Travelling Far to Write Close
A few weeks from now, my husband and I will pack our modest bags, shine the lenses on our respective cameras, and sail through the air toward Krakow, Poland.
“Your new novel is set in Krakow!” my friends say, almost a chorus now.
“No,” I say.
They wink. They smirk.
No one believes me.
Indeed, it is true that I carry the world into my stories. That I believe in landscape as character. That I have rarely been able to leave my travels alone. Into my memoirs and novels I’ve floated El Salvador, Juarez, the south of France, Barcelona, Portugal, Seville. My two most recent books—Going Over and One Thing Stolen—begin, like so many others have—in a foreign place that alerted and surprised me.
Going Over, which is set on opposite sides of the wall in the Berlin of 1983, was inspired by a trip I took in the summer of 2011. It was nearly an accidental trip; Croatia had long been the plan. But in the final moments of planning, I stopped pressing computer buttons, lifted my head, and said, to my husband: “What about Berlin?”
I’d heard about the Berlin’s colour from friends who had traveled there. I’d heard about the collisions of the newly raw and the steeped history. I’d heard that you could walk for miles. I’d read Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis’s Berlin novel, which suggested the power of that city’s skies. Tugged toward Berlin, we went, and once you are in that fabled city, once you have touched the remains of that wall, once you have gotten yourself lost in the Turkish community, once you have sat on graffiti steps with graffiti artists, you are in. I returned home with photographs and a more quickly beating heart. Months later, in a conversation with my editor, Tamra Tuller, the idea for a Berlin novel based on an actual East Berlin escape attempt was born.
The idea for One Thing Stolen, which is set both in West Philadelphia, where I teach (at the University of Pennsylvania), and Florence, Italy, emerged from merging of memories, the discovery of a book called Dark Water (Robert Clark), and an inexorable need to tell a story about artistic passion and a rare neurodegenerative disease. I’d been to Florence more than once. I’d seen the art and (again) the colour. But it wasn’t until I read Dark Water, about the terrible 1966 flooding of the Arno, that I realised that Florence as a city had endured the kind of treacherous loss faced by those succumbing to bewildering cognitive decline.
To tell this story, I returned with my husband to Florence. Rented an apartment off of Santa Croce plaza so that I might recreate that apartment in the novel. I set off to meet the Mud Angels—the heroes and heroines of that flood—so that I might build into my story an authentic Angel. I spent an afternoon learning leatherworking so that I might reliably create another character who is a leather genius. I walked and ate and took photographs—long before dawn and long after midnight. I walked looking for the details that would keep my imagination vivid throughout the long writing and rewriting process.
When I hold these books in my hands I am holding some semblance of my own discovery and adventure. I want that for my readers, too—to take them somewhere, to invest them with something, to show them the world beyond themselves, to do something meaningful with story.
Will meaning happen to me in Krakow? Will I find the start of something? I’m leaving all expectations at home. I will allow the city to happen to me.
Beth Kephart blogs at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com