by August Thomas
I’m in the midst of packing for my UK book tour for Liar’s Candle
Our living room is predictably piled with suitcases, too many pairs of shoes, umbrellas, adapters, and tiny hotel shampoos plucked from the dusty shelf where they usually age like vintage wines.
(Hello, suspiciously yellow solidified conditioner from Izmir, circa 2007.)
Since I’m traveling to multiple book festivals, where wonderful author talks will inevitably trigger a wild hardcover-buying spree, I’m sticking to a Kindle-only rule this time.
But luckily Kindle downloads don’t count toward your baggage allowance…
(Image credit:David Ring / Wikimedia Commons)
Choosing books for a trip often makes me think of the essay, “You Are There,” from Anne Fadiman’s splendid book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
Fadiman, the book lover’s book lover, opens the essay with a description of 19th
-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay reading Livy on the ancient site of the battle of Thrasymenus.
“The moment I read that sentence, I knew that Macaulay and I were two peas in a pod…we were both hardcore devotees of what I call You-Are-There Reading, the practice of reading books in the places they describe.”
Like Fadiman (and the Livy-loving Mr. Macaulay), I am a great fan of “You-Are-There” reading. No matter how vivid the words on the page, there is a special through-the-wardrobe thrill in reading a story set exactly where you’re sitting.
Because they so often zigzag to exotic corners of the world, thrillers and mysteries are wonderful vehicles for “You-Are-There” reading – even if a hefty dose of Agatha Christie will keep you wide awake in your sleeper train, ears straining for sounds of the surely inevitable murder.
During my first trip to Moscow, I was so engrossed in Joseph Finder’s spy thriller The Moscow Club
that I could almost spot his characters in the crowd when I put down the book and ventured out into Red Square.
(Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy / Wikimedia Commons)
“You-Are-There” reading doesn’t only enhance the delight of a book; it can also enhance your vision of the real-life place, making you alert to details you would never otherwise have noticed. For years, whenever I visited my godmother, I noticed a poem by A.M. Harbord about the joy of taking the night train up from London to Scotland hanging in her hallway. The poem, called “At Euston”, begins,
“Stranger with the pile of luggage proudly labelled for Portree
How I wish this night of August I were you and you were me!
Think of all that lies before you when the train goes sliding forth,
And the lines athwart the sunset lead you swiftly to the North.
Think of breakfast at Kingussie, think of high Drumochter Pass,
Think of Highland breezes singing through the bracken and the grass.
Scabious blue and yellow daisy, tender fern beside the train,
Rowdy Tummel, falling, brawling, seen and lost, and glimpsed again….”
(Image copyright: de:Benutzer:Nicolas17 / Wikimedia Commons)
By the time I really was on a train to Scotland, many years later, the memorized lines ran like a melody in my head; the unfamiliar places felt as if I’d known them all before – all because of the old poem in the hallway.
But for a writer, if you have the luxury of choosing, how helpful is “being there”?
On the surface, this might sound like a silly question.
it must help to be in the place where your book is set. And what a perfect excuse to travel, research, explore – and do all the other fun, non-sitting-at-a-desk, definitely-not-procrastinating parts of writing!
Plus, as Robin Burcell pointed out in her fantastic blog post
a couple of weeks ago, on-the-spot research can transform the way you imagine a scene.
Still, I have always found it easier to write about the last place I was in, rather than where I am right now. I wrote about Turkey much more comfortably after I left; now I write about eastern Europe from the comfort of western Massachusetts. Is it the alchemical process of memory, which transforms the jostles and inconveniences of reality into atmosphere and drama? Does imagination work better from a distance?
What was your most memorable “You-Are-There” experience as a reader or a writer? Do you find it helpful to literally put yourself in the middle of your story — or does distance make the mind grow sharper?