Writer Pico Iyer

The award-winning author of The Man Within My Head discusses the character that has haunted him over the years.

Utne Reader named Pico Iyer one of 100 "writers who could change your life." He's regarded as an incisive observer of the emerging global culture and writes up to a hundred articles a year for various publications. His books have been translated into several languages and published in Europe, Asia, South and North America. Born in England and raised in California, Iyer was educated at Eton and Oxford and now spends much of his time in Japan. In his latest text, The Man Within My Head, he unpacks all he has in common with the English writer Graham Greene.


Tavis: Pico Iyer is a noted journalist, travel writer and acclaimed author whose many notable books include “The Open Road” and “Video Night in Kathmandu.” His latest is, once again, receiving terrific reviews and is called “The Man Within My Head.” Pico Iyer, good to have you back on this program.

Pico Iyer: Delighted to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start with the obvious. “The Man Within My Head” references?

Iyer: References Graham Greene, the late English novelist, but I think it references more the fact that all of us have these characters inside our heads, people we’ve never met. But it could be a writer, a singer, an artist, a figure form history. Somehow we feel as if they know us better than our own friends and family do.

Tavis: And for you, Graham Greene has been that person?

Iyer: He has. There were various people in my head, but he’s the one that keeps coming back and haunting me.

Tavis: Tell me more about his haunting you, his coming back to you time and again.

Iyer: Well, I remember, for example, I was once in a little hotel in Santiago de Cuba called The Hotel Casa Granda. I walked out, I got into a car to look around and, as soon as I did, a man slipped into the passenger seat and promised to show me around.

That was disconcerting, but more disconcerting a few years later, I was reading a biography of Graham Greene and I found, 35 years before I’d been there, he’d been in the same tiny hotel, the Casa Granda in Santiago de Cuba. As soon as he stepped out, he got into a car; a stranger slipped in and promised to show him around.

So I continued reading the biography. I found at one point, he was making confession to a priest called Father Pilkington. I remembered when I was a teenager, the man responsible for my spiritual welfare for four years, my house master, was somebody called Father Pilkington, a different man.

I went on reading in the biography and I found that, at one point in the 1970s, he was planning to write a play on a very obscure 19th century romantic painter called Benjamin Robert Haydon.

I remembered in the 1970s, I had decided to write a dissertation on the very obscure romantic painter called – you can guess – Benjamin Robert Haydon. It just went on and on and sometimes more eerie.

I remember, when he was in his 30’s, he’d always have this terror of seeing his house burn down which is a strange thing for somebody growing up in quiet suburban England. But then during the Blitz, German bombs hit his house and was reduced to ash.

When I was in my 30’s, I was walking up the stairs in my parents’ house in Santa Barbara, California. Suddenly I saw our house was ringed by 70-foot flames, a California wildfire. Three hours later, the fire had wiped out my house and everything in it except for me.

Then I began to think, well, these correspondents aren’t always so pleasant, but it’s remarkable. It’s almost as if he scripted my life or as if I’m just a figment in his imagination.

Tavis: What do you make of those coincidences?

Iyer: I love the fact that we can’t explain them and that I have a connection with him that sometimes seems as strong as with my own parents and yet there’s no reason for it.

I think it’s like sometimes you walk into a crowded room and you’ll see a stranger and you feel as if you know her better than the friends that you came with.

And the very fact that you can’t explain it is what gives it its power, that it lies in some deeper or mysterious realm, I think.

Tavis: To your point now about a deeper and more mysterious realm, what are we to do? I know what you’ve done; you’ve written a book about it.

But as I was going through the book and reading it and reading more about your reasons for doing the book, I started to think myself of those persons that I carry around with me and carry around in my head.

I wanted to ask you, as I will now, what your recommendation is for what we ought to do with those persons, the rest of us, those persons that we carry around with us inside of us.

Iyer: That’s a great question. I think many of them are inspirations. It might be Dr. Martin Luther King.

Tavis: That’s who it is for me.

Iyer: Really? I guessed it, yeah.

Tavis: That’s my guy, yeah.

Iyer: Or Gandhi or Bishop Tutu or the Dalai Lama. I think they’re really embodiments of what we aspire to and, by keeping them in our heads, we’re reminding ourselves of who we could be. That’s what we’re hoping to climb up towards.

Other ones who are more unsettling, I think it’s a way of seeing ourselves the way we never can otherwise. If I said, “Let me look at Pico,” if you said, “Let me look at Tavis,” it’s hard really to examine yourself.

But as soon as what’s in yourself is outside you in some external form, then you can begin to make sense of it and even come to terms with some of your problems or uncertainties or contradictions.

I think that’s how it is. When I read his books, I relate to them so strongly that I feel he’s addressing and sometimes resolving all the questions I have inside myself. So use them as a guide maybe.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, Pico. How did using Graham Greene as a guide – say that fast three times – Graham Greene as a guide. How did using Graham Greene as a guide lead you, if I can say that, lead you back to looking at your father and your relationship with him?

Iyer: I began thinking about why am I constructing almost a shadow father or ghost father in my head into Graham Greene in response to the father who created me? What’s going on here?

I think a part of my sense is it’s every boy’s story. When we are kids, we imagine that to define ourselves or to find ourselves means charting your own individuality, making your own destiny and actually running away from your parents and your home and what you grew up with.

Of course, as the years go on, we come to find that we become our parents. I look in the mirror or hear my own voice and I recognize it because it’s my father’s voice.

So I’m interested in the way that are kind of rebelling against our parents until we become our parents. We rebel against them by saying, “I want to be Graham Greene” and then end up the son of Mr. Iyer, in my case.

Tavis: Strange question, I admit, but how did looking at Greene cause you to reflect differently or more deeply on your relationship with your father? I’m trying to connect these dots.

Iyer: Yes. I suppose I quickly saw some of the things they had in common. I think they were both people very interested in the religious life and also things that they had very differently.

Graham Greene always presented himself as a skeptic and I think my father was a man of faith and great fervor. So I thought, well, I’m drawn to this skepticism. That’s a kid’s way of rebelling.

But deep down, I carry my father’s blood and DNA inside me, so I should accept that. In some ways, I should turn away from Graham Greene and embrace the fact that I am my father’s son and not Graham Greene’s son.

I was just thinking as I was flying down here today how, if you’re courting a woman and you say to her, “You look just like your mother,” she’ll probably slam the door on you. But if you say to her, “You look just like Virginia Woolf or Meryl Streep or somebody,” even if those people are less beautiful than her mother, she’ll be thrilled.

I think we all have this sense. We want to attach ourselves to some imminence and run away from the fact that we are who we are. But essentially, we can’t run away from our shadow and I think that’s part of what this book is about.

Tavis: Should your father have been in any way offended, insulted, belittled by this affair that you are having with Graham Greene?

Iyer: He might have been, and I think it’s the pain and the ache of every father to have to tolerate a son always rebelling against him. But a wise father knows that a son will always come back in the end.

My father died 16 years ago and I think, at that time, he might have been wistful that I spent so much of my time on the other side of the world. But I think, if he read this book, he would see that the more the years go on, the more in some ways I come back to him and understand him.

Sometimes, I remember in this book, I was in a little house in Varanasi, India and I happened to meet an old friend of my father’s. It was wonderful to hear about my father when young to him.

Then this man said, “I remember when your father was 14 years old, he was in love with this very obscure book.” At that very morning, I had mentioned that same obscure book as my personal favorite to somebody by email in New York.

So I was realizing the correspondences deeply, and not with Graham Greene. They’re with my father. Every year that passes, I see more of what I’m so proud of coming to independently is just what my father had done 50 years before me.

Tavis: What has this exercise, this journey – a more appropriate word for you, this journey – taught you, revealed to you, about the similarities to your father and the differences with your father?

I think now about the fact that your father, as you said earlier, was a person of faith. You had your own misgivings, for lack of a better word, about religion, about faith. We’ll come to that in just a second.

But what is this journey allowed you to see about the similarities between Pico and his dad and the divergent parts of Pico?

Iyer: I this it’s mostly the similarities that I see much more. If you’d asked me that question 30 years ago, I would have said we were totally different. Now I would say we’re unexpectedly similar, and faith is a perfect example.

Because my father was a man of faith, I wanted to believe in nothing, but you can’t control these things. As the years go on, more and more things happen that I can’t explain and I find myself probably saying and writing the same sentences that he would have.

I think writing is really about a journey of understanding. So you take something that seems very far away and the more you write about it, the more you travel into it and you see it from within.

So I feel that writing this book is an attempt really to understand my father better and to see and acknowledge to myself how close we are in certain ways.

Tavis: As I listen to you, I’m thinking about this in a way that I’ve never thought of it before. As is the case when I talk to you, I see things differently and I appreciate you for challenging me even to re-examine assumptions that I hold.

I’ve never thought of rebellion in this way, but is rebellion ultimately redemptive or can rebellion lead to redemption? Does that make sense as a question?

Iyer: It does, and I think you have to leave home to come back home, exactly as you’re saying. You need to rebel to see the other options and to get a much richer, fuller sense of the world. And it’s only once you’ve worked through that and seen through that that you can come back and accept who you are. You have to try all the other options.

No, that’s a wonderful way. I think, if I’d stayed at home and been very devoted to my father all along, at some point there’d be some explosion or something would have to propel me out. No, I think you put it perfectly.

Tavis: Are there regrets about what might have been lost during those years of rebellion? Because that’s the only thing, rebellion. I think that ultimately, if you live long enough, as you’ve been blessed to do, then that rebellion can ultimately lead to redemption.

But if, in the journey, if on the way, if on the journey to redemption, your father passes away or your mother passes away or that loved one passes away while you’re still caught in that state of rebellion, then what?

Iyer: Yeah, I think regret is exactly right. We so often in life understand things too late and I think this is a perfect example. While my father was alive, all I could see was how much I disagreed with things that he said and it was only after he passed away that I could see the truth of him.

So maybe in some larger universe, he can understand that, to appreciate that. But I’m glad, at least in my case, to have come to that position.

It’s a hard one to come to because you have to swallow your pride and you have to say, “Well, I was too young then or too shortsighted.” At least, I think writing this book and spending many years on it has helped me to get that far and there will always be many very significant differences between him and me.

He also gave me a life that he couldn’t enjoy because he grew up in very modest circumstances in India, but I was able to grow up in comfort in England and California. So that will always make a difference.

Tavis: What have you learned, Pico, about the preconditions, the ingredients, if I can put it that way, the prerequisites, for swallowing one’s pride?

Iyer: [Laugh] Well, I’m not a wise man necessarily qualified to address that, but I suppose it’s got to do with clarity and honesty. I think it’s so easy to run away from ourselves, but I think writing a book is an excuse, as in this instance, really to look unsparingly at who you are.

When you do, I think most of us have a keen sense of what our virtues are. But I like Graham Greene because he always looked very honestly at his deficiencies and his [unintelligible].

I think the more you do of that, the more you can accept how much you owe to other people. I think, when I was 25 years old, I probably felt I’m going to make my destiny out of scratch and be somebody like nobody else. Maybe individuality is over-rated.

You know, when I hit 50, I realized I’m not like everybody else and that’s a great thing [laugh]. I mean, I am like everybody else. I’m not so different and that’s the virtue of things.

Tavis: Beyond the similarities in your journey and his journey, talking now about Graham Greene, what is it about his work that you were attracted to?

Iyer: I think it’s a mix of kindness and realism. As you remember, the last time I was here, we talked about the Dalai Lama. One thing I admire about the Dalai Lama is he looks at the world as it really is, but he still has hope and faith and he always believes in possibility.

That’s what I get in Graham Greene too, that he’s a compassionate realist. He had no illusions about the world, he traveled to war zones, he spent time in the most difficult parts of the world, but he never gave up the faith or hope or belief that each one of us act much better than we imagine.

I think that’s an inspiration partly because it’s grounded in reality. He wasn’t a fantasist or a dreamer or a romantic, and the Dalai Lama isn’t either, but they go into the most thorny situations and come out with something that’s possible.

The classic Graham Greene character is a whiskey priest, as he’s called, who does everything against the laws of Catholicism. He drinks too much, he has a girlfriend, he seems to be the worst possible man. But in the critical moment when somebody reaches out to him for help or when he has to perform Mass to a woman who’s dying, he gives up his own life to do that.

Somehow he rises to a heroism greater than even many another more obviously pious priest. I think that’s a good thing, that Graham Greene had faith in people even in the midst of their confusions and their sins to transcend themselves.

Tavis: You’ve traveled the world more than most. I wonder whether or not, to that beautiful phrase, “compassionate realist,” whether or not in the world that we live today, given the condition and the state of the world, it is increasingly difficult to be that compassionate realist.

Iyer: I hope it’s as easy as it ever was. I think it’s certainly more important to be that because we’re living in much more of a global neighborhood than ever. For example, the Dalai Lama always says that, because all our destinies are visibly dependent on everybody else – it used to not be the case.

But he says there’s no we and them anymore. If you hit somebody in China, for example, you’re going to suffer here in the United States. If we were to bomb Iran, the first victim of that would be the U.S.

So I think we’re actually moved and forced to look out for the other, whether it’s an individual or a nation on the other side of the world, much more than before.

Also, the great blessing of the modern moment is that you and I can travel and, as soon as you travel, all the bad notions and abstractions you have in your head about another country fly out the window and you put a face and a voice to it.

As soon as you do, you see how much you have in common. I think when you’re 6,000 miles away from somebody, you see everything that’s different. But when you meet them, you quickly find common ground.

So I think this is actually the time for us use that compassion and to be aware of our responsibilities not just to our neighbors in a city like Los Angeles, but across the planet.

Tavis: The overwhelming majority – this is a sad statistic, as you well know, being a world traveler – the overwhelming majority of Americans do not even own a passport.

Iyer: Yes.

Tavis: That means that most of us have not, will not, if this pattern continues, travel outside of our own borders. That causes two problems, at the very least, two problems as I see it, Pico.

One is that you can’t really appreciate your own country if you never get outside of it and look back on it. You can’t even appreciate it for what it really is. But you also can’t see its deficiencies.

To your point, it means that you can’t develop a compassion or understanding and embrace a respect of the other if you never go spend time with the other.

So given this global world that we live in and the condition of America and the fact that we’re not as beloved around the world as we once were – not as bad in the Obama years as it was in the Bush years – but we’re still not beloved as we once were, how do Americans make that connection if we’re not ever going to get out of our country to appreciate it and see its deficiencies and connect with other people? How do we do that?

Iyer: I think one great thing of the modern moment is the whole world has come to our doorstep, to our back yard, to our neighborhood. I sometimes tell my neighbors here in California, if you don’t have the time or resources or courage to go across the world, go across the neighborhood. You can learn the history of Vietnam, you can learn about Iranian culture, you can eat Ethiopian food.

Just four days ago, I was in a succession of cabs one day and I got the history of Palestine, the history of Brazil, and the history of Ethiopia from these gentlemen who were taking me to the airport. It’s all around us now the way it wasn’t in our parents’ age. So you can learn a lot about the world if you’re in New York or Los Angeles or Seattle or a big city.

But I’m really with you. I think there’s no substitute if possible for traveling. Look at the Canadians. They go everywhere around the world and they’ve created one of the most enlightened societies on earth.

What I find in my travels is, first, as you said, so many people everywhere, in Cuba or Iran or Vietnam, want to come to America, but they will never have the chance. They’ll never have enough money or the freedom to come here.

So I think it’s really up to us to take the first step and to make the initiative and those of us who have enough resources and freedom to go and initiate the conversation. Because I notice in any neighborhood, small neighborhood or a planetary neighborhood, if there’s one person who locks the door and draws the shades and cowers behind the sofa, he’s the scary one.

The first sensible thing in any neighborhood is go out, find out who the neighbors are, tell them who you are and then you can start, as I was saying before, finding what common ground you have. But the more isolated you are, the more scary you are.

I once traveled to North Korea and it was the single scariest place I’ve been because it was so isolated. If you can’t imagine even the U.S., as they couldn’t, it’s easy to bomb them. I think we don’t want to be guilty of the same problem.

Tavis: When you started that answer, the problem of judging people, I thought that you were going to suggest or offer up the internet as Exhibit A.

When you said the world is coming to us, I thought you were going with the internet, and then I thought here’s a guy, though, who doesn’t have a cell phone, here’s a guy who doesn’t Tweet, here’s a guy who doesn’t do Facebook, here’s a guy who is like the most unplugged guy that I know.

So I thought you were gonna go with the internet as a way for people to learn and – you can get on the internet and travel around the world and never leave your living room.

Iyer: You can.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. It’s not your way, but, yeah.

Iyer: It’s not my way. I mean, it’s much better than not having the internet, but I think it often gives illusions of knowledge that somebody here can access Afghanistan on the internet or an Afghanistan person in Kabul can access us and we think we know them because we can see them onscreen and we can hear their voices. But really, we know just as little as we did 100 years ago. So I think there’s no substitute for human contact.

But you’re right. I think, in a very few years, in some ways we’ve gone from having too little information about the world to too much. So many people I know feel that they’re almost OD’ing now as if they’re on a roller coaster that they never wanted to get on and they can’t get off.

You can only make sense of the online world by going offline and by getting the wisdom and emotional clarity to know how to make the best use of the internet.

Tavis: There are some folk who are classic examples, quintessential examples, of technophobes. You are not a technophobe because you have, by choice, deliberately unplugged. Why that choice for you?

Iyer: I think it’s not that I distrust technology. I distrust myself with technology. It’s like if you put a bag of corn chips here, I’m likely to eat and eat and eat and eat until I get a stomach ache and a headache.

Tavis: [Laugh] You won’t be by yourself. I’d be helping you do that.

Iyer: [Laugh] Right. We’d be fighting each other. So I think if you’ve got the whole library of Alexandria and six billion people in your living room, as most of us have now with our laptops, it’s hard to resist. The more and more time with the laptop, the less and less time with your kids, with your friends, with your neighbors. So I like to keep a distance.

You’re absolutely right. I’m not against technology because I couldn’t live the way I do without it. I couldn’t live in Japan and visit my mom in California. I couldn’t live in Japan and send my articles by email to my editors. So I’m so glad it’s made our lives better, healthier, longer, but I think we all have to strike a balance.

Whenever something new comes into our life, we instantly see all the new horizons open up, but it takes a while for us to notice the things that haven’t changed or the virtue of the old and the horizons that can’t affect.

So when a new invention comes to our lives, we embrace it and then, a few years later, we think, well, maybe it hasn’t transformed our lives the way we hoped. It’s happened with cars before and TVs now and the internet most recently.

Tavis: While we’re talking about unplugging, I saw the op-ed piece you did for “The New York Times” on New Year’s Day, a wonderful piece, I thought. What kind of response did you get to that, for those who didn’t see it? You can just kind of top-line it for us because it connects to this conversation.

Iyer: Yes. It’s about how they have internet rescue camps now. Many people observe internet Sabbaths so that they can have family conversations and they don’t go online between Friday night and Monday morning.

You can check into a hotel room not far from here, pay $265 a night just to have a room without a TV. The big luxury has been getting away from our cell phones and our computers. I did get a lot of response from it.

What struck me was that almost everybody who wrote in to the newspaper was describing ways they’ve tried to come to peace with this accelerated world.

Some people meditate, some people do Yoga, some people take long hikes, some people take these internet Sabbaths, but all of us are having to create very self-consciously ways to remove ourselves because otherwise we get sucked into those screens and all the time-saving devices leave us feeling more frazzled without time than ever before. So it’s a big challenge.

Tavis: I want to go back to your father because the book is so much about you and your father, this new book “The Man Within My Head.”

Iyer: Thank you.

Tavis: Your father gave you some advice at one point that I think is beautiful and I wrote it down myself. When I use it, I will give you attribution for it, or at least your father [laugh], but I love it. “To achieve the impossible, sometimes you have to do the absurd.” It’s beautiful.

Iyer: Yes. He was a college professor and that was a favorite quote that he used to share with his students. He was a great idealist and I think he was really telling them to extend themselves beyond their knowledge and their capacities.

I’m not sure I ever have listened to that advice enough, but it is good advice. It comes from a wise Spanish philosopher from the beginning of the 20th century.

Tavis: You don’t think you’ve gone far enough away from the shore? Maybe in trying different things?

Iyer: Well, I’ve done that. In the pull of travel, I’ve tried to extend myself. But I think that we all have more potential inside us than we acknowledge or than we know. That, I certainly believe, and that is covered by my father’s quote and by Graham Greene also.

Tavis: It’s a book that everybody’s talking about now. It’s the latest from Pico Iyer. It is called “The Man Within My Head” and, as you just picked up in this conversation, the book, like any conversation with Pico, is full of wisdom, full of ideas and full of things that might challenge you to see the world through a different prism and in different ways.

Pico, thanks for the book and thanks for coming back to see us.

Iyer: Thank you. It’s been a delight.

Tavis: My delight to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in to PBS and, as always, keep the faith.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 21, 2012 at 6:02 pm