Thursday, November 17, 2022

Literary Tourism from James W. Ziskin

From Hemingway’s home in Key West to the train platform at King’s Cross Station, readers love to visit the haunts of their favorite writers and the key scenes from their favorite books. What literary pilgrimage have you made (or would like to make)?

This week’s question is a fun one. Unfortunately, I had a little trouble coming up with a good answer. You see, in general, I’m not much of a fan. I mean that I don’t obsess over actors, singers, or athletes, even if I enjoy movies, music, and sports. Too many famous people have let us down, so I have little interest in worshiping them or their work. Maybe that’s why I’ve never much wanted to visit the places writers frequented or put into their books. Of course if the authors in question are already dead, they can no longer disappoint me. So here we go!


Yes, I’ve had my share of drinks at The White Horse Tavern in the West Village, but not because Dylan Thomas had been a regular there. Rather, it was because I lived only a couple of blocks away on Perry Street and West 4th. (And because they served alcohol...)


I lived and worked in Paris a long, long time ago. One of the greatest tourist visits I ever made during that time was to the Père Lachaise cemetery, located in the twentieth arrondissement. The place is a Mecca for tourists wanting to see the final resting place of so many famous writers, artists, composers, and actors. Chopin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Colette, and Edith Piaf are just a few of the luminaries pushing up the daisies inside the walls of the Père Lachaise. Jim Morrison is buried there, too. It’s moving and humbling to stand above the mortal remains of such legendary talents. Spiritual, too. And I confess it’s also inspirational. The experience made me want to create.


I’ve visited Florence more times than I can remember. From my undergraduate and graduate days, to my time as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana, to the years I worked for a subtitling company with offices there, I’ve had the chance to retrace the footsteps of many famous authors and artists. Dante springs to mind first, of course. His house is in the center of Florence, not far from the Piazza della Signoria, as is the little church where he supposedly worshiped Beatrice from afar. Thanks to my time at NYU, I also spent a summer working at Villa La Pietra, home to the late Sir Harold Acton, who was said to have been the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte. But you don’t need Waugh to inspire you when you’re strolling past the cypress trees and relaxing in the gardens of a fifteenth century villa. The warm summer breezes on your face and the hum of cicadas in your ears will fuel your imagination, filling you with ideas, until—with a perfect Tuscan meal, washed down with a fiasco of Chianti under your belt—you sit down with pen and paper later that evening to write.  

I made great use of my long Florentine experience when writing Turn to Stone, the seventh Ellie Stone book, which came out in 2020. Turn to Stone is set in Florence and Fiesole in September 1963. A rubella scare has left ten friends and colleagues quarantined in a villa high above the city. Trapped with nothing to do but eat, drink, and tell stories, Ellie must decide which of her comrades might be capable of murder.


Yes, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, too. For nearly twenty years. (If you’re counting, these are the cities I’ve resided in for at least a year since leaving home for university at eighteen: Philadelphia, Paris, Grenoble, New York, Los Angeles, Pune (India), Seattle, and Boston.) in L.A. I lived in Hollywood and got to know some of the landmarks in Raymond Chandler’s books, especially those in The Big Sleep. For several years I lived on N. Alexandria Avenue, around the corner from Philip Marlowe’s place in the Hobart Arms on Franklin near N. Kenmore. And I’ve eaten many times at Musso and Frank, which appears in The Long Goodbye, just steps from Marlowe’s nameless office building (said to be the Cahuenga Building) on Hollywood Boulevard.

I wrote many scenes in Cast the First Stone (Ellie Stone 5) with Chandler’s Hollywood Hills in mind. Of course I lived there as well and added my own locations.


Now allow me to indulge myself with two locations in my own books: the fictionalized town of New Holland, NY. I suppose that means I consider myself one of my favorite writers… Never mind that.

New Holland is where Ellie Stone works as a reporter for a daily newspaper, The New Holland Republic. The place is a fictionalized version of my hometown, Amsterdam, NY. I changed the name so I could be spared the chore of getting every minute detail right about the city. But New Holland does sit in the exact same geographical spot as Amsterdam. And many places and names are similar.

Fiorello’s is the ice cream parlor/little store run by Ellie’s best friend, Fadge. It’s based on a real place that served the community for ninety years, Fariello’s, sometimes called Sammy’s. I actually worked there as a soda jerk during my junior and senior high school days. Here’s a photo of Fariello’s, which—alas—has closed.

Then there’s the fictional Tempesta Farm in A Stone’s Throw (Ellie Stone #6). It was based on a historic stud farm called Hurricana, which was located in Amsterdam. But I chose to place Tempesta halfway between New Holland (Amsterdam) and Saratoga Springs due to a plot point. There’s a farm on Route 67 that looked about the right size, so I stuck Tempesta there in my book. My brother and sister-in-law point it out each time we drive past the gently rolling land. “There’s Tempesta Farm!”

This is the site of the fictional Tempesta Farm.

Those are some of my literary pilgrimages. Tell me about some of your own below in the comments.



Jennifer J. Chow said...

Great pilgrimages, and it makes me want to travel again! The only things I've gone to semi-recently are the Panama Hotel in Seattle from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet & the Charles M. Schulz Museum.

Susan C Shea said...

I think I told you I lived in Half Moon for several years in the 1980s?

Janet Rudolph said...

Great article. Thanks, Jim. It's almost like traveling there!

Michael Fowles said...

I once took a bus from Chop Gate to Keighley on a cold December day and walked the three miles to the Bronte house. Light snow, sharp wind, grim gray moors. Inside their house were examples of the clothing the grown Brontes wore. They were SHORT.