Writers live in their heads. What may be travel to you is location-scouting for me. In some ways, I’m never where I am. I’m imagining that place on the page in a future book. It won’t exist until I’ve written about it.
I was standing on a deserted bridge across the Rhine in the Swiss town of Rheinfelden a couple of weeks ago in the evening twilight. The river flowed very fast. The rain was steady. It patterned the field-grey surface of the water in scattered patches, so that it seemed as though the current slid beneath thin sheets of slow-moving, melting ice.
A woman went by on a bicycle, its tires making a subdued splatter in the puddles. Along one bank, a row of medieval buildings backed onto the river, overhanging it like the brighter constructions of Florence leaning toward the Arno. Somewhere on the other bank, a train went by. In the middle of the river, the 100-year-old bridge touched the head of a small wooded island. I went into the stand of pines.
“This is where they’ll meet,” I thought.
I don’t yet know who “they” are. I know that one of them is my father. Will be my father. I have in mind a plot, you see, for a thriller set in Italy and quiet points north. With the main character based on my father, who did secret work for the British government when I was growing up and traveled frequently in such places.
I don’t yet know quite how that plot will play out. In many respects, the places I find will build the plot for me. They’ll give me exciting spots that are spurs to action scenes. They’ll show me clandestine places that demand secret meetings. They’ll lead me to introspective moments for my characters.
Novels have to bubble like this for years. Just because I’m writing a book a year doesn’t mean that’s how long a book takes. Each of my Palestinian crime novels is based on ideas that fermented over more than a decade as a foreign correspondent here in Jerusalem. The novel I just shipped off to my agent, which is set in central Europe in 1791, was a seed planted in conversations with my wife while we traveled in Austria and the Czech Republic in 2003.
When my second novel, “A Grave in Gaza”, was published, people asked me if I’d been to Gaza especially for the book. Well, I made a couple of return trips to check that I remembered locations correctly. But I’d been in Gaza at least a few days a month – often more – for 11 years, by the time I wrote that book in 2006. If I hadn’t, a few days or even weeks scouting around Gaza wouldn’t have been enough.
Sometimes I see this fictionalizing of the reality around me as a psychological flaw. On the island in the Rhine, I might just as easily have thought “Oh, how peaceful. How lucky I am to be traveling at someone else’s expense in places I’d never otherwise have been. How wonderful that this is called work, that I can feel a creative surge here in this place.” I might also have looked at my watch and thought, “I’m lonely. At home now it’ll be the boy’s bathtime. Soon he’ll be in bed.”
I thought all of those things. But they won’t put words on the page or bread on the table.
I wandered up the main street of old Rheinfelden, cobbled and slick and empty. I stopped into a men’s store and bought a lightweight, blue raincoat.
“This is what he’ll wear.”
Back to the Hotel Schuetzen. I ate two little round steaks of Seeteufel. The frothy yellow vinegar sauce on the fish was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. I almost thought, “This is what he’ll eat.” But the character I envisage will be on a British government salary, so he’ll have to be a little more frugal. I was pleased, instead, to think: “This is the life, Matthew, my boy. This is the bloody life.”