Voyager: Travel Writings by Russell Banks

In 2003, shortly after I finished my MFA program, I saw an advertisement in Poets & Writers for a writing workshop in Mexico featuring Russell Banks. It seemed ideal for me. Although I spoke no Spanish, I longed to visit Mexico; plus, I had read a couple of Banks’s novels and greatly admired his work.

So I enrolled in a Spanish language class at the local community college and made plans to travel to Mexico the following January, first to visit Mexico City and then on to the village of Tepoztlan for the workshop, called, after the great novel by Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano.

The experience exceeded my expectations, by far. The village was stunning–situated at the foot of a mountain, picturesque, peaceful, excellent food–and the workshop faculty and other students made for one of the most enjoyable weeks I’d ever had. The highlight was working with Banks, who was an engaging and jocular teacher. We did good work in class (usually outside on the terrace of the beautiful hotel where we were staying) and then we also managed to enjoy time with him on local adventures and in the cafes and bars.

One of the adventures was exceptional. The Director of the program, Magda Bogin, had arranged for us to experience a traditional temazcal (sweat lodge) in a nearby village. We were segregated by gender, so Banks, Tim Weed (a fellow student in the workshop who has been a friend ever since), and I, disrobed and climbed into a structure that looked like an adobe igloo. There was room for the three of us to lie down side by side, which we did, waiting for the heat to build as the fire under our igloo was stoked from outside. It’s called a sweat lodge for a reason, and soon we were soaked. Part of the exercise involves being whipped on the back (gently) with branches (were they eucalyptus? I don’t remember, but something fragrant), and we took turns: Tim whipped Russell, Russell whipped me, I whipped Tim. After we’d spent sufficient time in the heat, we were invited out to rest in a cool, dark room and to sip herbal tea to rehydrate. After another hour, we returned to Tepoztlan.

The temazcal aside, I remain a fan of Russell Banks’s work, so when I saw that he had published a collection of travel essays, I got a copy and started reading immediately. Part of me hoped that the Tepoztlan experience (if not the sweat lodge) would be recounted in the book, so I was mildly disappointed that it was not, but the essays are all instructive tales of other voyages of personal discovery, ranging from an extensive trip he took through the Caribbean when he was courting his fourth wife, to a visit to Senegal, to mountaineering in the Andes and Himalayas. Banks draws a distinction between being a tourist and being a traveller, at all times focusing on the journey rather than the destination.

One thing I admire about this work is the respect that Banks shows for the places he visits and their people. He recognizes that as a white American male he comes from a place of privilege, despite his very humble background, and he would much rather have a genuine local experience than the homogenized tourist experience that could take place anywhere. Often travel writers put themselves in impossible situations and disparage the locals for failing to rescue them. That’s not the case here.

The last time I was in touch with Russell was 2014 when Volume I of Everywhere Stories came out. I wanted to send him a copy because, as the editor of the anthology, I had included work by Tim Weed (of the temazcal) and Alden Jones, both of whom had been in my workshop with him back in 2005. He was pleased to hear that we were all still in touch and writing. I hope he enjoyed the book.

Special Price on IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY

Some pretty awesome writers like Tim O’Brien, Elizabeth Strout, and Peter Ho Davies had some very kind words to say about my first collection of stories, In an Uncharted Country, set in a rural town in Virginia.  And now I have some copies of the book that I’m able to sell at a low price of $10 (including shipping within the US). Price is applicable while the supply holds. To read about the book and to buy, CLICK HERE.

Virginia Festival of the Book — March 22-26

The Virginia Festival of the Book is next week! This has long been one of my favorite events of the year. Before I had ever published a book, I attended the festival and imagined that one day I would appear on a panel to talk about my own work. Eventually that did happen, and in addition I have had the pleasure of moderating panels for many years now. This year, I’m moderating two.

The first one is on Wednesday, March 22, at 4pm at the James Madison Regional Library: Secrets and Lies: Haunting Historical Fiction. The panel features three exciting novels. Kathleen Grissom’s novel, Glory over Everything, is about a successful businessman in Philadelphia in 1830 who has a secret about his past that he is faced to confront when he travels south to rescue the son of a runaway slave. Brooke Obie’s novel, The Book of Addis: Cradled Embers, is about Addis, a woman enslaved by William Burken, who in this fiction is the first president of the United States. (Comparisons to Toni Morrison’s work are not far off.) And Susan Rivers’s The Second Mrs. Hockaday is an epistolary novel set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War about the tribulations of a young bride when her husband returns from battle. There is so much to discuss about these books, we’ll wish we had more time!

The second panel is Friday, March 24, at 4pm, also at the Library: Fiction: Exploring Others and Ourselves. The title of the event doesn’t do it justice, although there is vivid self-exploration in all three of the novels being presented. As Close to us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner is a moving account of one Jewish family’s tragic summer at the Connecticut shore in 1948. Jonathan Rabb’s Among the Living is about Holocaust survivor who arrives in Savannah 1947 and must learn what his place in that society can be while still coping with his experience in the camps. Country of Red Azaleas by Domnica Radulescu is about two women in the aftermath of a different conflict, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting horrors in Bosnia. I’m looking forward to hearing all three of these writers talk about these exceptional novels.

And in addition to these two panels, I’ll be enjoying many others throughout the five days of the festival. Check out the schedule, but I hope to see you at the Library on Wednesday and Friday afternoons.

Everywhere Stories Volume II is now available for Kindle!

I am pleased to announce that Volume II of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet is now available for Kindle.

The book is the second in a series. Like the first, it contains 20 stories by 20 writers set in 20 countries. The paperback was published in 2016.

For more information about the books or to order hard copies directly from the publisher, go here. To read about the contributors, go here.

Book Review: Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer

by Colum McCann

HarperCollins, April 2017

This is a short book of writing advice by one of my favorite fiction writers, Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, among many other books.  When someone whose work I admire as much as I do McCann’s offers writing advice, I’m going to listen.

The book collects a series of short writings on particular topics, many of which will be familiar to writers who have studied the craft.  Familiar or not, it occurs to me that the letters will serve as reminders of lessons that some of us may have forgotten.

The first is on a topic that I cover when I teach: There are no rules. “To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen.” And so on. Another favorite is “Don’t Write What You Know.” This appears to contradict the old saw, “write what you know,” but McCann prefers this formulation: “Write toward what you don’t know.” (I heard the same advice years ago from Grace Paley, put only slightly differently: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”)

There are over fifty of these letters, with topics such as “Read Aloud,” “How Old is the Young Writer?,” “Don’t be a Dick,” and “Read, Read, Read.” Having just spent three weeks researching my current project in Southeast Asia, I appreciated this one: “Research: Google Isn’t Deep Enough.”

There is some practical advice (Where should I write?) and some of a more philosophical nature (Why tell stories?), but the whole collection is a mini-course in creative writing that beginning writers, especially, will find invaluable. But I plan to keep the book nearby for rereading, as there is some advice here I can’t be told too often.

Research Trip Phase IV: Colonial Singapore

I’m leaving for home tomorrow and have finished with the last phase of the research, a visit to Colonial-era buildings in Singapore. The British landed here in 1819 and “left” (do they ever really leave?) in the 1960s (apart from a hiatus during the Japanese occupation of World War II), so anything built during that time is technically “colonial,” but I’m mostly interested in the first half of that period.

There are a lot of beautiful buildings to see. Pictured above is the Istana, built in the 19th Century for the British Governors of the Colony and still in use as the office building for the President and Prime Minister. There are also a number of other government buildings that survive from the period as well as private residences, hotels, shophouses and so on. I’ve photographed a good many of these buildings (mostly shared on Facebook in photo albums) and have acquired a map (reproduction) dating from the period.

Whereas Phase III of the research was spent in the library, Phase IV, lasting for the last five days, as been all about walking. My fitbit tells me I’ve averaged about 12 miles a day over the period (15 miles today) as I’ve explored on foot such neighborhoods as Chinatown, Tiong Bahru, Little India, the Civic Center, and Marina Bay (which didn’t exist during Colonial times, as it is all built on landfill created in the 1970s). Although walking probably wasn’t a big part of the lives of my characters (they would have gotten around by rickshaw, buggy, or motor car), seeing the city this way has been a big help for me to understand the city’s scale.

Museums have also been a big help. Today I saw the Singapore Gallery, an exhibit hosted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority that really shows the transformation of the city state. The National Museum, too, which shows Singapore’s history, was also a big help. Even the National Gallery (an art museum built into two late colonial buildings) helped by showing art of the period I’m interested in.

It remains to be seen whether I can bring the colonial era to life on the page in the way I hope to, but the trip has certainly given me the tools I need.

Research Trip Phase III: National Library of Singapore

It may seem as though this trip was just an excuse to be a tourist. But this week was hard-core research week as I spent all day Monday-Thursday in the 11th Floor Reference Room (Southeast Asian Collection) of the National Library of Singapore. I’ve had a blast reading old texts and contemporary histories relevant to my story, and the library is a beautiful space that has made this work a pleasure.

The library offers some wonderful services to researchers. A few weeks ago, I emailed some specific questions I wanted to look into and they emailed back with a long list of resources I might be interested in, so that was my starting point. When I exhausted that list, I found some more, including some that were on microfilm or in digital form, and kept going. I was amazed at how much material I got through. (I may pop in there next week before I leave to take a look at one more thing.)

I took about twenty typed pages of notes, single-spaced, and have a much better feel for the subject than I did before. How I thought I was going to be able to write this book without doing this work, I don’t know.

The library building is new. On a bit of a meta note, my novel’s main character also visits the library to do some research (the same research I’m doing!), but — and this is a little problematic for my purposes — she does it BEFORE this building was built. So I have to rely on pictures of the old building and my imagination, plus some educated guesses. (The archives she’s looking for aren’t digitized, for example, but they are on microfilm, a technology that’s been around a very long time.)

So Phase III is done, and I’m beginning the last phase before heading home. More about that soon.

Research Trip Phase II: Bali

It remains to be seen how relevant Bali is to my project, but it is at least tangentially important, so that was my reason for visiting. This was my fourth trip to Bali in 39 years, each one very different.

The first time I came here was on my backpacking trip in 1978 after the completion of my Peace Corps service in South Korea. Getting to Bali was quite an ordeal back then, at least the way we did it: boat from Singapore to Jakarta (which itself was a pain, involving a ferry to a nearby Indonesian island, then waiting overnight for the larger passenger ship, for which we had paid “deck class” allowing us to sleep on mats on the deck); a bus to Jogjakarta (which I loved); a train to Surabaya; then a ferry to Bali. I don’t remember where we stayed, but I think it was in a cheap hotel near the Nusa Dua beaches. I remember it being uncrowded and idyllic.

The next time I visited Bali was at Christmastime in 1988, more than a decade later. That was different because I was living in Singapore at the time and earning plenty of money as a lawyer, so travel was no problem, but I was meeting up with a friend who was backpacking, so the accommodations were still pretty primitive. We stayed, I think, part of the time in Ubud, the arts city in central Bali, and part of the time on the black sand beaches of the east coast. That was also a pretty good trip and because my buddy was more of an adventurous traveler than I, we some pretty interesting things (a tooth-cutting ceremony, a cremation, etc.)

The next time was five years later as I was preparing to move back to the US and make a big career change. The Four Seasons had just opened a resort on Jimbaran Bay and I was able to get a villa for a reasonable price. Luxury! I didn’t leave the resort.

But this time I chose Kuta, which is the most crowded, noisiest, nastiest part of the island. My resort was fine–beautiful gardens and right on the beach–but stepping out into the “town” was not enjoyable. But I picked it because of the terrorist bombing that occurred in Kuta in 2002, killing over 200 people. Shown here is a picture of a memorial to the victims. (That’s the part that has a connection to my book project.)

But beside that, I wanted to do some things I had not done on my earlier visits, including a drive up to Kintamani, which is the viewing spot for Gunung Batur (pictured above), Bali’s active volcano. Along the way, we stopped in Ubud, which feels more commercial now than it used to, but still I enjoyed visiting a family’s painting studio and gallery as well as a cooperative woodcarving studio. And then there was the visit to a coffee plantation where I tasted several different flavored coffees and herbal teas along with a cup of coffee luwak, the famous Bali coffee made from beans “harvested” from civet cat poop. Can’t say I loved it, but at least I gave it a try. We also stopped at some terraced rice fields, but that wasn’t anything more than a photo opportunity.

The last part of the trip was the most disappointing–a visit to Tanah Lot, a temple on the west coast that I thought was going to be a spiritual experience. Wrong. It was crawling with tourists, not to mention shops selling junk to those tourists. One is supposed to watch the sunset there, but we left long before that.

I think I regret my decision to stay in Kuta. Bali is a beautiful place, but Kuta is simply overrun. If you get a chance to visit the island, try for someplace undiscovered, or at least off the beaten path.

Research Trip Phase I: Singapore Orchard Road and Botanic Gardens

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m currently in Southeast Asia on a research trip for my novel in progress. The first phase, now complete, was mostly a walk down memory lane. I stayed in a hotel in the Orchard Road area, where I lived for many years and took extensive walks (I don’t think my FitBit believed me when I hit 25,000 steps the first day until I followed that up with 35,000 steps the next) around the neighborhood and beyond.

I wanted to take a look at my old apartment buildings, but the last one I lived in has been torn down and replaced by a different modern highrise. That was disorienting, and I wasn’t even sure I was on the right street. Pictured here is the second building I lived in, affectionately referred to (by me, anyway) as the stack of nickels.

I also visited the Botanic Gardens, which are truly amazing, and spent a lot of time taking pictures of the amazing flora.  I visited shops, restaurants, and food centers I used to frequent. I breathed in the hot, humid air, got soaked in sudden rain showers, became frustrated with my fellow pedestrians, etc. — just like the old days.

The purpose was to refresh my memory and sensory recall as I attempt to bring the book’s setting to life for readers. I feel much better equipped to do that now than I did before the trip.

Research: No substitute for being there.

When I began work on my current project–a novel set primarily in Singapore–I didn’t think I’d need to travel there to complete the book. After all, I lived in the country from 1983-1989 and 1990-1993 and had made several other visits before and after those periods. I felt that I knew the country pretty well. So I plowed ahead with the writing.

But the deeper I got into the story, the more I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know, or didn’t remember. For one thing, the story I’m telling takes place both long before and somewhat after the years I lived in Singapore, and if anything remains constant in the country it is rapid change. For another, it is one thing to remember your sensory perceptions and try to describe them. It’s something else again to describe what you’re feeling at the moment. The heat. The humidity. The smells. The crowds. Did I mention the heat and humidity?

So sometime last year I decided I would have to return to Singapore for a research trip. I know–hardship, right? Well, yes and no. I’m happy to be in the tropics during January, that’s for sure. But the planning process was stressful–booking flights and hotels, making various arrangements–and expensive. (If I hadn’t paid for everything in advance, I might have bagged it at the last minute.) Now that I’ve been here for a couple of days, though, I’m so glad I made the trip. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but I don’t think I could have written the book without making this visit.

My research is divided into three parts. The first part is basically done now. I’ve spent the last several days in a hotel near where I used to live. I’ve gone back to areas I used to spend time, and I’ve walked all over this part of town to really reinforce the experience of living here. I’m taking notes as to my impressions and the sensory details, and all of this will be invaluable when I get home to dig back into the manuscript. The second part is a side trip to Bali, where I’m headed on Monday. I’ve visited Bali several times in the past, and it’s only tangentially relevant to the novel, but I can’t deny that I liked the idea of resting and relaxing by the ocean for a few days. (It’s the rainy season there, but I don’t care.) The third part, and the most significant, will happen when I return from Bali. I’ll be staying in a different part of town, closer to some of the locations for scenes in the book. I’ve enlisted the help of the National Library for some actual research, so I’ll be spending a couple of days there, also. And I’ve got some meetings lined up that I hope will be helpful.

I guess there’s a fourth part, too. Chinese New Year will coincide with the last few days of my stay, and that holiday figures prominently in my story, so the timing couldn’t be better.

All in all, despite the stress of planning and travel, I’m very glad I made the trip, and the book will be much better for it.