Several years ago, a new student arrived early for class to talk about the novel he would be working on during the semester. Its setting was eerily familiar to me.
“That sounds like where I grew up,” I said. And when I told him the name, a small town in the foothills of North Carolina, he said, “That’s it! That’s the place I’m writing about.”
My student was an accomplished artist. He had lived in Boston and New York and had spent extended time in other great cities of the world. His time in my hometown, notable mainly for liver mush and water laced with lithium, amounted to two years during high school. Yet this was the place that captured his imagination and continued to thrive in his memory.
After recovering from the coincidence (of time as well as geography—he’d been just a few grades behind me in the same high school), I pondered his fascination with a place where, for most his life, he was not.
At about the same time, back in Boston visiting my daughter, I ran into a woman with whom I’d shared a writing group twenty years earlier. She told me was writing a novel about Kazakhstan, and when I said it must have been quite a place to visit, she said, “I’ve never been there and don’t intend to go.” She and her daughters, who shared her fascination with this particular "Stan"—sight unseen—were finding their facts from Google. I wonder if my friend was following the lead of Lily Tuck, who wrote (and won the National Book Award for) The News from Paraguay without ever having set foot there. Had Ms. Tuck established a trend? Perhaps she inspired the Lonely Planet guidebook writer who admitted he’d never bothered to go to Colombia to write the book he’d been assigned. Instead, he said, “I got the information from a chick I was dating—an intern at the Colombian consulate.” It seems that the publisher didn’t pay him enough to make the trip, which may or may not excuse him for his research methods and for the fact that he even made some things up.
For me, not being there is a necessity. I tried writing about Boston when I lived there, but the result was hundreds of pages of borderline autobiography, too up close and personal, too much me. Years later, having returned to North Carolina, I tried to set my fiction here. I was able to observe everything first-hand, people and things as well as backdrops, but again, that tendency toward solipsism struck imagination down.
The solution, for me, was to visit that territory in a century when I didn’t exist. At last I’ve found a place to write about that feels right. More than one, in fact—Boston and the Carolinas—the very locales that had stymied me. Time can render strange the most familiar of places. And lacking an H.G. Wells machine, there’s no question about whether to travel there or not.