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Q&A with Zen and Now author Mark Richardson

Categories: Things to Do
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Zen and Now author Mark Richardson. Photo by Simon Hayter.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, published in 1974, is one of the classics of American literature. Author Robert Pirsig has inspired hundreds of followers, known as "Pirsig's Pilgrims," to follow the same route he rode with his son, Chris, in 1968. One of them, Mark Richardson, wrote a book about his experience: Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We caught up with Richardson as he was just starting off his book tour in Minneapolis.

Westword (Amber Taufen): How are you, Mark?

Mark Richardson: I'm good, thanks.

WW: You're just starting off on your tour. How's it going so far?

MR: Well, it's a big country, and they were originally just going to fly me in and out, but I said, "No, don’t fly me, I’ll take my bike. It’ll be much more fun." I’m not taking the bike from the book. The thing is, in the book I’m riding my old dirt bike, which I took all the way to San Francisco, and she was pretty much broken down by the time I got her there. I had to spend some time fixing her up to get her home.

WW: So what are you riding now?

MR: A Harley Davidson. It’s not the great big one, but it’s still fairly big. I’m working my way west, I have to go up all the way to Vancouver and I’m going to run out of time if I’m going to ride the motorcycle back, so I’m trucking the motorcycle back and flying home and riding Jackie New (the motorcycle he rode in Zen and Now) to Montreal and New York and Boston. And then I’ll defiintely retire her, because I don’t think my back end could take it. The seat’s kind of like a brick.

WW: Where are you right now?

MR: I’m in Minneapolis. Tomorrow (Tuesday, September 9) is the official launch of my book, and it’s happening in the Ramsey County Library. There’re all kinds of people coming, including Nancy James, former wife of Robert Pirsig. It turns out the person who’s the director of the Ramsey County Library, she’s actually Susan Nemitt, the person who lives in the Pirsig house. I saw her last year when I came back from Minneapolis and she said, "We’ll have to make sure we give you a party." I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve never done one of these before.

WW: What was it about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that inspired you to follow Pirsig’s trail?

MR: The book that I’ve ended up writing is a different book from what I set out to do. What I thought I was going to do is go on a nice road trip on a motorcycle. I wanted to get away for a while, I hadn’t been able to get away for a while for years, and there’s something about a motorcycle road trip that is very solitary. I wanted to take a motorcycle road trip, and when I finally finished reading Zen and the Art, got all the way through when I was 41 years old, the year before, I sat there in my hammock and said, "You know what? On my birthday in a year from now, I want to be in San Francisco where this book ends. I want to do this road trip." The descriptions of the roads were evocative and alluring, and I'd taken a trip very similar to it nineteen years previously, and I wanted to do it again and I wanted to know in myself if that trip I’d taken back then was all I remembered it to be or if I was looking back through rose-colored glasses. I originally just wanted to do a road trip and I thought, this would be an interesting thing to hang it on.

A lot came to Robert Pirsig from this trip in his writing and in his life, and I thought, "I don’t want to do any old road trip, this sounds like a fabulous trip that might open my eyes to other things in life." When I got back from the road trip, having persuaded my wife that I needed the time off, I thought, "I do have a book here that I could write," and I sat down to write basically a road trip travel book, which I completed, and I thought it was brilliant. I sent it around to various interested parties and nobody thought it was brilliant except me. I sent it to Robert Pirsig and he wrote back and said, "I enjoyed reading your book, but I got the impression from it as I read it the same sort of feeling that I get when I’m sitting on an airplane flying somewhere and there’s a movie playing and I don’t have the headphones on. There’s an entire soundtrack that’s missing form the book, and I don’t know what it is that's missing, but I hope you find it."

So facing up to the fact that my own book was not that good and there was definitely something missing, I had to find out what was missing. Someone finally read it and said, "You know what’s missing is an analysis of Zen and the Art and a story that we don’t know anything about. It’s the elephant in the room. You can’t ignore it." And they were right. And I was kind of disappointed because, for one thing, I’m not an intellectual philosopher type, and Robert Pirsig is a recluse. I chipped away at things, read the book again and eventually I realized that Robert Pirsig had a fascinating story. It was far more than I thought it would be; it was an astonishing story, and I realized it should be told. Nobody ever knew. Robert Pirsig knew, but he didn’t really want to tell anyone. His family knew, but nobody ever asked them, so the story’s never been told. Have you read Zen and the Art?

WW: I have. I actually made it all the way through the first time I read it.

MR: (Laughs.) Lots of people do. I was trying to work out the numbers this morning. My own estimate is that of all the people who ever bought the book, from the replies I get from people, probably only 10 percent ever finished it. The vast majority did not. But that means that half a million people read it and loved it, and those are only the people who paid for their copy. It has affected people in a way that no other book ever can.

WW: What was the most enlightening part of the journey for you?

MR: Do you mean a Zen moment?

WW: Did you have any Zen moments?

MR: I had a few, yeah. The biggest one you’ll get to at the very end of the book in California among the redwoods, and that was just a freaky experience. I had a very freaky experience in the redwoods, but probably if there was a moment of… well, you know, I met some interesting people on this trip, and they helped to enlighten me. People like Bill the mechanic and Mike the motel owner. They had stories of adversity and resolution that matched Pirsig’s own and showed me that I could resolve anything I wanted in my life. If they could do this, I could do mine. Nothing in this book is made-up, everything is exactly as it happened. I originally was going to make stuff up -- thought if I write a book I’d pad it with this that and the other. But I didn’t need to. So much happened. And if I’d been in a car, none of this would have happened. I would have had very few adventures and it would have been a question of staying awake on the road.

WW: Given the opportunity, would you take this journey again? What would you do differently the second time around?

MR: I would, in that I would like to see the people again. But I wouldn’t take it again in the same way because I don’t need to, I’ve already done it once. I would certainly take other journeys again, but this particular one I’ve done it now, so I don’t need to retrace it in the same way. But I would like to go back and see the DeWees' and Bill and the various people you meet throughout the book. In a way I’m doing it again right now. I’m making my way across the country on a bike, and I do plan on going to California next summer. My oldest son will be twelve, and I took him to New York City on my motorcycle, and we had a great time. He loved it, and that was practice to see if he would be up to going to California.

It can be very arduous. It gets very hot, there’s no air conditioning and you can only carry a small amount of things and I needed to know if he’d be okay with that. I’ll do that, I’m not trying to be Robert Pirsig. I was just following his tracks to see where he would take me. I wouldn’t really want to be Robert Pirsig. When you read my book, you realize that of all the peace and resolution that is advocated in Zen and the Art, very little of it is apparent in his own life at that time. His own life is a life of turmoil, but fortunately everybody -- with the exception of Chris, of course -- came through it all in the end to find happiness.

WW: There’s quite a bit of personal information about Pirsig and his family in the book that most readers don’t know. How did you go about procuring this information?

MR: There’s some information out there that’s on the Internet that you can find, and there’re press clippings. At the time, in 1974, he spoke to a lot of media, when the book was first published, and he spoke to them again in a small way when his second book, Lila, was published, and he spoke to a journalist two or three years ago which he intended to be his final-ever interview. Much of the information about him in my book is not public knowledge, or has not been until now. It’s not necessarily something he wanted to hide, it’s just something he didn’t care to tell. It’s not just his story, it’s the story of his wife and both his sons, and when I wrote the second manuscript of my book, I put it together as best I could from all the information I could find from the Internet and libraries and that sort of thing, and then I sent it to him.

It was revised, I kicked out half the stuff about me from the first manuscript -- and I wasn’t doing this because he said he was disappointed, I was doing it because I could see the book wasn’t right. I put in as much biographical information as I could find about his life and the life of his family, and he said it was much better now, corrected a couple of small things and wished me well. In researching this, in finding information, I did manage to track down his former wife, Nancy James, who has moved away -- she lives in Florida -- and I also found his son, Ted Pirsig, who, neither of these people are mentioned at all. They’re just not a part of it, but I tracked them down and wrote to them and said, "I know it’s been a long time and I hope this doesn’t bring back bad memories. Can I send you a manuscript? Would you read it and tell me if there’s anything in it that’s wrong?"

They both had a think about this separately and said okay, we’ll do that, so I sent the manuscript to them and they both read it. Ted read it in a day -- he’d hurt his back rollerblading. He read it in a day and responded quite quickly, and Nancy took a bit more time, and they both said what I’d written was correct, but there was so much more to the story that I didn’t know, and since they could see where I was coming from and what I was doing with this book, they filled in the blanks. I sent back e-mails with fifty questions, and they’d answer them, and more e-mails and more questions filling in the various blank bits. At one point, I had to correct one of Robert Pirsig's facts, and he admitted later that he had remembered it incorrectly. It’s their story as much as his, but nobody had ever asked them.

WW: Have you gotten any feedback from the Pirsigs? What did they think?

MR: I sent Robert Pirsig a copy of the galley, and last week I sent him a copy of the book itself, and he wrote back and he just said that he had no comment to make on it. That was it.

WW: What about the Sutherlands?

MR: I’m about to find out because after I get off the phone with you, I’m going to jump on my motorbike and see John Sutherland. I’ve corresponded with him, but I haven’t seen him since 2004 as I returned from this trip. He has read the book. He sounded very cheery on the phone, so hopefully he doesn’t hate it. I think they probably would like the book as opposed to disliking it, because it does set the record straight about them. They were portrayed as shallow and your ultimate 1960s yuppies, and they were really a bit more than that -- they’re a lot more than that, frankly. But for the last forty years, that’s been the reputation they’ve had to live with, and this makes it very clear to several generations that the real Sutherlands aren’t quite like that at all.

He was very helpful to me at the beginning of this book. He kind of enjoys the small measure of fame. He’s fairly thick-skinned as well. He told me he didn’t really care because it’s just a book, but Sylvia didn’t like it at all. She had a big falling out with Robert Pirsig at the time, as did some other people, but the fact is they’ve spent the past forty years with this reputation of shallow individuals and have never been able to correct it widely, and hopefully my book will place Zen and the Art in a context that explains it.

And I hope that if you’re one of those people who try to read it and can’t make it through, my book is a bit of a primer to Zen and the Art as well, and then you’ll pick it up again and read it right through. It’s dated: It was written in the '60s and '70s, and it reads like something that your grandfather wrote because your grandfather’s probably eighty-years old. It was a book for a generation, but it’s lasted beyond. It’s talking about a society that’s taken over by technology and doesn’t really understand it very well and is time-pressured. That’s us these days and far more so.

WW: What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about taking this trip?

MR: I would just say don’t rush it: Slow down, stop when you need to to look at things. There are times in my book when I’m trying to get places, but I know that Pirsig stopped here, so I have no idea why I need to stop here because it's forty years later. But I go back and make a point of stopping there, and then I end up finding people and talking to people that I would never have known existed who add just one more layer to that whole story. I went to Dayville, Oregon, and I was happy to just blow through town, and I had a long way to go, was running late, but I stopped to see what happened, and I ended up speaking to a woman who lives in a house that’s mentioned in the Robert Pirsig book, and her own story is not relevant in Pirsig's story, but she had a fascinating story to tell about life in Dayville.

And all these lives that I’d just ridden past without realizing they were there that added an extra layer and veil to my own book. That’s a very long way of saying that somebody who wants to do this or any trip, slow down, get off the interstate, take the secondary highway, stop when you want to, look around and, it's a cliche, but smell the flowers, smell the coffee or drink the coffee. That’s the irony with this particular trip right now. I have a long way to go each day, I only have a certain amount of time to do it, and I should be on the interstate to make up time to get it over with quickly. But if I do that then I might just as well have flown. So I’ve been sitting here plotting out with a map my route on secondary highways. It’ll take me longer, but I’ll end it older and wiser .

WW: Anything else?

MR: You’re there in Denver, and when I came back from my trip, this particular trip in 2004, I came back through Denver from San Francisco, and I went through Death Valley, the lowest road in the nation and it was blisteringly hot. It’s August and I came through in the afternoon. I mean, my god, I’m on this old air-cooled motorcycle. I crossed up to Colorado and was just going to go through whatever route and then I saw this tiny inscription on the tourist map, highest road in America, Mount Evans. And I thought, "I’ve just done the lowest road in America, I should do Mount Evans."

I rode my bike to the top and stood on the top, and that was when I knew that I was going to make it home and anything was possible. I came back through Rocky Mountain National Park, and I’m coming back down out of the park, and it’s a guy thing, and I’m looking at my odomoter, because it’s about to turn 88,888.8, so you’ve just got to look at it when it does that. So I’m looking at it and being a guy and all, when it turns around I have to pull over and take a photograph of it -- and eights are lucky, I suppose. And I took a picture of it -- it’s at 88.9. I couldn’t stop on the road at that exact point.

When I was looking through the camera, I looked at the GPS unit that I had attached at the handlebar. I’d been dropping down in height, and the exact height was 8,888 feet. It’s one of those things that means exactly nothing, but it means everything. Maybe it means it’s a sign of luck and my book would be published one day, or my life was back on the straight and narrow, or maybe there were just a bunch of eights hanging around. That was something that happened just outside Denver.


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