A favourite time as a youngster was sitting at the piano by an open window, playing my mother's favourite tunes as she sat in the summer garden shelling peas. The music, the summer, the safety, allowed images of places I'd visited to propel themselves into my mind, a waking dream sequence composed of memories (I'd been travelling since ten years old, first stop Tangiers).
Reading Richard Holmes
, his book about becoming a romantic biographer, has been leading me into a similar state, flashes of memory stirring from some sunlit past as I follow Holmes, who in turn is following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in a brief walking tour from Holmes's own youth.
It's true that travel becomes curiously warped when it's laced with biographical purpose. 'Footstepping' your biographical subject, going where s/he went years before, you imagine yourself into their being, note elements of the landscape they might have noticed, your body perhaps straining up a gradient as your muscles seek to inhabit that original journey.
Holmes writes (p67): 'This form of identification or self-projection is pre-biographic and in a sense pre-literate; but it is an essential motive for following in the footsteps, for attempting to re-create the pathway, the journey, of someone else's life through the physical past. If you are not in love with them, you will not follow them - not very far, anyway. But the true biographic process begins precisely at the moment, at the places, where this naive form of love and identification breaks down. This moment of personal disillusion is the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation.'
For Holmes, with Stevenson, such a moment came when he found a bridge that Stevenson had crossed was in ruin.
I don't know that I've had the same such moments. I wrapped my own journey into my biography of the Indian holywoman Mother Meera, a huge process of detachment, achieved through drafts that were written in fire and then discarded with consideration. I don't know that I am engaged with my biographical characters in an emotional way [though of course that's wholly untrue and love is a vital part of it ... at the end of a recent talk on Haldane, possibly my last as my own life moves on, I was welling up, going all teary, voicing my appreciation for all the man had given me]. My passion is more for the discovery of story, for revealing all those moments that build a rounded life.
I invoked a biographical character once, climbing the sacred mountain Pedernal in northern New Mexico and throwing Birds custard powder (the version I had to hand of Native American cornflour) into the four winds, calling on Carlos Castaneda's support as I wrote my I Was Carlos Castaneda
. With my biography of J.S.Haldane, a moment of connection came when I was strolling the grounds of his family home in Oxford, Cherwell. It's been demolished and is now the site of Wolfson College, but as I crossed the bridge across the river to the water meadow beyond, all of which would have been recognizable to Haldane, I felt the wash of his presence touch the side of my face and knew my journey had connected, that this story would now be gathered and told.
A couple more biographies are now stirring. I gather details into a box, waiting to see if a story emerges, looking for the characters to call.
With Haldane I walked the hills he knew, visited his childhood and adult homes in Scotland and Oxford, climbed Pikes Peak in Colorado, donned ancient diving gear to walk the seabed, went down Welsh coal mines and Cornish tin mines and followed his steps around his favourite part of Cornwall's coastline. For me, footstepping my characters is vital.
And indeed, I do the same for my fictional characters. I need to know, and have walked, the locations into which I place my characters. For my novel Slippery When Wet
, this meant trips to Bangladesh and Thailand as well as visits as a private guest to stately homes. My new one is set in a home I know well in Big Sur ... but while I know Vienna well enough, another of the novel's settings, the new year will see me set off for Dachau. I can't bring myself to simply invent Dachau, even on the back of research. Since it's important to my character, I have to have been there myself. It's visceral. Visits give me the human scale of a place. Writing is a hugely physical activity. Place needs to be absorbed by my senses, in my body, before it can find its place in the story of another life.