Sunday, 10 July 2011

What Writers do on Holiday

Ernest Hemmingway used to drink at the
Foreigner’s Club in Sorrento
I've just had a lovely holiday in the Bay of Naples and the al fresco dining was fantastically social; huge groups of us chatting the evening away over Lachryma Christi wine and Lemoncello liqueurs - all of us animated and affable, British tourists soaking the Italian dolce vita. But every so often, I could feel my eyes slide away from the company. My mind quickly followed. An issue we were discussing...the body language of a companion....the view of Vesuvius or the glittering sea...something falls into place like a cog and I was away...into the land of narrative dreams. 

I've noticed this about my fellow writers, too. They are often said (not always, of course) to enjoy their own company, perhaps a bit too much. But in fact, it's not their own company they are's the company of a myriad of characters, settings, situations and dramatic events....story...of course.

For all their concentration on inventing vibrant characters who move through convincing (if surprising) lives and react in ways that make the reader truly identify with their plights, the writers who create them do not necessarily like people all that much.
I'm not suggesting for a second that writers are all sociopaths who go through life sucking their stories from humans like vampires with a perverted desire for ink, their eyes filled with demonic delight as they manipulate real, observed events into gripping and saleable stories, but I know that I fall just a little short when it comes to a desire to stay in the moment with my friends whenever there's a danger that they may tell me something that's perfect for a plot.

'Going all dreamy' is part of the writing condition, I think. All
artists must have moment when their eyes swivel away from the day in hand and their mind goes somewhere else. Perhaps what we are visiting is our muse...and what better place for me to do that than the slopes of Sorrento, or the little square in Amalfi, or on the deliciously silent chair lift from Anacapri. 

Sorry, folks. I'll be back in a mo. Keep the wine chilled.There's a late sketch by Boz of Dickens sitting in by his fireside while, in the air around him, the characters that peopled his novels float, as they had seep from his mind while he dozes. It's a nice idea, and a fantastic sketch, and at least partially true. It is what happens in writer's minds  - especially when they are alone, but (depressingly) even when they are partying. I reckon that to some writers a holiday is not so much a chance to to see the world, meet new people, pursue a hobby, get a tan, get wasted, get laid, as much as it is a wonderful opportunity to find new story, and new characters to fill it. 
My own short story The Tomb of the Tomb Builders (shortlisted for the Derby Prize but not so far published) came out of all the lovely tour guides I met in Egypt...and a single encounter with a tiny village child. And my most recently published story The Library at Alexandria, read it here was also inspired by that holiday.