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15 January 2023updated 18 Jan 2023 6:07pm

Pico Iyer Q&A: “I feel radiant when staying in a monastery”

The travel writer on Paddington Bear, the joy of watching sport, and finding a cure for jet-lag.

By New Statesman

Pico Iyer, a travel writer and essayist, was born in Oxford in 1957. His books include Video Night in Kathmandu (1988). He splits his time between suburban Japan and a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, California.

What’s your earliest memory?

Running through the darkening afternoon to feed the ducks in the Oxford Parks. I’m sure I have memories from earlier times, but that’s the one that has stuck inside me.

Who are your heroes?

Paddington Bear was without rival as my first hero as a boy: another scruffy foreigner from far away who did what he could to fathom the ways of unfathomable middle-class England in the early 1960s.

One adult hero who comes instantly to mind is the photojournalist James Nachtwey, who has dedicated his life to chronicling difficult realities in every corner of the world, precisely the realities most of us try to look away from.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Overstory. I am an urban creature, much too prone to sleepwalking past every last plant. Richard Powers’s book moved me to see the world differently.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Although I spent eight deformative years in youth – eight years! – studying literature, I’d rather choose professional sports.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

The Dalai Lama, a master realist who navigates the most difficult life I know – carrying six million Tibetans on his shoulders – while treating every last stranger as a long-lost friend.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

America in the 1850s would be the deepest inner landscape to inhabit, with Emerson and Thoreau fashioning their scriptures of possibility in Concord, while Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville offered their dark counter-narratives nearby.

What TV show could you not live without?

I watch TV only for sport, the kind of furious conflict in which one can lose oneself passionately, while never imagining that the world depends on the outcome.

Who would paint your portrait?

David Hockney would be a happy possibility.

What’s your theme tune?

“If It Be Your Will” by Leonard Cohen has long been my talisman.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Lop off the last paragraph in every chapter: the wisdom of Chuck Elliott, my first, and very wise, editor at my long-time publishing house.

What’s currently bugging you?

The fact that so many of us take the world in through tiny screens, which diminish and distort everything.

What single thing would make your life better?

A natural cure for jet-lag, amplified by a 48-hour day.

When were you happiest?

I have seldom known anything but radiant joy when staying in a monastery.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

An actor, which is really not so different from being a writer. In both jobs one works hard to become another person, but only by uncovering some deep and often hidden corner in oneself.

Are we all doomed?

The opposite. We’re only doomed if we believe that self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Half Known Life: Finding Paradise in a Divided World” by Pico Iyer is published by Bloomsbury

[See also: Karen Bakker Q&A: “I am insatiably curious about Earth’s long-term future”]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis