Q&A: Tamim Ansary On Life, Regrets, Travel, And The Last Book He'll Ever Write

Q&A: A Master Memoirist On Life, Regrets, And The Last Book He'll Ever Write

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Tamim Ansary became 'Internet famous' before the term existed.

Three days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, he sent a thoughtful email to a handful of friends about the "monster" Osama bin Laden and the state of affairs in Afghanistan. It was forwarded from inbox to inbox until it became a global sensation.

Newspapers printed the note verbatim; Charlie Rose and Oprah came calling for interviews.

Ansary's perspective is special. Born in Kabul, his mother was the first American woman to marry an Afghan and then live in Afghanistan. His father was a diplomat and professor.

In his memoir, Ansary paints a vivid picture of his upbringing in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, where people lived "pretty much as they had eight thousand years ago."

In 1948, when I was born, most of Afghanistan might as well have been living in Neolithic times. It was a world of walled villages, each one inhabited by a few large families, themselves linked in countless ways through intermarriages stretching into the dim historical memories of the eldest elders. These villages had no cars, no carts even, no wheeled vehicles at all; no stores, no shops, no electricity, no postal service, and no media except rumors, storytelling, and the word of travelers passing through. Virtually all the men were farmers. Virtually all the women ran the households and raised the children. Virtually all boys grew up to be like their fathers and all girls like their mothers. The broad patterns of life never changed, never had as far as any living generation could remember, and presumably never would.

Ansary moved to the United States when he was 16, setting out on a successful quest, he says, to become a "normal American guy."

Some 50 years later, he is a critically-acclaimed author of memoir, history and fiction; he directs the oldest free writing workshop in North America.


Have you had any recent realizations about living a more fulfilling, satisfying life?

I've had various revelations all my life, and one of my recent ones -- I don't remember what it was. [Laughter] But I do remember, I found a bunch of papers of things I'd written in high school, and this great revelation I'd had last week was already there in high school, and better expressed. There's something about the circularity of life's revelations as you go along.

I'm sure there's a good life lesson that you can call to mind.

I will say one other thing. There's something that to me was like a revelation that I came across when I was in my mid-20s.

There's a mythic sense in which a human life has three stages. The first stage you're a learner, and whatever else you might do, even if you invent Facebook, your life is redeemed for that day if you've learned something.

Then there comes a point when you can still go on learning, but your life is not redeemed for that day if all you've done is learn something. You get to a stage of life where you're one of the adult members of the tribe. You're holding up the sky and you've got to do stuff. Doing is what your life is about.

But then there's another stage beyond that, when you're not going to be helping much with hunting and gathering, but you have all this experience, and you're pondering and saying, "What's it all about, Alfie?"

I feel like, when I first had this revelation, I was turning that corner from being a really good student to being a not very good [laughs] adult achiever. And now I feel like I'm turning that other corner. I'm still very actively writing, but somebody called me and said they met my friend so-and-so and he described me as a "retired writer." And I'm like, "Retired? [Laughs] No, I'm not retired."

But when he said that, there was something that worked up in me. To be retired, in the case of someone like me who doesn't really have a job [laughs], what does that mean? That means, if I don't feel like writing something, I really don't have to. And there was a sense of ease that came with that that was very pleasant.

Memories play an important role in happiness and fulfillment. You must think about memory often in the context of writing memoirs.

The thing about memory is that it's a narrative-making machine. At any given moment, most of what's happened to you in your life is forgotten. It's not a question of repression. It's that you get together a kit from all the possible memories, and you have a story of your life and you're living in the last moment of that story.

To break through the official narrative of your memory is not really to break through to the "real" story, because there isn't a real story. I think you want to break through to a narrative that might have more important and meaningful things to say about the bigger world.

While I was writing the memoir, "West of Kabul, East of New York," I remembered that I stopped at some store that an Afghan guy was running, some curio shop in Paris. I remembered that we had this conversation. I'd completely forgotten about it. And now I remembered that the guy was saying [in awed tones], "Oh, I know your uncle" and "Wasn't your great grandfather so-and-so?"

I felt so puffed up and important. And it was not until a moment many years later that I realized the meaning of that interaction was not that I am a famous and important person from a great family. That's something Afghans do. It's like, "I recognize you." My job was to say, "And wasn't your great grandfather so-and-so? And didn't you once --?"

So the revelation there was that I flunked at being an Afghan [laughs].

One of your memoir workshops has the following premise: "Every life not only teems with stories but is a story. No one really knows what their story is until they look for it; the trick is not merely to remember what happened but to find the story (or stories) in it." How do you advise people to find the story of their full life?

That comes up all the time. When people come to my workshop, they usually have a story that they want to write. Nobody comes there saying, "I was born on --, in such-and-such a place." That's a biography. Nobody is writing their biography.

They're all coming to this workshop because their marriage failed and it was the worst thing that ever happened to them in their life and they want to write about it and what a creep that guy was.

If you're successful at writing your story, you approach it as an artist rather than in a therapy kind of sense. You're looking for the dramatic through line, and you're looking for the moment when the climax occurs, and what is it that you have to say at the buildup to that.

And when you do that, that's where you often find some of what you're saying is mythology. The narrative that you make official for yourself is generally more shallow than the narrative you'd want to write if you're writing it as an artist. The narrative that you have officially usually casts yourself as a hero, and then there's a bunch of helpers and there's a bunch of villains. When you see that in a movie or read it in a book, you go, "Eh. Everything is black and white. Where's the gray area?"

When you look at your life you want to say, "Wait a minute, you know what? Maybe I wasn't the hero of my life. Maybe that marriage broke up because, to some extent, maybe I was a jerk. What kind of a jerk was I? What did I think about?"

When you become a more complex character, your whole story becomes more of a work of art. But you have to be able to have some objectivity towards yourself to write that. And so to write that kind of memoir, you have to arrive at a place where you are not just yourself -- you're a character in your story. That's the key.

You write about the dichotomy between the life that you had in Afghanistan, which was more communal in nature but where freedom was more limited, and the life that most Americans live, more independent and with fewer clan-like bonds.

There are three parts to that. I was in Afghanistan and I was living in that context. That was a very communal life.

The feature of it that was most striking to me was not the communal aspect of it, because we took that for granted. It was the fact that there was a private world and there was a public world, and the two were just really separate. There was one whole world inside the various compound walls in which everybody was family, and men and women were living together. You had your history and your anecdotes and your ancestry and your quarrels that never went away. The romantic things also happened in that context.

And then there was the outside world. When you went out there, this inside world was like that private world that you don't talk about when you go to a business meeting or something. You don't say, "Oh, you know, my wife and I last night…" The outside world has these rules that you completely accept and you're not going to break those. Inside it's a whole different story.

When you come to how I live now [in the United States], yeah, I have a private life. I live in my house, and then there's a public world out there. But a lot of my private life is outside my house. I have my friends. I go to their homes, they come into my house. I throw a party, there are people I don't know who come. There is not a distinct border between private and public. And the private life for most of us here in America is very small. It's your house and whoever you're living with.

So it just does not bear any comparison to that private life in Afghanistan, which is huge. There are hundreds of people. They're spread across a vast landscape. But they're contained like rabbits in a warren in these private spaces. So that's a completely different thing.

Now, I left Afghanistan and eventually here I am, a normal American, thank God. That was my quest, to become a normal guy, and I succeeded [laughs]. But in between, there was a period when I came to this country and I immediately dropped out of a society I'd never been a part of [laughs].

I was a counterculture guy and I lived in this communal sort of world of Portland, Oregon, which was a big world. It wasn't like me and Jim Jones and our church [laughter]. It was huge. Like that Afghan world, there were many communal houses. Nobody locked their doors. You knew people in all the houses. It stretched on out into the countryside on farms people had. There were all the things that you think of as the utilities of life. I worked on the newspaper. We had a radio station. There was auto repair. There were doctors. It was all inside this context. And the world outside, that was the old crumbling civilization that we need not have any part of.

So there was a distinct feeling of a sharp border between the private world and the public world there. And that one, I won't say it was built on false premises, but it was not sustainable. It was not the thing that I thought it was then, which was: civilization as we know it is crumbling and I'm involved in that other civilization that will rise up once this other one has crumbled. Eventually it came to us that this civilization as we know it is not crumbling. This thing has some really irritating staying power [laughs]. So we all came out.

And some of us stayed in, but we became drunkards living in the parks. So, yeah.

Is there some synthesis of these two approaches to life that you've tried to foster as an adult?

I do think I've always had an orientation towards building a community and then being a part of it. Right now I am part of a writers' community. For many years I've been running a writers' workshop. It's really like an open mic for writers, but you get feedback [laughs].

That's in a public space. People come and they go and they flow through. There was a community aspect to that. There was somebody in that group who died. She had cancer and she tried every treatment, and then nothing worked. And so they sent her home, and she had to be attended to 24 hours a day. And this group, spontaneously, they manned that job.

One or more of us was always there. We were with Stephanie until she died. And in her last days -- she was in a bed hooked up to feed, nutrition bags and medicine and all that.

But in her last days she said, "I want to hold a party." And we were like, "Okay, we'll do --." She said, "No, I have a friend. He's a chef. He'll take care of the food, and you guys just come." You would think, what a lugubrious party that must have been. But not at all. It was really a good party. She was there, we were all there, and we were warm with each other. Everybody who knew each other and liked each other. It was a wonderful communal situation.

Here, community is voluntary. And that makes it different. In Afghanistan, it's warm and sweet and you're part of the clan and all that. But there's the other side of that. "You're a part of this clan, so you can't do this, you can't do that." Built into your psyche is the capacity for shame, and that's the way in which the community has power over you. You cannot do anything to shame your community, so you're captured in it. Here that isn't a factor.

But the fact that it's voluntary, all associations are voluntary, means that nobody's permanent in your life. There was a Larry McMurtry book, the title of which was "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers." And I thought that was a powerful title because I think it nails something about the way it is to live in America. I think that's true for most people.

Do you keep a journal or anything else that helps you maintain memories more effectively?

I do keep something -- it's not a journal, it's a log. Each day there might be like 12 words in that log, or 12 phrases. For example, what we're doing right now will end up in the log, "Huffington Post interview." And another item in the log will be, "My stolen car recovered today." [Laughter]

Many years ago, it was 1978, somebody as a present gave me a journal which had a very small space for each day. It was only enough space to make some notations about what happened. But I did that, I kept these little notes.

Four or five months later, I sat down to write a letter to a friend of mine in New York and I couldn't quite remember what happened. So I leaf through those notes, and the whole of that era just came flaring up in my mind. That's the better way to remember, to keep a skeleton so that your narrative-making machine, your memory, it can wake up and do its thing.

If you keep a detailed journal, you will impose your present moment on all your future selves, and that's what you don't want to have happen.

You used peyote and LSD and some other drugs in college. How did you approach drug use with your two children when they were younger?

By the time the kids came around, we were beyond that phase. But we never suppressed information about our lives, my wife and I.

My daughter came home one day from fifth grade or fourth grade and said, "A police officer came and told us about marijuana, and it's really scary. And if you take that, pretty soon you'll be robbing liquor stores."

I had to say, "Mm, that's not true." I felt like it was important to say that because when I was young, that kind of scare story was everywhere, and before that "reefer madness." But the first time I smoked some dope, I was like, "That's not true." And then everything seemed like a lie.

With marijuana, I did want to raise the question for my kids -- there was one anti-marijuana ad that was really good, and they just took it off right away. It's somebody in a dingy little house stirring something. It's obvious that this is a very stalled life. And this guy's saying, "They said this would happen and that would happen if I took drugs. But that's not what happened. I'm taking drugs. Nothing happened to me."

And then the tagline is, "Go ahead and smoke marijuana. Nothing can happen to you, too." I feel like that's the actual menace of marijuana. You can just sort of sink in to smoking dope all the time and not doing anything.

So for my kids, the important thing is that our household was filled with the idea of excitement about doing stuff. Both of the kids have passionate interests. One is a writer. One is an artist. And I don't know what they do in terms of drugs [laughs], but they seem fine to me.

How did you advise your kids about getting the most out of their education?

My advice to my older daughter when she was looking for the college she wanted to go to, she was specifically looking for colleges with creative writing programs. And I told her, "Honey, that's not how it works. You get a good liberal arts education, and then you leave school and you knock about in the University of Life and you get some --."

And she said, "That's how you did it, daddy." [Laughs] That's when I realized advice is tricky stuff.

I think the one little piece of advice, maybe this is something that has come to me more and more as I've gone along -- nothing is final. You're looking for that perfect job. Well, if you don't get that one, you'll get another one. Life will go on.

Your life could be totally crap, but then later, what you become can make that Chapter One of a triumph. The triumph is all the more because your life was crap. But that isn't the end either, because you could be Colin Kaepernick [laughs] and it could be today. [Ed. note: Kaepernick is a successful NFL quarterback whose impoverished single mom put him up for adoption as an infant. The day before this interview, Kapernick suffered a tough loss and was facing intense media scrutiny.

If you think of that 'life story' model of a life, you'll constantly want to be questing for the way to make your life meaningful, which involves searching always in the things that happen and then your experiences of it for, What does it mean? Why is this important? If you do that, I think you could be okay, and at least it's never too late to have had a really great life.

If there anything your parents did for you that many parents don't do that was particularly meaningful?

In my case, my parents were an unusual marriage because my father was the first guy to marry an American woman and bring her back, and my mother was the first American woman to go to Afghanistan and live there. I've been sorting out ever since, and increasingly of late, what their marriage was about and how that affected us kids.

I can say that there was an unconditional love that my mother just had for us kids. We were the most important thing in her life. That gave me -- that put in place a confidence that no matter what's happened, it's never gotten down to the bottom layer of, "You are Tamim."

On my father's side, it's also the case that I come from the Ansary family. Now you can say what you want. You can beat me. You can knock me down, but I'll always be an Ansary.

You put those things together: I'm Tamim. Ansary. You know, I'm okay. I'm okay, you're okay. But I'm definitely okay [laughs]. So there's that.

I didn't know my father well enough. This is my great regret in life. I felt like the flipside of my mother loving us so much was that she was lonely and solitary in Afghanistan. We were what she had that was not Afghanistan. She wanted us to be part of her little teeny America. And that separated us from my father, and then we came here and he never came over, so that was the end of that, and I didn't see him again.

I have always been aware of what a risk-taking bohemian my mother was to marry my father and go to that country. Oh my God. And everyone I've told this, they've always focused on my mother: "Wow, what a woman." But what I've become aware of is that the person who took the real risk, that was my father.

The idea that he would bring an American woman back to his family at the risk that the family then faced, with the disapproval of the society and the actual political blowback from the royal family and the aristocrats.

He took that chance, and sadly the marriage did not last. My mother, finally -- it lasted for 22 years, there are a lot of marriages that haven't gone that long. But she came here and he stayed there, so that was the end of it.

Let's talk about your marriage. You said you've found the love of your life. Why do you think your marriage has been successful?

Before we were friends, we were roommates. And before we were lovers, we were friends. And before we were married, we were lovers. I recommend that that's the trajectory one ought to follow. You've got to be friends with the person you fall in love with. And so we are.

The other thing is our lives are very linked together, but also we don't -- I don't know if separate is exactly the word, but we're both two independent people with our own lives, and we are sort of like -- we're partners. I think that's part of why it's worked.

Now it's a great marriage still, but it's only 33 years old, so... [laughter] -- let's not get ahead of ourselves [laughter].

How did you adjust your marriage after having children?

We both had kids late. I was like 34 when our first daughter was born and Debbie was 30 or 31. So in the old-fashioned range of things, we were having kids late. My experience was that the first moment I set eyes on Jessie, it was like, "Ah, so you're the one that's been here all along?" Because [laughs] you have no relationship with a pregnant belly when you're a guy.

But as soon as it's a person out in the world, it is exactly like the falling in love experience, except it's even more sudden, and it's not like any other love you have. It's not like the love you have for your wife. It's not like the love you have for your parents. It's not like a friendship. This is your child.

So we were both completely drawn into that thing. The moment we had a child, life was about making sure -- I mean, the thing that impressed me was this little character here cannot walk, cannot talk, cannot get a sandwich, cannot clean house, can't do anything. It's up to me because, man, this little thing is so vulnerable.

There was almost a sense of crisis. You know, "Baby in the world! All hands on deck!" Every piece of my life, the first priority was to let no harm come to her. And it was consuming. And we didn't really think about what the old life had been, this new life was just so consuming.

But once we had kids, all of our friends and the people we saw most of the time were other people who had had kids right around then. Most of the people that we knew that didn't have kids, they were still living a different kind of life that we didn't really match up to that much. It wasn't until my second child was, I don't know, maybe four or five, there was a certain point at which it was like, "Ah, okay, now, where were we?"

My expectation was, I'll just pick it all up again. But no, you're actually 10 years older and that's a big thing [laughs]. So it was a different life when I came out.

Did you struggle with that change at the time?

No, it wasn't a struggle. I had a career of some kind before I got married and had kids, I went to work for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which is a publisher, right about the time I got married. That was a job-job, serious, health insurance and all that sort of stuff, weekly paycheck.

Before that I was a freelance writer and always struggling. But it didn't matter, because what's the worst that can happen? I'll die. I mean, so what [laughs].

But now it's like, no, the worst that can happen is I'll die and nobody will be left to take care of Jessie. It's a different consciousness. When I woke up to the world again, I was a senior editor at HBJ, so it's like, I have responsibilities.

I'll be presumptuous and assume that you proposed to your wife -- how did you propose?

I didn't propose to my wife. It never occurred to me that we should get married. It was like we were already partners and I thought of it as a lifelong partnership. At some point, however, my brother, who was a fundamentalist Muslim at that point, he was looking for a wife, and his way of looking for a wife was to go to the various Muslim communities and say, "Brothers, I'm looking for a wife. You have any candidates?"

I told Debbie, "You know, we should take some steps here to help him. There are Afghans here. There's probably somebody that would match up to him." And she said, "Why don't you think about your own self before you arrange your brother's marriage?" And I'm like, "Wait, do you want to get married?"

She said, "Well, I don't know. Actually, maybe." And so that was the proposal. [Laughter]

Later a couple of our friends had gone to Hawaii and they came back and they were married. And we said, "Hey, we're going to Mexico. How about if we get married when we're there? It'll be such a hoot. Everyone will be like, 'Oh'." And it turned out, no, you can't do that actually. You have to get some paperwork. So, okay, we'll do that paperwork.

Gradually it turned into really getting married. I mean [laughs], for me it started out as this zany thing we were going to do.

Is there a book that's had a profound impact on the course of your life?

Nah. There's nothing like that. I read voluminously, and the whole time I'm reading, I'm busy inventing myself. So who knows which book had what effect on which part?

I will say that my favorite book is "Peter Pan," and it's because of the powerful evocation of the unreality of ongoing life. I love that the first paragraph ends with, "You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end." [Laughs]

My pet peeve is that nobody's ever made a good movie of "Peter Pan." There was this horrible musical recently. They always think they should make a musical because Disney has captured "Peter Pan," and everyone thinks it's about the blitheful fun of being a kid. It's not about that at all.

I think I'm going to quit writing and start a new career. I'm going to become a filmmaker, and my quest will be to just make one film. Before I die, I just want to make good version of "Peter Pan."

Do you have a daily routine? You wrote a piece this year about trying to master the skill of mono-tasking. Any new insights in that realm?

I keep coming up with these great routines and they last for about a couple of years. And then they sort of fade away.

I was performing namaz for probably three or four years in the morning. That's the prayer ritual for Muslims, and you're supposed to do it five times a day, but I only did the morning one, and I did it every day. It was the way I started, and it was a good thing. It's an interestingly contemplative thing to do.

But then somehow one morning I didn't do it.

You have said previously that you are not practicing, you're not religious. Has that changed?

No, I'm not religious. I'm a secular guy. I believe in the power of -- I don't want to say ritual. I believe in the things you can do that will line you up with the rhythms of the universe. Reality has embedded in it so much pattern. That's why mathematics exists and is powerful.

The cycles of human existence are just palpable everywhere. You want to get lined up with that stuff. You can go further by swimming with the river than swimming against it. So that's what I try to do.

How do you sleep? What do you do to get your best sleep?

I sleep okay. I keep coming up with tricks that are great, but then they stop working. I'll just toss a few of them out. To me the problem with sleeping is not getting your mind empty. When you try to just think about nothing, everything comes teeming in.

So to me you have to think about something. But you have to think only about that one thing, and then by the time you've gotten into it, you've woken up the next morning. So for a while it was like visualizing a certain place that I knew about, and I'd just go there and just be there.

For a long time I wrote down dreams that I had. When you do that, you remember more and more of them. So I have probably 300 pages of dreams [laughs]. I find that sometimes I can think about that dream, and then I remember that place, and then I just stay there. And then I'm asleep [laughs].

Is there a travel journey that you've taken that you would recommend to others that stands out?

My journeys that are memorable have been ones that I was like, "How do I get out of this?" So the memorable journeys are often uncomfortable. That's what's good about travel, it gets you out of your comfort zone. The immediate experience of it is irritation, and how do you get to this place?, and how do you get to that place? In memory, it all becomes glamorous.

The other kind of journey is going someplace in nature. I've done a bunch of that, and if I have anything that I continue to want to do in life, it's to target these places.

I'll tell you two of the great ones. When I was first here [in the United States] at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, every year they would do a trip in spring, a camping trip someplace. One year they went to Canyonlands [National Park], which is in Red Rock Country in Utah. I remember then I said, "I'm coming back here before I die." A couple of years ago, we did go back. I'm too old to make the hike anymore. I couldn't hike into the places that I remember. But the Red Rock Country of Utah is -- don't let your life go by without having at least been there [laughs].

The other one was such a surprise. It was the Boundary Waters. If you look at the map of the United States and Canada, you'll find that along the border there, Minnesota, Wisconsin, it's just thousands of lakes. They only let three parties put in at any portage point in a day, and they don't let you come closer than a quarter mile. They have to carry your canoe down there and all your stuff. Then you get into whatever lake you've come to, and that connects to another lake, and that connects to another lake.

Once in a while you have to carry your canoe across a strip of land, but then you're in another lake. And there's nobody there [laughs]. We were there for a while and we saw one other party. And we camped in a little island that had a campground and everything, but only one and there was nothing else there. So I just loved that.

It doesn't feel like an ocean, because you look out and you see land, land, land, because it's island, island, island, island, island. And there is wildlife. On the shore we saw a moose. I would like to report that a moose looks just like Bullwinkle. [Laughter] It's really true. That's exactly what they look like. And there were creatures of various kinds on these strips of land. I don't know how they got on there.

You've done a lot traveling. I'm curious if there's an approach to traveling that you take to invite those uncomfortable circumstances, to put yourself out in unfamiliar territory?

The key to that is where you decide to go. And I don't like to plan much before I go. I also don't like to read the guidebooks. I decide what I'm going to do when I'm there. I'm very much interested in just arriving and figuring out my way around.

A couple of years ago I went to Kazakhstan. There was a guy there who had published one of my books, and he wanted me to do a book tour. So I was like, "All right. A book tour in Kazakhstan. That's great." And it was such a -- it was zany. I mean, it was great. It generated a thousand stories [laughs].

And just beginning with -- it wasn't like a publisher published my book. There there are no publishers. Books are published by individuals who contract to get the distributor to get the printer to get the this, to get the that. And then they publish a book. And this guy published in his time four books, and mine was one of them.

And then he took me around to give lectures at various at various [Kazakhi] kind of organizations. This was a history book, a history of the world from the Islamic point of view. And they asked me, "Mr. Ansary, is your book science?" And I'm like, "No, it's not science."

They said, "Is it folklore?" And I'm like, "No, it's not folklore. It's history." They said, "Well, if it's not science or folklore, why should we read it?" [Laughs] And that's because this is post-communist, and in communist doctrine, history is a science, and it follows a certain dialectic.

And then I met the craziest people. It's like there was this one guy, he was introduced to me as Ivan, and then later it turned out that wasn't his name. That was a pseudonym. His real name was something else. And he had just come walking across the prohibited zone of Tibet. And he was actually from Russia but he was in hiding from Putin, he said [laughs].

And his father had been an admiral and he'd done something, and now he was hiding. So somehow I told a story about being in North Africa with money I shouldn't have, currency that was not permitted and it was in my shoe. And the gendarmes came and I was tense. So this guy told his story.

He said, "Yes, that reminds me of a buddy of mine and me, one time we were taking this thing from Russia to Paris, this very heavy thing." And I said, "Well, what was it?" He said, "Just -- it was heavy. That's all you need to know." [Laughs] And it was clear that this was not like illegal currency. I don't know what it was, but -- [laughs].

And then at the end when they delivered for the guy in Paris, the guy said he wasn't going to pay them what they thought they were going to get. So they beat him up. And then he said, "Okay. I'll pay you and I'll put you up at a hotel for a week, and I had a great time in Paris." [Laughs]

Happy ending.

Yeah. Happy ending.

Do you think about death?

I have thought about death much of my life, actually. I would say that thinking of life as a story, as I do, I feel like that's my preparation for death.

I'd like to keep living for as long as it's viable. But if I die tomorrow, it's not a tragedy. I die. My life has been full and I've accomplished something, and my kids are doing fine, and I'm ready to go.

I have zero idea of an afterlife. I don't believe in it, and I would be very disappointed to discover there is one, even if I go to heaven, because I don't want to contemplate an eternity of anything, not even heaven [laughs].

You were planning at one point to title a book of yours, "What Endures?" What does endure? You don't believe in an afterlife. Do you think about your legacy?

No. I don't. I don't think in terms of legacy. I think: I was here, and while I was here, it was incumbent upon me to make my life meaningful. And once I'm gone, that's fine. There are other people crowding in the gate. We don't want to clutter up the table with the legacy of people who've gone. There are other people. Give them a chance.

That's how I think of it. To have some feeling about legacy and wanting a legacy requires that you still someplace feel like you're going to still be here to enjoy that. And I don't think that. I believe in the eternity of all that is -- the stars, the moon, the universe, you -- not you, particularly but [laughter]...

The wholeness of it all, that's eternal. All these forms, they come and go, and you have your moment, and then you go on. If you didn't have your moment and then went on, I don't see how that moment could be meaningful. I think the purpose of life is to figure it all out, live the meaning of it all. You've got from the moment you're born to the moment you die. So don't waste a second.

Is there anything out-of-the-ordinary you'd like to accomplish before you die?

I do have a book I'm contemplating writing. It is that sort of "last book you'll ever write" kind of idea. I'll go ahead and say it -- I don't know if I'll ever write it, it's so ambitious [laughs].

I have written several things about relativity, especially in terms of history. It's always somebody's history. There's no "real" history. It's a story of how we got here today, and then the assumption is, who is this "we"? It's always some particular "we."

We're on the verge of having a global "we," so that we can ask, how did the we that's all of us get to where we are today? One could craft from that premise a meta-narrative of history that includes Eurocentric history, Islamocentric history, all the different something-centric histories. There's perhaps a master narrative that we could begin to see now.

That's the book I want to write before I die, along with making the correct version of "Peter Pan."

Those two things. [Laughter]

Transcription services by Tigerfish; now offering transcripts in two-hours guaranteed. Interview has been edited and condensed.


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