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Lunch With
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Travel to San Francisco


Lunch with Pico Iyer

20 February 2017

The British-born novelist on the life of a writer, a childhood spent on the move, and the fear of losing his reckless streak.

The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is located 150 miles south of San Francisco, inland from Big Sur. To get there, you need a 4X4 to navigate the rocky track that bumps up and down through Los Padres National Forest before retreating into the Ventana wilderness.

I am here to attend Writing Through The Dark: A Workshop On Words And Silences, led by writer Pico Iyer, who will tell me on Saturday, over lunch, that not only is this his first time visiting Tassajara, but also his first attempt at teaching a workshop.

Pico’s Twitter profile offers a bite-sized bio: “Born in Oxford, England, in 1957, resident since 1992 in suburban Japan and a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, California.” Hometown: “The World.” For context, I’ll add that when Pico wasn’t earning degrees at Oxford, Eton and Harvard, he was either in Santa Barbara, California, where his Indian parents moved in the 1960s, or in New York, where he worked for Time magazine. Now, he divides his time between Santa Barbara and Nara, Japan.

To date, Pico has written 12 books on subjects such as Cuba, Graham Greene and the Dalai Lama, as well as countless pieces in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler and The New York Review Of Books. He’s also chatted with Oprah Winfrey on Supersoul Sunday.

I was introduced to him by guidebook author Rick Steves. Well, via Rick’s radio show actually, when Pico, in his trademark British lilt, described the contemplative practice of sitting still in a tech-crazed world. Pico’s (second) TED talk, The Art Of Stillness, based on his 6,000-word book of the same name, has generated more than two million views on YouTube.

On Friday, our group of poets, writers, Zen students, meditation practitioners, a lawyer, and even a psychologist, workshop the meaning of “home” – is it less about where we live than where we are going? – when the discussion segues into a question-and-answer session about Pico’s writing routine. He’s peppered with questions: how many hours do you write a day? (Five.) How many projects do you work on at any one time? (Multiple.) When is the right time to send a completed manuscript? Pico says he waited a year before sending The Open Road: The Global Journey Of The Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Such interest in Pico’s writing life inspires questions for our interview.

And so, on Saturday, in between poetry sessions, we take lunch outside under sprawling sycamores, surrounded by blue jays. In person, Pico is charming, thoughtful and interested. His relaxed demeanor makes him an ideal dining companion. Pico’s wife, Hiroko, sits with us for a while. She stars in Pico’s non-fiction love story, The Lady And The Monk, but hasn’t actually read the book yet because there isn’t a Japanese version.

On our lunch plates: greens mixed with roasted red peppers, crumbled feta, and toasted pumpkin seeds. A blue dish, stacked with homemade choc-chip-cranberry cookies, teases within arm’s reach. Resigning myself to the salad, I ask Pico, whose mother and late father were professors, if he always wanted to be a writer. “I probably did,” he starts. “Of course, my options shrank the more I did English literature. The trick was how to parlay graduate school’s dead-end position into writing. I knew I didn’t want to be a professor.”

Pico’s full name, Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer, blends Buddhist and Hindu influences. “When I was growing up, Tibetan monks would come to our house. My father went to meet the Dalai Lama when I was two years old. Nobody had heard of him then.” In spite of his parents’ interest in comparative religions, Pico says he has never been interested in attaching a single definition to his conviction.

What does interest him is the space between places. Relocating to California at seven years of age, Pico found it difficult to adjust in a new school. “In England, I was six when I was already studying Latin and Greek,” he explains. So he hatched a plan to return to Oxford, attend boarding school, and visit Santa Barbara during the holidays. “I was glad it was economical for my parents, especially after I’d won a scholarship to the high school, then I didn’t have to pay much at all.”

His life was formed by that commute, “that constant six times a year on a plane back and forth”, he says. “I was at home in airports… I was always a foreigner, always a traveller, even at home or at school, and I think that formed me ever since.”

Pico’s work started getting published in the 1970s. “I was a typical eager beaver,” he says. “My first week, I showed up at the university magazine… I was a rare student who lived in California, and would do all these cool hippie stories.” Writing for alternative weeklies, travelling around Europe for Harvard’s Let’s Go Guides, and studying literature for seven years propelled him towards a job with Time magazine in New York.

“I got so much out of those years. Time taught me how to write,” Pico says. “They taught me how to think of the reader, how to try to be as clear and concise and concrete as possible, and how to communicate, which I’d never studied in all those years of literature.”

And yet, world reporting from a cubicle proved unfulfilling. “I had been there less than a year and I asked if I could take my first vacation to Southeast Asia – three weeks to Thailand and Burma.” Later, Time would grant Pico more time off, for his travels to Bali, India, Japan and Singapore, but he still had itchy feet.

“After the four years, I thought I’d learned what I could, and now would take it out in a different way.” He submitted a number of proposals to publishers, and finally landed a book contract with a $US10,000 advance that afforded him a leave of absence to travel around Asia and write the manuscript for Video Night In Kathmandu. “When I came back from the trip I knew I was going to leave [Time] for good, and I did, maybe five months later.”

In 1983, while on a layover in Japan, Pico had an epiphany. “It was a feeling of familiarity, a feeling I belonged there. My mother says, ‘You must have been Japanese in a previous life.’” He knew he would live in Japan, but what clinched it for him? “Four hours of walking around Narita. I always stress that, partly because it’s the forgotten moments that change our lives.”

Four years later, he moved to a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where he met Hiroko, whom he married 12 years later.

We wipe our plates clean, and Hiroko brings Pico a cup of tea. She asks if I’d like one too. “That’s another reason to live in Japan,” Pico says. “What thoughtfulness.” In the ’90s, Pico experienced a defining moment of a different kind. His family home, perched in the hills of Santa Barbara overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was in the line of one of California’s biggest bushfires. Pico escaped with the family’s cat, but the house burned to the ground. “It affected me hugely. It was probably the biggest single event of my life,” he says. His mother, who was away at the time, was devastated. “It was her home and she lost her whole past.”

Everything was gone, all the family mementos, all his work, save for The Lady And The Monk manuscript. “My plan was the next book, on Cuba. So the day after the fire, that plan was still to write the book about Cuba. I wasn’t going to be diverted by the fire.” Without notes to reference, Cuba In The Night, originally commissioned as a non-fiction book, became Pico’s first novel.

These days, Pico brings his notes and computer discs from Japan and puts them into a safety deposit box in California.

Which brings our conversation to the fickle nature of today’s writing and publishing industry. Out of economic necessity, Pico has charted a new course – one that has taken him from the desk and into the public realm.

“My longing for my life has been to be a writer, and that’s what I trained to do by studying literature for so long, I don’t feel I’m qualified to do anything else. I’ve done that for 34 years now, that’s the life that I chose, but somehow I’ve been displaced into something different.”

I think back to a comment Pico had made about leaving Time all those years ago. He’d said: “It wasn’t hard to make that plunge. Nowadays, it would seem very difficult to me. I’ve lost that recklessness that I envy.” With a wife and two stepchildren, Pico may be less impulsive, but he’s an optimist; a realist adjusting the sails.

And new doors have opened, at Tassajara, for example, where Pico is keen to lead more workshops. “I selfishly come to this workshop to learn about Japan and about Zen, and I’ve done plenty of that by sitting in the Zendo [meditation hall] and being trained by Fu [the abiding abbess] and by listening to her answers,” he says. “There are certain things from this workshop that I can take back into my writing. I’ve learned things from listening to people; the space has given me a chance to think about things. Maybe I can bring the benefit of this workshop into what I regard as my real life, which is when I’m back at my desk in Japan in October.”

On the Sunday flight back to Los Angeles, back to the land of Wi-Fi and white noise, I attempt to sit in stillness, but it’s not easy. Random thoughts dart across my mind. Out of the muddle, however, one curiosity does stand out. Would Pico, the preeminent writer – now workshop teacher at Tassajara – ever reconsider becoming a professor like his parents? Once so at odds with his journey, perhaps now it might be a thought worthy of some serious contemplation.

Words: Marina Kay Images: Vincent Long