Sense of place has always been something that has fascinated me in writing. People are never without context. As much as humans shape places, so too places shape us, and also the wider life that inhabits any particular place. I’ve just finished reading the new novel by Tan Twan Eng, A House of Doors—a wonderful example of how place and character interact, full of exquisite description that transports the reader to the humid, bustling, lush landscape of early twentieth century Penang.
I began reading it on a train from Prague and finished it here in Budapest. I’m currently taking time out to write intensely—just a few weeks, but I set off from home with not the merest idea of what my next writing project might be. What I did know was that I needed to move in order to discover what my unconscious might be working on.
Moving to shake something free
When I wrote the Casilda trilogy I could draw on memories of 1970s Teesside, but also needed to visit places that were integral to the books—Toledo, Burgos and Zaragoza in Spain for the first and third books; Budapest for the middle book, A Remedy for All Things. I couldn’t go back in time in those places, but I could go into buildings or walk streets that held centuries of memory. And I could talk to local people who remembered some of the more near-past events I wanted to include.
When I began writing the spin-off novel to this trilogy, Saoirse’s Crossing, I was staying in friend’s remote cottage in Ireland. Reagh has an extraordinary maze (viewable from Google Earth) and it was the maze along with a dream of a young woman that were the first characters who presented themselves for the story. Place was entwined throughout the book—Reagh’s maze and the surrounding countryside in Roscommon as well as streets in Prague and Budapest remembered from travels and a forest in Brittany that was once known as Brocéliande, which we visited while contemplating making an international move.
I could have studied the places on maps, read books about them, immersed myself in stories and poetry from those places. And I did. Before going to Hungary, I ‘virtually’ walked streets on Google maps, getting a sense of buildings and distances. But I was immensely fortunate to be awarded a couple of grants to support the writing and this enabled me to dig deeper—to hear the languages of my characters, to walk in their footsteps, visit the cell in which one of my protagonists was imprisoned, eat the food that would have been familiar to them… I also found in travelling that I got out of my own way more readily as a writer. I was more willing to entertain other perspectives in the midst of the slightly dislocating process of moving to unfamiliar places. As J E Leigh puts it:
This is why we seek out new places…we want to remember a somewhere that gave us the space to expand ourselves, to become a little more of who we truly are.
This is not only about novelty, but also about putting ourselves in a position where we are observing from outside, where we are full of wonder and questions. When we travel we don’t know the cultural signals, how things work… we have to constantly be willing to learn, often from mistakes. Travel shakes something loose for me and it’s in this expansiveness that new ideas arise.
Moving to see differently
This is certainly what happened on this journey, which began from Morlaix, the nearest town with a train station to our home. We’ve lived in Finistère for nearly three years, though it still feels very new, and in that time travel has been to Ireland for herbal courses or the UK to see family.
The last time we travelled to write was in 2019, which was also a trip to look for the new house. The last time we’d travelled seriously (long journeys on connecting trains across Europe) was 2018 and we decided to revisit this path. We told ourselves that things would have changed—increasing climate change, political upheavals, Covid… as well as time moving on would inevitably have taken their toll. But telling ourselves this and witnessing it are quite different.
I began the journey in a state of self-doubt. I’d had food poisoning in early May and it persisted for over three weeks. Right up to the eve of setting out I was wondering if the trip was a mad idea. Even if I was almost recovered, I was setting out exhausted. Additionally, I had not a single idea in my head—I felt like I had no story in me. I finished reading Clarice Lispector’s extraordinary Agua Viva on the train to Paris and resonated with her questioning:
…waking in complete darkness in search of ourselves is what we do. It hurts.
I wanted my writing to be at the heart of my living. I wanted the quality of embodiment and connection that Lispector exemplifies in buckets, but I really wasn’t feeling it and after a long winter and a spring of illness (in my family and my own) I decided to let go of pushing myself and to use the time away to rest and listen to my body. I told myself the trip was an opportunity to consider how to live our lives as best we can in a mad world.
On the train from Gare de l’Est to Karlsruhe (where nearly all seating had been removed from the station and the boarding was the most chaotic I’d ever encountered) I read Emily St John Mandell’s Station Eleven, set in a post-pandemic society. It was written before Covid and its pandemic is more devastating, but I couldn’t help making comparisons with a society where the veneer of functionality often cracks—whether in health services unable to deliver, trains loaded with twice as many passengers as seats, spiralling food and fuel costs…
At Karlsruhe we walked down corridors of armed and armoured police as football fans from a recent match poured into the station. Karlsruhe advertises itself as a city of shopping with fan-shaped streets selling every imaginable consumer item. What we saw between the station and the hotel were flashes of beautiful architecture between brutalist tower blocks in poor condition. The ones nearest the station surrounded by uncollected rubbish bags, many bursting their contents onto the streets. The hotel was fine and its staff were welcoming, but all night the police sirens rang out.
Karlsruhe was a stopping point on the way to Prague and we were up just after 5 a.m. to get the train. We hadn’t expected seat as none were allocated on this train, but found some in a carriage for six that had only one other passenger. It was a hot six hour journey with no way to open a window and, for the first three hours, while the train was staffed and run by Deutsche Bahn, no water on board so our one small bottle that we’d each brought soon ran out. When we crossed into Czechia the staff changed and brought free bottles of water as well as a regular trolley of drinks to buy. An oversight on the first leg or a cultural difference?
The journey felt more gruelling than adventure, but after a night’s sleep in Prague, in an apartment opposite the university music school where we could hear talented students practicing through the windows, there was my new character, complete with the beginnings of a story. And—perhaps ironically or perhaps I simply needed to move away in order to see it differently—I knew the setting would be just a few miles from our home in Finistère.
I read a biography of Lawrence and Nancy Durrell in Prague but Nancy’s daughter, Joanna Hdogkin, Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage, and Henry Miller featured in their story. It sent me back to something Miller wrote in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch:
One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.
Moving to change ourselves
Movement doesn’t have to be a series of trains across Europe. (After a week in Prague, which seemed very much changed, we are now in Budapest, which feels oddly more familiar, perhaps becasue we already knew it better having spent longer periods here in the past). Movement might be a long walk from our front doorstep, a bus ride across the city we live in, a train to a nearby town. It might even moving a desk from one room to another to change the view we see as we write.
But we need, a writers, not to be sedantary, even though the act of writing demands this stillness. We need some kind of movement that will give us space to reflect, to come into contact with the ideas bubbling in the unconscious. So often I find it hard to start a writing project at home (though I can continue once I’ve begun) and I think this has to do with the familiarity of a home—the domestic space looks the same each day and my thoughts run on lines that echo this. I’m my most ordinary self in my most safe environment.
I move to change myself and, for me, slow travel on sometimes unreliable trains from stations that do nothing to make themselves hospitable, shakes ideas loose. For others the movement might be walking (in a forest or to work) or gardening, going to readings where ideas are flowing, or moving the furniture. But somewhere in there I suspect there is always movement. Writing that moves needs a writer who moves through the world in some way; someone willing to become a different story in order to write a different story.