Warm Guns and Whingers: Happy-Guru Eric Weiner's Writing Life

What’s happiness? A large income, Jane Austen said. Absolute ignorance, according to the delightfully morbid Grahame Greene. Or John Lennon’s less delightfully morbid warm gun. Whatever else it is, happiness is done to death. But where it is? That’s something new. The genius of Eric Weiner’s New York Times bestseller “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” is to change the way of searching for happiness. Instead of looking for ways to make himself happy (the typically American individualistic approach to joy), he went out to find places where other people were happy. That way the former NPR correspondent (I got to know him when he was Mideast bureau chief, but he was based in India, too, for a time) was able to identify broader characteristics of a society that create happiness. He found, of course, that being Swiss helps (they trust everyone around them and therefore don’t have to worry and watch their backs). Being Moldovan on the other hand definitely doesn’t help -- everyone cheats, nothing's fair = miserable place. On his journey Eric also ditched email. But he broke that rule for the sake of my blog, and I’m glad he did.

How long did it take you to get published?

It took me three weeks to find an agent and publisher. It took twelve years for me to settle on an idea that I was passionate about.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

No. I think the best way to learn to write is to write. Reading (everything and anything) helps, too. So does coffee.

What’s a typical writing day?

I wake up bright and early, and by 8:00 a.m. settle into my office. Then I check my e-mail. Then I check Facebook. Then I check a few of my favorite blogs. Then I break for lunch. Usuallly, after lunch, I will do some actual writing before calling it a day.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

You're asking a writer to plug his own work? Okay, if you insist. My book, The Geography of Bliss, is brilliant because it takes a fairly tried subject, happiness, and gives it a new twist. Most happiness books focus on the what of happiness; I was interested in the where. Which are the world's happiest countries and what can we learn from them? And--did I mention?--the writing is brilliant! Funny and serious at the same time. I would highly recommend it. Really.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

Mainly b), I think, with a smattering of c). My genre, broadly speaking, is travelogue. It is an odd, self-loathing genre. Many of the great travel writers don't like to be called travel writers. I think that's because travel writing sounds fluffy and inconsequential. At least bad travel writing is like that. Good travel writing is simply good writing that happens to use place as its main construct. In my work, I try to fashion a slightly new genre, the travelogue of ideas. In that sense, my book isn't really travel book at all. It's a book about the nature of happiness that uses geography as a way to get at this mystery.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I like coffee shops. The background din, oddly, helps me focus. After a while, though, I get antsy and feel the need to move. I might write in two or three different places in a single day. After all, I am a travel writer. Place matters.

Who is your favorite travel writer?

Jan Morris. She can get to the heart of a place in a few sentences. She is opinionated, but not obnoxiously so. She puts herself in her writing but never gets in the way of a good story. And she can be funny in all the right places.

What do you do if you are stuck?

I drink more coffee. If that doesn't work, (and it usually doesn't) I go for a walk. If that doesn't work (and it usually doesn't) I read what I have written aloud. I tend to write for the ear, and reading aloud can help me regain my rhythm. Also, I recently discovered a wine called "Writer's Block." It's a very nice Zinfandel.

What do you read for pleasure?

I like big fat books that tackle big fat topics. I'm currently reading Peter Watson's Ideas; A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud. It's easily 800 pages. I'm still in the fire bit.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

An awful lot. For The Geography of Bliss, I read everything I could get my hands on about happiness, from Aristotle to Marty Seligmen, the poo-bah of the "science of happiness." I camped out at a university library for weeks on end. For a while, I was concerned that I was over-researching, but now I dont' think there is such a thing. Many morsels from my research made their way into the final manuscript.

What’s your experience with being translated?

My book has been translated into 13 languages, The publishers send me copies, which is nice. I can't understand a word of them,. for all I know they did a terrible job of translating. But they look nice on my bookshelf. Especially the Korean edition. Very colorful.

Do you live entirely off your writing?

I do make a living off my writing. I consider myself very fortunate.

How many books did you write before you were published?

This is my first one. Non-fiction, though, is a lot easier to get published than fiction.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

I had just completed an interview with a radio station in Portland, Oregon, when the interviewer said, "That was really great, Do you want to smoke some weed?" It's true. I might have taken him up on it, but I had a book reading in a couple of hours, so I politely declined.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I'd like to write a travel book about time travel. I would go back in time to an age when there still were undiscovered places to explore and write about them. I'd also buy some choice real estate in Manhattan. Then I'd travel back to the present and live large.

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