"I didn't want it to seem like an artifact. Of course, Faulkner is right, 'The past isn't even the past.'" Mr. Norman paused, then added, "I think it was largely to choreograph the psychological motif such as haplessness, such as the inability to look at where you really are, a kind of vulnerability to the physical landscape and to being a kind of stranger in a strange land. So, that when we were trying to coordinate the stories with the text, my editor and I, we talked about this. We didn't want to force a connectiveness or a synchronicity but to keep it more impressionistic. So that's how that's structured."
"Not only do you read here these Inuit creation myths, but the present-tense narrative of your life is a creation myth too -- a coming-of-age story of which you are the subject."
"I hadn't thought of that. I would agree fully. And not only would I agree fully, but if you wouldn't mind, I would enhance it by saying that I was very aware at the time. I think I might have failed a little to say this strongly enough. But about two or three weeks into being there, I understood very, very clearly, lying in bed one night and staring at the ceiling, that I needed to savor this experience, that it was not something that I should allow to escape me. How to do that was another question. But the fact that I should do it and the fact that this was a highly idiosyncratic situation had very little to do with Helen's medical condition [Helen was dying of cancer].
"It's only in retrospect that there is an understanding of a kind of acceleration of things, but at the time, while in retrospect it seems like two months was a short period of time, at the time it was really a very, very large amount of time."
Once Helen and Mr. Norman parted, Helen returned to her home in Japan. She wrote to Mr. Norman from there. "Yes," he said, "I knew her longer in her epistolary life than in our regular life together, which was not really together but sort of separate."
"Helen was a wonderful influence on you as an artist."
"Oh, yes. In a lot of ways she is the second most remarkable person I've ever known. A third next to my wife and daughter. She intensified life for me in a way that I had not expected and haven't really felt since."
"And," I said, "at a point in your life where you didn't have any sense of what was going to happen to you or who you were going to be."
"No, I actually did not. My complete sense of myself was that I would take the next thing offered. I was so reactive, using modern-day lingo. I think I was primarily grateful to be earning a living. And there was very much, and still is, a utilitarian element to my life. From the outside someone might have thought I was doing something quite exotic, but close up, it was really the work at hand and the work allowed and the work offered. I knew a lot of people like that. It was not rare in my circles."
Referring to Mr. Norman's interview sessions with his rather difficult and somewhat hostile Inuit tale-teller, I said, "Those sitdowns at that kitchen table did not seem all that exotic."
"They were very tough. They were very confusing to me because to separate wanting to be liked and wanting to do good work is not necessarily something that comes naturally to people."
"And you were having so much trouble with the language."
"Oh, tremendous troubles. I still do. But I knew that the rewards were terrific. I had a chapter in the book which I left out because it didn't quite succeed, which was about Helen retranslating something that I couldn't get right. I didn't include this chapter because it made it seem too much like she was a schoolmarm, sort of tapping my wrist with her ruler. That wasn't entirely inaccurate, but it was not nearly the whole demeanor of that evening. I couldn't get it right."
I asked Mr. Norman about translation.
"Then and now, the thing that connected the beginning work with the present work was never a problem of getting help with the original. You could always find people to tell you what this or that word meant. I don't know if I refer to this in the book or not, but translation is certainly the attempt to find the equivalent and not the substitutes in your own language.
"And that was the thing: how inventive were you in your own language? And so the initial process was twofold. It was obvious on the level of needing to start from scratch with another language, but in the sense of starting from scratch or dealing with a very basic sense of inventiveness in your own language was far more difficult and still remains that way. This will sound sentimental, but I have long wondered what translation Helen would have accomplished, had she lived, because she was taking on very large projects when she died. She had very unusual projects to do.
"She was a linguist. Her world, her philosophy, was born of language, and she came from a mixed family. I think that probably had some influence. Although I don't know that she ever said that. I've spoken to her brother since, and he made the offhand comment that everybody was good at languages in his family. I think one can't underestimate what an extraordinary thing that is. You know, especially if one struggles with language. I don't think it comes easy to many people. But Helen had a great ear and was a good mimic."