Excerpts from the interview:
“One of the problems of writing about any pre-20th-century society is religion. We think differently than people did before the Reformation. For us religion is a part of life, but their whole lives were steeped in it. Every act had some kind of meaning, like a guy who cuts an apple in thirds because of the Trinity and finds in the seeds the number of the Laws -- he starves to death before he can eat the apple, because he is so busy excavating meanings from it! The thing about the Middle Ages which always interested me most is that very early on you start to get the conflict between reason and faith. In 840 AD, Erigena is saying if there's a conflict between reason and faith (reason and 'authority,' he said), then you have to put reason first; God gave us reason so we could figure out things. He was, of course, vilified for this. He was two steps ahead of everybody.”
“In the past, the world was slower. Also, people were much more in the world than we are. We build houses where the insides are totally under our control; we don't live in the real world. Probably as recently as the 1930s, people were outside a lot more and they were more aware of the spookiness and the unanswered questions of the real world. We've encased ourselves in bad ways, in a manmade world that we think is really a big thing but isn't. We certainly miss the connection with the natural world, most of all in cities. Not just kids unaware of where milk comes from, but people unaware of the cycles of weather, plants, seasons, everything -- the huge cycles that the earth follows, year to year and cycle piled on cycle. (In some crazy way, Ptolemy had it right: we are doing a lot of epicycles.) Also, we have no explanation for it, because physics and modern science don't give those things meanings. They tell you what's happening really well, but you don't know what it means. So the world seems sterile and cold and inhuman to us -- we're divorced from it. And it's very sad. The fantastic or the magical world is trees and things growing; that's the magic. In some mysterious ways, these cycles happen, and you have to really know it well and know what you can do to make it work. I can't imagine what you can do in a city that would work for that.”
“People don't read for the right reasons, or they don't read well any more. If they're not immediately amused, they think you've done a bad job and they discard it. The serious reader reads in order to enter into worlds that he could not enter into otherwise, and expand himself and grow and find new parts of himself. That requires active reading, where you have to bring all these resources of memory, language, and organizational ability in your mind into the book and make the book yourself. The writer gives you a kit, and in your mind you make the book up. You can't do that with movies or television.”
“We never know enough; that's part of the cosmic joke. But the process of life is art. People who love to cook or teach are artists. It's your interface with the world. The ones who think they know everything and 'only this is true,' finally grow old and die and they've done nothing. You've got to engage. It's an ongoing process of trying to see things new every minute, to push aside and reject the received knowledge.
“Of course there's the law of unintended consequences (the only law of history): the one thing you didn't think would be important is going to overthrow everything. The prince you let go is going to come back with an army. That defies science, because science wants to say 'This is everything' -- four Forces, or three atomic particles. But if you do this, there's always going to be something that you can't explain that will blow everything up. Science keeps trying to close the circle but can't, and through the gap in the circle come all sorts of things. A lot of them come from our minds, from our fears of the dark, our knowledge that we don't know enough and something is creeping up on us. But it also comes from the outside world, which is not reducible to anything. That's the point of reality: it's irreducible. You can't make a model of it without leaving something out, something that makes the model a lie. Magic, the fantastic world, is a way of dealing with this.”