WELLFLEET, MASS. -- Annie Dillard once wrote a guidebook called "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," describing for the vicarious traveler the holy joys of sightseeing in the Garden of Eden.
Tinker Creek, at the time, was Dillard's own bosky corner of Piedmont Virginia. It was a small pocket of the universe, but not too small to contain it. In its midst strode a leggy 28-year-old sylph, an enchantress with a degree in literature and a vocation in nature. She knew what William Blake had to say about dragonflies, and what barnacles had to say about God.
"I thought it was going to be read by 40 monks," she says now, with the luxury of knowing how wrong she was. The book surprised author and publisher alike, selling 55,000 copies in hardback, winning the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and going on to sell more than 600,000 copies in paperback, well beyond sales euphemistically called "respectable."
Fourteen years later, she says a day does not pass that a letter does not arrive from a reader of that book. "They feel like they know me," she says, a little helplessly. "They feel like they have each discovered me individually."
Annie Dillard is 42 now; there's more meat on the bones and more irony in the voice. The long yellow tresses are gone, chopped short. She calls herself "a working mother." She left her first marriage (to her one-time English professor, R.H.W. Dillard) behind at Tinker Creek; last summer, three years after the birth of her only child, she left her second marriage (to anthropologist Gary Clevidence) behind in Wellfleet. She teaches writing at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., judges literary prizes and travels overseas in cultural delegations. She writes seven days a week.
"My vita is mostly bibliography," she says, scribbling late additions on the document's seventh and final page. "Unsurprisingly."
She has written seven books. "Holy the Firm" -- a diaphanous reverie about God and nature -- is her favorite, though she insists, credibly, that this one has sold only "eight or nine copies -- all to monks" since it was published in 1978. Her foray into sustained literary argument, "Living by Fiction" (1982), may have caught the eye of academics, but it was her essays on nature, collected in "Teaching a Stone to Talk" the same year, that presented Dillard at her inquiring, perceptive, ever-connecting best.
And all the while, "Pilgrim" has been fruitful and multiplied. According to the careful accounting she provides, parts of the book appear in 33 anthologies and textbooks. The Dillard of Tinker Creek would call this "fecundity."
This autumn, in "An American Childhood," Dillard is returning to an even earlier personal universe than Tinker Creek, to her childhood and adolescence in Pittsburgh. In the years between the two books, she says she has learned the virtue of clarity ("the sovereign politeness of the writer," she calls it, quoting J. Henri Fabre, the French entomologist). She adds matter-of-factly that "I've lost the metaphysical fire of 'Pilgrim,' the way anyone loses the metaphysical fire of his twenties. In 'An American Childhood' I try to make up in warmth what I lack in fire."
The hope Dillard harbors for her new book is revealed, here and elsewhere in her conversation, by the comparison to "Pilgrim," whose publication changed her life. Her name is esteemed, her work is anticipated, her following is patient, and all of this is thanks to that book. She will not bite the hand that feeds her to this day, but enough is enough: She would like to be known as someone other than the Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
It may well be that "in a million ways ... I'm a very American American," as Dillard puts it. But her childhood was not -- how could it have been? -- conventional. Her parents had money, and set a powerful example with their idiosyncratic ways. The most striking evidence opens the book: In 1955, when she was 10, Annie's father Frank Doak quit his job with the family firm to sail, solo, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, a pilgrimage to the Dixieland jazz clubs of New Orleans whose music moved him so. Ward Cleaver, it must be granted, had no such urges.
Dillard's memoir is no more conventional than its subject. It is "about" a Pittsburgh childhood the same way "Pilgrim" was "about" Tinker Creek. Her memories of childhood are like her observations of nature: They feed her acrobatic thinking, and drive the free verse of her prose.
To wit: "A young child knows Mother as a smelled skin, a halo of light, a strength in the arms, a voice that trembles with feeling," she writes. "Later the child wakes and discovers this mother -- and adds facts to impressions, and historical understanding to facts."
The passage doesn't just exemplify the book, it describes it. Dillard wants to understand the coming of consciousness, "this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be." And like its predecessors in the Dillard bibliography, the new book is about connections -- for instance, between the world of a little girl's bedroom and the world of the street outside.
The image she recalls from that room is of a "transparent, luminous oblong" rushing across the walls at night. "It was a swift spirit; it was an awareness. It made noise ... I dared not blink or breathe; I tried to hush my whooping blood."
It was, of course, the crazed reflection thrown by the windshield of a passing car. Most people who grew up in cities remember that nocturnal image, but most people don't go on, as Dillard does, to declare that "figuring it out was a long and forced ascent to the very rim of being, to the membrane of skin that both separates and connects the inner life and the outer world."
All of Dillard's books, in one way or another, have been set along that rim of being, each one asking how an interior sensibility can possibly know the wide world. This book adds another dimension -- time -- and asks about the meaning of history.
In fact, "An American Childhood" originally was to have been something out of Cecil B. De Mille, and as Dillard describes it she struggles for breath: the Scotch-Irish in the Old World, and how they came to the New World and settled in Pittsburgh, and the French and Indian War and the War of 1812, and the culture of the rivermen ("the flatboats and keelboats and steamboats and these epic guys and their epic language"), and the early days of steelmaking in Pittsburgh ("How you make steel turns out to be really interesting"), and Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, "these giant short men" whose spirit still dominated the city in 1945, when Meta Ann Doak was born.
"It was this big stirring thing," Dillard says. She showed it to her close friend and Wesleyan faculty colleague, biographer Phyllis Rose.
"She said," Dillard remembers, "that it was this passionate book, that only I could have written it, full of this weird language and weird everything, and then every once in a while John Cameron Swayze bursts in ..." -- Dillard can't help laughing at this image, this image of herself -- "and writes all this dull stuff that was wrecking the book."
Rose remembers having a more flattering reaction. "I can see why you want to keep this stuff in," she says she told Dillard, "because otherwise the book was going to be a masterpiece."
At about the same time, Dillard's agent called to say that she had submitted the manuscript to Harper & Row but had "taken the liberty of removing certain chapters," as the author recalls it. "My agent! She didn't even ask! I thought, hey, they must be really bad."
She declares that the jettisoned historical sections were full of "absolutely awful writing" and that "when it leaves the personal, the book seems to stop." These sound like things she's been told.
Yet Dillard still believes in her original purpose. "The historical stuff, I thought, was real, was integral" to the experience of an individual childhood, she says. "First you're just a little blur, and then you gradually notice you're a person and then as you grow morally you notice you're a person in history and what you do matters, historically."
This dawned on her in the early 1950s, when many of her teachers were "Jews escaped from Hitler," and so much of her reading concerned the recent world war. "First you're just reading all this stuff, and it's just your imagination's plaything. The artist is immoral, like the child is immoral: The child wants more blood, more violence. But then you grow up, and you keep reading, especially about World War II, and you can't help but notice these are real people, and life is a moral arena."
She looks you in the eye. "It was real blood, you know, it wasn't catsup."
When she slips out of the main house by the marsh in Wellfleet, Dillard climbs a steep hill to a sandy butte of woods. Planted among the trees is her woodshed, ordered from a fence company and furnished with a cot, shelves and a word processor. It is decorated with her ink sketches and indecipherable maps of her work-in-progress, and outfitted with one of those allegedly therapeutic chairs that you kneel into.
This is where, from 9 a.m. until lunchtime every day, Dillard makes her books, leads her inner life. As is true and wise of many writers, she doesn't want to talk about what goes on in there. She'd rather talk about her "huge extended gang" of friends, writers and artists and professors who spend their summers in Wellfleet. The names of novelist Mary Gordon and photographer Joel Meyerowitz and biographer Justin Kaplan are sprinkled into Dillard's bare-feet-on-the-coffee-table conversation.
"There's a big kickoff beach picnic on the Fourth of July that Jack Kahn and Eleanor Munro give," she says, referring to the durable New Yorker writer E.J. Kahn Jr. and his wife, an art historian and critic. "It's like a starting gun" for the social season. There's "an ending party, too, and then it's over. What I've never figured out is, if you have people to a party after the closing party, which is always around Labor Day, does that count for the previous year, or does it count for next year? Where on the ledger do these postseason parties go?"
For the grappler in moral arenas, this is fairly silly talk, but it is nonetheless the Annie Dillard her friends must know and enjoy and forgive: gregarious, funny, careless, wicked and intensely competitive. She acknowledges, as she might a speech impediment, "the dismissive irony" in her voice. "I often say horrible things that I would like to recall," she declares.
When the season is over in Wellfleet and Dillard returns to Middletown, the moments that delight her are no less social. Lunch, for instance.
"I have a regular lunch table and a regular seat at the table," she says.
An ideal setting, no doubt, for student-faculty interaction.
"No. No, no, no. Students aren't allowed in the door. I had a lot to do with setting up this faculty club, and a lot to do with helping make that rule. Not in the door. They wait on tables, but you just pretend that they can't hear or anything."
A university campus is "where I belong," she says. "I really love having lunch with those people every day, and having all these baby sitters. My baby sitter" -- she nods toward another part of the house, where a young woman is tending to the needs of her daughter Rosie -- "has an IQ of 150 or something. I don't have to tell her what to do if the house burns down. There are just hot and cold running brilliant baby sitters all over the place. And tennis courts and free movies and the library ..."
The academic life, in short. Dillard's teaching demands are as follows: "I just teach when I feel like it. It's an equitable arrangement because they don't pay me when I don't teach. And I don't need to teach."
(She says this with the finality and near-defiance that she uses to describe her publishing arrangement with Harper & Row. "Normally, I just give them a finished book." Some authors submit a proposal; some authors find it useful to have a little money up front. "Yeah. I don't.")
Competition for the 13 places in Dillard's nonfiction prose seminar is fierce; she turned away more than 100 students last year, she says, "and those are the ones that had the nerve to apply."
But for all the gruff bravado about students in the utilitarian sense -- as waiters, baby sitters -- when Dillard contemplates her very own students, she turns soft as a mom. "I was just in awe of them," she says, and her face seems to melt with meaning. "You tell them something once, and they've got it."
She edits their work, rewrites it if she has to. But the classroom is not a workshop; it's more like a church. "I try to educate them morally, to everybody's complete horror. But I do ... I talk about the stuff that means the most to me. I tell them not to steal things. I tell them not to hurt people with their writing. It never occurred to them in a million years. They couldn't wait to go hurt people. But then they don't. They're nice. They're wonderful."
Dillard began her writing life as a poet; her only collection, "Tickets for a Prayer Wheel," appeared the same year "Pilgrim" was published. But she stopped writing poetry nearly as long ago. "My poetry, unfortunately, is no good," she says now, and nothing in her voice begs you to differ. "I had written poetry and nobody read it, and then I wrote prose and everybody read it."
She has decided that "there's nothing in the language that poetry can do that prose can't do much better -- discursive writing, reasoning, information as symbol, narrative -- all those things that poetry has forbidden itself." This belief makes it difficult for her to teach students how to write poetry. "I can't figure out how to do it," she says. "At the end of the semester, the kids haven't learned anything. Some of them were writing better before they came in. All I did was get them self-conscious and miserable."
What time she does spend away from classroom and workbench she spends reading. Since 1966 she has entered every book she reads in a ledger, noting in blunt hieroglyphs her verdict on each one. The ledger is in its second volume.
Seemingly out of the blue, she volunteers an endorsement of a recent entry, the "best biography I've ever read in my whole life" -- "Thoreau: A Life of the Mind," by a new friend, Robert D. Richardson Jr. -- and why she was so taken with it.
"It's all interior. It's like being married to somebody," she says. "It's intimate. It's why I read biography: because you only get to live once, and this way you get to experience, from the inside, someone else's life."
Dillard's inner life is evidently a sweet sanctuary, a refuge from -- among other hazards -- her own tongue. "I don't mean most of what I say when I speak," she says. "And the only reason I write, I'm sure, is so I can say what I mean."
But the outer world does intrude, even on the written word, as two consultations during the evolution of "An American Childhood" suggest.
One, Dillard recalls, was with her editor at Harper & Row: "He indicated very delicately -- he went to St. Paul's -- that perhaps we needed a little more of my adolescent love life. I smiled and ordered another cup of coffee. My agent asked me about it a couple of weeks later: 'Well, what are you going to do?' And I said, 'Naaa-thing,' because I didn't want to kiss and tell ... It's not ladylike. It's not proper."
The other was with her parents, who still live in Ligonier, the cream of Pittsburgh's creamiest suburbs. She gave them the manuscript of "An American Childhood," she says, and "told them they could take out anything they wanted."
Why would she do that?
"Why?" She seems incredulous, even offended. "Because they're my parents. I wouldn't hurt them for anything in the world. Unfortunately, they had a kind of awe of the process. They didn't understand that everything is removable." In the end, Dillard's youngest sister (Annie is the oldest of the three Doak offspring, all daughters) had to act as go-between. "I took out everything that Molly said they objected to," Dillard says.
"I'm a parent. I know what parents do for kids. They love 'em. You're trying to live a life in this world, you're not trying to grind a few pages out of somebody's heart and soul," she says with gathering fire, as if rising to an inner taunt.
"There's no paragraph that you need. There's no chapter you need. There's no book that you need. But you need to be able to go to sleep at night and you need to be able to live with yourself and you need to be able to face St. Peter."