Bruce Feiler has gained renown with books that take the reader along on his international adventures, from Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan to Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses. His latest is Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths; he'll discuss that work at the Sarasota Reading Festival this month. Kay Kipling asked a few questions in advance.
Q. How did you begin on this path of immersing yourself in other worlds?
A. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and went to college in the Northeast. I found I learned more about myself as a Southerner in the North. Later I learned more about myself as an American when I lived abroad. It started this way of life for me of going out in the world and then coming back and telling people about it.
With writing about something like Abraham, there are two approaches. One is to be an expert and tell people what you know and what they need to know. The other-my way-is experiential journalism. I go into places and ask what the reader would ask. But I do research first. I read dozens of books on Abraham before heading to the Middle East, because when I'm sitting with an imam in east Jerusalem for the first interview he's ever given a Western journalist, I can't squander that opportunity.
Q. Where did the impetus come from for this book?
A. I was in New York the day the towers fell. Everyone has a different way of reacting to it; I'm the kind of person who goes to the text and to the region and asks, "Is this a situation among religions that could lead to war or can there be a chance for reconciliation"?
Q. Was your travel for this book the scariest so far?
A. It was certainly dangerous and scary, because there was a lot of shooting and bombing all around. I felt really aware of the danger, but also incredibly calm, because I felt called to do it.
Q. How do we know that Abraham existed?
A. We don't. There's no archaeological evidence for the first five books of the Bible. The absence of evidence is the reason for his enduring importance; everyone could make Abraham into what they wanted.
Q. So what was the biggest surprise to you out of all your research?
A. I expected to find one Abraham, who'd be sitting in an oasis in the desert surrounded by palm trees, and all the world could dance "Kumbaya" around him. But I found there are hundreds of Abrahams. People create their own Abraham suited to their generation and their religion. That originally distressed me, but I came to see it as a big opportunity. Because it means we can create our own Abraham now, for our needs. Our Abraham is modern. He'd understand there's fighting in the name of God, and he'd understand how all people have this need for God and His blessing in common. He is the one figure who unites us all, but only if people understand that the Abrahams of the past that exclude people don't work.
So I thought why not use my megaphone to give people the chance to have conversations about that? From Nov. 8-24, there will be interfaith discussion groups called Abraham Salons all around the country; people can find out more about that by going to www.brucefeiler.com. It's one small thing that people can do to heal the breach in the world.