When Ben Shattuck got the urge in the spring of 2018 to retrace Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps — after a break-up and boat accident where his “whole fingertip exploded off” — he wasn’t thinking of writing a book.
“It’s not a book proposal I would have ever conjured up,” says the South Dartmouth painter/writer/general store owner and Westport gallery curator. “I just felt inexplicably compelled to follow Thoreau’s walks. And then also compelled — by just who I am as an artist and a writer — to document it.”
Today, those travel notes and sketches form the basis of Shattuck’s first book, “Six Walks”—and his life is different. His Pushcart Prize-winning story, “The History of Sound,” has been optioned for film — Shattuck wrote the screenplay; Paul Mescal of “Normal People” is attached, he says. And while he was working on “Six Walks,” he met and married actor/comedian Jenny Slate, who’s from Milton. The couple has a young daughter.
Thoreau walked in the mid-1800s. Part of the fun in “Six Walks” is how today’s reality — and Shattuck’s sense of humor — take over. While he starts out by packing “a loaf of bread, a brick of cheddar cheese, three apples, a bag of carrots,” by page 80, he’s doing MDMA and eating Subway. Reality hits when he contracts Lyme disease. Throughout his six journeys, he meets a cast of colorful characters. Interactions can fall somewhere near a Coen Brothers-level irony and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” awkward.
At Maine’s Mount Katahdin, for example, he’s driven from the summit not by a rainstorm, as Thoreau was, but a wailing teen: (“I’m. Not. Having. Fun!” she screamed… “The summit is right up there, honey,” the father said. “The end is close.” “You’re lying!”)
Shattuck also walks in his hometown of South Dartmouth, through the Allagash, and Mount Wachusett, where he skied as a kid..
Concord’s famed young transcendentalist, Thoreau died at 44 in 1862. In his short life, he was a political activist, nature-lover, and poet at heart, dubbed a “hermit” largely because he stayed a stint in his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s woods.
“I think of him as a millennial — he’s asking big questions, he doesn’t have all the answers,” says Shattuck of Thoreau. “He’s a beautiful writer,” and also a “silly, sweet, extremely poetic, very talented, nature-loving goofball.”
When I called Shattuck to talk about “Six Walks,” releasing April 19, he was at home in LA. He’ll appear in a virtual Harvard Bookstore launch day event with Slate’s former “Parks & Rec” co-star, Nick Offerman.
Q. When you started out, did you think you might have some kind of spiritual moment, or find something?
A. I wouldn’t call it spiritual. When I took MDMA, it was fun, but serious in some ways, to try to short-circuit the feeling of transcendence that Thoreau felt. By the end, there was this recognition that nature — as Thoreau saw it, as people 10,000 years ago saw it, as we see it today — it’s just there. It’s always there. It doesn’t need you. That sort of explosion of ego is what the transcendentalists were talking about.
Q. Your first walk was Cape Cod. What drew you there?
A. Walking along a beach for 20 miles, being a stranger [was] therapeutic. I’ve been thinking about what wilderness means, especially these days when so much wilderness is gone or threatened, or when Google Maps lets you look at every acre of forest. Part of the definition of wilderness, at least as Thoreau experienced it, is having your identity shed.
Q. Has Thoreau always been a hero figure to you ?
A. Not at all. I didn’t like him in high school or college. His writing is hard to access. And the ideas are framed in an old-fashioned way.
[Then in January 2018] I was carrying a boat across icy ground with my friend. I slipped and the boat came down on my hands and chopped off the top of my middle finger. They couldn’t sew it back on. I had this huge bulb of bandages. I was in extreme pain. My dad had given me Thoreau’s journals by Damion Searls for Christmas. I opened his journals [and realized]: This is a gold mine. It grabbed me by the shirt collar.
Q. Which walk did you like best?
A. I love Cape Cod because I felt for the first time in months that something hard in me was melting away. It introduced me to what could happen if you just step out your front door.
I end the book on Cape Cod with Jenny. This place where — when I had been there first — felt so bereft and unmoored; now I revisit years later with my pregnant fiancee. I didn’t want to walk anymore. I felt all those questions I had years earlier were comfortably answered. I didn’t need Thoreau anymore. He was the bridge I took to the future.
Interview has been edited and condensed.