Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A Visit to the Author


Terry here, answering our question of the week: If you could take a literary pilgrimage vacation, where would it be? What writer or work would you celebrate?

 Does the question mean do I so revere a writer that I want to breathe the air they breathed, stand next to the desk they worked at, touch their writing implements, stroll in their garden, buy postcards in their town, hear the language they would have heard. Why? Is it in the wild hope that some of the magic will rub off? The reason I ask is that I probably would never take a “literary pilgrimage” vacation. I have a feeling nothing would rub off, although it might be interesting to get a feel for the kind of environment some of my favorite writers wrote in. 

 Instead of a literary pilgrimage, what I have done is read books written by authors from places I plan to visit. When I was in Australia for two months, I read nothing but Australian authors. I found such a wealth of wonderful writing, and to this day read a lot of Australian authors. To name a few: Nobel prize-winning Patrick White, award-winning Peter Carey, Tim Winton, (from years ago) and Lianne Moriarity, and Jane Harper, more contemporary). When we used to spend a lot of time on our boat and were anchored off the coast of San Lucia, I reveled in re-reading Derek Walcott’s masterpiece, Omeros.
Yes, I was breathing the same air he breathed, and being on-site brought a richness to reading his poetry, but I don’t think I would have bothered to go to his house, even if I could have gotten there. It’s the atmosphere of the setting I was after. 

 I’ve read Italian, English, Scandinavian, French, Canadian, Mexican, Korean, Japanese, and German authors. Because I was there and wanted to get an indefinable feel for the atmosphere. “Atmosphere” is what makes a novel come alive. That’s what I would like to “visit.” 

 Turning the question around, I’m trying to imagine someone loving my work enough to make a “literary pilgrimage” vacation to my home. Where would they go? To the place where I was born, but left when I was six weeks old, Orlando, Florida? Or to the real life town of Somerville, Texas, where my books are set, but where I never lived? Would they go to where I grew up, Lake Jackson, Texas? The house I grew up in is still there, but I think they’d find it lacking in the atmosphere that comes through in my novels, unless they like a lot of heat and humidity and the smell of the nearby chemical plant. 

 How about if they visited the place I lived in longest, Berkeley, California? I just moved from there and a nice young couple lives there now with a baby. I can imagine how puzzled they’d be if someone knocked on the door and asked if they could come inside to see the study where the “famous” Terry Shames worked. They’d be especially nonplussed because the brilliant realtors who decided to make the house into a “blank slate” tore out my lovely study
and made it into a…what? A sun room I guess you’d call it. Somewhere to sit and look at the backyard.
Not somewhere to slave over manuscripts. It no longer has the bookcases that held my hundreds of books. Which makes me wonder how much the supposed working places of famous authors reflect what they actually looked like. Did they have messy desks that have been cleaned up for tourists? Did they have crumbs on their desk from the toast they ate while they worked? Did they have overflowing wastebaskets and a soft blanket for a cat?
What if a fan wanted to visit where I wrote the first Samuel Craddock book? They’d have to charter a boat, because the first book was written when we were in the Caribbean on our catamaran. I got up every morning at 6 and wrote for 2-3 hours sitting on the bed in our cabin.
I can write pretty much anywhere, and I suspect a lot of authors inhabit a place of mind more thoroughly than they do a place of body. I believe that for a literary pilgrimage to be a true pilgrimage, it would have to entail a trip to the mind of the author. And that is only possible by reading the product of that mind—to what they’ve written. 

 As I child I soaked up the sound of Texas twang, of colloquial expressions, of cows lowing, and trains with their lonesome whistles; the sight of flat land, oil wells, snakes, and scrub brush; the smell of dank vegetation, creosote, bottomlands of rivers; the taste of water in various towns (muddy Austin water, shrimpy Gulf Coast, and hard minerals in mid-Texas water). I felt the sting of mosquitos and wasps and chiggers; the bone-chilling cold of damp winters; the debilitating summer heat. Somehow this all came together to enrich the books I write. 

 To make a literary pilgrimage to an author’s home or office would be to find only the dead tools of the writer’s world. To find the real literary home, you have to find it in the books.


Susan C Shea said...

This is brilliant. I loved every word! I have stared at a few 19th c writers' desks and wondered what I was supposed to take away. The only great experience of this kind I ever had was standing in the tower overlooking the sea, on the very balcony, upon which Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus engage in the first dialogue of ULYSSES. I was moved to tears because the place was alive with them.

Terry said...

Susan, thank you for your kind words. Reading the next comment, I realized that one of the things that has really changed is how mobile we are as a society, so there isn't one "place" where most writers work.

CWilson, I loved reading about your pilgrimages. Clearly you got something out of them, which shines through in description. Makes me want to go to those places!