Culture

How Books And Food Fueled a Love of Travel and Eight Novels

Some novelists never left home to write about foreign lands - but not Brad Leithauser.

The world offers us two sorts of successful journeys: those that proceed as planned and those that don’t. In life, we pray for the former. In literature, we plump for the latter. Who wants to read about the traveler whose sailings are smooth, whose flights go off on time, whose roads are pothole-free?

No, we want to read about somebody like Francis Weed, the protagonist of John Cheever’s celebrated short story “The Country Husband.” Weed is flying east from the Midwest. He begins under a hazy blue sky, but soon it turns gray, then black, as the plane bucks and pitches. The lights go out, and in the darkness the stranger seated beside him announces, “I’ve always wanted to buy a farm in New Hampshire and raise beef cattle.” These may be the last words Weed will hear on earth—an anonymous voice confessing, I’ve failed to reach my destination.

And how wonderful for you, the constant reader, when the two opposed sorts of successful journeys blend into a single experience.  You sit on a humming nighttime bus, right on schedule, securely heading home, and you open your book to poor Odysseus,  who didn’t return home on schedule, whose return journey from Troy to Greece consumed ten full years and brought him crashing up against his mother’s ghost, a man-eating cyclops, a sorceress keen to turn sailors into swine.  Or how lovely to lounge aboard a morning train, the car awash in light, heading into a productive day, as you sympathize with shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe, who year after year went nowhere.  Some of my happiest reading has been done on trains.  What sensation more delicious than to be heading in the right direction, punctually, while tracking lives bound in the wrong direction, tardily and perhaps catastrophically?

Travelers Troubles And how wonderful for you, the constant reader, when the two opposed sorts of successful journeys blend into a single experience. iStock/Getty Images

But more even than the constant reader, the novelist feeds an appetite for travelers’ mishaps and inefficiencies. This is hardly surprising, since the whole process of writing a novel is mishap- and inefficiency-strewn: a rocky road. Typically, a novel begins as an adventure (I’m going to write a book!) and before long unravels into a string of misadventures (I’m going to finish this goddamn book!). Things don’t go as planned.

I generalize from my own experience, as somebody just now publishing his eighth novel.  But most of the novelists I’ve met say as much.  Some report that the process stays hard, others that it gets harder as you go along; nobody claims it gets easier.

This may look counter-intuitive. If years ago I’d vowed to become not a novelist but a woodworker, specializing in cabinetry, by now I’d be a far better cabinetmaker—sharper of eye, surer of hand—than when I started out. But you publish seven novels and you start on an eighth and you discover that the paragraphs arrive no more easily now than way back then; you’ve learned nothing over the decades, maybe.

Frankly, it’s one of the things I like best about novel-writing—the way you’re repeatedly hauled back to square one, doomed once more to seek some fresh variant on Once upon a time… The composing of a novel is its own traveler’s tale, and it’s a journey of the second sort: it may be successful but certainly won’t go as planned. Most of my favorite novels are in this sense travel books—creations in which the author, anyway, ventures some considerable distance from his or her own life. While Crusoe remained marooned, his creator, Daniel Defoe, daily commuted thousands of miles to attend him. (And what a lovely irony that a novel about going nowhere eventually went everywhere: Robinson Crusoe is second only to the Bible in its number of translations.)

Years ago, I met the novelist Saul Bellow and expressed my admiration for his Henderson the Rain King (1959), which unfolds mostly in Africa.  I asked about his African travels.  “Oh, I didn’t go,” he replied.  He didn’t want reality messing with imagination’s deeper reality.  He made the journey only after the book was published, curious to judge how he’d done.

If Bellow felt no need to leave America in order to render Africa, Emily Dickinson didn’t need to leave home to reproduce the wider world. Our greatest literary recluse, Dickinson stayed in and spoke to visitors from behind a door. “There is no frigate like a book,” she wrote in one of her poems, and clung to the notion—endlessly fertile in her case—that the only travel of worth is enacted in one’s head.

It’s an impulse I’ve never understood. I’ve sometimes speculated that my Michigan upbringing, just outside Detroit, fostered my lifelong passion for travel. My neighborhood was middle ground in all sorts of ways. Lodged between metropolis and farm. On the national scale, lodged between the much livelier (and—alas—much cooler) East Coast and West Coast. A region deemed provincial and narrow, yet geographically open in all directions. Flat acre after flat acre, with no string of mountains along the horizons to betoken change and challenge and elevated prospects.

Travelers Troubles 1 The composing of a novel is its own traveler’s tale, and it’s a journey of the second sort: it may be successful but certainly won’t go as planned. iStock/Getty Images

I’m the son of a man who avoided travel (in his impressionable early twenties, my father was deployed to the very exciting Pacific, where he was repeatedly shot at while doing beach landings), and I rarely left Michigan until college days, when I began flying.  Last year, I took more than fifty one-way flights. A static father, a viatic son.

Reflecting on a Michigan childhood, I see now that my travels mostly took two forms. There were books (O, blessed Ferndale Public Library!), and there was food. Although the Midwest is deservedly famous for its bland cuisine, my brothers and I took a collector’s pride in eating things our classmates didn’t or wouldn’t eat. My father was a hunter, and a buddy to hunters, and our freezer often held poorly wrapped blocks of tough mysterious meats and odd birds perforated by black shotgun pellets. I don’t remember enjoying any of it, but I took real pleasure in completing a carnivore’s checklist. Venison, check. Duck, check. Rabbit, check. Moose, check. My brothers and I were drawn to little tins containing creatures that otherwise had no link to our lives: smoked oysters, smoked mussels, smoked octopus. We’ll get to know you by eating you.

They were the culinary equivalent, perhaps, of the book that dominated my imagination in elementary school: Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, set in the neverlands of France and Italy and various Mediterranean islands. I was off—I was away. Given my next-to-nothing knowledge of Europe, I marvel now at how firmly Dumas’s tale of false imprisonment and far-flung revenge held me. I still remember the day I turned the last page: November 22, 1964. Here, too, was a kind of checklist: my first book of over a thousand pages.

Books and food—they were the imagination’s ticket and passport to foreign lands. A number of words that once enkindled my imagination have since acquired dubious overtones of elitism or paternalism: exotic, oriental, even remote. (Who among us lives in a remote place? Most of us live in a, perhaps the, center of the world.) But those now-tarnished terms still recall for me a mythic richness I otherwise lack access to. Exotic….

Books and food—in my mind they remain forever tied up with the joys and allure of travel. As research for my new novel, The Promise of Elsewhere, I recently sought out an Asian restaurant in London where many years before I’d had an atrociously bad meal.  I wanted to send my protagonist there.  I was delighted to discover that the place still existed and—more delightful still—the food was unimproved. Sometimes as a writer you catch a lucky break.

Books and food—if long ago these were modes of transport to faraway lands, a reversal took place with time: I wound up traveling to distant places in order to pursue food and books, or the food in my own books. I once went to Micronesia following another protagonist, a likable but unlucky Midwestern lepidopterist. His story required me to sample the local drug, sakau, a sludgy and slimy beverage drawn from a shrub related to the black pepper plant. Among my (admittedly quite limited) drug experiences, this was much the worst.

GettyImages-882229578 Don’t we all long for a drug that leaves us feeling graceful and lively and smart? iStock/Getty Images

Don’t we all long for a drug that leaves us feeling graceful and lively and smart? This one left me clumsy and torpid and stupid.  Fortunately, my response aligned precisely with what I’d envisioned for the character in my book. At the end of the day, then, I was left feeling both wasted and verified.

Such activities reached a grotesque summit longer ago still, in a restaurant on the Pacific island of Saipan. I ordered fruit bat. This wasn’t something I would normally do, but it was what my protagonist might do. Only reasonable, then, to give him final say.

So there you sit. You’re struggling with your first novel and you come upon a dining opportunity that doesn’t appeal to you—okay, it repulses you—but might just lure your protagonist. What do you do?

You order the fruit bat. And waiting for your dish to arrive, you congratulate yourself on your noble audacity. Having read somewhere that bats are the planet’s most populous mammal—far outnumbering people—you’d suppose a fruit bat would be cheap.  It’s not. It’s the most expensive thing on the menu. You congratulate yourself on this, too: you’re not the sort of writer who sweats the dollars in his pursuit of art and authenticity.

Then your dish arrives. Your response is: What was I thinking? No, that’s not accurate. Your response is: What was I thinking?!?! You require both italics and a profusion of punctuation to do justice to your horror.

You’re sitting in front of a blackened bat, which is bad news, but you’re expected to eat it, which is far, far worse. So what do you do? You eat it, naturally. You eat it and say to yourself what you said to yourself when you began your project, I’m writing a book!

One of my favorite fiction writers and travel writers is Robert Louis Stevenson. His was a brief and wayward and wondrous career (born 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland, died 1894 in Samoa, by way of the Adirondacks and California and New Zealand). In one of his charming letters, Stevenson wrote from his adopted South Pacific (“mere heaven”) to a Scottish friend: “the thought of a mango came to me this morning and set my greed on edge.” He added: “but you do not know what a mango is.”

Today, in a world of crisscrossing jets, laden with thermostat-monitored fresh produce, there’s nothing unusual about mangos. You can buy tropical fruit in supermarkets in Japan or Finland or Iceland—pretty much anywhere. But not in Stevenson’s day.

Stevenson wasn’t gloating.  His letters from the “uttermost parts of the sea” bespeak a bedazzlement at the world’s immensity—and the difficulty the travel writer, or traveling writer, faces when aiming to convey something befitting its grandeur. How fabulous, how sad, to be saying to your friend, Let me tell you about a fruit you’ll never taste, in a land you’ll never visit.

Stevenson reminds us of how much has changed for anyone writing about travel—your own or your characters’ travels. These days, you can’t presume there’s any land your reader will never visit, any fruit your reader will not taste. Having reached his Pacific paradise, Stevenson was farther away from his homeland than anyone today could ever be from any home, anywhere. Nowadays, we own the globe. But as we venture farther and farther upon it, we go a shorter and shorter distance.

Brad Leithauser is a widely acclaimed poet and novelist and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, whose latest book, "The Promise of Elsewhere" is on sale now. 

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