Once, at a cocktail party, Lesley Hazleton found herself in the middle of a spirited debate about new methods for doubling one’s lifespan. Her drop-the-mic response: “What’s wrong with dying?” Hazleton recounts that scene in her new book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, a heady romp through the mind of an intellectual adventurer who relishes curiosity and questioning over the dubious comforts of dogma and certainty.
Raised in England by Jewish parents and educated by Catholic nuns, Hazleton gave up her spot in a doctorate program to move to Israel in 1966, where she met a man and wrote for Time-Life. The affair didn’t last, and more than a decade later she moved to New York and continued writing—until 1992, when she traveled to Seattle to pursue a pilot’s license and stayed. From the quiet nook of her Lake Union houseboat, she’s authored a biography of the Virgin Mary, an account of the Shia-Sunni split, and a road trip saga called Driving to Detroit. Hazleton will discuss her latest book—her 13th overall—April 5 at Town Hall.
As a kid did you openly question authority?
I was as all bright students are: I was ornery, and uncontrollable, and stubborn, and curious—full of questions. Bad teachers call that every teacher’s nightmare. Good teachers say, “Yes! Give me that one.”
You went to Jerusalem on a whim, but stayed 13 years. Why?
Seattle and Jerusalem—they’re kind of adverse, but related. Jerusalem was, and still is, a very provincial city with what it imagines is a very cosmopolitan soul. And Seattle is a very cosmopolitan city that seems to be stuck with a provincial soul. I love that blend of the cosmopolitan and the provincial.
How have you adjusted to the culture here?
I have a gentle relationship [with the city]. There were some clashes in the beginning. It took time to get used to the fact that people here didn’t seem to relish the active form of argumentation that I favor. If I got excited and banged the table in the middle of a discussion, they would all flinch. I learned to turn it down a notch or two.
Yet you’ve never stopped writing about your former home.
My last four books I think of as Middle East books. It was this extraordinary privilege of waking up every morning in twenty-first century Seattle, and sitting down to ninth century BC, or first century AD, or seventh century AD Middle East. It was my way of getting involved without getting involved in the politics, which were just too painful.
People say agnosticism is a form of fence-sitting. How do you respond?
This is not an “ism.” It’s a way of thinking, a stance, an open-ended, ongoing adventure of the mind. It’s resistance to what I call the tyranny of the definite article: the meaning of life, the universe, the soul, the truth. All of which is designed to stop your thinking and exploring and wondering—not only questioning, but also experiencing wonder: the feeling you get when the sun rises on top of Mount Sinai, or an oh God orgasm. Try to channel that into dogma, into correctness, into following rules. You’d have a hard time trying to get an orgasm that way.