Robert Coles lives in a rambling, gray house on the edge of history-rich Concord, Massachusetts, with his wife, three young sons, and assorted animals, including a 13-year-old black cocker named Grady. (In a garage is a bathtub Porsche he's had since college.) The other evening the 48-year-old Coles, wearing jeans, his customary work boots, and a new sweater his wife had given him for Christmas, sat in a rocker in his living room and discussed his life and work. He was interviewed by Paul Hendrickson, a Washington Post staff writer.
O. You're a doctor, a psychiatrist, who hasn't practiced very much. Why did you decide to write instead?
A. Well, in fact I've practiced right along. I've seen a small number of patients over the years, only a small number, that's true, but enough to remind myself that I'm a psychiatrist, and, I hope, am being of some help to people as a doctor.
I don't know why I haven't practiced more. I guess it's because I like to see what's happening in the world, I always have. I like to go into a town or city that I don't know and get to know it by walking around and talking to people. I love going into homes and just spending time with people - sitting on the porch, watching television in the parlor, getting their ideas on the world. I'm grateful for those experiences. I mean, when you start talking like this in front of Eastern intellectuals, they think you're crazy . . .
Q. That brings up a salient point about you: Most of your adult life has been an itinerant one - "out there," in the country, whether with factory workers in Cleveland or migrants in Florida. How do you explain that, given your bookish Boston background?
A. Maybe I got tired of that bookish Boston background. I do get back to it from time to time, as I've done lately, but I don't think I'm captured by it. Some of the finest memories of my life were going out to the Mid-west, to Iowa, as a boy. My mother's family comes from there, and my brother and I always had a wonderful time on the train in the 1930s and 1940s going out to Sioux City. I think now that a contract was made between the life I lived as a boy, in a fairly comfortable Boston home, and seeing the way other people lived in other parts of the country - it must have made a pronounced impression on me.
And then there's the influence of my father, an Englishman, who always used to take long walks with me and think out loud about how various people lived. I think this must have had a great effect on me. He is a kind of George Orwell person in his own way, although not a writer. He is a well-educated Englishman and has always written on an informal basis very well. He still, for instance, writes letters to my brother and me rather than using a telephone. I think he was the one who taught my brother and me how to write, and it's probably no accident that my brother teaches English literature at the University of Michigan, and, that I've ended up doing the kind of social observation I do.
Q. But it seems that you became a writer, well, after the thought. That medicine was first, and then came literature.
A. I don't think after the thought, because I wrote and even edited quite a lot when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and in fact was quite impressed with a particular writer, who turned out to be a doctor, too - William Carlos Williams. As a matter of fact. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on him, and have always admired him. More recently in my life I've written a book about the way Williams divided his work as a writer and a doctor. I got to know Dr. Williams when I was a senior at Harvard, and he even took me on his medical rounds. He was a wonderful source of inspiration to me, and he was the one who suggested I go to medical school. I won't say my parents were averse to that suggestion. They were afraid at the time, I think, I'd become a not-too-successful poet. I was writing poetry for an undergraduate publication, and I don't think my father thought it was as good as some of the poets he admired, Thomas Hardy especially.
Medicine is wonderful profession, and though at times I wonder whether, if I had to do it again, I would go into psychiatry, I never have any second thoughts about being a doctor. I would definitely go to medical school again - that is, if I could get in.
Q. In addition to Williams, you're interested, understandably, in other doctors who write. You've done a study of Erik Erikson, and a book of yours will soon came out on Walker Percy. How much have these men shaped your career?
A. Well, Williams greatly, as we've just been saying. Erik Erikson, very importantly - his psychoanalytic ideas and his humanistic ways of thinking about people. As for Walker Percy. I think he's one of the most thoughtful people in America today, and as a matter of fact, his novel The Moviegoer had a very important influence on me. It came out when I was beginning my work down South, and it shaped a lot of my thinking, not only about my work but about my life in general.
Q. In what ways do the final two volumes of Children of Crisis differ from the previous three? Why, for instance, did you decide to look at children of the rich?
A. The fourth volume is really a continuation of the work I've done with relatively poor people in different parts of the country. I started work on the fourth volume when I was involved with migrant farm workers in Florida and in other parts of the Eastern seaboard during the 1960s.
In a way the fifth volume also began in the early 1960s as a result of the many people I got to know in states like Louisiana and Georgia. As I became increasingly involved with people in the civil rights movement. I found that some of them turned out to be, often, rich. It was those people who made the decisions that affected the lives of the poor and working-class people whom I was studying.And in fact it was actually several black people in New Orleans who kept asking me when I was going to go talk to the well-to-dos. I would describe my interest as one of "finding out how things are going on in this country, what makes this country work." I would sometimes hear a cynical laugh and would be told that if I really wanted to know how things were going, I was making a mistake be talking to them. I'd have to go to the rich folks. So eventually I did.
Q. You have three sons of your own. Has your work helped - or possibly even hundred - you and your wife in raising them? Are there practical applications from all that field work?
A. Well, first, regarding my wife, Jane, it's inconceivable I could have done this work without her. Not only did she help in obvious ways, like going from home to home with me, but it was her idealistic and advanturesome spirit all along that really motivated and brought life to the work. She's from an old abolitionist Boston family, and she won't let me get tired for too long in anything I try to do. There were times when I was ready to quit, especially in the beginning when it was not too easy for white people from the North to be working in the South. I would have settled for the many bars of New Orleans, and though she was not averse to going to them, she was always insistent the next morning that we resume our work.
As for our children, well, they've accompanied us almost everywhere we've gone in these years, and in fact I think they've learned a good deal on their own about this country. We're a very close family, and our children in a way have become a part of the work, even to the point of sometimes interviewing and gathering materials.
I should say that we have virtually no social life. Our children are our closest friends. And by the way, I haven't the slightest notion of myself as an expert at raising children.
Q. You have written 26 books in 17 years. How did you get down all those words?
A. By sipping good whisky - lately Wild Turkey - and filling up yellow pieces of paper from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon.
Q. What future literary and sociological plans do you have? Is it true you might go to Belfast and later South Africa?
A. I wouldn't be at all surprised if I turn up in Belfast soon.
Q. You greatly admire Flannery O'Connor, James Agee, Simone Weil. Do you plan to write about them?
A. Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is one of the great books of this century. I've been teaching it for years. I wouldn't be at all surprised if I wrote at length about him one of these days.