Courtesy of University of Missouri Press
By Evan Wood
William Least Heat-Moon paints broad canvases with a narrow brush. And if you are wondering to yourself "what does that even mean," you should read one of his books. In Blue Highways, he covered America by backroads, and in River Horse he covered the country by its rivers. Despite being a man of broad and sweeping journeys, he has an eye for details that makes him a compelling writer.
In his most recent book, Writing Blue Highways, he turns from traveling by boat and by car to a journey through his own mind. We reached out to talk with him about works past, present, and future.
Missouri Life: Paul Theroux lives part of the year in Hawaii, but he says that only Massachusetts, where he was born, feels like home. Do you feel that sentiment about Missouri?
Heat-Moon: I have a difficult time imagining myself living any place other than central Missouri. To feel a long connection with a landscape is crucially important to me—not so much for my writing as for a sense of well being.
ML: Do you have a favorite outdoor spot in Missouri?
HM: The wooded fifty acres where I live in southern Boone County is that spot, but to visit other places in Missouri and the United States—that too gives much satisfaction.
ML: Writing Blue Highways tells the story of a different kind of journey than Blue Highways itself. As someone who has written prolifically about traveling, did you find it was different writing about the creative process?
HM: Writing Blue Highways is also kind of a road book—this time a journey to interior places. The difference between it and Blue Highways has to do with its stories, tales about emotions and ideas, where the topography is one of the mind.
ML: You don't consider Writing Blue Highways a book about how to write. How would you classify it?
HM: Writing Blue Highways is kind of a sequel to Blue Highways as it presents the story of what happened during the four years following the three months on the back roads. It approaches that story by exploring the nature of the creative process—and not just a literary one. It tells of surviving the demands of trying to make something the world hasn't before seen. Along the way, it does offer significant writerly counsel.
ML: With Blue Highways, there was a specific set of circumstances that propelled you onto your journey. How would you compare the actual traveling experience of a trip like that with a more planned and researched one, such as your trek across American waterways in River Horse?
HM: The unknowns and unexpectations of Blue Highways lay largely with human encounters along the road. On the River Horse voyage, the unexpected arose almost entirely from the natural world—rocks, rivers, lakes, wind, weather.
ML: You insisted on keeping photographs that you took in Blue Highways even after your publishers wanted them removed. The fact that you're a trained photojournalist lends you credibility as a photographer, but why was it such a crucial point of contention for you?
HM: The photographs in Blue Highways add a dimension that language cannot reach, and they are testament to the people I met along the road. The pictures are also testimony that the journey actually occurred—an important detail for a then unknown and unproven writer. The reader can see the faces in their locale, and say, "This guy didn't make these people up."
ML: Do you pronounce our state's name Missour-ee or Missour-uh?
HM: I grew up in Kansas City where we said Missouri-uh, but I went off to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, a town with a strong influence from St. Louis. I graduated using both pronunciations. (My mother thought the eastern version pretentious for a westerner.) I still use both, although I think the -ee version is closer to the origin of the name. I have never and will never pronounce the name of my natal town as Kan-City. There are four syllables in the name, and all four should be pronounced. To say "Kan-City" is sloppy talk.
ML: You had another book come out last year, a translation entitled: An Osage Journey to Europe 1827-1830. What challenges did you face as a writer translating accounts of other writers?
HM: I did the translations for An Osage Journey with James Wallace, a professor of French language and literature. My role was similar to what I must do in my own writing—try to make sentences sing, or latest hum. The original French accounts are anything but eloquent in expression, and that raised a question about how far a translator should go. We worked for a middle course.
ML: We hear your next project is a novel. Knowing that you do meticulous reporting and research for your travel writing, what kind of research are you doing for your fiction writing?
HM: My novel—I can't give the title just yet, but I hope the book will be out early next year—required research comparable to what I've done in my non-fiction. The characters inhabit a realm far more factual than invented, and that means details must be accurate. Their so-called "fictive" world must ring true.