Friday, August 19, 2016
Q&A With Award-Winning Writer Ian Brown
Pens Significant Book On Aging That Was Featured in The New York Times Yesterday
A new book by award-winning journalist Ian Brown shows us what life at age 60 is like – and how one should view this point in his life, Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year (The Experiment, 9781615193509; Hardcover; $24.95; August 23, 2016).
Ian Brown is an author and a feature writer for the Globe and Mail whose work has won many national magazine and national newspaper awards. His most recent book, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son, was named one of The New York Times 10 best books of the year and reviewed in and featured on the front cover of The Times Book Review, and Ian Brown was the subject of a feature interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. The book was also the winner of the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and the Trillium Book Award. His previous books include Freewheeling, which won the National Business Book Award, and the provocative examination of modern masculinity, Man Overboard. He lives in Toronto.
An interview follows below:
11. Ian, what inspired you to write a book about turning 60?
I began to notice changes in my body, which, like most people, I had relied on to make most of my decisions since the age of 15. Before that you are dependent on others. Then, at around 60, which is the National Institute of Health's official age marking the onset of aging, your body becomes less reliable. For me it started with my hearing. I was at a story meeting, having just read a book about Cape Horn, when another writer said he wanted to write about gay porn. I, naturally, said, "Oh, I love Cape Horn." The other writer looked at me and said, "I didn't think you were the type." And these small letdowns extended to my mind as well. Because I was slowly balding, I started to use hair gel. One morning, after rubbing some gel on my hands to rub through what is left of my hair, I applied it to my face, thinking it was sunscreen. Because of course, now that I am sixtyish, I have to wear SPF 10,000 sunblock as well. Sixty is the Age of the Unguents.In any event, these occurrences got me thinking about how we age, physically, and why it seems to come as a such a shock to most of us, psychologically and emotionally, when in fact we all age from the day we are born. But something makes us want to live in denial of that fact.
2. What is it about that age that made you question where your life was heading?
Regrets. The popular wisdom is that one should not have any, but I have never encountered any real human beings for whom that was true. If you don't have regrets, then you have never known failure, and if you haven't known failure, then you are either an imbecile or living an unexamined life of denial. And you know what they say about the unexamined life: it's not worth examining. But at the same time, my regrets—and while I have lived a fairly successful life, by some standards, I still feel I missed lots of opportunities, to write, to make money, to have a different life path—felt toxic, and painful,. So I was keen to understand them, to see if they were excusable, droppable. And this led me to realize that most of us approach aging—and this is partly our own doing, and partly the pressure of the youth-oriented culture we live in—as a form of failure. Which is ridiculous, but widespread.
3. You are now 62. So, is life good in your seventh decade?
I never thought I would say this, but yes. Increasingly, as I look back at my twenties, I remember them as an agonizing time: money problems, trying to find my voice as a writer, disastrous love affairs. My thirties were an improvement, but also difficult; in my forties I had kids, which was great, but also hard. The in my fifties I began to worry that I had missed the boat. It's only now that I can be more radical, and define my life in less conventional terms.
4. Is your bucket list expanding or shrinking? Do tell.
It's shrinking, but getting deeper. I am intentionally doing less—and I have a very wide range of interests—but doing what I do more intensively. It's a way of mining detail, rather than skipping over it, as many of us tend to do when we begin to panic that we don't have that many years left. You start conducting an actuarial analysis on everything you do: I'm sixty, how many of these books can I actually read? Is this the last Le Creuset sautee pan I will ever purchase—because those things last a dog's age. Is this my last car, may last pair of hiking boots?
5. What do you believe changes the most in your sixties: career, family, health, sex?
Sex changes, but in unexpected ways. You do not have the same slobbering Labrador-like eagerness to endlessly fetch the stick, often to the boredom of the stick thrower; but you learn to fetch other things, too. My sexual proclivities and interests became more catholic, if anything: whereas I once tended to be attracted only to slim brunettes like my wife, nowadays, at 62, my head turns almost as readily nowadays at the sight of someone on a skateboard wearing a propeller beanie. I guess it's not just sex that attracts me anymore; it's character as well. This seems like a good thing, as I am even less apt to act on my desires than I was before. I still notice striking women, for instance (I try not to, but can't help it), but they never notice me any more, which adds a kind of philosophical gravitas even to the despised male gaze—you look, but you come instantly face to face with your own unrequitable longing, which in turn can, with any luck, make you more human, less insistent, I think. One's health becomes more of a lottery, despite what the self-help books say: it's harder to buy insurance after 60 for a reason, as the amorality of chance and statistics come into play. I have grown closer to my family, but they are around less: my kids are more independent, my wife is busier and more social. Maybe career is the real surprise: whereas I once imagined retiring, now I cannot possibly imagine the day I will want to stop writing, and I write more, and with more discipline (though less endurance) than I did before. And I'm more critical of my work, because I know more.
6. In your book, SIXTY, you present a journal of your 61st year. How did you determine what should be included, and what should be left out?
That's an interesting question. I'm a journalist; I have been trained to notice what is supposed to be true and important, what other people tell me is true and important, what's on the official, sanctioned agenda. (That's why so much journalism is so boring.) But when you keep a diary, you are forced back on what you, yourself, actually find true, as opposed to what you are supposed to find true. Nicholson Baker, one of my favourite writers, once told me that when he woke up in the morning and found he had nothing to write about, he often jump-started his mental machine by writing about the best thing that had happened the day before. It was never what he expected it to be. And so a diary becomes an exercise in discovering what actually matters to you. It's rarely predictable, the way the official journalistic agenda is. For instance, I spent a fair bit of time wandering the internet, trying to find out who else was 60: a disgraceful habit, but there you are. Oprah, is turned out, was 60, and so was Christie Brinkley. The latter is a supermodel, and the former is super rich, and I am neither. But they were both as close to the end as I was, and that, mark my craven words, was a huge and surprising comfort. And to my surprise, that is something readers respond to. So the short answer is, you think about including everything, but in the end, what actually matters to you stands out, because it secretly matters to others as well, and somehow, mysteriously, you can feel that.
7. Are many people in denial of their aging?
You are kidding, right? Eveyone denies it. We all deny the fact that we are aging from the moment we are born. Simone de Beauvoire said everyone lives a double life where aging is concerned: the outer person denies getting older, while inside them is a double who ages constantly. Eventually they can't ignore the aging double inside them anymore, whereupon their double life blows apart, and they have a mid-life or late-life crisis. (That' why Goethe said "Age comes as a surprise to everyone.") Your brain stops expanding, and begins it's slow decline, at the age of 28; the elastin in your skin starts to disintegrate at 30, which is why your nose seems to get larger (your nose droops while your head shrinks); your bones are already turning to ash at 40. And no one gets out of it alive. The only question is, what does one do with that knowledge?
8. What does the aging process mean to you at your age?
It means that I can no longer deny my oncoming fragility; I have to face the possibility, however long I can hold it off. So far I have been lucky. But getting older also means recognizing that it's not my fault. My father said to me, as he approached his own death—and he was a very graceful man, who hated being dependent on others--"don't get old." I couldn't figure out what he meant for the longest time, until I realized that he was asking for my forgiveness. He was trying to say, "can you forgive me for getting old? Because if you can, then the odds are, someone will forgive you in turn, when you get old. And you will want that." We seem to hold each other responsible for our respective declines: that is neither humane nor smart. And the aging process is a way for us to come to terms with that intractable fact, in the company of others. I mean, look: everyone I know has or recently had or is about to have aging, decaying parents. They all describe the process as a massive (if sometimes hilarious or touching) pain in the ass. But in fact—and I'm not trying to be sappy about this—it's a huge, huge gift. Because it gives us a chance to return the favour they did us, and it gives us a chance to get to know them. So I would say the aging process is an education in tolerance and compassion, and possibly grace.
9. What advice would you have for someone half your age?
Do everything you want to do that you are afraid to undertake for fear of failing at it. Because failure doesn't exist, at least at that level. You simply try, study what happened, and move on.
10. How does turning 60 compare to other milestone years – 18, 21, 30, 40, 50?
Exponentially and existentially more traumatic. Before you turn 40, you're simply too frightened and panicked to notice anything, with any degree of distance or composure.
11. You are a highly-acclaimed journalist and writer. Did turning 60 spark you to set your sights on a significant career accomplishment?
Yes. It made me resolve to write more, write more books, write a novel, write more fearlessly. Novelists like Martin Amis have made a career saying that if you haven't made it by 40, you will never make it. I admire Martin a lot, but he is completely full of shite in that regard. His own best work came after 40, as does the best work of (I would say) a majority of artists, many of whom are or were still producing their most lasting work after 60: Picasso, Cassals, Hoagland, Hockney, Calvin Trillin, Matisse, Julian Barnes, Georgia O'Keefe, Scorcese, Tom Wolfe, Hayden. The list is endless.
12. Who are some good models for turning 60 that we should look to as we approach this special age?
See my last answer. But they don't have to be artists. Jackrabbit Johannsen, the skier, was still skiing 100 mile trips at 90. The Duc de Richelieu got married at 85 or so, then impregnated his girlfriend and had a child at 90. He died in flagrant delicto at about 93. Marinoni, the famous bicycle maker, is in his 80s, and still peels off 100 kms a day. Hillary Clinton is in her 70s. This illusion that we're all washed up at 50 and certainly by 60 is a creation of marketers, pure and simple—a way for capitalism to renew its customer base, and discard the one that has cottoned to its lies.
13. You pose the question is sixty “the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?” Which do you personally see it as and why?
Both. But especially the later. And thank God! Because turning 60 takes the frightening edge off existence, and lets you see it more clearly.
14. Now that you’ve passed your 61st year, what you are you most excited and/or concerned about for your next milestone: 70?
Frankly, to my immense surprise, I look forward to each day more than I ever did before: I like to see if I can make it mean something, and if I can't, I like to figure out why. It's a useful little exercise. I would like to write a sequel at 70, but I am in no rush to get there, as they say. Because I also know, as Phillip Larkin, the great British poet (ands the laureate of aging) pointed out, that each day brings me one step closer to the day when I will have no days left--whenever that day occurs. Not soon, I hope. But it will come, terrifying me all the way. And while, like Larkin, I have a hard time conceiving of a world without me in it, it is not beyond the ken of my imagination. Which, it turns out, is a good thing too—because it is the finite nature of our existence that makes the world seem so beautiful and exalted. But it's very hard to understand that finitude before you turn 60. I know Keats did it at 24, but he was Keats.
15. The book starts with you looking at a photograph of yourself in your forties. Two decades later, what was the most unexpected advantage of aging that you’ve discovered?
To my immense surprise, that many of the personal and intimate details I noted in my diaries are known and understood by other people. It's the most personal details that seem to resonate most with others, if only we are brave enough to share them. Which in turn suggests that we are all, at our most intimate, the same. And if we are the same, then war are also equal. That's a radical observation, and, to me, a comforting and exhilarating one. I think of it as the first gift of getting older.
Ian’s publisher, The Experiment, is a client of the company I market and promote books for.
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2016.