William Least Heat-Moon captivated the American reading public in 1982 with the release of his first nonfiction book, Blue Highways, an iconic travel narrative that spent 42 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List. Now, 35 years later, he has written his first novel, Celestial Mechanics, that transforms “the journey” into a compelling story that exists between the worlds of illusion and reality. In this precisely written book, Heat-Moon has traded the asphalt of Blue Highways for the pathways of the mind and the gasoline for his Econoline van for the thoughts and philosophical musings that come with age, all wrapped up in his characters’ haunting quests for rationality and spirituality in their complicated lives.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with William Least Heat-Moon at this home in Missouri for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: In your ninth book and first novel, Celestial Mechanics, you spin a haunting love story that oscillates between dream and reality. What motivated you to switch gears from nonfiction to fiction at this time in your life and to write a philosophical journey through the mind?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: Over the nearly four decades following the blue-highways trip and on to the completion of Celestial Mechanics, my experiences have expanded, and that means I’ve seen more of the human experiment underway on our
William Least Heat-Moon
beloved planet. I hope my perceptions have enlarged, one of them leading to this new journey. Isn’t it ever more apparent that our species has made itself into a threat to our continuance--as well as endangering the survival of so much else--through our exploitations and extractions that lead to exhaustions and extinctions? At the base of our behavior, so I believe, lies our widespread failure to understand and honor the sources of our existence and to acknowledge our relation and dependence on them. Just look at the leaders we elect: Among them all, where is their vision of humankind beyond themselves? Or our planet beyond now?

STAY THIRSTY: You tell the reader before your book begins that it is a work of fiction with “inventions,” but also with “resemblances” that are not coincidental. You intentionally “alert the reader” that you will be “fusing” the lines between fiction and “actual.” After writing five nonfiction books about traveling the road, how comfortable were you working in the space between illusion and reality?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: We all live and work between our illusions and the realities surrounding them, especially so if we define “illusions” to include our imaginative life, our dreams, our hopes, and many of our most fervent beliefs. I am, to use your term, more than “comfortable” there because of the richness of those mental states of being. To quote one of the epigraphs in Celestial Mechanics, “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.”

STAY THIRSTY: Your novel has garnered some excellent reviews that use phrases like: “masterfully crafted,” a “sprawling, fantastical work” that explores “man’s spiritual journey.” It is a novel in search of something greater than the story and its characters. When you conceptualized this book, did you plan it out well in advance or did the characters and story become your guides?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: The incipient idea of Celestial Mechanics arose from simple images of a man confined temporarily to a wheelchair, a 1903 seed catalog,
a ghostly neighbor, and a wandering spouse. At that moment, the concept was entirely plot, virtually free of ideas beyond straight narration, yet from those basic givens, notions emerged to propel the story. I’m interested in plot only as a means to explore sentiments emerging from the character of the characters and their actions, including what they say. As I wrote, I considered the narrative as a kind of “play for voices.” Let’s face it, in the 21st century, our yak-yak carries us along farther than our legs.

STAY THIRSTY: Silas Fortunato, your protagonist, says toward the end of the novel: “I want the clarity of reason. I want release from delusions. To see who’s really who. What’s truly what. What has real meaning and genuinely lasting worth…The damnable uncertainty of it all! How can I be certain I’m actually here.” You are 77-years-old. How closely do you resemble Silas in your thoughts about your place in America, in life and in the universe?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: Silas is a better man than I, and he’s half my age, but a number of the details of his boyhood I purloined from my own. His youthful experience with organized religion, for example, was exactly mine. His boyish drawings of helicopters are those I drew at age twelve. I must say though, any resemblances are beside the point. Silas now has his own existence free of mine, and I have a feeling he’ll be around longer than will I.

STAY THIRSTY: Your undergraduate degrees are in photojournalism and English, and your Masters and Ph.D. are also in English. Did you view the writing of Celestial Mechanics through the eyes of a photographer/journalist or a storyteller or both?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: I always try to write visually, to see the scenes, but equally to hear the voices. Hearing the dialogue is crucial for the story to function as I intend, and such hearing is contingent on a reader’s imaginative participation: To hear the characters rather than just see their words in print. Such a wish is common among novelists.

STAY THIRSTY: Before your story begins, you set forth “An Octet of Postulates” that frames the themes in your novel. Why did you choose these eight particular quotations and the ideas contained within them?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: Each of the epigraphs can prompt a reader to evaluate ideas within the tale. I hope the quotations, brief as they are, expand the story to reveal the universality of central themes and expand the reach of a single author.

STAY THIRSTY: From your famed bestselling book Blue Highways to Celestial Mechanics, you write about “the journey.” What is it that calls you back to the road, whether real, imagined or spiritual?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: The journey motif is one of the oldest and most honored mechanisms in world cultures--even ones lacking the written word--perhaps because the essence of all existence is movement--a topic the characters address in Celestial Mechanics. From our explosive genesis called the Big Bang and on to the circulation within our veins and arteries, all is motion. In literature, consider The Odyssey, the book of Exodus, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Tom Jones, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn. We move, we wander, we discover, and in so doing we answer to what we are and thereby become who we are. Evolution has designed us bipedals for long-distance movement, and as we know (especially in our time), when we become sedentary, our hearts clog, our lungs weaken, our muscles atrophy, and we begin to die. To rise and move is to embrace existence. To live!

STAY THIRSTY: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, will there be others?

WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: We’ll see. As you’ve mentioned, I’m past the three-quarters of a century mark, but I still play basketball, still walk the backroads around my place, and I’m still driven by curiosity and astonishment--sometimes more than I’m comfortable with. My reading--elemental and essential to my life--has shifted in recent years from literature to science, and that brings me into new worlds to range around in. My ignorance urges me to rise and take up another day to address vexations and greet joys, and in them both to search for stories with potential to change--to lift--another’s life. If I’m not trying for that, then there’s no reason for me to occupy space on our ever-more crowded planet.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.