BOOKTHINK: Did any of the six communities you visited seem viable to you, where you could picture yourself settling down to life in an "intentional community?"
HALLMAN: I had that opportunity. As you learned in the book, I was accepted into the Twin Oaks community. For me, the answer would be "no" for any of them, and at the end of the book, I was still searching. The utopia of the book is really utopian thought itself, the idea that we should be striving to make a better world and be willing to engage in major change. At least five of the utopias explored in the book are making significant change and impacting the world in some way, in a world that resists change, particularly large scale change. The idea that the utopian spirit can't be fully snuffed out and continues to press on is something that the book winds up demonstrating. The dangerous aspect of utopian thought - and there is one - is demonstrated in the last chapter of the book, where my participatory spirit doesn't wind up translating so much to a beneficent sentiment. I wanted to challenge that a little bit and make the distinction that the real line between utopias in the book is not between conservative and liberal utopias but between earnest and ironic utopias. That last community explored in the book, "Front Sight," is not earnestly utopian; they are not truly imagining a better world for everybody, but just for themselves. That didn't necessarily mean conservative. In the chapter, "A Ship," I was engaging a utopian who was of conservative mindset but nevertheless was imagining a world that would be improved for everyone.
BOOKTHINK: What's surprising is the diversity in the types of communities that have been tried.
HALLMAN: That's one of the messages that I hope gets through, that people realize In Utopia is a description of the scope of a particular plan; it doesn't necessarily mean anything at all about its ideological make-up.
BOOKTHINK: Utopian communities tend to be created when society is going through difficult times Do you see a renewed interest in Utopian communities?
HALLMAN: Yes, I think that's something I wind up suggesting in the book. That stands in contrast to the way we think about utopia now. Utopia has this stigma of innocence, naivety, impossible plans that come out of nothing and make the world worse by failing and becoming dystopic, but I think that even in a relatively brief survey of utopian thought, which is what the book is, what's revealed is that it's actually the dystopia that comes first. It's at those moments when you realize that everything has gone wrong that you propose solutions, and if the problems are big enough, the solutions have to be big too, and start to look like utopian plans. That idea that utopia is a plan that we make to repair a fractured situation is something that I think is unappreciated about utopian thought right now.
BOOKTHINK: The whole idea of exploring utopian communities seems timely with the green movement, sustainability being the latest buzz, and a growing population, our modern crazy life. Has it become almost imperative that we try to devise more planned communities if we want to survive?
HALLMAN: I think it is happening. It's definitely happening in the Far East. One of the chapters in the book is about a mega-city in Korea. It's interesting that so much of utopian history owes itself to American history. The U.S. itself is arguably a successful utopia. Many of the founding fathers were familiar with utopian literature, and many of the founding principles and rights we take for granted that were set out in our founding documents can be easily traced back to utopian literature. A lot of the 19th century resurgence of utopian thought is measurable through American History, with many social experiments being conducted in the U.S. in one place or another. Even though that's the case, the United States seems like it has settled into a relatively dystopic mood. All of the literature of the 20th century is pretty dystopian when compared to the literature of the 19th century. And now it's hard for us to imagine taking on a really big project - a project as large as the interstate highway system, which was a mid-20th century project, but still quite a while ago, or even the New York City subway system. Any kind of large radical plan to totally re-invent a city or a system would be hard for us to visualize. Yet it's happening in the Far East quite a bit, so there is a global utopian mood blooming, but the U.S. is sort of stuck in a dystopian mood, watching all that pass us by.
BOOKTHINK: Anything that takes consensus seems very difficult in this country.
HALLMAN: The election of Obama certainly had some utopian components to it, but the resistance to it is pretty palpable. There's a fascination people have with apocalyptic literature, whether it be in movies or books or whatever, and it's not that people want the world to end; it's that they want the renewal that will come after. For some reason, we can't engage those visions of renewal on their own; we're kind of stuck. There is sort of a slow process happening, however, as things slowly fall apart. And that's probably how it will happen: It will be very slow, unless society decides to take on a new vision, as the New Deal was a response to the cataclysm of the Great Depression. Yet, there is a utopian spirit that manifests out of the 1960's, but there's always turmoil. It will be interesting to watch how it plays out, but there seems to be a rekindling of a utopian spirit happening.
BOOKTHINK: I think people are very independent-minded in this country; individuals don't like to rely on each other; it seems very hard to have people get together and plan and execute something for the common good. And yet here I sit in the middle of Mennonite country, and they seem to have designed for themselves a kind of utopian community.
HALLMAN: Religious communities are some of the best examples of utopian experimentation. In my book, I was trying to look more at those utopias that don't have that religious aspect. One of the oldest arguments about utopias is that they don't work unless you have a religious component, that you need religion to bond a community. But I think that in several of the chapters of the book, "Slow Food" or "Twin Oaks Intentional Community," which is a 40-year-old commune that thrives even though they emphasize religious freedom, and arguably the United States in general, are examples that choose not to emphasize religion as the core bonding element. There are other things that can bond people together. A certain flexibility is probably the most interesting utopian innovation of the United States - the ability to change and adapt and grow. Right now, we are only able to change so quickly, and the world is changing so rapidly; it's difficult to react to a crisis as quickly as necessary.
BOOKTHINK: When Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, do you suppose he had any inkling of the lasting impact it would have on literature and society?
HALLMAN: No. More was 38 years old when he wrote the book. He was already a prominent person in London. It's not generally known, but Utopia is probably the most influential novel in the history of mankind. It's as inscrutable as it is influential. Nobody really attempts to venture a tentative guess as to what More had in mind. Probably the best guess is that More was trying to shame England into creating a better functioning society by painting a portrait of a highly functional society that hadn't come around to Christianity, that was Pagan. And the implication was, "Look, even these Pagans can do it better than us," and that this should inspire people to work harder to create a better society. The problem with that is that the island nation in the new world that More was writing about seems to advocate a lot of things that More later repudiated. It's a difficult text to read, and even later in life when he started to see people taking the book more literally than he meant it, suggested that the book be burned. So he clearly felt like something was wrong.
BOOKTHINK: It's always difficult to know what an author was thinking, and after they are dead, it's pure guesswork.
HALLMAN: Particularly when we talk about humor. The book was a bit of wit in a moralist famous for a dry sense of humor. People who have a dry sense of humor are hard to perceive even when they are alive. Years later, when everything else has changed as well, it's virtually impossible to perceive that humor.
BOOKTHINK: Do you have any favorite modern era novels or movies with a utopian theme?
HALLMAN: Utopian novels are almost always pretty bad. They have the problem of conflict. How do you generate conflict in a world that doesn't have a lot of the crises of regular society? But I think one that I enjoyed quite a bit was Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright, which paid more attention to character than most utopian novels do. Because figuring out tension and conflict is difficult, the thing they turn to is romantic tension; they become romances. But because Utopian novels are so often meant as vehicles for ideology, the writer will just pay a bit of lip-service to that. But Islandia makes the effort to develop character, and you actually do wind up rooting for these people. I like that book quite a bit.
BOOKTHINK: When was that written?
HALLMAN: It was written by a lawyer who was working on the book throughout his life, and then he died. His wife found it in his papers and they put together the book from his papers. It was a long process. I think they found the papers in 1931 and published it in the 40s. [Editor's note: Islandia was published by Farrar & Rinehart in 1942; the first edition is collectible]
BOOKTHINK: I know you have a pretty rigorous book tour scheduled over the next few weeks. What else have you been up to since we met for dinner in St. Paul?
HALLMAN: Catherine and I went out to the Tin House Writer's Workshop in Portland, Oregon in July, and I did an appearance at the Iowa City Book Festival. The Tin House Writer's Workshop was amazing. It had about 175 students. I did a couple of craft talks, a panel discussion and a reading during the second day of events. I met writers like Joy Williams, David Shields, Robert Boswell, D. A. Powell ... a pretty solid collection of writers. It was fun being counted among them.
BOOKTHINK: We wish you great success with In Utopia and safe and rewarding travels on your book tour.
Questions or comments?