Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Biking for Buddha

This week’s question: How did your first novel come about and how long did it take to get published?

My first novel is unpublished (and unpublishable, though I still have warm feelings toward Arsenal Pulp Press, who took the time to write back about what they liked and didn't in more length than anyone else). It was called Biking for Buddha, a coming-of-age story about a 21-year old girl on a motorcycle road trip from Halifax to Vancouver, via Route 66 and up the Pacific Coast Highway.

I was my early twenties, and while I'm grateful that the story never saw the light of day, I'm also glad I wrote it.

For research, I took my Virago through the States from Toronto to New Mexico and had some incredible adventures along the way. I was too young to realize I was mortal, which I guess turned out okay since I'm still here. Mostly, that trip made me (a) love Americans and (b) optimistic about human nature.

I drank cans of Old Milwaukee in the cheapest motel rooms I could find. (Think faux wood paneling and showers with weak to no water pressure.) I ate at diners and family restaurants with all-you-can-eat soup and salad bars. (I still crave Shoney's, 16 years later.)

An entire diner in Flint, Michigan rallied around my road trip. The waitress saw my helmet and asked where I was headed. Far too honest, I said I didn't know—I'd take each day as it came. She loved it, told the regulars. One woman went out to her truck to get maps of America to give me. (This was before iPhones and map apps, so the maps were really useful.) The manager gave me a travel mug (which I still have) as a souvenir. And someone (I still don't know if it was the restaurant or another customer) bought my breakfast for me.

In Indiana, I met a group of Hell's Angels on their way to a bike rally in Springfield. They invited me to meet them there, to which I politely said maybe, though I never found out which Springfield. (Illinois, Missouri, or other.)

In Rolla, Missouri, I met two other bikers, the touring loner kind like me (except they were a couple, and in their thirties which I then considered incredibly world-wise). We had dinner together and they gave me some great advice about towns to hit and routes to try.

I got a leaking tire, and two mechanics inspected it for free until a third shop gave me the missing valve cap that was causing the trouble. (Also free.)

I took a random turn on the highway and ended up in Arkansas by accident. (The state sign said, “Welcome to Arkansas. Birthplace of Bill Clinton.”) On the same road, I ran into a girl my age with car trouble, also on a road trip. (Though hers had a purpose; she was heading to New Orleans to check out the grad school she planned to attend in the fall.) Figuring there was safety in numbers in case she had a complete breakdown, I followed her all the way down the isolated mountain highway until she found a shop that could fix her engine trouble. Grateful, she bought me lunch, then she went east and I went west.

My saddlebags caught on fire in Oklahoma, burning up most of my clothes and smashing my laptop (and novel-in-progress) in the crash. I was strangely okay with this. (As I said to my boss upon my return, "I went on the trip to get rid of excess baggage, and sometimes things have to happen literally to work figuratively.")

In New Mexico, riding through the craggy red desert that reminded me of Bugs Bunny/Road Runner cartoons, hot wind in my face and no relief from the beating sun, I felt like I was in a Native sweat lodge. It was here where I had the moment I'd come for--that biking nirvana that every rider is in search of, when the universe, for a few brief moments, makes sense.

On the way home, I had engine trouble I couldn't figure out. A man at a gas station pulled out the spark plugs, found them caked with grease, and gave them a good clean, which made the bike run much more smoothly. Since this was more likely a symptom than the problem, he gave me his spark plug wrench and some sandpaper to keep with me so I could clean the plugs as they needed it. Grateful to him, I bought his gas.

All these stories, and more, made it into the novel. But I didn't know enough about writing then, so the book itself wasn't a good cohesive piece of work.

Maybe one day I'll revive this novel, rewrite it and turn it into something I'd be happy to put my name on. But at the moment I don't feel I need to. I lived it and loved it already.


Catriona McPherson said...

What an adventure. reading it - as a crimewriter - every anecdote sounds like the first chapter of a thriller, just before it all goes horribly but page-turningly wrong.

Robin Spano said...

Ooh, cool idea. If I ever revive it, maybe I'll turn it into a thriller.

RJ Harlick said...

Sounds like it was a fabulous trip, one that I think you remember with much fondness. Sometimes life-changing trips like this are best left in the memory banks rather than being brought out into the harsh reality of publishing and changed into something it wasn't.

Susan C Shea said...

I'm thinking your trip may still provide the seeds for some good story-telling. Like Catriona, all that's missing is the "what if" moment in a setting when things start to go seriously wrong. Glad they didn't in real life!

Paul D. Marks said...

Great story, Robin. I hope you will turn it into a novel that will see the light of day one of these days.