“Once the last bridge is burnt, every addict becomes an island, no matter what John Donne says,” Peter Kaldheim writes in his new memoir, “Idiot Wind.” It was in this state, cut off from the people who had been in his life and owing money to an intimidating drug dealer, that Kaldheim fled New York City in 1987. Inspired by Jack Kerouac, he traveled across the country by bus and in strangers’ cars, writing short sketches about his experiences along the way. In “Idiot Wind,” Kaldheim, now 70, recounts those travels as well as his time as a teenage seminary student and his years as an editor and aspiring writer before he left New York. Below, he talks about the book’s very long gestation, the kindred spirit he sees in the singer Tom Waits and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
Way back in 1987. At the time, I was staying at the Joyce Hotel, a skid row flophouse in Portland, Ore., where I’d landed after fleeing the mess I’d made of my life in Manhattan, thanks to a decade-long addiction to alcohol and cocaine.
By the time I reached Portland, after 18 days on the road, I had quite a fund of stories saved up. I shared some of them with my good friend Gerry Howard, a book editor back in New York. Gerry wrote to say how much he’d enjoyed my road sketches, and he was the first one to suggest that I expand them into a memoir. So that’s where the idea came from, but it would take another 29 years for me to finish it.
The project stayed on the back burner from 1987 to 2002. Then I was working as a chef at Montana State University in Bozeman, and had just gotten divorced after a 13-year marriage. So I had the trailer to myself and plenty of free time. I started writing chapters, but I finally gave it up because I couldn’t find the voice I wanted or the structure that seemed right for the material.
In 2012, I took early retirement and moved back to Long Island because I had two younger brothers who were in ill health, and I wanted to help them out. In July 2015, they both passed away from cancer within four days of each other. I really had no relatives or anyone left to share my grief with. A few months after they passed, I went to visit Gerry and his wife. I just unburdened myself, had a good cry and felt much better.
Gerry said, “So Peter, what’s happening with your memoir? Maybe now would be a good time to get back into it.” I went home and started looking at my original notebooks. The day after Thanksgiving that year, I sat down and decided I was going to start a completely new draft. Next thing I knew, I was turning out a chapter a month.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
Writing a memoir requires just as much imagination as writing a novel. That was something I never expected. But now I can see why Siri Hustvedt says, “I have always believed that memory and the imagination are a single faculty.” The stories I tell are all nonfiction accounts of my experiences, but shaping them into a unified narrative put my imagination to the test in ways I hadn’t anticipated. And that was a pleasure to discover.
In what way is the book you wrote different than the book you set out to write?
The book I set out to write was, at its core, a road story set in Reagan-era America. As the writing progressed and I began to interweave episodes from my childhood into the narrative, it became clear to me that the story I was really telling wasn’t just about my travels. It was also the story of the journey that all people who have lost their way must take if they want to find their way back to themselves.
I was surprised that I could muster the honesty to talk about some of the adolescent problems I encountered when I was a seminary student, mainly dealing with the strictures against masturbation, and with having to kneel in a confession box every Saturday, with the priests behind the screen being the same ones who taught you in class and knew your voice by heart. I didn’t think I would have the guts to do that. But those early struggles turned out to be indicative of later struggles I had with impulse control.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Given the title of my memoir, I suppose the obvious answer would be Bob Dylan. But I’m going with another singer/songwriter: Tom Waits. I can’t think of a single Dylan song that has ever made me cry, but Tom Waits has managed that feat in dozens of songs, dating back to 1973, when I discovered his music on the album “Closing Time.”
As a young man, I was drawn to writers who put their struggles with alcohol and drugs at the center of their stories — writers like Malcolm Lowry, Charles Bukowski and Frederick Exley. I suspect that’s because I sensed that my own issues with impulse control would one day lead me down the same troubled road. So, when I started listening to Tom Waits, I knew right away I had fallen in with a kindred spirit. I love his moxie. I love his big heart. And I love his unrivaled gift for finding poetry in the broken dreams and disheveled lives of the characters in his songs. The man’s got empathy in spades, and he’s not ashamed to put it on display. Which is something I believe we should all aspire to.
Persuade someone to read “Idiot Wind” in 50 words or less.
If you’ve ever, even briefly, fantasized about abandoning your present life and hitting the road for parts unknown to make a fresh start elsewhere, you’ll likely find this account of what happened to me when I dropped off the map illuminating — and even, occasionally, comical.