Peter LaSalle’s essay collection The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading and Traveling takes readers on a literary world tour and allows them to live vicariously not only through LaSalle’s experiences, but through the writers whose lives he traces. The collection, published in December 2015, anthologizes work previously published in places such as The Nation, Tin House, and The Best American Travel Writing. Dzanc intern Sarah Corsa asked LaSalle about his travel history, style, and philosophy.
Sarah Corsa: Let's start with something pretty basic. Your book of essays, The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading, and Traveling, is about travel and literature. Which passion came first for you, travel or literature?
Peter LaSalle: Well, I grew up in a semi-rural pocket of Rhode Island, complete with sheep baaing across the road. Understandably, there wasn't much travel for me then, anything exotic. So it had to be literature that came first, especially seeing that my mother was a former school librarian who instilled in me early on a true love of books.
I do remember, though, that as kids my sisters and I used to have one of those old desk globes you could spin. We would take turns closing our eyes and placing a pointed finger on it, dreamily, to see where amid all those little different-colored, puzzle-patterned countries we would land when the spinning stopped and we opened our eyes, sort of a roulette-wheel game to it all. Which meant there was some imaginary travel, if nothing else.
You know, it's often amazing to me today that somehow I've ended up actually having gone to so many of those places in the world since then.
Sarah Corsa: Is travel still new for you? What was your first trip?
Peter LaSalle: It's always new for me, probably close to addictive, and that's the, well, high of it.
My first real travel—to foreign places, anyway—was when I was in college, oddly enough on annual spring tours of the Harvard rugby team. The trips took us to a couple of Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean to get repeatedly trounced by teams with real rugby players who knew a whole lot more about the basically British game than we did.
Then the summer after my junior year, I went to Ireland on a trip partially paid for by Let's Go: The Student Guide to Europe. Back then it was a new kind of travel guide written entirely by Harvard undergrads and aimed at college students, and I was supposed to write the article on Ireland. But I spent most of my time there tracking down places associated with Irish authors I was crazy about, Yeats and Joyce and Synge, also Brendan Behan, a boisterous, wild-spirited writer not read much today. I guess that was when I did first start linking up travel with literature, exploring places that have to do with the books I love, which is my usual modus operandi in the essays in this new book.
Sarah Corsa: I really like the title The City at Three P.M., and can you say something about why you chose it for the book's title?
Peter LaSalle: It's the title of one of the essays, of course, and I hope as a book title it also sets the mood for the whole collection. That particular essay deals with the quiet cross streets of the West Side of Manhattan in mid-afternoon, and in the essay I talk of idly walking around alone during a break after a long day of fiction writing in the apartment I was subletting in New York for a while, finding myself thinking about some writers associated with those streets, like the brilliant yet sad American poet Delmore Schwartz who died too young in a flophouse hotel right there off Times Square.
Because all the essays have to do with my thoughts on literature and even life in general in the course of the travel, I suppose I'm after that same atmosphere—admittedly pensive and for me sometimes almost revelatory—in other essays in the book as well, be it at mid-afternoon at three p.m. or otherwise. It's there in the essay about Buenos Aires, where I went to better experience Borges's work, or another one about Tunis, where I went to do the same with Flaubert, his having once spent time out at the ruins of ancient Carthage nearby to research his lushly lyrical historical novel Salammbô.
Sarah Corsa: Are there any particular habits, even personal quirks, you have when traveling?
Peter LaSalle: A very practical one is that I travel supremely light, carrying a single small gym bag with only enough clothes for the couple of weeks of a trip, plus plenty of books stuffed in there by the writer I'm interested in.
Also, and definitely as importantly, I make it a point to travel alone, which is when I seem more aware, really open to taking in what's around me. One of my earliest realizations was that travel is strongly akin to dreaming, and in dreaming it seems we're all the lonely wanderer entering into the realm of the strange and unexpected, always on the brink of discovery. That happens in the best travel, too. So traveling on my own does enhance that kind of experience. It can even happen when going to a place not usually considered exotic, like Los Angeles, which is the setting of an essay in the book that deals with Nathanael West, author of The Day of the Locust, without doubt the very best novel ever written about Hollywood.
Much of the travel stuff you see on TV, whether it's PBS, The Travel Channel or whatever, good as it is, attempts to project this sense of the solitary traveler. But it always seems somewhat patently contrived to me, because the supposedly one person you see doing the traveling, Michael Palin, let's say, most likely has a dozen or so unseen people in tow, an entire production and equipment crew, including make-up artists, I'd bet. I think I tend to be equally suspicious of some travel books that employ the chatty first person plural "we," therefore the writer admitting it's a couple or group traveling together and by doing so losing out on that dreamlike something.
Sarah Corsa: I wonder if you do, in fact, consider yourself a travel writer?
Peter LaSalle: Now that you mention it, not exactly. Maybe because my whole approach is obviously different than that of most of what's usually labeled travel writing, for better or worse. I'm principally a fiction writer, of short stories and novels, and subsequently my concerns, as just explained, are heavily weighted toward literature. I hope I'm up front with the reader about this so no buyer feels gypped, and the book's full title, meaning the title with the subtitle included, does announce right at the start what's going on: The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading, and Traveling.
That I don't really write straightforward travel pieces is probably indicated by the fact that the two times, luckily, that I've had my work selected for reprinting in the annual The Best American Travel Writing anthology, the guest editors were writers who cast a wide net in their definition of travel writing, Bill Buford and then Paul Theroux. Actually, in his introduction to the 2014 volume, Theroux talks of his distaste for the standard kind of upbeat, basically informational travel writing of the sort encouraged by the lucrative tourism industry and often found in Sunday newspapers or glossy travel magazines. It's what he wise-guyishly and so perfectly describes as, to paraphrase him, "the ten-best-cruise-ships-for-water-slides" school of travel writing.
Sarah Corsa: Who are some travel writers you admire or read often?
Peter LaSalle: When young I liked a lot two very personal, spookily nervous travel books by the British novelist Graham Greene—The Lawless Roads, which describes his travels in Mexico, and Journey Without Maps, about West Africa.
Also, there have been a couple of offbeat documents, groundbreaking and beautifully written, that have greatly influenced my whole understanding of the possibilities of travel writing, even essay writing itself, when it does have a deeper, more daring pursuit in mind. There's Paris Peasant by the French surrealist Louis Aragon, where he strolls around his seedy everyday haunts in 1920s Paris as if he's suddenly in a strange new land, constantly experiencing decidedly metaphysical insight. And there's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee. It started out, I think, as an assignment for the Time-Life company business magazine Fortune. During the Depression they sent him to write on rural Alabama, around the time of the TVA dam projects. But what Agee produced and eventually turned into a book went way beyond journalism and became instead a tellingly probing philosophical document on the land and the impoverished sharecroppers there, also a heartfelt examination of Agee's own troubled life.
Needless to add, I'm surely sane enough to know that with a book like The City at Three P.M., I'm nowhere even vaguely near being in the same league as those masterful writers, but at least I've always had good models to aspire to for this sort of work, right?
And I guess that's simply what I'll keep on doing the best I can.