Interview Picture

Circling Home: an Interview with John Lane - 2008-02-19

Interviewer: Julie Schwietert
Interviewee: John E. Lane

If you were to exit Interstate 85 in Spartanburg, South Carolina on your way to or from some point of greater interest, it’s not likely that much would capture your attention and draw you in. Big box stores and cookie-cutter franchise restaurants line the city’s main street running from east to west, flashing the same endless string of familiar names—Wal-Mart, Applebees, Home Depot—and offering up the same products available in any other town, off any other highway, in any other state.

But just a few miles from Main Street, there are plenty of places and people worthy of a visit. And that’s what writer John Lane is interested in and what he writes about in his newest book, Circling Home. Lane, who spent most of his adult life traveling away from his hometown, finds himself setting some deep roots in that very place in the second half of his life. He married another Spartanburg native and together they have built the county’s first LEED certified home, which is located alongside a creek bed. The premise of Lane’s book is simple: he put a saucer over the place where his home appeared on a topographical map, drew a circle around it, and committed himself to learning as much as possible about life within that circle—the history of the place, the people who have inhabited it, and how the relationships between people and place are forged. What resulted was far more profound than the exercise itself. A meditation about his hometown, Circling Home is also a book about the very idea of place and our relationship with it.

In addition to his writing, Lane is actively involved in a number of community building projects, including Hub-Bub, an artist’s residency community; the Hub City Writer’s Project, a press that is focused on publishing works about place; and, most recently, the conversion of an old textile mill to an environmental studies center for the college where Lane teaches.

In this interview with writer, professor, community builder, kayaker, and self-professed “post-hippie Deep South anarchist,” John Lane shows Matador writer Julie Schwietert around the textile mill being converted into an environmental studies center, and talks about the relationships between people and place, between traveling and settling, and how to form community.

[Julie Schwietert]: When I was in sixth grade, my teacher gave us a science homework assignment: Go home, sit in your yard, and put a circle around yourself--imaginary or real--and just note what you see. The only real use my hula hoop ever saw was forming that circle, and like your experience examining the world within the circle drawn by a plate placed on your topo map, I was amazed by all that I witnessed in that small space. What is so powerful about drawing in our focus so tightly?

[John Lane]: The easy answer is that it puts limits on your vision, but that’s not entirely true since a focused vision isn’t necessarily a limited vision. I guess focusing so tightly makes you inventory. When I drew my circle for Circling Home I began to list the things I knew I had to “settle” within it. And I also knew there was all the random stuff I had no idea I was going to encounter. Of course I also knew from the beginning that I was dealing with a big area compared to your hula hoop.

[JS]: How can we achieve that kind of close attention to our immediate surroundings as a habit? As you mentioned when we walked around the mill site, we're often fishing into the past or casting into the future, which makes it difficult to see what's right around us.

[JL]: Well, the past year or so every morning I’ve been walking the same route with Toby [one of Lane’s dogs]. It occurred to me one morning that I could probably write another book about this route down below our house and along the creek a few hundred yards and back up to the house. It seems like a great deal to cover, especially when you add in the repetition of walking daily. I see geese pass over every morning and an endless series of fresh tracks, and the seasons change right before my eyes. Now the question quickly becomes, “What’s interesting about that?” Circling Home works, I think, because there is more to it than the attention to immediate surroundings. I also added the dimension of time in there. The book is so much about time, my time and the place’s time.

[JS]: Are there any risks to drawing a circle so tight? Whether to our immediate community or the larger world?

[JL]: There are two primary risks that come to mind: leaving out some vital context, and risking that the immediate community does not “get it.” Writing about such a focused local place, you risk writing a book that is only interesting to your immediate neighbors, or to people who have some connection back to the east side of Spartanburg. You risk not really creating something that can be universal. That’s not a bad book to write. Hub City’s [a press Lane started with two Spartanburg writers] made its living publishing such books for 12 years, but it’s not usually the kind of book “writers” want to write. I’m still uncertain whether the larger world will read Circling Home . So far it’s had fewer reviews early on than Waist Deep in Black Water or Chattooga. Of course, every week that passes without reviews I wonder if I’ve just written this book for Spartanburg! But if that turns out to be true the only real risk to it is to my ego as a writer! I think the indications so far are that the immediate community does get it. The book’s moving well among my neighbors, though I still fear that someone will call or write and say, “You got it all wrong. It didn’t happen that way.”

[JS]: One of the themes of Circling Home is the relationship between the self and the notion of settlement versus the notion of freedom. You mention that both settlement and freedom have their own comforts. What are some of those comforts, and do you think it's possible to be both settled and free?

[JL]: That’s a difficult question. Listing the comforts of settlement is easy. I love the security that comes from repetition. It allows for so much work to get done. I get up every morning in a warm house and I sit here facing this screen writing, or sit in a familiar chair and read. I know the place where I live. I go out into every day with some assurance that I belong here. But what sort of freedom has been compromised by my settlement? I haven’t longed much for the days when everything I owned would fit in the back of my pickup truck, but someday I might. I always think about a friend of mine who kept tortoises in his back yard. He had a big back yard. The animals were well-fed and cared for, but they walked all day around the perimeter of the yard. They walked that trail so much they wore a path. They didn’t care how big the yard was. They wanted out. I wonder sometimes if the act of writing (creative writing) isn’t walking that fence. And so what happens when you find an opening one day? But it’s also important to remember what you point out through the wording of your question: settlement and freedom, they’re both notions, and any reality will probably be a healthy mix of both.

[JS]: Much of your attention and effort--in your writing, in your teaching, in your activism and community building projects-- are place-based, deeply rooted in the clay of the Carolina Piedmont. Although you're settled here, do you dream of travel? If so, where?

[JL]: We went to Alaska last summer. That was a powerful trip. Betsy [Lane’s wife] called the trip “Into the Holiday Inns.” While there we visited with a piedmont expat, Venable Vermont, and it was interesting to talk with him. He’s lived up there for 25 years now. It’s changed him, but he comes back every year to visit family and turkey hunt. While there we traveled around and took in the sights. It had a profound impact on me. The human side of Alaska is so shabby and uninteresting—as V’s wife Kim likes to say, “Alaska is the only state without architecture.” But all that human shabbiness is surrounded by deep wildness. That’s exciting. Here you have to look so deep in things to see hints and glimpses of a remaining wildness. Other places? We want to go to New Zealand. We’re talking about spending Christmas next year somewhere in Mexico. I think as we age we’ll travel more and more. We love our place here, but both of us crave other places. And I need to point out that if you look back at Waist Deep you’ll see many essays about other places. It’s almost a travel book. And my next book I plan on putting a canoe on the creek behind the house and paddling by myself to the ocean.

[JS]: In Circling Home, you ask yourself and your reader lots of questions: "How do we live with our neighbors? What level of commitment is acceptable? What lack of awareness is unacceptable?" Do you think you've come closer to answers in the process of writing the book and receiving responses from readers in Spartanburg? If so, what are some of those answers?

[JL]: One of my writer friends hates those rhetorical questions and they almost forced him to put the book down. I think they somehow diminished the book’s power for him. But I think I had to ask them because I wanted the book to be the answer to them—“this is how.” I think he wanted me to work the answers out beforehand. One answer has been that I’ve remained in community and discovered that you can bring different perspectives to a community. So far no one who has read the book has told me that what I wrote is unacceptable.

[JS]: You've learned to love Lawson’s Fork Creek even though you acknowledged it was an unlikely candidate for love. In the years when you put so many miles on your old truck, was there a place that kept drawing you back--physically or emotionally--either because of its obvious beauty or its harder, hidden beauty?

[JL]: I went back to Wyoming many times in the years before I truly settled. I was comfortable there in a small town (Buffalo) where I had friends. I’d go there and stay a few weeks every summer and write and travel around Wyoming and Montana. The bottom dropped out of the housing market in those years (the 80s) and I nearly bought a small house there, a sort of vacation place in that small western town. What drew me there? It was a beautiful small town. In the 90s I stopped going and it was discovered by Californians and now the place is a destination. I’m glad I didn’t buy a place there. I have to admit that what drew me there were my friends, though. It wasn’t really the place. I got to know the place once I went there.

[JS]: You've been--you are--a catalyst in several significant community building projects in Spartanburg... the Hub City Writers Project, Hub-Bub, the Writing in Place annual conference at Wofford College, and now, the environmental studies program out at the mill. Of these projects, is there one of which you are particularly proud? What kind of advice would you offer to people who are conscious of their desire to be catalysts of community building, but who aren't sure how to go about the kind of tangible work that you have done and continue to do?

[JL]: I’m proud of all these “projects” but I also see how difficult they have been to establish. I know Hub City would have never happened had not the strange chemistry of Betsy Teter [former business editor of the local newspaper], Gary Henderson [reporter for the local newspaper], Mark Olencki [photographer], and myself come together 12 years ago. You can’t create such things. They have to rise of their own power. The timing was perfect for such an experiment in community. The same is true of the other projects—and now it’s happening again with the environmental studies center. As for advice, I don’t know what to say because I’m not sure HOW these things happened exactly except to say that they grew out of vision and attachment to this place. So my advice would be to attach to something, I guess.

Reprinted from The Traveler’s Notebook