by Kat Georges
As we plunge into winter, many readers seek longer, more in-depth books that ponder deeper topics. If this sounds like you, consider diving into CELESTIAL MECHANICS: A Tale for a Mid-Winter Night, the first novel by New York Times bestselling author William Least Heat-Moon (Blue Highways). When Three Rooms Press published this masterful work in 2017, we saw it as a kind of Blue Highways of the mind: an exploration that ventured from the loneliness, destruction, and distraction of the material world in search of a place of meaning and unification of all humanity.
The critics were impressed. Publishers Weekly called it “an elegant story of one man’s search for meaning in the cosmos.” Booklist raved, “[This is] an entrancing journey toward deeper insight into the cosmos, an exploration readers will share and savor with every masterfully crafted sentence.” Midwest Review of Books noted, “Celestial Mechanics is a unique and extraordinary novel that is as entertaining as it is thoughtful and thought-provoking.”
After publishing eight bestselling books of some of the most noteworthy travel-related nonfiction ever, what led Heat-Moon to at last create a work of fiction? And what fuels his belief that fiction help bridge the growing divisions in modern society? 3RP co-director Kat Georges discussed this and more with Heat-Moon in her April 2017 interview.
THREE ROOMS PRESS: As an author known for his nonfiction, what led you to write a novel?
WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON: The core of Celestial Mechanics came to me one morning in a hotel in Hartford, Connecticut—the idea of a young man who, through no fault of his own, in a matter of weeks loses almost everything. His suffering leads him into means to rebuild himself and his way of living. Silas, the protagonist, is forced to reason toward a new existence. He has to figure out how to be. Refusing ready-made answers and age-old bromides, he struggles to find a path. The questions Silas addresses haunted me for ten years until I took up writing the story of his search.
TRP: You describe Celestial Mechanics as “a call to a young generation wanting to believe rationality and spirituality can fruitfully coexist in a culture threatened by divisions.” How does this book fill a need for the younger generations in their search for meaning?
WLHM: We see we’re living in a time of great disconnections, something not especially unusual in human history. What may be unusual is the speed and wide magnitude of the changes as they slam against and into our lives. For many of us, certain traditional and theistic answers no longer work. The quest of Silas is to discover approaches that embrace what science has revealed and continues to reveal about the nature of the Universe. He wants to discover an ethos that leads to morally sound behavior because it ties into an ethos that can sustain and enhance all life on Earth rather than threaten it. If such a practice succeeds, it does so because it accords with the grand forces that brought the Universe forth, and it will shape our seeing how we belong to what is larger than are we.
TRP: Technology has created new ways of communicating that impact the characters in Celestial Mechanics. How do you think technology—especially the internet and so-called “smart” phones—has affected communication, relationships, and understanding in the modern world?
WLHM: Much has been said about digital media and what they do for and to us. From the creation of the first spear on to the discovery of DNA, we have been challenged to evaluate both the gift and the threat in new technology. When a cyber phone leads to a cocoon existence where one is removed from direct opportunities to encounter and engage the truly wondrous, that is a removal from the possibility of wide and deep connections lying around us. It’s a death of potentialities. Let me say it this way: If on my blue-highways journey, I had carried a smart phone in front of my face, I would have seen, heard, and felt nothing beyond my own limitations. Actuality—the Universe—doesn’t lie on the other side of a screen. Encountering life first-hand in that virtual realm isn’t possible. As one ages, it becomes clear that a rich memory is an achievement and of inestimable personal worth. I don’t believe cyberlands are stocked with materials to build memory, that grand reservoir necessary to all creative efforts and to turning a human being into a genuine homo sapiens.
CELESTIAL MECHANICS: A Tale for a Mid-Winter Night (978-1-941110-56-0; Three Rooms Press; Hardcover, April 11, 2017; $28.00), the debut novel of famed Blue Highways author William Least Heat-Moon, embarks on an exploration into the value of knowledge and rational thinking, the essence of being harmoniously alive, and the very nature of the Cosmos.