Michael Paterniti is an award-winning journalist and the author of two nonfiction books, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain and the Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. Michael is also the cofounder of the Telling Room in Portland. He is married to fellow author Sarah Corbett.
Driving Mr. Albert is about your interactions with a scientist who kept Einstein’s brain after autopsy and your cross-country journey to return the brain to the Einstein family. What inspired your book ?
I’m a journalist. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a war zone or in a small village in Spain. I’m always looking for the elements of a great story. When I was in grad school, I was proofreading the newsletter at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. Even in 1991, it was one of those places where you could find amazing delectables. The owner flew around the world gathering great food and stories. He had mentioned this piece of cheese in the newsletter and I ripped it out and saved it. Ten years later, I was in Spain on assignment. I took a Sunday off and went over to the village. I wasn’t expecting much. I just wanted to try the cheese. By the time I left the village, I realized that it had all the elements of an amazing story.
Your books suggest such an interesting sense of freedom. What happens when you have children, a wife, a career, and a book that needs to get finished? How do you maintain the sense of freedom and adventure?
That’s the question we ask every day. Sarah (my wife) and I have professions that enable us to go out, travel, and have these conversations with people and these intimacies that we wouldn’t otherwise have. In order to do some of this we each have to cover when the other one is on the road. The beauty of writing is that when you’re home, you’re very present for your kids, so you can be there in the middle of the day if someone is sick or someone needs a pickup. We always tell each other to bring back some good stories and take a lot of pictures. We want to see it. We want to hear it. In some ways, we hope that informs our family life.
You also founded an organization called The Telling Room here in Portland. Why was it important for you to provide a space for children and other people to share their stories?
I think it was in 2003 that we came back as a family from Spain, and Sarah and I were talking about these jobs that take the two of us to various places to hear amazing stories. But we felt dislocated from Portland, and knew that there were all these incredible stories here. We thought it would be interesting to try to create a space that was like an actual telling room—like the telling room that belongs to Ambrosio [the main character in The Telling Room]—where you would go to tell your histories, your dreams, and the stories of your life. That was the initial idea, and we really wanted it to be for kids. We teamed up with author Susan Conley, and it started really modestly. It has grown and it’s been a real pleasure to see the work that’s come out of there. Early on we worked with the immigrant population pretty closely, and that’s been a big part to this day of what we do. Some of those stories are incredible stories. As a journalist, I would go to places like Sudan to cover a famine and hear the stories, and you can go to the Telling Room and someone will tell you the story of having survived those things. To me it’s incredible that the whole world is here in Portland like that.