set it down. First of all, what actually happens in this scene?
High: While entering the dream and the myth of dream, the woman wakes up inside of it and uncovers her true identity. She stops judging herself so she can see her own beauty. I love the way these women care for one another in a teacher-student way.
Kavchak: Their interaction reveals them both, because they are one and the same woman in the end, aren't they?
High: Yes, exactly. You see it happen like that when someone gets honest enough to tell the truth, and then they're no longer afraid, not even of death.
Kavchak: As a man, why did you decide to tell this particular part of the story from the woman's and not the man's point of view?
High: I wanted to write from a woman's point of view precisely because I couldn't all of those years, and I needed to understand why. I was closed to it, as many men are, and all of my attempts to enter the woman's psyche or soul proved that I was imprisoned by my own narrow vision. The inability to sense our interconnection, this was my problem. But once I found the woman's voice and just let her be who she is, she unfolded the love and the story of the lovers with her own fierce vulnerability, her obscure beauty and hidden strength.
Kavchak: And what about Hezhen? Where did she come from?
High: Hezhen-that old fish mother-she came into being without effort. She came to reveal that the wound contains the blessing. The woman is actually discovering herself, her deep wisdom-her freedom from all the stories and lies. So she's completely free to her passion.
You might say she's the kind of person who's had it up to here with the commercial world and all of the propaganda of religion and politics too. Yet she had to tell the story of her own death in order to move past it, to free herself. You see something for what it really is and what it is not, and you can let it go. It's like I said earlier, in order to get out of language, you have to go down crow road. It's part of the healing, this honesty, this going face to face with one's own self and insecurity and wounds. Not easy. The wound heals, teaches her to be human.
From At the River
Kavchak: I must admit that I was deeply disturbed by the few scenes in which the man seems, in her most vulnerable moments, to desire to coldly "possess" the woman sexually. What was your intent in those scenes?
High: Unfortunately most of us want to possess others because we deeply believe we are separate from one another. And there is the fear god. When fear rises up in us we want to control it, control the people and things around us and we think that is the way to protect these fears. That leads to greed and the effort to possess everything we can. I wanted to just show it as it often is, I think. Sex, greed, power, success-these are the things that keep us going around in the possession and killing game. Who's going to win? No one. A lot of us, not just men, want to do that. We think sex is a substitute for love, or that it is as close as you can get. But without understanding and respect, there can be no love and it's just another illness of our age. It's nothing new.
Kavchak: You're right-it's nothing new, but the truly astounding thing is that he becomes aware of his illness-through the Herculean efforts of the woman to keep telling him like it is until he gets it. The tragedy is that it isn't until she dies that he finally understands-the tragedy of so many of our lives.
High: Exactly. Yet she understood this all along and that's why she leaves so many signs for the man to find after her death. She leaves him the notebooks, after all. She's brilliant, amazing and I love her. She gives him the wound, and he has no choice but to try to heal it. That's how he discovers the road of angels, bodhisattvas, monks and those glimpses into the unknown that foretell his future.
Kavchak: You've included some haunting photographs in the book from the Sovfoto/Eastfoto Archives. Would you explain what these archives entail and what time and place in Soviet history they document, as well as what dimensions you hoped their inclusion would add to the book?
High: Most of the photos document the final days of the Soviet empire and I was amazed at how well they mirrored the text of D.N. When I was writing D.N. I made notes on the pages to include visual images, such as "A man and a woman standing by railroad tracking in the snow." Very simple stuff like that. It was Tod Thilleman at Spuyten Duyvil who came up with the idea of these photos which he had access to. Working with Tod was great, he's incredibly inventive with these things-he has an incredible vision and imagination. He pulled the photos and we worked on matching them with the text.
Kavchak: How was it that you found Tod and Spuyten Duyvil?
High: Actually, they found me. Every major house in New York had rejected the book and I was living in a Zen monastery, writing poems for my daughter, and not even thinking about the book anymore. Another writer and critic had given Tod the manuscript. Tod wrote me, eventually came to see me and he had this idea about incorporating the photos. I said why not? It just worked out that way and I'm immensely grateful.
Kavchak: In addition to the writing and literature classes you teach in residence at Long Island University, you also offer some very unique and highly recommended creative writing workshops online at Writers on the Net. Would you fill us in on the details of these workshops and how effective and satisfying they've been for both you and your students?
High: What I appreciate most about working for Writers on The Net is having the opportunity to interact with students from around the world. It's incredible. In my last poetry class, for instance, there were students from three different continents, sometimes writing brilliantly in English as a second language. There is very little pretense. The writers are usually writing because they need to. Mark Dahlby runs the program and I came on reluctantly, fearing the lack of face-to-face contact. Yet there is often more intimacy in these classes than in the actual classroom, probably because writers feel less inhibited. Not always, of course. In any event, I needed the cash and since Mark and I both lived in San Francisco at the time, we had a chance to talk it through. He's terrific, a Buddhist and great guy. He encouraged me to invent classes such as the Episodes & Voices, Sacred Poetries and the Spiritual Autobiographies courses and we went from there.
I also appreciate the sincerity of the students he brings in. For most of them, it's not a game or so-called career. I know it is important to get published, it's just that thinking about it all the time doesn't help us to learn our art. Art and life are the same. We really have to pay attention to each step.
Kavchak: I'm curious to know about the private John High, both as a child and a man. Would you describe your childhood as typical, and if not, why? When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer, and what form did your first writing take? And finally, who were your earliest mentors?
High: Well, I don't think my childhood was typical, and maybe in part due to that, I started writing when I was really a kid. My parents were married and divorced to each other three times, so you might get an image from that. . . I was in and out of orphanages and Juvenile Delinquent Centers. I started carrying a gun and heading a gang when I was about 15. It was a mess. I almost
killed people and had guns put to my own head.
But I read a lot, in fact, even during all of that insanity I was reading Dostoevsky and Chekhov and many of the other Russian writers, and I wrote poetry, stories, songs. I went on to be a street musician, I traveled a lot, hitchhiking cross country, hopping freight trains. I worked on farms, ranches, on fishing boats, in factories, drove combines, worked the bars, restaurants, amusement parks, and eventually I went to school again.
It came down to being in a hospital when I was about 17 after being shot point blank in the face with a .22 and I thought I was dead, but it turned out to
be illegal tear gas. The doctors said I'd never see again and the police were there-and my friends wanted to revenge it with a murder. I decided against
that, and I never really had it in me to kill people. I remember driving around once and I was supposed to shoot this person and I just decided to let him walk. Obviously it was the right choice, in every sense of the word, but it was terrible for my reputation at the time. I have an unpublished manuscript about all of this called Talking God's Radio. In it, the main character says to his father "I've always been afraid of killing people", and the father replies: "It's a good thing. They put people in the electric chair for that."
Kavchak: They also, I feel compelled to add, put people in the loony bin after something like that! I mean, how anyone could remain sane after killing someone, you know? How awful that you had to experience all that. But how redeeming that you not only survived but have come so far since then.
High: My whole life since that time has been a journey of transformation and I'm still working on it, working on it hard everyday because as the Zen say-he who lives in forgetfulness dies in a dream.
Kavchak: If there were one piece of advice you could offer a struggling,
under recognized literary writer, what would it be?
High: Be yourself. Trust that. Let go of all the expectations, projections and comparisons with other people, and do what you want to do. I'm not talking about fame and money, that's something else. Honor yourself and the work on the other hand, and something honest can happen. Honesty is brilliant, hard core honesty, that is. The 17th Century Japanese poet Ryokan wrote-"If you want to know the meaning, stop chasing after things."
Kavchak: I recently read somewhere that you'd been doing a lot of traveling. Has this been for pleasure or for study relevant to your newest projects,
High: Actually, I'm trying not to travel. I live with my daughter, Sasha, in New York and we have a pretty quiet life. She's going into fourth grade, and she's my most important teacher. We did live in Moscow the year before last because we got lucky with another Fulbright. I thought it would be good for her to see the old Russia, so we took the trains a bit and I did some readings. I was there to continue my work of translating Osip Mandelstam's Voronezh Notebooks. These contain the poems Mandelstam wrote in exile before Stalin did him in completely.
Then there's Ravage, the main thing I've worked on since The Desire Notebooks. Some of the same characters, such as the one-eyed boy, are carrying on the journey there. Here's a taste of that:
From First Kiss
Kavchak: Thanks for sharing that with us-it's beautiful, and I look forward with great anticipation to seeing the book in print once it's finished. Thanks also for taking the time to talk with me. I've enjoyed it immensely.
High: It's been great. Thank you, Lisa.
About the Interviewer
Lisa Kavchak is the Interview Editor at WDS. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org