Even the most confident and seasoned travelers may experience a shiver of unease when they arrive in a foreign country and the official who stamps their passport asks, “What is the purpose of your visit? Are you here for business or pleasure?”
“Pleasure!” we say. “Vacation!” hearing our voices rise, as if—though we are telling the truth—we might be suspected of lying. Perhaps it’s the fact of the uniform, or the effects of a long voyage, or the border guard who may seem intimidating but is probably just bored.
In any case, this moment is far more complex and fraught when the traveler is a writer who has come to do background research for a novel. Is that purpose business? Not exactly. Pleasure? If the writer were to tell the truth, it might sound something like, “Well, since you ask, the purpose of my visit is to see your country and your culture through the eyes of an imaginary person—a character I invented.” By and large, it works out better for everyone if we just say, “Vacation. I am here as a tourist.”
That initial white lie at the border is just one indication of the essential strangeness of the project: Going somewhere to observe and try to understand a place with a very real landscape, with its own very particular physical and social geography, only so that you can invent something that never happened there, or anywhere, to someone who never existed. In fact it’s not like traveling for pleasure, with its pure openness to the thrill of new experience; nor is it like travel writing, journeys on which that pleasure may be partly compromised by the need to find the perfect opening sentence. In fact, it’s like no other form of travel, for the simple reason that the person who’s traveling isn’t exactly you.
Sometimes, reading a literary classic or a contemporary novel that features a strong sense of place, I’ll find myself pausing to wonder: Did Thomas Mann look at the Lido from the point of view of the doomed, lovesick Gustav von Aschenbach, whose unrequited passion leads to the tragedy at the center of Death in Venice? At which point did Diane Johnson decide to introduce her readers to Paris through the sensibility of the bright young Californian heroine of Le Divorce? How did E. M. Forster transform himself into Lucy Honeychurch, exulting in the beauty of Florence in A Room with a View?
Over the years, I’ve had all sorts of travel experiences that have eventually found their way into novels and stories. Something occurs that lodges in my mind until a character and a plot collect around this kernel and begin to take on the peculiar life of fiction.
Visiting the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980’s, I attended a literary conference at which I had no idea what anyone was talking about: a heated controversy that turned out to involve the return of Croatian exiles. One of the speakers was a flamboyantly theatrical Hungarian poet who, almost a decade later, suddenly appeared (as if under his own volition) in a story I was writing about a young woman who found herself fascinated and terrified by a Hungarian poet’s intense aura of romance and high drama. On one trip to Paris, I noticed that every evening, when I turned on the TV at my hotel, the station was airing a documentary in which a peasant couple was slaughtering a pig at their farm; each night a different couple, a different pig, a different region of France. And this somewhat bizarre and memorable encounter with French TV gave me the inspiration and the title for a novella—Three Pigs in Five Days—that was published in 1997.
It’s been more rare that I’ve traveled specifically for the purpose of researching a fictional character or plot, but that was certainly the case with my most recent novel, My New American Life. Forty pages or so into a rough draft, I had an inconvenient realization: Either my heroine, Lula—a young Albanian immigrant working as a nanny in the northern New Jersey suburbs—was going to have to come from somewhere other than Albania, or else I was going to have to go to Albania to see where she’d come from. I’d read everything I could about the country and practically memorized the one guidebook I was able to locate. But ultimately I discovered that I simply couldn’t imagine or invent Albania without some firsthand experience. I wanted my heroine to have grown up not only in a former Communist dictatorship, but in the most isolated and extreme Eastern-bloc nation.