Pico Iyer was born in Oxford and grew up in England and California studying in Oxford and Harvard. He has been a writer for Time since 1982 and has traveled widely since a very early age. He has been writing books since 1986 and since 1992 he has been based in rural Japan with his wife while spending part of each year in a Benedictine hermitage in California. He is also a regular guest at literary events and international universities and gave popular TED talks in 2013 and 2014. His books include "Video Night in Kathmandu" (1988), "The Global Soul" (2000), "The Lady and the Monk" (1991) and "The Art of Stillness" (2014). His latest publications, "Autumn Light" and "A Beginner’s Guide to Japan" (both 2019) offer an insight into his home of choice, Japan, where he has been living for the past 32 years.
How many ideas for potential works do you have in your head?
Too many — and more and more as the years go on, to my delight. A few years ago, I took a brief break from writing — not convinced that it was really the medium of the moment. But this summer I’m bringing out three new books, and I feel more and more that something in us is crying out for the spaciousness, the attentiveness — the depth — that writing can bring as few other media do. So now I’m back to writing as furiously as I ever have: a fresh book on a lifetime of going to the movies with my mother, as she (and I) grow older; an eccentric and elliptical book on the mysteries of the writing process; a new book about my travels to Jerusalem and Varanasi and North Korea and the Australian Outback; and ongoing projects on monasticism and on aspects of my past.
All in the midst of the various journalistic pieces I write, on Iran and the beauty of the ordinary and literature.
All I long for now is time and quiet at my desk so I can send myself off on these explorations of the unknown.
When working on a new project, how do you sift through competing ideas in order to move forward?
The only guide I’ve learned to trust is intuition. For 32 years now I’ve been alone at my desk in an anonymous suburb in Japan, so I’ve grown as attuned to my own quirks and habits as I might be to the clouds above me in the sky.
I’ve learned, in the course of those years of sitting still, that life makes much better plans for me than I could ever do, and that it makes much more sense to learn to listen than to try to impose my agendas on the world.
So, I try to hear what is wiser than I am, somewhere inside myself, and I try to stay true to the thought, “If I were to die next week, what would I most want to have shared?”
Over 28 years of spending time in a Benedictine monastery and 27 years of sharing a two-room apartment in Japan, I’ve been trying my best to recall what is most important to me, and whether (for example) I want to spend time reading or tweeting, exploring something I can’t understand or following the latest news about some celebrity or TV show.
I’m interested in far too many things, so my great mission — and challenge — in life is to recall which of them is most urgent and most useful.
What writing habit do you have that you feel is impossible to shift? (That could be a particular snack, writing hours, location, caffeine consumption etc.)
Alas, for more than thirty years now, I have been tethered to all my writing habits, which seem more or less to constitute my life.
So, I feel bereft if I don’t spend my first five hours every morning at my desk, and if I don’t have my two cups of tea before I begin. And I feel hollow and stripped of one dimension if I can’t take a walk or two and do at least thirty minutes of exercise and don’t have one full hour to read some substantial book in silence.
I live in Japan without a car and I’ve never used a cell-phone. All of these perhaps silly ways to try to make sure I can sustain the habits that most sustain me, and perhaps help the people around me.
My writing hours and my caffeine consumption and my walks around the neighbourhood are thus almost sacrosanct, because they give margins to my life, and ensure that I have those empty spaces in my day in which the imagination can wander and get lost and stumble upon something unexpected.
When I moved from a stimulating job in Midtown Manhattan to an empty room on the backstreets of Kyoto, my hope was to make a single day last a thousand hours, and to substitute cathedral time for the airport time in which I’d been living.
I am happiest when I can lose myself in something and forget the time and come out someone different from the person who entered; I’m least fulfilled when I’m all-over-the-place and distracted. So, I try to make a day that will feel like walking around Notre Dame, amidst vast ceilings and slants of light and silent ante-chapels, rather than a day that will feel like racing through an airport terminal.
The international literature festival berlin (ilb) has become an essential part of the literary calendar of Berlin. What do you connect with the city?
I love the way Berlin has become again such a vibrant centre for thought and creativity, one of those magical places — like Kyoto or Tangiers or Paris or Rio — that attract those with dreams and give them the space to bring those dreams closer to real life.
I first came to Berlin for the ilb in 2006, and was exhilarated to spend long days wandering its squares and parks, as well as seeing all its museums and historic centres; at the end of a rich week, I joined the Table of Free Voices for one day of unabating intellectual discourse. And then I was back in Berlin last year for the Rolex Arts Weekend, my friends in Geneva having decided that Berlin was really one of the world’s capitals of culture and engagement.
I remember coming across a selection of English-language books better than I might find in London or New York; thinkers of every kind; and the excitement of wandering streets, not knowing what new invention I’d chance upon.
For years now I’ve been contributing to Lettre International and watching many of my writer-friends exulting in the fresh possibilities of Berlin (interestingly, now one of the centres of English Literature as well as German). Indeed, at the Telluride Film Festival this past weekend, much of the talk was about Berlin.
I can’t wait to be at the source of that rare cultural energy again.