Author Solnit captivates Montclair audience
By Lou Fancher, Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit chases stories like a young lepidopterist in pursuit of a rare moth or precious butterfly.
With a history of leaping boundaries, she bypassed traditional high school but has a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley. Her legions of readers include blue-collar types, Beyoncé, and Hollywood glitterati. Her 13 books are hybrids, oscillating within multiple literary genres and defying easy categorization.
Appearing on June 26 at the Montclair Presbyterian Church in a joint presentation with A Great Good Place for Books, Solnit continued to confound during a reading and conversation about her new book, "The Faraway Nearby" (Viking, 2013).
A writer of substance whose work has tackled grief, disaster, politics, gender, heaven, climate change, land rights and more, Solnit in person is ethereal and wispy. Her body of work is characterized by heavy, substantial investigations cloaked in exquisite, serpentine prose.
"The Faraway Nearby" is more personal than its companion book, "A Field Guide to Getting Lost," her 2005 release. If that book's concern was losing one's place and certainty, its sequel is about how stories connect and ground us.
As her mother loses her memories to Alzheimer's, Solnit tells a year-long story of caring for her mother, traveling to Iceland, suffering a serious illness and dealing with 125 pounds of apricots. The fruit, harvested from her mother's tree and brought to her by one of her three brothers, decays, ferments and overwhelms. Solnit soldiers on, alternately battling with her mother and finding transcendence in the fairy tales and myths she treasured as a child and which continue to influence her writing. In the end, canning the fruit is agony and agriculture, arrested in a jar. Resolving her relationship with her mother, who passed away in 2012, involves collisions and is ongoing.
Tracing their lineage to fairy tales, Solnit's uninvited harvest and her metamorphosis from daughter to caretaker are akin to a curse. Like characters given cobwebs that must be spun into thread, she seeks escape. Solace comes in parallel stories that she uncovers in literary history. The result is a blend of memoir and myth, journaling and journalism, fact and fiction. Along the bottom of each page, like a news ticker, a 13th chapter unfolds.
"It's a chapter knitting the disparate parts like a Sutra," Solnit told an intimate audience at the Montclair gathering. "It contains a sentence from a scientific report I came upon: Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds."
If there can be such a thing as a "Solnit sentence" not authored by Solnit, this is surely it. Factual and economical, it suggests violence and betrayal.
Solnit said watching her mother's decline was like watching a child change, only in reverse. Her mother's bitter resentments and grudges faded ("All my life, she had believed I was withholding a magical gift that would make her feel complete," Solnit said,) and as her mother's life narrative disappeared, the present day became all-important. "Every cake was the best cake, every flower the best flower," Solnit recalled.
Asked about her writing process, Solnit said she "drifts around the house," then dives into research and accumulates "interesting things." Eventually, her hunter/gatherer technique results in a book -- a culminating event she called "remarkable."
"Writers spend more time alone than most people can tolerate," she said. "The solitude from which the books emerge is supported by a pyramid of people toiling to keep books alive. On tour, you get to look at the vast, beautiful mechanism of booksellers, publishers and readers supporting you."