PAUL J. WILLIS INTERVIEWED
WESTMONT PROFESSOR PONDERS LOVE AND WONDER IN ESSAY COLLECTION
You wrote in the introduction to your book that the classroom is a wilderness area, not a factory. Can you explain what you meant? Computers have made it easier to collect and analyze data, and we’re kind of obsessed with that, but my experience after 30 years of teaching is that it’s hard to quantify human learning. If you read Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, or Charles Dickens, you find that they all go out of their way to fight the reduction and quantification of the richness of learning. It’s not an exact science. In the title essay, you compare building a trail on the Westmont campus to writing a novel. It’s a similar process because both take time, and both can involve false starts or wrong turns. In novel writing, you’re
aul J. Willis is acquainted with tragedy and loss. During the Tea Fire in 2008, Willis watched a wall of wind-driven flame sweep toward his faculty house on the Westmont College campus where he has lived and taught English since 1988. The house — and everything in it — was destroyed. How Willis and his wife recovered their lives is just one of the subjects in To Build a Trail: Essays on Curiosity, Love & Wonder, Willis’s second collection of essays. When he spoke to the Santa Barbara Independent, Willis, a former poet laureate of Santa Barbara and a lifelong lover of the outdoors, had just returned from a five-day hiking trip in Mineral King Valley in Sequoia National Park, where he found plenty of snow and solitude. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
LIFE INTERRUPTED: In his latest collection of essays, Westmont professor Paul J. Willis (pictured) writes about how he and his wife recovered their lives after the 2008 Tea Fire destroyed their home.
always adjusting to the terrain of the story. In building a trail, you adjust to the terrain. When I wrote my novels, I sometimes had to cut a chapter or two out, and when I was building the trail, I occasionally painted myself into a dead end and had to backtrack. What was behind your decision to build a trail? I primarily wanted to build a place where I could walk and let our dog off the leash. I didn’t intend to build the trail for other people, but lo and behold, it became a place that many others have enjoyed. There’s something about meeting someone on a trail that is relaxed and intimate; it lends itself to conversation. In that same essay you came to another realization about your motivation for building the trail. Yes. My mother had recently
passed away. It wasn’t obvious to me when I started, but retrospectively I realized that building the trail was a kind of grief work. How do you know when a personal essay is working? When an essay is working, it’s not about the life of the writer; even though it’s particular to the writer, it’s about touching something in the life of the reader. I might write about my grandmother, but the intent is to make the reader think about his or her grandmother. You write about losing your house and all your possessions in the Tea Fire. Do you have a particular memory of that experience? When I think about the days in the wake of the fire, all the support from my junior and senior English students is what stands out. Even all these years later, I still get choked up thinking about it. — Brian Tanguay
S.B. OPEN STUDIOS For nearly two decades, area artists have been giving the public a peek into the workrooms where their creative magic happens. This year, Santa Barbara Open Studios (SBOS) will feature 30 artists, all of whom show their work in galleries, museums, and private collections around the world. “Over the years, the [tour] has developed a reputation Cynthia Martin for excellence that transcends that of all its competitors,” said Francis Scorzelli, SBOS board president, in a prepared statement. Painting is the dominant media on display, but visitors will also meet artists working with sculpture, mosaic, and mixed media. The self-guided tour takes place Saturday-Monday, August 31-September 2. An opening reception takes
Francis Scorzelli place Friday, August 30, 5-8 p.m., at Santa Barbara Fine Art (1324 State St., Ste. J). Call 280-9178 or see santabarbarastudioartists .com. —Michelle Drown
Sophie Cooper’s “Vertigo”
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STONY THE ROAD
The Reconstruction period following the American Civil War lasted barely a dozen years. In that time, chattel slavery was outlawed, African-American men won the right to vote and equal protection under the law, and former slaves assumed elected offices at the local, state, and federal level. But, as the prolific Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts in Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, Reconstruction also laid the groundwork for a vigorous backlash of white supremacist ideology. The roots of freedom promised to African Americans by Reconstruction were not allowed to take hold. Gates refers to the years between 1877 and 1915 as the Redemption period. While the Southern states recognized the illegality of slavery, there was no recognition that African Americans were equal to whites, and, as Gates illustrates, a combination of religion, science, literature, and racist propaganda, made ubiquitous through the emerging technology of the lithograph, portrayed Negroes as genetically inferior, morally debased, lazy, childlike, and bestial, with devastating effect. The imposition of black codes, rigid Jim Crow segregation, and a surge of lynchings happened in this period. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation — a blistering attack on Reconstruction — in the White House. “I am arguing,” Gates writes, “that the collective, cumulative effect of these racist images, in addition to other powerful socioeconomic forces, emboldened otherwise law-abiding people to commit the most abominable crimes.” Henry Louis Gates Jr. will discuss his work at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in April 2020 as part of the Arts & Lectures History Matters series. —BT
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AUGUST 29, 2019
August 29, 2019, Vol. 33, No. 711