Saturday, March 24 , 2018, 3:42 pm | A Few Clouds 64º


Susan Gulbransen


Susan Miles Gulbransen: Pico Iyer — Publishing Then, Publishing Now

Pico Iyer was one of those lively, bright kids in the same class as my younger sister at Laguna Blanca. Who knew he would one day become one of the most highly regarded travel/cultural essayists and novelists in the world?

Who had any idea that his life would be off the traditional compass, with no one place he considers home, or that his travel writings would include more about our inner selves than sightseeing?

We recently made contact and talked about his publishing life, which started out in a traditional manner but veered off into Iyer’s own world.

Born to Indian parents in England on New Year’s Day in 1957, his family brought him to Santa Barbara when he was seven. Raghavan N. Iyer, his father and political scientist, taught at UC Santa Barbara. His mother Nandini Mehta Iyer, a religious scholar, also taught locally.

His next school was Eton, in England, which meant long airplane rides three times a year. That began his at-home feeling on airplanes and in airports, which he expressed in a Harper’s Magazine article.

“Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school; I fold up myself and carry it around as if it were an overnight bag.”

After high school, he did what many students do: got a job. In his case at a local Mexican restaurant.

He did what few students do: traveled for three months by bus down to La Paz, Bolivia and parts of South American before returning to Santa Barbara via Miami on a Greyhound bus.

He then did what many students do: went to college. For Iyer, it was Oxford and Harvard.

Even his summer job was far from typical. He wrote for the Let’s Go travel book series at a time when $5 a day was considered possible and popular. One summer he visited 80 towns and villages in 90 days for the series.  

When the time came to find a career path, he signed on with TIME Magazine as a world reporter.

“The one drawback of TIME (those were the days!) is that the magazine was extremely generous, in part because it was so prosperous.”

By age 25, he was bitten even more deeply by the travel bug.

“I took a three-week vacation in Thailand, Burma, Hong Kong, Macao and Japan. The company asked me if I’d mind taking four weeks! I was so enthralled that I scheduled another two-weeks trip to Indonesia and Thailand and Singapore and then another three-week trip, to India and back to Japan and Thailand.”

One habit he found early on was the need to write about each place, not the tourist sites necessarily but the people and culture, often mixed with contemporary pop trends. One writer described Iyer as “Thomas Merton with a frequent-flyer pass.”

Iyer says, “I began writing up my trips as possible chapters for a book and completed two long (10,000-word) chapters, one on Thailand, one on Burma. Not knowing how publishing worked, I just added a three-page proposal and sent ten copies out in plain manila envelopes, addressed ‘Non-Fiction Editor, Simon & Schuster,’ ‘Non-Fiction Editor, Random House,’ ‘Non-Fiction Editor, Houghton Mifflin’ and so on.”

Seven publishers never answered or would only deal through agents. Three publishers showed interested asking for sample chapters. By March 1985, Alfred A. Knopf, offered to work with him and gave him a $10,000 advance.

Once Knopf took interest, Iyer’s days at TIME Magazine were limited.

“That allowed me to go to my bosses — though I was barely 28 and had been at the job for less than three years — and request a six-month leave of absence. I spent three months traveling across ten countries in Asia, followed by three months back in Santa Barbara at my parents’ house to write my book.”

When he returned to TIME the following year, Iyer had an epiphany.

“I had so enjoyed traveling and writing that I knew I couldn’t settle into a desk job, so I told them I was leaving. I moved to a single room on the backstreets of Kyoto without telephone, private toilet or even a bed.”

I had known that his first book, Video Night in Kathmandu and Other Reports from the Not-so-Far East, was published by Knopf in 1988 but found a list on the internet that included an earlier book.

When I mentioned The Recovery of Innocence brought out by a British company in 1984, Iyer explained the odd situation.

“That book you saw listed on the Net wasn’t a real book and was brought out by someone else without my knowledge or permission. It was just a collection of my grad-school essays. My first book really was Video Night and is listed as such in all my books.”

Besides books, Iyer has written introductions written for other books (Complete Short Stories by Graham Greene) and an endless list of articles for publications like Harper’s, National Geographic and The New York Times. He is also in demand as a speaker and does oral interviews with authors.

Although he lives in rural Japan with his wife, Hiroko Takeuchi, he spends part of his time in Santa Barbara with his mother.

So what is it that Iyer gets out of travel? One of his quotes on Goodreads caught my eye.

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” 

Moving from Iyer’s early days of getting published, I asked him how things might have changed. He answered quickly.

“Though it can sound harder to snag a publisher nowadays, I keep hearing of young writers with similar stories even now. I would say that though publishing has obviously faced great challenges since my first book — less from e-books than from shortened attention spans and the almost irresistible lure of visual temptations on every side from YouTube to Facebook — there’ll always be a hunger for story and for the kind of nuance and spaciousness that only the written word can provide.”

Iyer’s writing voice has always been strong and unique, especially back in 1988. Would someone with that kind of voice have much of a chance today?

“In my experience, publishers are as hungry as ever for new voices and fresh perspectives. Not long ago, I was sent a manuscript by a writer in his twenties who, having graduated from Yale and found a good job in New York City, decided he had to take a few more chances. He headed off to the Congo, on the grounds that he knew nothing about it, had no prospects and wanted to find a different kind of life and living there.

“Very quickly he got robbed of all his savings and had no luck finding much employment. But the idea was so fresh, and his treatment of it so engaging, that the most distinguished publisher in New York snapped up his account of his wayward year. I was transfixed by it. The young writer found himself on The Daily Show talking to Jon Stewart.”

I asked him for advice to writers today.

“The main thing writers have to consider now is how they can address a topic in prose in some way that no multi-media format can do better. There’s always a way to do this — having to do with nuance or silence or complexity — but it takes a little searching, which is no bad thing. We writers don’t have all the easy options we had when I wrote my first book in 1985.”

His latest, The Art of Stillness (2014) is a small book, beautifully illustrated, published not by Knopf but TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Books, a spin off from TED Talks. In it he writes on dealing with our information-loaded world of today.

“...not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize.”

This TED-published book does not mean that his relationship with Knopf is over.

“I should add that, 38 years on, I’m still at Knopf with two more books coming out in 2019. I still have the same boss at my publishing house, a good friend, work with the same publicist and cover-designer and marketing person and couldn’t feel better ensconced in a cozy and relatively unembattled professional home.”

On an added note to readers, he says, “I try to spend one hour a day reading either literary fiction or serious non-fiction, and I find I emerge from that hour, every day, more intimate, deeper, more spacious and more subtle than I would ever be otherwise.”

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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