I wake early. The light in the cabin is delicate. Birdsong explodes outside the window. I can see the shape of the coffee pot on the stove. I picture myself making a cup, stepping out onto the deck, the sun just rising over Topanga Canyon. I imagine breathing deeply, inhaling the scent of everything, knowing that it was exactly for moments exactly like this that I came. Instead I reach for a tissue, and blow my nose. My head throbs. I close my eyes and will myself back to sleep. I’m in California, and I’m as ill as I’ve ever been.
Each one of my novels has begun with setting; before characters, before anything resembling story, it’s always location that has provided the spark. Travel has always been an important part of my writing process too; even when my sense of a place is already vivid, for instance the Hungary of my childhood holidays in The Book of Summers, or the Tuscan island of Elba in The Thousand Lights Hotel. My fifth novel, though, was set in Los Angeles — a further-flung location than any I’d written about before. A trip to the source wasn’t a given. I was aware that choosing a setting so familiar from books and screens and song lyrics could turn out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, L.A. feels known; most of us have a sense of what it is, and this helps the reader as much as the writer. There’s also, for me, an added frisson to the place, because I can’t separate the palm trees and the cop cars and the canyons from the notion of story: L.A. is a place where things happen. But for all the familiarity, my only experience of the city was processed through someone else’s filter. In On Writing, Eudora Welty says ‘The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work’. The more I wrote about the leather booths of Musso and Frank, the Santa Monica carousel, the sunset views from Griffith Observatory, the more convinced I became that I couldn’t feel the glow. So what hope for a reader?
David Nicholls, writing in the Guardian, explores the case for travel for the purposes of novel research. He cites the well-documented story of Stef Penney writing her award-winning novel The Tenderness of Wolves in the confines of the British Library; she’d never visited Canada’s northern territories in the harshness of winter — or indeed at all. However, Nicholls concludes that ‘the research is often as much about reassuring the author as convincing the reader. Like a director scouting for film locations, the author can look around, take it in and stage the scene. The fictional can be grounded, just so long as everything is right’.
That’s a sentiment that chimes with me: not travel as procrastination, but as an act of reassurance. It’s about feeling solid ground beneath my feet; it’s also about feeling that the story is mine to tell, because I’ve lived a little of its actuality. The thought of working on the L.A. novel without spending a slice of time in its location was disconcerting, but I was writing out of contract, and a trip to California would be expensive. I’d have to go for a week to make the flight time worth it, leaving my three-year-old son behind. I’d travelled for work plenty of times before but to go so far felt different — especially when I couldn’t pretend to be researching something specific. However, set against these solid and practical reasons was my strongly held belief in the magical properties of getting away. Alain de Botton, in The Art of Travel, offers a rational explanation for this idea: ‘it is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves[…]the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are’. Applied to creative ideas, I couldn’t quite escape this thought: what if I needed to untether myself from the ordinary in order to let my novel find its true self?
So I squared it with my family. Mustered the funds. Found a good travelling companion. Booked a motel in Santa Monica, an AirBnB in Topanga, a guesthouse in Los Feliz. It was only on the coach from Bristol to Heathrow that it began to really sink in: I was on my way to Los Angeles. With my notebook in my hand, I felt equal parts footloose and purposeful. But the closer we got to the airport, the more I became aware that I had a sore throat. I tried to ignore it. Glugged water. Told myself to relax, let all other responsibilities fall away: just be. But by the time we landed in LAX I was streaming with a head cold. And when I woke up the next morning in a Santa Monica motel, my voice had entirely gone: nothing but a whisper remained. While my friend slept on I went out early and walked to the beach. In the thick mist the palm trees listed eerily. The boardwalk was deserted save for the occasional jogger, and a homeless man pushing a supermarket trolley. I couldn’t see the water. I coughed sharply, and a pelican – a vast, craggy thing – turned its head in disdain. It struck me that here, wandering voiceless in the mist, I couldn’t even cry out if I was mugged — or worse. Losing my nerve, I cut inland, and instead followed faceless streets, already thick with traffic, until I found the legendary Dogtown Coffee; a place I’d read about, had pictured myself in, kicking back and soaking it all up. I repeated my order to the uncomprehending barista: a flat white, I whispered, leaning closer, and a breakfast burrito, before adding superfluously, I’ve lost my voice. Then I took a seat, opened my notebook and stared numbly at the blank page. When my coffee and burrito came they tasted of nothing at all.
That week in L.A. I stubbornly made the best of it as I walked in the footsteps of my characters. I sped along Mulholland Drive at dusk. Drank a cocktail in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Splashed in the shallows at Paradise Cove and walked in the purple haze of the Santa Monica mountains. But I felt miserably ill the entire time. And robbed of my senses, I couldn’t feel any connection: without taste, smell, or voice, it was as if I wasn’t there at all. As we wandered home from a restaurant one evening my friend said, ‘Wow, the smell of those flowers — it’s everywhere!’ I grabbed her arm, whispered with urgency, describe it to me. Later, the internet told me that it was probably night-blooming jasmine. Even now, three years later, I feel extraordinarily rueful that I was there – right there, on a balmy night in Los Feliz – and I couldn’t smell the flowers for myself. In Spirit of Place, Lawrence Durrell writes ‘you can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle, you’ll be there’. I don’t think I was ever as still as a needle in L.A. I was too dosed up on Paracetamol, woolly-headed, trailing tissues and vibrating with disappointment.
I continued to write my L.A. novel for another two years until, after several rounds of dispiriting feedback from my agent, I decided to abandon it. It was the first time I’ve ever walked away from a book. Ironically, the sense of place wasn’t the problem. I wonder now if the book was ill-fated from the start, that after the L.A. write-off I was trying to create against a landscape of failure. Instead of my trip giving me the intimate connection I’d so desired, all I’d felt was cheated: I’d ended up losing more than I’d gained. I can’t help fantasising: what if I’d undertaken my research through internet travels instead? Or, what if I’d gone to California but just put less at stake: less expectation that, untethered from Botton’s ‘domesticity’, my book and I were destined to become our true and glorious selves? Would it all have turned out differently, then?
Recently I’ve been poring over pictures of villas on a sun-scorched Mediterranean island. I can feel a quickening inside, which is as much to do with the thought of a journey as it is to do with my next novel. In concession to L.A., I’ll be sure to take extra pleasure in the anticipation: the one controllable aspect. But when the time comes to pack a bag, I know I’ll travel hopefully: bright with optimism and heart wide open. It’s the only way. And it’s the only way to write too.