The PEN Ten is PEN America’s biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks to Forrest Gander, prominent poet, novelist, translator, whose book, Core Samples from the World was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Trace, his second novel—about a stressed couple whose car breaks down in the middle of the Mexican desert—will be released in November by New Directions.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

As with many writers, for me it was early on. I had a Swedish grandfather who walked around the apartment reciting 19th century poems. And my mother read Poe and Carl Sandburg to me when I was in kindergarten. I started imitating the poems I heard as soon as I could write. In a way, it might be more telling for me to admit when I realized I wasn’t really a writer. That moment has a very precise locality. I had just shown Professor David Jenkins at The College of William and Mary a few of my poems. It was a warm spring afternoon and we were in his little cottage-office next to Wren Chapel. He looked up from the pages at me, the inseparable Welsh corgi at his feet also peering up, ears cocked for the news, and Professor Jenkins said, These are terrible.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

But I’ve already stolen it! Michael Ondaatje, Inger Christensen, Robert Creeley. DNA sequences of their work circulate not only in my own writing, but in my body, in my daily habits of language and living.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I have a desk in a little house in Petaluma, California. The window nearest the desk looks out onto the back of Sonoma Mountain, which is blotted out by fog in the mornings and spackled with light at night. In fact, the landscape is so alluring that I have to face my desk—as Faulkner did at Rowan Oak—away from the window.  

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

I was chased through Washington D.C. across a park, down one-way streets going the wrong way and doubling back, and through alleys by a policeman on a motorcycle barking into his radio for back up. I had walked my bike across the street outside of the crosswalk to meet my girlfriend for lunch and the policeman stopped me, gave me a pedantic and interminable lecture while my lunch hour time dwindled and my girlfriend waited, wondering where I was, and then he started to write me a ticket. This was in 1980 when the crime rate in DC was outrageous. It all just seemed too surreal. So while he was finishing the ticket, I took off on my bike. Eventually, two police cars and an undercover car screeched to a stop in front of me as the motorcycle caught up from behind. I was thrown against the wall in front of a large lunchtime audience of passersby, handcuffed, and taken to a holding cell where I spent the afternoon while a list of more than fifteen charges was filed against me. That was one time.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

For one of the Olympics, a few years back, several cinematographers were given the opportunity to film an Olympic event. The elderly Mai Zetterling, a Swedish director known for her feminist politics and her risk-taking films, chose weightlifting. Her fans were baffled. Why weightlifting? they asked. And with her strong Swedish accent, she answered, “I am not in-ter-rested in sports. I am in-ter-rested in oob-sessions.” My own obsessions, like most people’s, are all too apparent in my writing.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

I wrote a birth scene to open my novel, As a Friend, that several critics asserted was so prohibitively violent that no one would read further and another warned “would give prospective mothers pause.” (Not everyone felt that way; the book did find a wide audience after all). The scene is basically a documentary account of my own son’s birth, with much of the visceral drama left out. What’s daring often may be simply the revelation of the actual.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

I don’t speak for anyone else. In my case, it’s to do it well.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

I think writing fulfills many purposes; writers themselves are often disappointing. History is stuffed with the inane pontifications of writers and artists airing their presumptions. Just the same, literature is more closely connected to ethical concerns than, say, baseball is, which is why some writers feel a sense of investment and responsibility for how we live with each other and with the earth. There are many ways of taking up that responsibility, but one is certainly the role of the public intellectual in a country where an intellectual is looked upon mostly with disdain and suspicion.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

Leaves of Grass.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

Is the conscience the soul’s surveillance of the self? When are observations neutral? Does a writer, even without knowing, intend to “use” observations for the benefit of the writing in a way that is markedly different from the way advertisers track the inclinations of internet users in order to sell them something? To whom do we give the authority to surveil our “enemy” surveilers? “Behold,” God reports on Adam (to whom?), “the man is become as one of us.”