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spacer Robert Pirsig, Missoula, Montana, 1974
title and story
Robert Pirsig, Missoula, Montana, 1974

I was knocked out by the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I had studied philosophy and ridden motorcycles at Georgetown, and Pirsig’s book spoke to me so forcefully that I would have paid to profile him. I called his publisher, even pleaded with his editor and his wife, after the book’s publicist told me that he absolutely wouldn’t do interviews. This seemed slightly odd. Pirsig had received one hundred twenty-one rejections before William Morrow decided to take a chance on an autobiography by a former mental patient that read half like a novel and half like a philosophy treatise. They gave him a three thousand dollar advance, and told him not to expect to see anything more. I thought he’d be happy to gloat. His wife worked at a small college in Minnesota, and assured me that she would give him my number when they next talked, but cautioned that this would do little to induce him to break his silence. “All he cares about is working on his next book,” she said. She didn’t even know when they would next speak. This was long before cell phones, and Pirsig was somewhere up in the mountains in his camper, writing. A few months later, the phone rang on my desk at The Post. It was Pirsig, calling collect from a phone booth in Bozeman, Montana. He had just spoken to his wife and had learned that the paperback rights to “Zen” had sold for $400,000, an astronomical amount then for a first-time author. (The book has gone on to sell more than five million copies.) “There’s nobody here in Montana I can tell this who will understand what it means,” he said. “Which is why I’m calling you.” Then he told me that the heater in his camper had broken, he was in town for repairs, and if I could get there by the next afternoon, we could talk in person. We wound up spending two weeks driving through Montana in his Volkswagen. Although he professed to be a Buddhist, I had never seen a Buddhist who drank so much and grabbed so many women by the ass. “It’s all about the struggle for perfection,” he said. He did not want to be photographed because he was concerned that the visual image of an author could adversely impact a reader’s perception of his work. And, indeed, there was no author photo on his book jacket. About a week into our journey, he warmed to the idea of being photographed in the mountains where he was working on his next book, and this is the result. I ran into him many years later, shopping anonymously in a bookstore, and he told me that he had rarely let anyone take his picture since then. “Even more now, all that matters is the material,” he said, in a sentence that could have been lifted from his book. “What I look like is immaterial.”

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