From an interview with Richard Powers in The Paris Review:
Plowing the Dark started when I heard a lecture by Terry Waite, who told about his five-year captivity in Beirut. After the lecture, he took questions from the audience and someone bluntly asked, What was the main thing you learned in being locked up for five years? In the moment after my stomach lurched at the question, I ran through all the possible answers: love life while you can; never take people for granted again. But his answer was shocking. He said, Contemporary humanity has lost the ability to engage in productive solitude.
What do you think he meant by productive?
He wasn’t using the term in the way late-capitalistic market society would mean productive. He wasn’t talking about General Motors’s definition of productivity. The currency he was speaking of is very much the care and tending of individual salvation.
To me, his comment legitimized the process of reading and writing. The thing that makes reading and writing suspect in the eyes of the market economy is that it’s not corrupted. It’s a threat to the GNP, to the gene engineer. It’s an invisible, sedate, almost inert process. Reading is the last act of secular prayer. Even if you’re reading in an airport, you’re making a womb unto yourself—you’re blocking the end results of information and communication long enough to be in a kind of stationary, meditative aspect. A book is a done deal and nothing you do is going to alter the content, and that’s antithetical to the idea that drives our society right now, which is about changing the future, being an agent, getting and taking charge of your destiny and altering it. The destiny of a written narrative is outside the realm of the time. For so long as you are reading, you are also outside the realm of the time. What Waite said seemed like a justification for this unjustifiable process that I’ve given my life to.
Would you say that writing is a surrogate for what we need but can’t seem to find in real life?
The appeal of writing is the illusion that you can somehow bring about the completion and perfection of those things that will always elude you in real time. I suppose if we could find the life that we needed, and if it were intrinsically gratifying, that the need to narrate something outside of real-time interaction with people would really diminish. In a sense, the people we create in a book come from the people we know, but the conversations that we have with them in the book are the ones that we could never have with them in real life.
And yet the act of writing the life that we aren’t able to lead can complement the act of leading a life that we wouldn’t have been able to lead had we not the restorative power of writing and reading. This takes us back to this question of why reading and writing need to be defended. In reading and writing, in this locating the life that we have not yet been able to lead, we can make ourselves more capable of acting under fire. That’s the life of symbols. That’s what we are.