What makes Paula DiPerna travel?
It’s a good question that we put to this world traveller and author of the forthcoming Travels in the Time of Trump being released on March 9, 2018 from Endeavour Media UK and available now for preorder on Amazon.com.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, Paula decided she needed to think about resisting. She decided to leave the United States for a while, fearing the havoc and embarrassment the new president was likely to cause, and what it meant about the U.S. that he had been elected in the first place. As she says on page three of her new book, “even if I try to close my eyes and wish away evil or ugliness that may be coming to pass, my eyes don’t close and it can be time to hit the road.”
So she did and spent the first year of the Trump era in almost continuous travel. Her journey of political re-discovery became a beautifully written, vivid, and insightful travelogue. From New York to South Africa, London, Paris, Hong Kong, and tiny Baltic Sea Islands—across the world twice – Paula brings a wholly new point of view of life on the road, as the Trump era takes hold. She digs deep into the forces that brought Trump to victory, and as news of his travesties unfold, she takes inspiration for resistance from all sources—including a journey in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela and visiting spectacular landscapes at the top of the world.
Along the way, she also takes on the absurdities of life on the road, from too-smart coffee makers to airports that seem to exist so we shop ‘til we drop. Everywhere, Paula looks deep into what is around her, and what led to Trump. And everywhere she went she encountered the trepidation and downright fear of what Donald Trump’s Presidency would bring to the world. It made her compare and contrast our new way of life with the rest of the world and we come up wanting. She decides a radical solution is probably needed. Could Americans Re-call the President? She even had time to draw up a possible Declaration of Re-call, and lays them out in the most revolutionary section of her book.
What makes Paula DiPerna such an expert? Why are her observations so relevant?
Because she has seen the world and what makes it work as few others have. Her resume and biography are impressive. An activist, she ran for Congress and won l/3 of the vote on a shoestring budget. A global citizen, she worked as a producer and writer for Jacques Cousteau documentaries and traveled with him from exotic corners of the world to the private offices of Heads of State to try to solve serious global problems; an environmental leader, she has triggered innovation and breakthrough policies, a frequent media commentator, public speaker, and guest instructor. She is widely published in magazines and newspapers, and the author of a novel and several non-fiction books. “Cluster Mystery: Epidemic and the Children of Woburn, Mass” (Mosby, 1985) became a touchstone of environmental epidemiology and her novel ,The Discoveries of Mrs. Christopher Columbus, made the radical proposition that Christopher Columbus got the idea for his voyage from his wife.
Her work ranges from teaching being members of various boards and advisory committees such as Global Kids, based in New York City, whose mission is to develop global citizenship; Rachel’s Network, which links women philanthropists who have environmental interests; and also served on the NTR Foundation, based in Dublin, Ireland. Additionally, she is a member of the Women’s Forum of New York, the Author’s Guild, Writers Guild East, the Society of Authors-UK, and the Council on Foreign Relations among others. In 2016, she was a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Resident Fellow and has also served as a judge for the landmark MacArthur Foundation 100andChange grant making initiative.
But most of all, she is a traveler who knows the world.
In Travels in the Time of Trump, DiPerna is on a voyage of discovery. As she travels – for business or pleasure – she makes her own discoveries about the cultures and peoples she encounters. She is not a timid tourist, but someone who strives and succeeds in fitting in wherever she lands. DiPerna has always challenged the status quo, and she is in a unique position to take on the era of Trump and assess the impact of America’s new circumstances on the balance of the world. .
While in Hong Kong, DiPerna encounters first-hand the world’s view of our electoral process in this excerpt:
This trip I’d seen against the inescapable scrim of Trump, whose election has elicited non-stop shock and derision from anyone I had met, including my usual Thai taxi driver who, while we had been rolling my bags up the conveyor belt escalator, huffing and puffing, managed still to breathe out, “And how about Trump? Could you vote for him?” Meaning “did you vote for him, I hope not.” And the next taxi driver I had met later that day said, “Trump? You are American. Why so crazy guy?”
More explaining, more apologizing. I had taken on the Trump obsession just as much as the media, and feeding us obsession seems a conscious Trump tactic, not to mention a Trump craving. Trump eagerly crossed the line between business and entertainment, riding the wave of genre blur. And it is barely a toe step leap from reality TV to the Presidency of Donald Trump.
Except the stakes are so dreadfully high.
Usually, travel is supposed to detach you from the day-to-day, but once Trump was elected, as an American, I seemed to be wearing him like clothing. His election had attached to me and I could not get free of it. I had become part of the Trump obsession too, if from a distance, as if the politics of my country had become a passion play. Art was following life, life following art and I was following both. – pp 202-3
After we read Travels in the Time of Trump we decided to ask her some questions about her book, her writing style and her outlook on our world.
Tell us about your latest book. Why is Travels in the Time of Trump an important contribution?
Others can say whether it’s important, but what I tried to contribute was connecting the dots, so Trump’s election was not seen as just about him, but about us and our future. Everywhere I went, people seemed stunned that a country like ours could elect a man like Trump. So why had we? What were we taking for granted? I needed to dig beneath the political analysis to the day-to-day. Trump’s victory was not exotic—it, in fact, was a logical outgrowth of deep trends we allowed to take hold. How had we gotten used to a country where Trump’s victory was even thinkable.
And, most importantly, what could we do to resist. What could I personally do to resist? Did a radical problem call for a radical solution? I concluded that it may.
How did you get started as a writer?
I was laid off from my first teaching job in East Harlem during the New York City fiscal crisis of the 1980s. In fact, a whole generation of well-trained, dedicated and highly motivated teachers were let go then, and the system never came back for us. That loss of talent was a great factor in the decline of New York’s public school system, I’m convinced, but that’s another story. I had also always wanted to write, and I thought the irony of the rash of lay-offs might be a good story. A professor of mine introduced me to an editor at the Village Voice, and after a few rewrites, I got my first article published. I was paid $150, bought a piece of African sculpture with it, and I have been professionally writing ever since, feeling blessed every time I write a word.
We know that you travel all the time – for pleasure and for work. What does a typical day look like for you?
Generally, I can’t wait to get up. Coffee: Imperative (though I never go to Starbucks etc. as I think the apotheosis of coffee is another of our too-common absurdities.)
Then, sometimes just listening to what I hear around me, what I rattling, is someone humming nearby? Notes in my daily notebook of how the morning feels, sounds. Then, on to whatever project. Get phone calls out of the way early. If I’m in New York City, I take a good look at the print edition of the New York Times, because there is no greater paper in the world but even if I also read it online, there is nothing like the print edition to give you a sense of scale and scope of the news and to let the news enter your mind at a pace at which you can actually mull it over. I find I can skim more effectively too with the print edition.
If I’m not home, I look out the window and figure out what of my limited carry-on suitcase I have to wear, and then jump into the day.
What I love most about traveling is the daily new-ness, the daily slightly off-balance, unfamiliar feel. I thrive on trying to work through why things are happening in the world, by studying the day to day. I find hotels are marvelous metaphors for social structures and social trends. I began to get worried about the forces that led us to the Trump era when I checked into a hotel that lit its lobby with votive candles and kept the lobby otherwise so dark one had to squint to sign in. Who could possibly have thought that was a good design idea? What was its purpose? None.
On the road, small things like this can mean nothing at all—but invariably they are expressions of larger trends. I find being on the road is often the only way to cope with a world going a bit mad. As I said in the book, one of the good things about keeping track of the news when you travel is that you can talk yourself into thinking you can leave the news behind where you read it, as if it were happening to someone else.
Where are you most comfortable writing? What sparks your creativity?
I can write anywhere and pride myself on that, but I prefer a desk and a chair and never ever write in bed. I once edited a final cut with my editor on a piece Ms. Magazine was about to publish standing in the street with no notebook or paper, listening carefully as she read me the paragraph we needed to fix, making the cuts and rewrites in my head. I always carry small bound notebooks, usually Moleskins, for notes I consider worthwhile. And I now built a small outdoor office for writing in the summer and there, I only write, or have small summer suppers with good friends. I always write by hand—never composed on a typewriter and still rarely compose on a computer. Too fast, too easy to cut, paste, get stuff lost.
Whatever creativity I have is sparked but what’s around me—a sight, color, combination of both, a remark by someone, an odd doing, something that makes me laugh. The creative part is the synthesis, what leads to what, and why bother to preserve it.
What are you favorite types of books to read?
Great stories, whether fiction or not, with characters engaged with the questions of why things happen.
Tell us 3 interesting or crazy things about you that will introduce you to us.
I helped negotiate the release of 50 political prisoners from Cuba with Fidel Castro and Jacques Cousteau, and no three people were ever less destined to meet and come together, let alone when US-Cuba relations were at their frostiest. But we did it.
I almost always like to wear striped clothes when I travel for pleasure—and often pack only stripes. No idea how I got into that but it’s now rather a tradition. (Maybe that’s how I know it’s me?)
I was the first woman known to have ever stepped foot on Funk Island in the North Atlantic, the first landfall between Europe and Labrador, and almost died when I wandered too far down some rock faces and the ocean whipped up. I had to shinny up—no idea how I did it. When I got back up to the top, the cameraman asked how I had enjoyed my walk. So much for being missed.
What is your favorite quote? Why?
Don’t really have a favorite but always recall Eliot, Little Gidding, the cliché lines, of course –
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But also the whole poem is so memorable for me, the power of contrasts—putting together roses and fire.
What are the best and worst parts of being a writer
The best is the zing you feel when you know something’s finished; the worst is that you almost always are alone when that happens.
What is your advice for other writers?
Love what you do, do it, and stand up for writing as a profession of financial value.
Tell us about your interesting career? What were your favorite positions? How did you go about getting onto so many boards and service organizations? Which are your favorites?
I loved and love all my roles, but for sure I have to say that my work with Cousteau was my favorite and surely had to be one of the ten best jobs in the world at the time, though then I took it in stride. Only now do I realize what a rare experience that was, how much I saw and from what vantage points—from the perch of a world-class world beloved hero whose work had gone “viral” long before that term meant other than a disease.
As far as boards etc. whenever I’m asked for leadership advice, I usually answer that my example is my advice. That’s how I answer this question.
Life is what we make it—if we put something in, we get something out. Nothing in, nothing out.
What prompted you to include the Declaration of Re-Call in your book? Do you think that they will have an impact on the American public? Will they begin a dialogue?
My whole journey was about trying to dig within myself to see whether I have any real guts, or am willing to do anything in the time of Trump other than complain and opine. The Declaration was a first step, a way for me to synthesize all of the tawdry doings of Trump and turning the daily drumbeat we have come to take for granted into a format we can no longer take for granted, a format—the Declaration of Independence—which we revere and which we recognize intuitively as credible, that framed our entire political being and has been admired around the world for two centuries, inspiring others. As we resisted the travesties of a King, whose empire was a form of ego-mania, we must now resist a President, who governs through ego-mania.
As to whether it will trigger any change, I don’t know. I do think to rid ourselves of Trump will probably have to take mass but strongly peaceful civil disobedience at some point. The people are restless and feeling ignored—and they have every right to feel that way. And, as with all important struggles, we will all be tested.
My journey was about that, and the Declaration was its synthesized expression. The rest we will have to see.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I don’t remember any book making me cry.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Energize. I wouldn’t do it if it exhausted me. Life is too short.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I don’t think writing is about emotions per se—it is about expression and it takes strength to express. What I do know is that writing is not like paving a road—just pouring it out as long as there is enough in the vat. It’s about why pour at all. And since I do think writing is a profession, not an amusement or a hobby, I believe one has to approach writing with discipline and a sense of hard work and commitment to the reader. Too much emotion can impede productivity, as we know.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Publishing my first book turned me into a professional, who had to meet deadlines, work with others, and pay my bills. That did not change my process, other than I had to learn to perhaps write a bit faster, edit faster for sure, be willing to cut my work without paralyzing regret, and definitely think about the reader. Today, we are told more to “think about the market” as if the market were other than readers. I still prefer to think of my readers, and I respect them ardently.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I didn’t dislike him, but at first had a hard time with Haruki Murakami. But I just finished a collection of his stories called “Desire” and they were beautifully economic and knowing. A real artist.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When my mother contributed just a few words to the re-election campaign of then President Eisenhower, whom she idolized, and her suggestion was taken up almost immediately by his campaign and turned into buttons and slogans, even though she had sent a simple letter to the White House without knowing anyone there. This experience, which I describe in Travels in the Time of Trump, surely gave birth both to my belief in words, and the importance of engaging with politics—in short, that language has power.
You ran for Congress. How did that experience change your perspective on America?
That is a very long story and perhaps worth its own book one day, but what I learned first is that most Americans are good and decent people who nevertheless have a limited cushion to enable their empathy with others. It’s for leaders to help preserve that cushion, to empower people not to fear what is new or unfamiliar—including ideas. So what they hear when you campaign on “change” is “get rid of”—they do not hear productivity, growth, a new beginning, etc. etc. All those clichés fall short.
Trump won because people want what they recognize, not what they cannot understand or what is different. So my biggest learning experience is that the role of politics and leadership is to help people come to terms with difference and diversity, but not just multi-culturalism—most importantly diversity of thought and ideas. Open minds are the most important ingredient of progress. My campaign opened my mind to that. It also opened my mind to the fact that good leadership is calm, not loud. It requires not only compromise, but constant explanation. People will trust leaders they like and who speak in common sense terms. Politics is about common sense, not exotica. That’s perhaps what we tend most to forget.
Where are you going next?
I don’t know.
Thank you for your time and insightful answers. Travels in the Time of Trump will be released by Endeavour Media UK on March 9, 2018. Also thank you for letting us read this important and downright interesting book in advance!