Here’s a question that’s come up pretty often at my book events: “How many of the places described in your book have you actually been to in person?”
Chapter 7 of Landfalls, my fictionalized account of the Lapérouse expedition, is set in Monterey, California. I spent one weekend there while working on the book, focusing on Mission Carmel, an important setting in the book. The Monterey Peninsula is a beautiful, evocative place. It also happens to be a three-hour drive from my house.
I also made a research trip to France, but the places I visited — Paris and Albi — don’t figure all that prominently in the book as settings.
Travel consumes time and money, of course, and I was raising children during the entire decade I spent on the book, so there was never enough of either.
But the truth is I’m just not an adventurous person. I often like the idea of being someplace else more than the reality of being there, and the whole process of traveling exhausts me.
I hate packing. I hate unpacking. I don’t like to fly. I don’t sleep well away from home. (I don’t sleep well at home either, but insomnia in a strange bed is worse than insomnia in your own bed.) I’m tiny and not very strong and have trouble hauling around my luggage. I have pesky dietary requirements. I get sick easily. I’m prone to dizzy spells and headaches. I’m easily overwhelmed by heat, noise, crowds, unexpected changes of itinerary.
You wouldn’t want to travel with me either, right?
I wish I could blame it on age, but I wasn’t particularly adventurous in my 20s either. Or my 30s. Or 40s. The most intrepid thing I’ve ever done is take a year off from college to live in Tokyo, one of the world’s most modern cities. I found the whole experience incredibly stressful.
So it’s pretty ironic that I wrote this book about a bunch of explorers who traveled all over the world without benefit of antibiotics or refrigeration, to say nothing of guidebooks, cell phones, credit cards, health insurance, the Internet, and medevac.
Since the book came out, I’ve made a couple of offhand remarks (here, for instance) about living vicariously through my characters, writing about exploits I don’t have the guts to undertake myself, etc. But I don’t think that’s quite right. While I wish I were hardier and more adventurous, I really have no secret desire to do the things Lapérouse and his men did. I enjoyed reading about them, and I enjoyed writing about them. That’s all. (Well, I don’t know that I ever actually “enjoyed” the writing, but it certainly kept me occupied.)
I’ve always been drawn to travel narratives. When I was in second grade, I loved the simplified version of The Pilgrim’s Progress that we had in our house. (This was a very popular text among the Calvinists I grew up with.) The allegory wasn’t entirely lost on me even at that young age, but what compelled me most were the road-trip elements. I used to tie little burdens to the backs of my dolls and stuffed animals and pretend they were on their way to the Celestial City.
A couple of years later my toys were still traveling, inspired now by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of her peripatetic upbringing. My own early upbringing involved a lot of moving around as well. Maybe that explains everything, both the obsession with travel in my writing and the desire to stay put in my life.
In sixth grade I made one of my first attempts at a novel. It was about a dangerous open-boat journey undertaken by a group of Acadian children who’d been separated from their parents during the Great Expulsion. We’d just learned in Social Studies about the forced deportation of Acadians by the British. The project absorbed me completely for several days. But I had no vocabulary for writing about boats or the sea, didn’t know nearly enough about the history, and found the writing itself to be — quelle surprise! —really, really hard.
Funny that one of my earliest forays into fiction-writing concerned something 18th-century and nautical and sort-of French. It’s like my writerly fate was sealed at age 12.
When I started writing more seriously as an adult, tales of travel and geographic dislocation abounded. My next project, which I’ll post about sooner or later, is also about someone’s epic journey. I can’t seem to help myself.
When I was in grad school at UC Davis, the writer Rebecca Brown (The Gifts of the Body) came to give a talk, and she said something that’s always stayed with me. If people ask you why you always write about the same things, she told us, you just shrug and say, “It’s my material.”
Perhaps my travel-fixated writing is a continual working-out on the page of psychic disruptions occasioned by the many moves of my childhood, especially the one from Japan to the U.S. when I was five. A psychologist might offer more insight on that than I can. All I know is that I’m very interested in what happens to people when they leave home. It’s, you know, my material.
But generally I prefer to fashion that material right here in my house.