Learn what you need to learn to make what you want to make.
“Once you let people know anything about what you think, that’s it, you’re dead. Then they’ll be jumping about in your mind, taking things out, holding them up to the light and killing them, yes, killing them, because thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet, dark places, like butterflies in cocoons.”
― Helen Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl
…Mohsin Hamid and Thomas Mallon discuss how where they’ve lived has affected their work….
Curtis and I found we had things in common. We were attached to the cities we lived in. We had two kids each, around the same ages. We reckoned St. Louis and Lahore were good places to raise them. We rarely met “colleagues” unless we — or they — were traveling. We appreciated a slow pace of daily life as conducive to writing (and forgiving of procrastination). We had spouses for whom our hometowns were professionally rewarding. And we planned to stay put — or at least we had no plans not to stay put.
Curtis would, therefore, probably become more and more a St. Louisan writer, and I would probably become more and more a Lahori one. But what did that mean?
It seems obvious that where we live shapes how and what we write. I suspect Nadine Gordimer might not have written “July’s People” had she not lived in South Africa. And J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” might have read a little differently had he been a resident of Osaka instead of Oxfordshire.
Places do things to you. Since I moved back to Lahore from London five years ago, I’ve attended a funeral for a family friend who was assassinated; seen 3,000 eager young people try to cram into a 1,000-seat auditorium for a 9 a.m. lecture (not mine) at a literary festival; had windows blown in by a gas explosion at a nearby restaurant; inherited a Jack Russell terrier from an uncle; met bootleggers whose round-the-clock home-delivery service puts that of New York City drug dealers to shame; and been grilled on my reading tastes by an audiologist’s assistant.
More on the last. I wandered into an appointment for an audiogram the other day with a copy of George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” under my arm — reliably thrilling stuff for an unreliably long wait. The audiologist’s assistant was youthful, and seeing the book, and asking what I did, she proceeded to explain her preferences (Urdu novels, mostly romances) and then challenged me to name three English novels that wouldn’t bore her, including one of mine, which I did, and which she wrote down.
I think I meet more readers in Lahore than I did when I lived in New York or London. Most of my friends in New York and London did read fiction. But many of them wrote it, too. Or edited it. Or agented it. Or publicized it. Or hung out with lots of folks who did. So they were readers, but they weren’t readers — they weren’t civilians, so to speak. When they discussed fiction, they did so as insiders. In Lahore, I rarely bump into readers who think of themselves as insiders. And when I discuss books, I’m much more likely to find myself discussing pleasure. It’s like being a chemist who’s stumbled into a field of people tripping on LSD.
What all this will do to my writing, I have no idea. The soil in Lahore is rich: fertile alluvial sediment from thousands of years of plains-flooding by the now dammed and dead river Ravi. I’ve been planting trees in that soil all around my house: neem, gulmohar, amaltas.
Sometimes they take, and in a year they’re twice my height. Other times they wither, and by next season they’re gone.
All literary terrain is the seacoast of Bohemia, a geography mixed from physical fact and imaginative distortion.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., 11 years ago, I had the sense I was making an almost marital commitment to subject matter that, up to then, I’d been only “involved with.” Even so, I didn’t know that I would end up setting parts of a novel in my own Foggy Bottom house, let alone that the book after that one would be called “Watergate” — named for the scandal but sparked by the spiraling complex of apartments and offices I now saw every time I looked up from my desk and out the window.
CreditIllustration by R. Kikuo Johnson
At the time, a mutual friend told me he’d mentioned my relocation to Gore Vidal, whom I used to edit at GQ, and that the response had been: “It’ll be the death of him as a novelist.” The prediction was offered as sympathetic caution against the particular imaginative drag Vidal thought the capital exercised on anyone’s fiction-making capacities. I recalled the warning not long ago, with a certain relief, when my editor, even more than usually supportive, assured me that moving to Washington was the smartest thing I’d done.
To some degree, all literary terrain is the seacoast of Bohemia, a geography mixed from physical fact and imaginative distortion. Kafka never actually put a foot inside his Amerika, but for extended fictional enterprises set in a single place, the writer should probably be rooted. One wouldn’t take Booth Tarkington out of Indiana any more than one would remove Proust from Paris. In our own time, Allan Gurganus doesn’t just live in the same sort of North Carolina town he was born into and writes about; he makes it his business to keep sprucing up the old graveyard next to his house. His most recent book is “Local Souls,” a title that reminds us of the axiom, perhaps most often cited in the case of Joyce, that the really universal truths are always the most parochial. And yet, Joyce wrote the most local novel of all time not in Dublin but in Trieste and Zurich and Paris.
Still, I like my writers, especially my writer friends, to stay where they’re “supposed” to be. I was oddly relieved when James Ellroy returned to Los Angeles after some years in both Kansas City and Northern California, and while I rejoice at the possibility of Patricia Hampl’s spending more time in the East, I also fret at the thought of her ever permanently leaving St. Paul, a city that since Scott Fitzgerald hasn’t truly belonged to any writer but her.
Some authors need to get away to get started, to have their Quentin Compsonian love/hate moment for the place from which they’ve sprung themselves. Willa Cather and Mark Twain and Joan Didion were really able to write about Nebraska and Missouri and California once they reached cities far from home. Of course, such writers will be warned that if they stay away too long, they’ll lose an ear for how “their” people really speak — and there’s some truth to this.
Sometimes, of course, a vivid foray into a foreign place — an extended stay in extraordinary circumstances — will give a writer experience that he can pack up for later brewing back home, a strong foreign coffee to be drunk at his own desk: Forster’s time in India, let’s say; or Mailer’s war days in the South Pacific. On the other hand, permanent exile, like hanging, can concentrate the mind. Conrad came fully alive when he lost himself in another land and language.
When the cyber revolution first took hold 20 years ago, none of us realized how much time we’d all be spending in the Cloud, that vast nowhere in which everyone’s a “friend.”
Amid so much virtual reality, the actual, geographical kind, whether we’re at home or abroad, begins to feel more necessary. The localized book has outlived the local bookstore.
Everybody isn’t your friend. Just because they hang around you and laugh with you doesn’t mean they’re for you. Just because they say they got your back, doesn’t mean they won’t stab you in it. People pretend well. Jealousy sometimes doesn’t live far. So know your circle. At the end of the day, real situations expose fake people, so pay attention.
We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness.
We are monkeys with money and guns.