May 2009

Reif Larsen

Border-crossing debut
Interview by
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One day, T.S. Spivet gets a phone call from the Smithsonian Institution, informing him that he has won a national award for his mapmaking and will be the keynote speaker at an upcoming celebration in Washington. What the Smithsonian doesn’t know is that T.S. is only 12 years old. What T.S. doesn’t know is how he’s going to get to Washington. What his rancher father and scientist mother don’t know is that he will get there, making the crossing from the family ranch in Divide, Montana, to the Mall in D.C. all on his own. He will run away from home, from the unbearable memory of his little brother Layton’s accidental death, which–unaccountably–he had a hand in.

So begins Reif Larsen’s miraculous The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a debut novel narrated by the pre-pubescent cartographer, filled to the very edges of each page with his hundreds of drawings and other assorted marginalia. In the center of the novel appears a book within a book, a narrative of T.S.’s ancestors written by his mother. The novel is a cabinet of wonders, an odyssey of self-discovery, a family romance, a symphony of topography, geology and American history. The book hardly seems able to stay between its covers, bulging as it is with so many astonishments, so many crossings of fictional lines.It is, moreover, a genuine publishing phenomenon over which the book world (and even the film world) is buzzing with barely contained excitement. All of 28 years old, not even out of graduate school, Larsen is dazzling the industry with a precociousness not unlike that of T.S., who takes the Smithsonian by storm.

BookPage spoke with Larsen at his home in Brooklyn about the spirit of the book, its sources and its structure. "I’m a practicing Zen Buddhist and I’m influenced by my readings in that tradition, such as the notion that everyone is born a perfect being and we spend most of our lives with a clouded vision trying to realize our perfection," he says. At critical moments in the book, T.S. registers his inkling of this realization. When he makes his maps, it feels like taking down dictation from the universe.

Larsen, who is finishing his M.F.A. in fiction at Columbia, is also a filmmaker and has made documentaries in the U.S., the U.K. and Africa. He has a special insight into children, having organized the U.S. tour of a band of teenaged Botswanan marimba players last year to benefit their AIDS orphanage back home. "I find myself often writing about children who have a range of extraordinary skills. They provide a lot of insight into seeing the world for how it is. My father is an art teacher and his way of teaching is to get students to see like kids again, to draw a tree as they see it instead of replacing it with a symbol of what tree should be," he says.

"I was initially nervous about illustrating the book because I’m a writer first and foremost and I wanted the illustrations to match the text. Originally I was going to hire someone to do it, but I realized I would drive this person crazy with all my tiny requests. Finally I said, OK, I’ll do it myself. And then I realized I could always fall back on the fact that T.S. is 12, if I didn’t do it well," Larsen says.

So much of the book flows like a dance between opposing forces. Larsen illuminates one source of this energy: "A lot of the characteristic polarities came right out of Westerns. T.S.’s mother and father typify the forces at work in the history of the American West. On the one hand, you have a nostalgic sense of the land on the part of the ranchers who work it. On the other hand, you have all these scientists and geologists who went out there and tried to grid a map of meaning on the place. I think the story of the West is very much about these two ways of seeing and ways of knowing bumping up against each other. It was interesting to see how all of this could play out in a single household."

When the subject comes up of a possible connection between his T.S. and another wandering boy named Huck Finn, Larsen says, with a touch of awe in his voice, "I feel honored even to be mentioned alongside Mark Twain. That book is one of the great, great American novels. Twain is so smart. It’s the way he tackles the world from the point of view of a relationship between a runaway slave and a boy from the country. By contrast, one of the difficulties of my own book was when I realized that T.S. has to go on ‘The Crossing’ all by himself. That’s when I discovered the historical part, with the journal of T.S.’s mother accompanying him on the trip. He’s in dialogue with his mother and his whole history. He is completing a cycle, a ‘conservation of migration’: what goes West must come back East. Likewise, it’s the perpetual motion of Twain’s book–the feeling that he’s always got his foot on the accelerator–that’s what affects me."

About T.S.’s own ordeal, Larsen meditates with characteristic generosity. "At first, I was so fully inhabiting T.S.’s voice that I found it really difficult to write about certain things, especially the death of his little brother, Layton. Early on, T.S. lacks the emotional language to talk about this, and he subjugates all of it to the sidebars. It’s like in music; when you’re improvising you hit a note and you don’t want to come back to that note until you’re ready again. The rhythm of T.S.’s voice told me when I could go there. But this changes, and the function of the marginalia shifts. Over the course of his journey, he learns how to talk more upfront about his grief, and his effort becomes part of the main text."

Larsen says, "I’m always interested in the question of whether to end a book in the head or in the heart." But he does not say how he answers the question for himself at the end of The Selected Works. This is just as well. We don’t need a map of this book. All we need is to read it and marvel. In doing so, we gain a map of the world, a vision of our own troubled heads and hearts, a legend for our own bewildered epoch.

Michael Alec Rose is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.

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