Author Brad Herzog will be speaking at Kepler's tonight about his latest book, Turn Left at the Trojan Horse: A Would-Be Hero's American Odyssey
"Herzog's third travel memoir follows the highways cross-country examining the idea of the hero along the way. He captures stunning details of the American landscape. The hero's return, is irresistible...a near-perfect ending." --Kirkus Reviews
Turn Left at the Trojan Horse has been described as On the Road meets Eat, Pray, Love because it goes well beyond a road trip. More than just a funny and profound narrative of Brad Herzog's cross-country trek toward a college reunion in Ithaca (New York) and more than another reimagining of Odysseus's ancient journey (he visits places like Troy, OR... Iliad, MT... Apollo, PA...), it is a memoir exploring the parameters of a heroic existence - by chronicling the lives of people in America's oft-ignored spaces, by examining the universal truths embedded in ancient myths, and by undertaking a fair bit of self-evaluation. It is the memoir of an Everyman searching for the hero within.
Brad Herzog has been described as a "modern-day Steinbeck" and a "Picasso of the Winnebago," and Lonely Planet has ranked his travel memoirs among eight classics of the genre, along with books like Travels with Charley and On the Road. As an award-winning freelance writer, he has chronicled some of the nation's most unusual and intriguing subcultures, from nudists to North Pole explorers and from Pez collectors to pro mini golfers. Please visit him at bradherzog.com
The always lovely Megan interviewed Brad:
1. Turn Left at the Trojan Horse tells the story of your own, very personal, cross-country road trip and connects it to the story of Odysseus’s journey from Troy to Ithaca. What inspired you to shape this trip (and this book) in that way?
I was invited to my college reunion at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. When you’re asked to revisit where you’ve been, you tend to assess where you are. So, as I envisioned encountering my ultra-successful classmates, I wondered just how heroic my life had been to date. What are the parameters of a heroic life? I find that a road trip is the best way to clear the existential cobwebs, so – since Ithaca was my destination – I decided one way to answer the question was to approximate the homeward journey of Odysseus, who was the template for all future heroes. Also, my wife thought I needed to get away for a while.
I wanted my journey to have lots of layers. Certainly, geography and biography and personal history. But also an exploration of philosophy and mythology – the lessons to be learned from myths that have lasted thousands of years, myths that were a reflection of society’s fears and fantasies and foibles. It’s a road trip that journeys back in time in an attempt to face the future.
2. You talk about what it means to live a good life. How did your travels – meeting new people, experiencing new places – change your ideas about what makes a satisfying life?
As always seems to happen when I embark on an epic journey, my perspective of what constitutes a life well-lived was injected with a healthy dose of enlightenment. I found myself defining a "heroic life" more and more broadly. I learned that there are all kinds of heroism. It can mean courage, like the sheriff in Siren (Wisconsin) who risked his own life to warn his neighbors about a tornado. It can mean sacrifice, like the soldier I encountered at an army base in Sparta (Wisconsin) who spends his days diffusing bombs in Iraq. It can mean dedication, like the teacher I found in a one-room schoolhouse in tiny Troy (Montana). It can mean resilience, like the elderly man in Pandora (Ohio) who has spent the past six decades dutifully recording the local daily weather to the National Weather Service. In the end, I found that the hero is in the eye of the beholder. And seeing my wife and kids again clarified that for me.
3. If you could urge readers to visit one of the places you stopped at on your trip, what would it be?
The awe-inspiring beauty of northeastern Oregon -- the Hell's Canyon area, near the hiccup of Troy -- is hard to top. Then again, the Wild and Scenic Missouri River that passes by Iliad, Montana, is pretty spectacular. Snow-topped Mount Rainier in Washington is utterly majestic. The Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania are gorgeous. The pine-rimmed lakes near Minnesota's Lake Itasca are like picture postcards. Honestly, I can't pick one.
4. Why should we travel? Do stories and history influence the way we see a place, and the way we see ourselves?
I think we travel to add to our capacity for wonder, but also to gain a greater understanding of our world. My travel memoirs are an attempt to examine big-picture questions by chronicling stories and history in some of the nation's tiniest hamlets. I have long believed that America’s attempts at self-description have produced inadequate metaphors. The United States is not really a melting pot, which implies the evaporation of various flavors, ignoring our pride of heritage. Nor is it a patchwork quilt, which suggests a collection of clashing sections and fails to take into account the uniqueness of each thread. We are fifty states, yes, but these are largely the result of geographical happenstance and political compromise.
I contend that the nation’s character is most evident in its overlooked parts, the places ignored by folks in a hurry to get to elsewhere. Big cities may be the nerve centers of a nation, but its heart can be found in the communities small enough to be inseparable from the folks who live there. I think America may be best described as a dot painting, a masterpiece of pointillism defined by its towns and villages and crossroads – the tiniest dots on the map. To truly understand America, you have to connect the dots.
5. How can stories (both real and fictional) change the world?
I'll defer to Walt Whitman. He once claimed that heroic people cannot exist without heroic literature to provide a blueprint for an era-appropriate moral conscience. He wrote that great literature “penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals.” Great literature can, indeed, change the world -- be it Homer or Shakespeare or Steinbeck or Sinclair. And once in a while, the rest of us hacks can make a smidgen of difference, too.