Thursday, August 1, 2019

Q&A with Peter Kaldheim

Peter Kaldheim is the author of the new memoir Idiot Wind. He lives in Lindenhurst, New York.

Q: You note that this memoir originated in a long letter you wrote to a friend. At what point did you decide to write the memoir?

A: In April of 1987, after I’d hitchhiked and panhandled my way from the east coast to Portland, Oregon’s skid row, I wrote a letter to my good friend Gerry Howard, in which I sketched some of the experiences I’d had while bumming across the country. Gerry, who was (and still is) a book editor in Manhattan, wrote back and said that he’d been very moved by my letter, and he suggested expanding it into a book-length memoir.

However, I resisted following through on Gerry’s proposal for many years because I wanted to publish at least one novel before writing a memoir—at least, that’s what I told myself at the time, though I would later realize that my procrastination was mainly a result of my reluctance to revisit a time in my life that was fraught with embarrassing behavior. Fifteen years would pass before I finally began to write the first draft of Idiot Wind in 2002.

I was working as a chef at Montana State University at the time, with access to the university’s email system, and I began sending Gerry draft chapters of my memoir via email. But a year or so into that first draft, I became disheartened by my inability to develop a voice that suited the material, and I quit writing. Luckily for me, Gerry refused to give up on the project so easily, and over the course of the next dozen years he continued to nudge me to make a fresh attempt at telling my story.

Finally, in November of 2015, a few months after my two younger brothers had passed away from cancer within the space of four days in July, I began writing a completely new draft, and this time I found the voice I’d been looking for all along. To my surprise, the manuscript began to grow at a rate of a chapter per month, and by September 2016, Idiot Wind was a finished book at last.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify to you?

A: I’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan’s music since the sixties, and “Idiot Wind,” from his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, is one of my favorite Dylan tunes. There’s a line in the song that goes: “I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ‘bout the way things sometimes are.” That line seemed to anticipate my state of mind when I hit the road in 1987 (and, in fact, my Dutch publisher is incorporating that line—in Dutch, of course—into the cover design of the edition they’re issuing in 2020.)

The other line in the song that seemed to reflect my personal story goes: “We’re idiots, babe/ It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” Considering the idiotic behavior I engaged in while addicted to cocaine and alcohol, Dylan’s song title had a special resonance for me, which is why I chose to borrow it for my memoir. (BTW, Lou Reed—a fellow Long Islander—said “Idiot Wind” was a song he wished he’d written.)

Q: Jay McInerney compared the book to the writing of George Orwell, Jack Kerouac, and Frederick Exley. What do you think of those comparisons?

A: Well, of course, I’m very flattered that he put me in the company of such fine writers. Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, and Exley’s “fictionalized memoir,” A Fan’s Notes, are two books I have revered since my youth, and I certainly had them in the back of my mind as I was writing my memoir. Kerouac’s open-hearted engagement with the people he encountered on his many cross-country trips was an inspiration to me, and Exley’s endearing ability to focus on the comic aspects of his struggles with alcohol and mental illness was a quality I tried to emulate when writing Idiot Wind.

As for George Orwell’s memoir about homelessness and poverty in the 1930’s, Down and Out in Paris and London, I had never gotten around to reading it until I landed on skid row in Portland, but it was a revelation to me when I did, because it showed me how little the plight of the poor and homeless had changed in the 50 years since Orwell’s memoir was published.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: That’s a good question, and I’ll answer it by quoting a great line from a Henning Mankell novel called Italian Shoes. “It’s just as easy to lose your way inside yourself as it is to get lost in the woods or in a city.” My hope is that Idiot Wind will foster a greater understanding of the “lost people” who, through bad luck or bad choices, end up sleeping in homeless shelters and eating in soup kitchens.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at work on a novel, a magical-realism tale set in southwestern Montana, that tells the story of a young woman named Callie Bergen, who, in a freak accident I’ve modeled on a real-life incident, gets electrocuted by a dead grizzly bear, and subsequently begins to exhibit bear-like behavior.

It is also the story of Callie’s budding love affair with a Japanese foreign exchange student named Yoshi, who has come to Montana to do research on his American literary idol, Richard Brautigan, whose outrageous behavior during his summer sojourns at his cabin on the Yellowstone River became the stuff of local legend. The book will be called Grizzly Girl, and I’m hoping to complete the manuscript sometime in the autumn of 2020.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just this: anyone who enjoys reading Idiot Wind should consider seeking out John Healy’s brilliant memoir, The Grass Arena, which details his life as a homeless alcoholic in the public parks of London in the late ‘70s. Healy’s book is available as a Penguin Modern Classic, and it deserves to be more widely read.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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