Shrunken Heads and Globalization: An Interview with Lawrence Millman

lawrence_millman_adventures_nw_-2I first encountered the inspired writing of Lawrence Millman some 25 years ago, when I happened upon a somewhat battered copy of his now-classic Last Places in a used book store. I was instantly smitten.

The book, which chronicles Millman’s journey across the North Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland following ancient Viking sea routes was a revelation. At the time, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about Last Places : “Readers who are captivated either by offbeat adventure or by the Far North need look no further.” As a connoisseur of offbeat adventures and a student of the Far North, Last Places was right up my alley.

In the years that followed, I voraciously read anything by Millman that I could get my hands on. I wasn’t alone.  Last Places would become a modern-day classic, translated over the years into eleven languages. A Kayak Full of Ghosts, first published in 1987, has never gone out of print. Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland—his very first book—received a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Paul Theroux called An Evening Among Headhunters “a wonderful book.”  One time Lummi-island resident Annie Dillard calls Millman “a genius.” 

Tell us a little about your formative years. What inspired you to pursue a life of exploration and writing?

I was a prisoner of war in an academic institution and wanted to find a freer, less encumbered life, so I went to live in the West of Ireland, where people lived by the spoken rather than the written word. Likewise, they almost never held meetings to determine when the next meeting would be held. The result: my first book Our Like Will Not Be There Again: Notes from the West of Ireland.

The focus of your writing has been the arctic. What is it about the north that captured your imagination?

I prefer Nature to people, and in the Arctic there’s more of the former than the latter. Also, the denizens of the Arctic—Inuit, Cree, Gwich’n, etc.—are obliged to live with Nature or perish…unlike, for instance, New Yorkers or Angelenos, who live primarily with gas fumes.

Can you describe your process—taking notes in the field? Research? I scribble down lots of notes that I subsequently can’t read, so I have to remember what’s happened.  Not a problem. Someone, maybe Jonathan Raban, said, “In the notebook, the story dies, but in the memory, it lives.”

How long to produce a book?

How long does it take to scale a mountain?  Every height is different. My last book At the End of the World took three years to write, while my novel Hero Jesse took six months.

The life of a travel writer seems unspeakably glamorous, what many would consider a dream job—getting paid to visit exotic locales. Can you speak to the joys and horrors of such a life?

First of all, I don’t consider myself a travel writer. I write about places and my experience of them. Travel writers pen their words to attract tourists, whereas I do whatever I can to keep tourists (especially loud American ones constantly fingering their corporate plastic) at a distance. As for horrors, I don’t pursue them, but they seem to happen anyway, perhaps because at some level I know that a trip fraught with disaster is far more interesting to the reader than a trip where everything goes smoothly.

In your many years of adventurous travel, what kind of changes have you seen in the kind of off-the-map destinations that you visit?

Changes are almost always for the worse. Consider Iceland, where I lived in the early 1980s. Now I hardly see anything typically Icelandic in Iceland. Ancient farmhouses have become guesthouses, pizza parlors are the island’s most popular restaurants, and all the roads are now paved so they’re suitable for rent-a-cars.  Globalization has replaced identity. Sic semper transit gloria mundi!

What is the worst moment that you have experienced in your travels?

Finding myself in the Ecuadorian Amazon without a single book to read—very, very scary!

What is the most gloriously weird moment?

In Foxe Basin in the Canadian Arctic, I once mistook a vial of glue for mosquito dope and slathered my face with it. One of the Inuit with whom I was traveling laughed uproariously and said I looked like a 100-year old elder.

Given the state of our culture—with its growing focus on technology and alienation from the natural world—what advice can you offer to the masses of people for whom nature is becoming an abstraction?

I can only offer advice to individuals, not masses. To these individuals, I would say: Form little oases of sanity in the midst of the current Dark Age, perpetuate actual conversation instead of cell phone blather. Get down and dirty with Nature, and then perhaps a thousand years from now our species will seem like something other than a random afterthought of evolution.

The contrast between the “non-developed” areas that you seek out and our 21st century western world are extreme. Why are you drawn to these seemingly “backward” places?

Because I’m pretty backward myself.  I like to describe myself as a droshky or barouche guy rather than an automobile guy. For I don’t own a car, not to mention a cell phone, a microwave, an iPod, a television, etc. I was forced by a publisher to create a website for myself, but I keep forgetting that it exists. And I choose my travel destinations accordingly—if a place doesn’t have a website, I’ll pack my bag and head there.

Where would you like to go that you’ve never been?

Tristan da Cunha, because it’s not yet been globalized. Bulgaria, because I like both the music and the cheese. The New Siberian Islands, because they’re uninhabited. Guinea and Surinam, because friends have found some fascinating fungi there. Socotra Island in the Indian Ocean, because of its spectacular flora.  And the Akadwessewa Fetish Market in Togo, where you can find shrunken heads (among other things) being sold as religious artifacts.

What do you do when you’re not travelling, researching or writing?

Rather than butt staple myself to some sort of screen, I look for mushrooms. This returns me to my hunter-gatherer self as well as gives me most of the ideas for my writing, both mushroom-related and non-mushroom-related.

How did you become interested in mycology?

Years ago, my ex showed me a bunch of bright orange mushrooms (jack o’lanterns) growing at the base of a stump, and I had an epiphany. She said I never looked at mushrooms before that incident, and I never looked at anything else after it. Not exactly true! For instance, I also look at millipedes…

Of your books, which is your favorite and why?

My favorite of my own books is Northern Latitudes, a collection of prose poems about the North.   I put my heart and soul into it and, in order to get it published, I was obliged to call it “prose poems.”   But it’s really a series of prose utterances, some lyrical, some vituperative, and some even comic. It was also one of the favorite books of the late Jim Harrison.

Tell us about your forthcoming book, At the End of the World.

The Belcher Islands, Hudson Bay, 1941: a meteor shower inspires one Inuk to proclaim himself God, and another Inuk to proclaim himself Jesus. Anyone who doesn’t believe in them is Satan and therefore killed. But that’s not the whole story. The book also speculates on the various gods of the digital age and how they may be killing our sense of the umwelt—the outside world.

What are some of your favorite books by other writers?

The Tangled Bank, by Robert Pyle—a brilliant combination of natural history and whimsy. The Kingdom of Fungi, by Jens Petersen—the best book about fungi I know. An African in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie—an ethnographic travel narrative of the first order! Silent Snow, by Marla Con —a Rachel Carson-like book about pollution in the Arctic. A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys—my absolute favorite novel. And anything by Edward Abbey…Ed, come back, we need you!

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