I’ve long had a penchant for choosing books based on their setting — whether prompted by a certain mood or because I planned to travel to a particular place — and eventually that reading habit translated itself into an obsession with place in the novels I write.
It may have started with Eloise. When I was nine years old my family relocated from Philadelphia to New York. During the year my father was commuting to his new job, he sublet an apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. One of the wonders of this new urban environment (along with proximity to the UN and a 16th floor balcony, from which my teenaged brothers threw cherry bombs purchased in Chinatown) was the apartment’s library. Nine hundred books! the owner boasted (although I have wondered since who would actually count the books in their private library).
Already a voracious reader at age nine, I was looking forward to exploring this immense collection, but was disappointed to find that it contained only one children’s book. Luckily, that one book was Eloise by Kay Thompson, a book that could be read over and over again, pored over for the minute details in Hilary Knight’s line drawings. It even had a fold-out diagram of Eloise’s peregrinations up and down the hotel elevators — especially fascinating to me since I was, for the first time in my life, riding an elevator every day. But what was best about Eloise was that its setting, the Plaza Hotel, was just a short cab ride away. We too could have tea in the Palm Court, over which Eloise’s portrait presided. My mother was happy to indulge my fascination with Eloise and the Plaza because she had a personal connection to the hotel. In her early twenties she had worked at the information desk in the lobby and had delivered messages throughout the hotel — from the sub-basements to the penthouse suites. When she told me these stories, her travels unfolded in my head like the elevator map in the book, her high heels trailing the red dash marks Eloise makes in her journeys. This confluence of book, real life and personal history became three important narrative elements when I began my own fiction writing.
Meanwhile, this new world of New York was one that I could see mirrored in many books — from The Cricket in Times Square to Freaky Friday. My favorite, though, was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. The appeal of this classic lies in the escape fantasy of running away from the pressures of growing up and finding a place of one’s own. Instead of a secret garden or a magical kingdom, the children in Konigsburg’s book take possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had visited there with my mother and eaten many a cafeteria lunch by the fountain of cavorting fauns where Claudia and Jamie Kincaid bathe and collect coins to maintain themselves. When I was thirteen I was allowed to take the train into New York City by myself, but only to board the Number 4 bus across from Penn Station and go directly to the Metropolitan Museum. Because this was the only destination I was allowed, and because the city drew me — as I would later read in another book, with its “enchanted metropolitan twilight” — I went to the Metropolitan Museum often, sometimes once a week. It became my personal escape valve.
I could never eat lunch by the fountain without thinking of Claudia and Jamie bathing there, or pass the bed of Marie Antoinette without remembering that’s where they slept, or slip into the Egyptian tomb without remembering that that was where Claudia and Jamie hide from their schoolmates. Years later when I entered the cafeteria and found that the cavernous room had been gutted of its fountain–presumably to make more space for diners–I felt like something had been scraped out of my own gut. I stood in the cafeteria line, fighting off tears, stupidly wondering where runaway children would take their baths now and where would they find pocket change. A sanctuary had been defiled — this place that had been hallowed by the strange alchemical mixture of history, imagination and literature.
Over the years I’ve sought out or stumbled upon these happy meetings of place and book. I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac while driving cross-country to California and spent the summer in L.A. reading Nathaniel West and Joan Didion. I spent a sleepless night in the Colorado Hotel that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining. The year I lived in the southern Adirondacks I read more James Fenimore Cooper than I ever would have otherwise or ever will again. After a bad skid on the road to Glens Falls, I pulled into a water station and waited out the storm chatting with the clerk about the scene in The Last of the Mohicans where Hawk-eye and Uncas hide in a cave below a waterfall. He pointed out the exact spot described in the book from where we sat. I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove in a U-Haul bound for Austin, Texas. This turned out not to be the best idea, though, because by the time I arrived in my new home I was terrorized by the snakes, scorpions and poisonous spiders that populate McMurtry’s Texas. Better was Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place, which made 1950’s Austin sound as glamorous as Paris. For the next seven years that I lived there whenever I smelled mimosa I thought of Brammer’s phrase “the heavy honied air.” When circumstances compelled me to return to Long Island I was grateful to Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven for transforming that most mundane of suburbs, Levittown, into a magical place. If she could find magic in Levittown, surely I could put up with living in Great Neck, which, after all had its own literary lineage as Gatsby’s and Nick Carraway’s home.
Certainly I knew by the time I started writing short stories and novels that setting was important to me, but I didn’t find my fictional country right away. When I began The Lake of Dead Languages there wasn’t even a lake yet, just Dead Languages. For two years I carried around this idea of a story about a Latin teacher living at an isolated boarding school with her young daughter before I knew where the story was set. Then on a vacation to Mohonk House in the Shawangunks, while I was swimming in Mohonk Lake, I suddenly wondered what it would feel like to swim in that cold, cold water if you had lost someone you loved there. I knew then that the reason the teacher I had been trying to write about was so lost and lonely was that she had lost someone she loved in the lake and that when she swam there she felt the pull of the cold water as the pull of that lost love.
I followed Lake of Dead Languages with a few other upstate New York settings: a remote hotel in the Catskills in The Seduction of Water, a college much like Vassar for The Drowning Tree, and a premier artist colony in The Ghost Orchid.
After that, I was determined to venture forth from the safety of home and set a novel outside my beloved New York. However, I’m not the kind of writer who can spin the globe and pick whatever place my finger lands on. For The Sonnet Lover, I needed a place with which I had history, that I wouldn’t mind getting to know better, one that would also resonate with the themes I’m most interested in. Luckily, my research for The Ghost Orchid had already paved the way. I’d fallen in love with the Italian Renaissance Gardens I had studied to create the setting in that book and during college I had spent a semester abroad in Rome studying the classics. I decided to set my next book in Italy.
I had trepidation setting a book on foreign soil, especially because I had neither the time nor the money (or childcare) to go live in Italy for a year. Would I be able to absorb enough atmosphere from short visits supplemented by memories and reading to create a believable Italian setting? I decided to hedge my bets by setting the book at an American School housed in a Renaissance villa — an enclosed environment that I thought I could handle better than Italy at large. Then I booked a trip for my husband and our two daughters to go to Rome and Sorrento.
I learned many important things on this trip (the first of three I took to Italy over the next two years). One was how very difficult it is to research a book while escorting two girls on their first trip to Italy without getting the Bad Mother of the Year Award. It was a constant balancing act between visiting a site I needed to research and finding the best gelato, between buying souvenirs and mapping out a route to the next important sight we needed to see.
However, I did get to see Italy through the excited eyes of two young girls viewing its splendor for the first time. This brought back vivid memories of my junior year abroad, and helped me realize the narrator of my new novel would be someone who went to Italy when she was young and who was forever marked by that experience.
After The Sonnet Lover, I fully intended to scurry back to New York for my next book, but then I happened upon an interesting idea. This is the problem, I think, with setting out on an Odyssey: you don’t always return home as quickly as planned. A friend of mine, Ross Scaife, Professor of Classics at the University of Kentucky, mentioned he was trying to get a grant to use MSI technology to read charred scrolls from Herculaneum, and I realized this provided a fictional way for me to “do” Herculaneum. I’d been there when I was a student in Italy, and I’d gone back to Pompeii on a family trip the year before. My own journey to The Night Villa had begun without my being aware of it.
There should probably be an early warning system for writers — something equivalent to the slave who stands behind the Roman general in his chariot whispering “Remember you are mortal.” The trip to the Bay of Naples started badly with a missed connection that turned an already brutally long flight into a twenty-four hour ordeal. Still, I had in my mind a picture of the hotel I’d booked on Expedia.com as a welcome haven. I’d picked it because it was in an old convent overlooking the city and it had a rooftop pool. How romantic! I thought. And what great material to stay in an actual fourteenth-century convent, and wouldn’t that pool feel delicious after twenty four hours in the same clothes? When we arrived, though, we learned that the rooftop pool closed at five o’clock. And when we were shown to our room, I realized why they were called cells. Our room had been tastefully decorated, but there was no getting away from what it had originally been: a tiny, sealed, claustrophobic little cell, with one window overlooking a street so loud with motorcycle traffic that opening it only introduced the fumes of a Dantesque hell into the atmosphere. When I put my hand to the “air-conditioner,” I felt something that might have been the dying breath of the last nun who lived and died in this airless cell, this Hell … well, you get the idea. Granted, I was jet-lagged at the time.
We decided to make do with the hotel. This was a research trip, not a vacation. The important thing was to get to Herculaneum to see the Villa dei Papiri, where the charred scrolls had been found. I’d already begun to formulate a story in which a scroll is lost in the villa in the days before Vesuvius erupted. A cast of ancient characters would search for it in the villa, while in the present my archeologists and papyrus scanners also wander the villa’s ruins. I saw it as a kind of English manor house mystery, with better food.
The morning we had planned to go to Herculaneum, a taxi strike was declared. We managed to get there, however, using a funicular and bus and train. At last — the Villa dei Papiri! On the tour was just my husband, myself, an Italian archeologist and our guide: an old man with the keys to the site and who didn’t speak a word of English. That was all right, I thought as we descended into a pit carved out of tufa and crossed a weed-choked underground stream alive with croaking frogs reminiscent of the Styx, I was really doing research now! I was getting the inside dope.
With my limited Italian and a little help from the archeologist, I understood about one tenth of what the old man said, but the little I did understand was still amazing. Our elderly guide showed us the tunnels where 18th century excavators had retrieved the scrolls and then we climbed up to the third level. We walked through rooms with dust-covered mosaic floors and traces of paint clinging to fragments of walls, and out onto a peristylium that would have once faced the sea but which now faced a wall of tufa that some Americans had carved strange shapes into. (No wonder they don’t like us.) Then we moved on to the baths …
I turned back as we left the villa and suddenly realized that that was it. The Villa dei Papiri hadn’t been fully excavated. There were only these few rooms and a private bath a few yards away.
After traveling thousands of miles in a cramped economy seat, suffering intestinal discomforts, sacrificing the comforts of home and the company of my child and my pets, having spent too much money to stay in a room that would have been a penance to Renaissance women only to find that, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all”; I couldn’t possibly have my narrator come and stay in this city where it was too hot and there weren’t taxis and besides, the villa wasn’t excavated enough to support the shenanigans of my characters. An entire trip pursuing my fictional muse had been a terrible mistake.
Later that day, however, I wandered into a quiet room in Herculaneum, a room that had been dug from solidified lava, but was now open to the sunlight — like the glimmer of an idea rescued from the dark. My eyes filled with tears. I’d come across the household shrine. For a moment, I felt the presence of the men and women who had knelt to pray at this spot every day of their lives. I experienced the sadness of a place where so many people had died unexpectedly and painfully. At the shrine, I felt the first seeds of inspiration.
More such moments followed in the coming days. The shadow of painted wings, barely visible, on a red wall in another room in Herculaneum; the strangely enigmatic figures performing rites which still have no explanation at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii; the echoing Cave of the Sibyl at Cumae; the empty, sun-filled rooms of the Villa Jovis on Capri.
It was on the way from Capri to Sorrento that I realized what I had to do. I didn’t have to write about the real Villa dei Papiri, I could create my own ancient Herculanean villa. Even better, I could give my Papyrus Project a rich benefactor who’d built a replica of the villa (like the Getty Museum) somewhere nearby — like Sorrento maybe, or the Isle of Capri.
That’s where my heroine and the rest of the crew would stay while they deciphered a rediscovered scroll, one lost in the days just before the volcano erupted. As I watched the swallows careening over the bay, I felt my imagination set free and take flight. I had caught up with my muse once again.