In my neighbourhood in Los Angeles, there’s a café that I love partly for its oddness. The space is unnecessarily massive and cavernous, with exposed rafters, and it’s always over-decorated for whatever holiday is upcoming and packed with screenwriters and would-be screenwriters glowering at their laptops.
Before the pandemic, in the more than six years I was working on my novel Great Circle, one way I motivated myself to write was to use this café as a bribe. You can go get a giant iced latte, I would tell myself, but you have to take your laptop and you have to sit there for three hours. I found I was less likely to waste time on the internet if I was out in public (not that the screenwriters cared one iota what I was up to), and I liked the feeling of walking outside to work and walking home again.
Before this year, it never occurred to me how fragile my little incentive system was, nor did I realize how helpful that simple change of scenery had been, how enlivening I’d found the background hum of other people going about their business while I pecked away at my imaginary world. Before this year, I tended to think of inspiration as something I found in distant places, at the ends of long journeys.
In Great Circle, a pilot named Marian Graves disappears while trying to fly around the world north-south, over the poles, in 1950. Early in the writing process, I knew that I needed to try to visit the polar regions for myself, both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
I’d always wanted to see these places – I love a desolate landscape – but Great Circle brought new urgency to that wish. I wasn’t confident I could put the high latitudes vividly on the page without first-hand experience, and, indeed, when I found my way to the top and bottom of the globe, the tactile, immersive experience of Being There brought wonder and surprise. I would never say that authors are obligated to go everywhere they write about (such travel isn’t always possible), but my idea of this planet was broken open and enlarged by my attempts to see the world the way Marian would have.
Through sea-smoke, I saw the edge of the France-sized Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica from the deck of a ship. I stood on a perfect disc of white under a perfect dome of sky on the Greenland ice sheet and felt my tininess, my precariousness. I flew in a small plane over the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic as the cloud ceiling crept lower, pushing us closer and closer to a sea patchworked with ice. I watched the aurora borealis feather across the midnight sky in the Swedish Arctic. I watched the surf break against the edge of an atoll in the Cook Islands under a spectacular, lurid sunset, and I chugged across Alaska’s interior in an RV. In seeking inspiration for Marian’s life, I’d inadvertently changed my own. Her adventures propelled mine, and mine became hers. My life and my fiction twisted and entwined.
When Los Angeles entered its first COVID-19 lockdown, I was, mercifully, already deep in edits on Great Circle. I’d already gone out and gathered so much from the world, and what remained was the work of stripping away, of poking and prodding and rearranging. As most people did, I have struggled sometimes with the loss of my freedom and mobility during the pandemic, but, when I finally started trying to write something new, I was still surprised by how sluggish and gunked-up my creative engine felt.
I’ve never been a big believer in the muse – if I waited for the muse to come around, I’d never write anything – but the past year has made me understand that, muse or no, my fiction doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Deprived of the human interactions that were its raw material, my imagination sputtered. My trips to the poles had helped me render the landscapes that undergird Great Circle, but to put characters on the page, to flesh out the psyches of invented people, what I needed was time with real people.
Part of the reason I included the point of view of Hadley – a modern movie star playing Marian Graves in a biopic and trying to piece together Marian’s life decades after her disappearance – was that I wanted a lens on the essential unknowability of other people, a way to get at how much of a life is lost when it ends. The project of forging human connections is inherently imperfect, but there’s something so beautiful about the attempt.
Writing fiction is an attempt to mirror and chronicle that attempt, to let us inhabit other consciousnesses; in my isolation, I felt farther away from others than ever, unable to extend even an imaginary bridge.
My muse, more than I’d understood before the isolation of the pandemic, seems to reside in the simple, ongoing act of living life. Yes, I’ve gone out and collected inspiration from far-flung places, but travel doesn’t have to be epic or exotic. Meaningful journeys happen between our homes and our favourite coffee shops; we strike out into the world every time we meet up with friends, open our ears and minds to their lives. To write, it turns out that I need to see and talk to friends, to spy on strangers going about their lives, to put myself in the way of everyday serendipity and feel the hum of the vast human hive.
These might be simple things, but they are crucial. Someday soon, I’ll have them again.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin
The author of The Water Cure on the Jules Verne classic that showed her the power of imaginative possibility, and how it can inform everyday life.