PW: What inspired your exploration of the human brain and its workings in An Alchemy of Mind?
This is a book I've wanted to write for a really long time. I've written about the mind in different books in different ways, but it's taken me this long to be able to focus on it more.
How long did it take you to write?
When it came out, people asked me how long it took me to write A Natural History of the Senses, and I told them, "My whole life!" It's the same with this book. I suppose all of my books are an effort to discover a little better what it was once like to be alive on the planet: what the passions felt like, what it tasted like, what it smelt like, the whole experience of being alive. That's a quest that takes you from birth to death and includes all of consciousness, but I don't think of it as overwhelming. I find the world revealing itself, human nature revealing itself, to be seductive and startling, and it's always been fascinating enough to send words down my spine. Writing is the way I inquire about the world. But it's also my form of celebration and prayer, among other things.
I was going to bring up the passages that seem almost to explain your writing process to readers.
Of course, writing's a part of the experience of having a brain that I know best, but I think we rarely realize that all language is poetry. We use countless metaphors every day—not just writers, but everybody—as an important hinge between feelings and ideas. I found it fascinating to think about how the mind inhabits the visceral body, how it relies on the abstraction of language, how it needs a way to embody thought and make ideas sensible, to probe the world even when the body is resting. That's something metaphor does really well. Through metaphor, thought becomes an action that can be staged in the mind's eye.
You offer a passionate rebuttal of the argument that nonfiction writing, especially science writing, should stick to the facts and be as plain and unornamented as possible.
I don't care for minimalist writing, and part of the reason I don't care for it is that I think it bankrupts the experience of being alive.... I love language, and I love playing with language, but most of the poetic phrasing that I do is in an effort to be more precise. We have so many words in which to express the world, but they can't begin to compete with the experiences we have. So much falls between words, and that's when it really is essential to get words to overlap in intriguing ways to better reflect our experience of being alive. That requires stylishness, expressiveness.
Which writers were especially useful to you as you were doing research?
The great fun of writing my books is that I have the excuse to read hundreds and hundreds of books on a subject.... I like Francis Crick's books and [Antonio] Damasio and [Joseph] LeDoux.... I could give you a long list, and it would include books of poetry as well as general science. I might not like everything in them, but I'll take from each what intrigues me the most.
As a writer, too, you've shuttled back and forth between prose and poetry. What's next for you?
I'm always working on poems because even though I probably write more prose than anything else, poetry continues to be the real source of my creativity. I think all my books are ultimately parts of the same book, a book about that quest I mentioned earlier. It's only in retrospect that I realize I've been putting together a mosaic, filling in parts of the picture with each book. I don't honestly know what the next piece will be, but it'll be part of the same quest.