An Interview with Melissa Holbrook Pierson


An Interview with Melissa Holbrook Pierson


An Interview with Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Alan G. Brake
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Unlike nearby Poughkeepsie, which was decimated by urban renewal, Kingston, New York, has suffered more from neglect than demolition. The 350-year-old town remains mercifully intact, albeit with an abundance of empty storefronts, crumbling mortar, and flaking paint. Visiting Kingston, I felt a sense of suspension, of being out of time. But as author Melissa Holbrook Pierson says, “Change is afoot.” Upscale specialty shops are cropping up and houses are being converted into luxury condominiums. Many would see this as “progress,” but Pierson sees the underside of that word. She’s seen too many places she’s loved be wrecked, spoiled, or altered beyond recognition.

Her most recent book, The Place You Love Is Gone, carries the subtitle Progress Hits Home, and the double meaning is intentional. Progress touches down everywhere, even the precincts of our earliest memories, and when it comes, she argues, it can smash those places to pieces. Often, Pierson wishes progress, in both the physical and temporal sense, would stop. This radical position admittedly makes her a curmudgeon, but it also makes her something of a fearless expresser of uncomfortable and rarely articulated sentiments.

Pierson is the author of three books of nonfiction—The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About MotorcyclesDark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, a Passion, and the aforementioned The Place You Love Is Gone, which Anthony Swofford, in the New York Times, called “A social history, a history of place (actually, three places: Akron, Hoboken and Kingston, N.Y.), a water history, a personal history, a moral history, [and] a survey of ‘lonely cabin’ writings,” and praised its “acerbic wit and highly refined sense of injustice.”

In Kingston’s old shopping district, Pierson and I sat down at an ice-cream parlor for a conversation, then walked around the center of town. Afterward, we drove around the edge of the nearby Ashokan Reservoir, the beauty of which is undercut by historical markers, as solemn as gravestones, reading “Former Site of the Village of West Hurley” and other places long ago submerged.

—Alan G. Brake



THE BELIEVER: Do you consider yourself a travel writer, a kind of “place writer,” a nature writer, or—

MELISSA HOLBROOK PIERSON: All of those things. I don’t think of myself as fitting into a category. But I had to be careful in all of my books not to repeat things, because I have these ideas, and though the subjects were disparate, the same idea would come up through different portals. And I think—Look, we’re physical objects, we think of ourselves as these kind of free-floating brains, but the brain is such a little part. It’s way smaller than we like to think. We think we’re these important human beings. We’re not animals or anything. But what did we come out of? What are we made out of? We’re made of the same stuff as out there… In the end I operate from a belief, however unspoken, that I’m just a normal Joe. I’m not any one thing, I can’t be held to any one subject. I never could. I had to leave graduate school.

BLVR: What were you studying in grad school?

MHP: Literature. I thought I wanted to go into academics, but one year disabused me of that very quickly.

So I figure, if I’m not that unusual, my experience going from the specific to the universal will hopefully be a direction that other people could follow, and other people will say, “Yeah, I can relate to that too.” I mean, I’m not only looking for people to agree with me, but the people who are passionate about my books, the people who have written to me, are the ones who say, “Oh my God, that was my experience.” I think we’re all looking for a little vindication for these maybe inchoate things that we think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud.” Well, I’m willing to take the hit for it. And I have, and I’ve been accused of everything in the book, from nostalgia and sentimentalism—

BLVR: I think you wear that as a kind of badge, or you seem to in your writing.

MHP: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve sort of gotten past the point of thinking that nostalgia is something shameful. If we didn’t love things, then we couldn’t feel their loss. The flip side of loving is losing. This is why we’re here. I mean, you can’t experience one without the other, so am I not supposed to talk about what losing feels like? Is it supposed to go unmentioned? We’re only supposed to be happy? I mean, I’m not necessarily a happy person. I don’t think that happiness is always the right response to a situation. I think we’ve come to a point in time where people are saying, “Oh, you know, loss and change, that’s just normal.” Well, yes, look at the seasons—that’s normal change. But what we’re experiencing now is not normal. And we need to remark on this.

BLVR: How so?

MHP: There’s a qualitative difference in the type of change that’s occurring now. It’s not organic growth, what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a shift—or maybe the fruits of capitalism run amok—where basically anything and everything is for sale. It doesn’t need to benefit anybody else other than the developer. He’s not accountable to anybody. He can go and wreck a landscape that belongs to all of us. But it’s meaningful to all of us, as well as to the rest of nature. And he can walk away from it. He can do that and walk away. We’ve created a system where this is perfectly OK to do—and in fact, it’s lauded, even.

BLVR: How is that different from in the past? Is it about the rapidity of change, or is there less accountability?

MHP: You know, I wish I could put it together. Someone who understands politics and economics better than I do… I sense that the answer lies there, in zoning laws and changes, which I’ve read a little bit about and understand. They’ve given the fire companies the ability to determine whatever: the curb cuts have to be here, or the way the streets are laid out like this. That changes things. I think it’s a huge accumulation of throwing power and favoritism to people who really ought not to be making these decisions for us, because they’re not taking into account the rest of humanity. It’s the bottom line. It’s the one and only thing. The idea of selling our history, our ecology, to the highest bidder is reprehensible. I mean, I think it’s a form of everything we’ve found egregious in history, like slavery, you name it. These are bad things.

BLVR: I guess if you feel like the specific mechanics of that are to be found in politics or economics, then what do you see your role being as a writer?

MHP: To whine.

BLVR: It’s more than whining.

MHP: Yeah, it is. Every once in a while someone says to me, “Gosh, I’ve never thought of it like that.” Or, “Yeah, you’re right.” And that’s more than I could hope for, to have someone say, “Huh, yeah.” I don’t know what else we can do as people other than to recognize these things…. In the past three days I read things in three completely separate areas of thought about how if we can’t acknowledge something then we can’t change it. That’s the basis of psychotherapy. It must be brought into consciousness to do anything about it. If you choose to let it remain hidden you can’t do anything about it, and ultimately that’s not accepting responsibility. You know: I didn’t do it, therefore I can’t change it. I feel like all this stuff was almost dumped on people in the middle of the night. Every morning somebody wakes up and there’s been a sixteen-wheeler out back leaving things or changing things or bringing things or things have disappeared and the only thing you can do is go, “God, rats,” and that’s it. That’s what we’re given. I don’t know a single person—and it’s not just because I only know people like myself—I’ve never heard anybody say, you know, “I’m so happy that that farm is now a subdivision. That’s beautiful.”

BLVR: I’ve had experiences with people who have moved into new subdivisions and talk about how glad they are that they have a view of a farm out their back window and that they have this imprecise fear that that will go away. I always think there’s a tremendous disconnect there.

MHP: I know! When I go home to suburban Ohio, I see these big trucks parked in front of people’s houses that say ChemLawn. Who wants a ChemLawn? I guess there are people out there who actually want a ChemLawn. This is what makes me—I mean, I know I’m out of step with the rest of America. I feel that all the time. I felt that during the last election. We were all on the floor screaming in agony.


BLVR: You bring up so many interesting things, but since you’ve mentioned it already, tell me more about your next book, this idea of repression.

MHP: And accountability. Repression, too—it’s all in there. Sixty years ago B.F. Skinner came up with the theory of operant conditioning, and how that makes us learn, and how behavior is actually controlled by the environment. There was a huge, huge amount of evidence for this, but people flipped out and went, “Oh, but what about free will?!” And, strangely, they took this man whose ideas were firmly grounded in science, who said, “If we’re controlled by our environment, doesn’t it make sense to engineer our environment so that we’re doing nice things to one another and we encourage happy collective living instead of punitive, antagonistic living?”—people freaked. No, they don’t want happy collective living—that’s scary, scary. They just reviled it. To the point where I take informal polls. If you take nice people, educated people, and say the words “B.F. Skinner,” they go, “Oh my God, he was evil and freaky.”

But guess where B.F. Skinner is recurring right now? Animal training. We’re finally getting away from it all. It started in marine mammal training, because if you want to train a dolphin you can’t hit it. It’ll just swim away. So punishment-based coercive training that’s been used foreverwith dogs, for instance—doesn’t work for marine mammals. They went back to B.F. Skinner and got a little whistle to signal that a treat is coming. Next thing you know, you can train dolphins to do work for the Navy. They’re going around detecting mines, putting explosives down. These are highly trained animals. They’ve never been punished. So there’s a spillover now to dog training. There’s a group of dog trainers—maybe 5 percent—that are using operant training. But it’s almost become a religion, because it’s like once you understand the science of how to train a mammal… Actually, you can train a mollusk this way, I didn’t know—

BLVR: Are you going to try that?

MHP: Not me—though there is a famous chicken training camp where people go to learn this skill. Because chickens aren’t all that intelligent, you have to be incredibly precise with your skills. But it costs a thousand dollars to go to chicken training camp, so I don’t think I’m going to be doing that. I have a dog and I’ve always had dogs and I came into this slowly. You have one trainer telling you that you have to beat the crap out of your dog, and you have another trainer telling you that beating the crap out of anything is going to be counterproductive in the long run. There’s a lot science to prove that, but it raises moral questions for me about how we treat each other.

BLVR: I was about to say: are you going to keep it at the level of animals? Or are you going to talk about our punitive society more broadly?

MHP: Yeah, exactly. It’s fascinating to me, one of the greatest books written on the subject is called Coercion and its Fallout, and the guy doesn’t mention animals once. But the only people who are reading it are dog trainers. Yeah, my publisher wants me to go back to the memoir stuff because they think it will draw people in. So it’ll be about my life with dogs, but I’m going to pack this stuff in somehow.

BLVR: Tell me a little bit more about your method. You said you don’t consider yourself an expert on anything, but there’s obviously an intense amount of information-gathering that goes into your books. There’s a sort of hobbyist’s fury to the books.

MHP: Thank you for saying that. That’s a nice way of putting it. I’m online, I’m on all these lists that are throwing this information at me till my eyes glaze over. There’s a little bit of magic that goes on when you’re researching, or at least the way I do it, which is not methodical. I don’t really know how to research. I think my papers in grad school—I just flunked them all. I don’t really know how to do that. But what I do is a sort of have this faith that if I get into the head and I read something, then it will lead me somewhere else.

BLVR: The information comes to you in a funny way. It finds you.

MHP: For me, in my first book, I could read all the literature on motorcycles because there wasn’t that much. I spent days in the New York Public Library, in the science room, when they still had that, and I did a lot of my research in used bookstores, you know [trails her finger across an imaginary shelf], like that. Same thing with The Place You Love Is Gone. A lot of those were old books that I stumbled on, and when you amass enough stuff, it starts to coalesce. I don’t think about things. I read. I take notes. And then, maybe after a year or two, something will start to take shape and I’ll get out colored pens and I’ll say, This will belong over here. It’s like piecing together a puzzle.

BLVR: You start collaging—

MHP:—My big mass. It’s like, the blue things need to go in chapter two. It sounds mystical and an academic would have my head.

BLVR: It sounds risky as a technique, because there’s always the threat that maybe the magic will disappear or that the structure won’t emerge.

MHP: Yes, that’s scary, or that you’ve picked the wrong one or highlighted the wrong thing. They made me rewrite my proposal on the new book because I started out at the science end of things, because that’s what was fascinating me, and they were, like, horrified. “Oh, no science, put the dogs up front!” I mean, look at Malcolm Gladwell. He did pretty good with the science stuff—not that I’m claiming that I could be him.

BLVR: You’ve mentioned before that you consider yourself to be a politically progressive person, which I gathered from your books. This thing has happened where there seems to be a kind of reversal, where progressives find themselves in this defensive and sort of conservative—in the sense of conserving—stance, where they are trying to protect old things and old ways of life. That’s not the way it used to be. Conservatives are out there trying to grab and snatch and change and get all that they can. And that’s kind of a funny position for progressives to find themselves in, but I don’t think you’re alone in feeling that way.

MHP: Yeah, and for a long time I used to think, “God, is it just because I’m getting old? Am I turning into a kind of curmudgeonly, conservative kind of person?” And to a certain extent that might be true, and that might seem to be the case for people who are your age. Some of them will say, “Come on, the new world is so grand, and you’re just pissy because you’re losing your youth.” My former husband and I did an event in the city, and he was supposed to be interviewing me about my book, but I ended up just jawing about it, and there were some young people in the audience and they said, “We feel weird to care so much about this stuff, being that our friends aren’t even aware.” But the reason this guy was aware—and this blew me away—was that he was a conservation biologist, which means that he studies invasive species and species extinction. He said, “You know that we have an analogous language for species that come in and take over? We call them developers.” I just thought, “Oh my god, that’s so f-ing brilliant.” If I’d known that, it would have been in the book. They can see the bad things happening in nature and they give them the same terminology as development and architecture. And so I know that there are some people who feel this deeply. I don’t feel myself to be conservative, though sometimes I do feel like I just wish all these people would go away. If only everyone would stop having babies.

BLVR: I think that’s one of the things that your book points to that’s not acknowledged, that’s not part of the national conversation at all—our land-use patterns may be good or bad in certain areas, but regardless, there are just too many of us.

MHP: You can’t do anything. I feel like human beings can’t help but destroy, but if our numbers are small we don’t destroy as much as we do now when our numbers are this huge and out of control. I wonder, what’s the carrying capacity for human beings? When do we get to the point when we can’t take it anymore, when it becomes too unpleasant to us just to be here because there’s too many of us and there’s no solitude anymore and all you see is wall-to-wall people and their effects? When does that start to do something to us? I think we might have already reached that point. “Population,” I asked someone, “why isn’t anyone writing about this?” We think housing stats signal the health of our economy, but it’s such a bizarre idea—another hundred million people in America! Is this something to celebrate? It’s not, I’m sorry.

BLVR: It’s interesting because I think that conversation is happening at a global level, at a sort of abstract level, where they talk about the number of people who are moving from the country to the city in developing countries, or the number of mega-cities there will be in ten years, but as far as a kind of policy discussion in this country, I don’t think anyone is having that conversation at all.

MHP: Nope, nobody. I mean, we’re coming up on a big election. Do you think anyone is going to mention that? Talk about the elephant in the room. This is changing everything for everybody. I can’t help but think that for the government, they’re like, “Well, hey, no problem how many people there are.” They get more taxes, more money. How can they say—I mean, did China just recognize early on that they were going to be in trouble? And yet their population is exploding. Don’t they still have one-child on the books? Obviously it’s not working, or somebody’s getting around it. People would be horrified for someone to say—and it’s never going to happen in the United States—I think it would be good if someone stood up and said we should have a one-child policy. It makes sense. It makes sense. Everybody has to sacrifice. Could you imagine?


BLVR: When I read your book for the first time, it was about a year, year and a half after Joan Didion’s Where I Was From came out. Have you read that book?

MHP: Yes, yes. I read that on the train down to New Orleans. Now isn’t that an irony?

BLVR: Wow. Before or after Katrina?

MHP: Before.

BLVR: The photo on the front of the hardcover of that gigantic ice drill, it looks like an enormous train, but it was some kind of device that was used to clear passages through the West. It’s totally haunting.

MHP: Yeah, that book. I mean, was it in my head? It must have been. It must have been in there somewhere. I don’t know where I was at that point, but I felt an immediate kinship with it, as well as awe. That was an amazing book.

BLVR: There is a tremendous overlap I think between both of your concerns, and yet there are also some real differences, and that sort of gets us back to this question of sentimentality. In her book, she spends a lot of time trying to strip away her own sentimentality in the way that she views California. In your book there is a kind of embrace of that and a devotion to that love.

MHP: How many times have you heard someone say they’ve gone back home and it’s changed or it’s gone? I mean, people weep over this. Is it sadness or is it nostalgia? Why is nostalgia such a bad thing? I mean, nostalgia is a longing to return. If you really loved where you came from, if, in essence, you really loved yourself—because that’s what created you—how can you not want that to exist? It’s like wanting your parents keep living. Is it nostalgia when you cry when your parents die? The bad kind of nostalgia is getting lost in it and never leaving. My point in writing about those three places was to say, “Aha, but guess what? I get nostalgic about every place.”

BLVR: I read a fascinating book recently, which gets us dangerously close to academia, called The Future of Nostalgia, by a new media artist, and she teaches comparative literature at Harvard. Her name is Svetlana Boym. I think you’d really enjoy it. And she parses that question closely—Is nostalgia such a bad thing? And I think, certainly among modernists in all disciplines, it’s seen as dangerous and even suspicious, nostalgia, but she splits it into two categories, which I found helpful, one of which she calls “reflective nostalgia” and one of which she calls “restorative nostalgia.” She basically says that restorative nostalgia is dangerous and that’s where you find the totalitarian impulse to bring the past into the present, whereas reflective nostalgia is sort of searching through the past for what’s of value and what matters. Obviously you want to learn from the past, and I think what’s interesting about your work is that there is a bit of both. And I sort of appreciate that, the badge-of-honor aspect of it—there’s a certain bravery to that.

MHP: Yeah, thank you for saying that.

BLVR: I think you would bring the past into the present if you could.

MHP: Part of me does feel a bit defensive, but also offensive about it. You know, twenty years ago I would have been shivering, but now it’s like, go ahead, attack me. It’s very personal. I don’t think I’m hurting anybody. I’m not saying you all have to feel like I do or act like I do. I had the recent unfortunate experience of having to go through my entire archives because my mother sold our house, the house that I grew up in. It happened like six months after the book was published—there’s a great irony there.

BLVR: How did that go over for you?

MHP: I actually wrote a piece about it. I’ll let you know when it comes out. But there are mountains and mountains of family stuff, and neither of my sisters want it. These are the photographs, the albums, the history—my father was really good about keeping that kind of stuff, but now I can’t—he’s not alive anymore so I can’t go to him and say, “Daddy, who was this?” He of course explained it to me a million times, and I was probably sitting there going, “Can we go now?” But the idea of taking a photograph from 1882 of your family, though you may not know who these people were, and then throwing it away? I would hope that most people would rebel at that notion. I think they would. But is it ever going to do any good? Is it going to change anything for you? Is it just going to sit up in the attic until one day my child has to go through it? But then I think, maybe he’ll want to do a paper on it one day in school. And then I’ll have the chance to go through it and try to explain to him. There’s a real solace in that. I’m not sure where that comes from, but it’s real. And I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. 

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