GUY RAZ, host:
The spread of swine flu is also on the minds of many airport officials around the world, but it seems that at one major air hub, literature and philosophy are also front and center. London's Heathrow Airport is paying writer Alain de Botton to spend a week at the new Terminal 5 and write about what he sees. He'll publish his work in a book this fall and hand out 10,000 copies to travelers passing through the terminal.
Alain de Botton is on the line from Heathrow. Are you there?
Mr. ALAIN DE BOTTON (Writer): Yes, I am. Yes. Can you hear me?
RAZ: I can. Where are you right now?
Mr. DE BOTTON: So I'm now inside the main operations room for the terminal, which has all the banks of computers, which show things like passenger flow, any security incidents flash up here and that sort of thing.
RAZ: So you just sort of wander around Terminal 5 at will?
Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right, and around the whole airport, actually. I've got access to pretty much anything from the control tower to the catering facility, to, you know, the engineering sheds. That's part of the deal, that really, I'm allowed anywhere.
RAZ: I've seen you referred to as the writer-in-residence at Heathrow for the week and as the philosopher-in-residence at Heathrow. Which do you prefer?
Mr. DE BOTTON: I think it is technically the writer-in-residence.
RAZ: What is expected of you as the writer-in-residence?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, I mean, this is something that initially - the concern, really, was what am I going to be allowed to say, and are there limits to what I can say? I think everybody's realized that this is absolutely not going to work if there's any form of censorship.
I mean, I've got a regular publishing deal with a regular publisher, and the text that I write will just go to the publisher without even being shown to Heathrow. So it's full editorial control, which is, I think, the only way that one can do it because otherwise, it just becomes a piece of marketing. And I told them, you know, fairly and squarely, that I'm undoubtedly going to say some things they don't like.
RAZ: And so, it's sort of this impressionistic experience, where you can kind of just write about the things that you're seeing?
Mr. DE BOTTON: I think, you know, many of us find airports fascinating. They are, in many ways, the kind of cultural centers of the modern world. They express all the things that make the modern world so strange and horrifying and beautiful and exciting. And they're all about interconnection. They're about technology. They're about our lack of - or loss of contact with nature. They're about consumerism. They're about dreams of travel. All of this comes to life at the airport. These things that could otherwise sound like abstractions become real at the airport.
RAZ: Have you made friends there so far during your week?
Mr. DE BOTTON: I have, actually. I'm friendly with a cleaner of my section, who - she's Romanian, from Transylvania, and she very much wants to be in my book, but she says that if I do put her in, she needs all her details changed because otherwise it would disappoint many of her friends in Romania, who think that she's got a brilliant career in classical music, which in fact she doesn't because she's cleaning the floor.
So it's full of stories that are kind of poignant and touching and complex, and you know, there are many - people's lives that just don't fit the easy categories in that airport.
RAZ: What's the most unexpected thing you've seen so far?
Mr. DE BOTTON: The one really unexpected thing, I was approached by the head of baggage. He's, like, number three in the organization. He's got a big job. He came along, and he was hilarious. He sat down at the desk next to me and said, I can't take it. I am fed up. I want to see a tree. I have not seen a tree in so long, I'm going to go mad.
I said (unintelligible)? He goes, I work in the bowels of this building, and I want to see a tree. You know, even the center of the most technological system of probably the most modern airport in the world, this terminal. And it's driving him nuts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE BOTTON: So that was kind of an interesting confession.
RAZ: Can you read a little bit of what you've written so far?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Absolutely. This is a little bit where I was writing, I noticed some lovers. Airports are full of moments of parting, of course.
Mr. DE BOTTON: (Reading) Some lovers were parting. She must have been 20, he a few years older. Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood" was in her bag. They had oversized sunglasses and have come of age in the period between SARS and swine flu. They were dressed casually in combat trousers and T-shirts. It was the intensity of their kiss that first attracted my attention, but what had seemed like passion from afar was revealed at closer range to be unusual devastation.
RAZ: You know, Alain de Botton, we're having a competition on our show, Three Minute Fiction. I think that you might very well be a finalist with that. That's a great…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DE BOTTON: Once I get back to civilian life, I'd like to actually have a go.
RAZ: Writer Alain de Botton is a commentator for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and for this week only, the writer-in-residence at London's Heathrow Airport.
Alain de Botton, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. DE BOTTON: Thank you so much.