RR: I have mixed feelings about everything. When I am invited to a school, I want to know (as much as I can) about whom else has been invited to speak in the series or in the program. If it seems too blatantly a case of affirmative action, I tend to stay away. But in the case of Butler, where several faculty members assured me that I was regarded as a serious writer, I believed them, and I came.
SL: At your reading you mentioned you're working on a book about Abrahamic religions and their relationship to the desert. Can you talk about the ideas driving this book, and why they compel you?
RR: September 11th shocked my sense of religion—how dangerous is the power we humans assume when we say “We belong to God”. For a long time, as a Christian, I was interested in Judaism, and had lectured in yeshivas and before Jewish audiences on the debt that I feel as a Christian to Judaism and to the example of Jewish belief. But until September 11th, I barely thought about Islam or even about my possible blood tie to Muslims through the several centuries of Spanish Islam.
My interest in Islam took me into the desert. And it was there, thinking about Abraham (the father of all three monotheistic religious traditions) that I started wondering about the impact of the desert ecology on the experience of God for the Jew, the Christian, and the Muslim. After all, the first Abraham story is a desert story about an old man (who is dry) and suddenly promised a child by Sarah.
SL: Can you talk about what it's like to look back on yourself as a writer – how you feel your writing has changed over the years, how you've changed, and how the two are connected?
RR: I think my writing style in my “high” literary essays has gotten more complex. But I think my journalism has grown richer as I have come to trust the “common reader” more. I think, in this age of connection by I-machines, we are very hungry for ideas. In fact, there is very little thinking going on, just a lot of people texting messages to one another and blogging. The trick for writers will be in finding ways of seducing an audience, getting readers to slow down and read closely and slowly.