Guest Post: Elizabeth Kay – Travel Broadens the Pen

My first trip abroad was when I was fourteen. My father hadn’t been back to Poland since he’d been deported to Siberia twenty-five years previously, so it was an emotional journey. The iron curtain was a border few people crossed in the sixties. I can remember it all so clearly; the queues of people we could see from the train when we passed through Berlin, waiting to cross from east to west for Christmas. The soldiers carrying sub-machine guns on the trams in Krakow, the strange and wonderful food, the horse-drawn sleighs that acted as taxis in Zakopane. Seeing real mountains for the first time. It was the sort of experience destined to have a permanent effect on me, and from then on foreign travel was an obsessive goal.

During my student days I hitch-hiked round Europe, getting as far as Istanbul and meeting interesting people, getting in and out of sticky situations, and becoming more and more hooked on other cultures, climates, scenery, wildlife. It’s only since my kids have grown up and gone that I’ve had the time and the money to pursue my addiction – the gathering of exotic material for my writing.

I re-use everything. The continental divide in the cloud forest of Costa Rica gave me the central idea for the Divide Trilogy, and I went to Iceland to research the setting for the final book in the series. My trips to Kenya, Zambia and the Ivory Coast led to a reluctant reader book about elephant poaching. A meeting with a feisty eleven-year-old girl in Mongolia presented me with a wonderful character for another children’s book.

I never know what I’m going to find – but the more far-flung the place is the better. It’s not just our plant and animal diversity that’s in trouble, it’s all those cultural heritages as well. Airports, coffee shops and jeans are the same the world over. When you’re creating a fictional character it’s their differences that are important, not the things that are common to everyone else. The same is true of fictional places.

I’ve only just climbed on the Kindle bandwagon – well, I was thrown onto it really, by a publisher who accepted a book, and then decided not to publish any more adult fiction.  Beware of Men with Moustaches is set in an imaginary ex-Soviet state, which is an amalgamation of my experiences in Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Four British poets accept an invitation to make a cultural visit to a little-known country and find themselves in very foreign territory, with both hilarious and disturbing results. It’s a place where people have more to worry about than whether or not their next poetry collection is going to be published.

A great deal of the action is based on genuine events. I really did go to Ukraine on a cultural visit, and experienced many of the situations described in the book. It all came about thanks to a wonderful and eccentric poet by the name of Vera Rich (re-used as the cyclops Turpsik in Back to the Divide) My father had been at university in L’viv, and I’d always wanted to visit. Vera was the foremost translator of Shevchenko, the national poet of Ukraine, and she had contacts at the university. She died a couple of years ago, aged seventy-three, and is very much missed. A group of us went over and did a number of readings, and returned the following year for a conference. The hotel at which the fictional characters stayed was based on the ЖOРЖ – The George! It really was quite extraordinary, and I felt as though I’d been air-lifted there straight out of a book by Tolstoy. Writing from real experience is so different from researching something on the web, which is predominantly visual, with maybe a bit of sound here and there. You’re so much more aware when you’re somewhere new; you take in everything. When I look at the photo of the main staircase in the George, I remember the smell of coffee (L’viv is famous for it), the taste of caviar from breakfast, the feel of that smooth wooden banister. Who knows what hands had slid along it in days gone by?

There are quite a few places I haven’t used yet. A visit to the Angel Falls in Venezuela was memorable for the light plane that took us to Canaima, the nearest town, and landed on the road rather than the runway as there were fewer potholes. Sri Lanka, for the incomparable festival of Perahera, with its hundreds of elephants decorated with lights, and its outstanding curries. The Galapagos, and the sea lions that kipped on the seats on the promenade. Finland, watching baby brown bears shinning up trees from a hide near the Russian border. Madagascar, and everyone going down with salmonella… no, maybe not that one...

So what other places are on my list? I’d like to go to Komodo, and see the dragons for myself. Papua New Guinea, for the birds of paradise. Canada, for the polar bears. Despite the fact that I went to art school and I ought to give galleries a priority, I feel far more drawn to wilderness. The few places where mobile phones don’t get a signal, and internet access isn’t available. They’re becoming fewer and fewer. I think the wake-up call for me was being able to access my emails in the jungle in Borneo. How does anyone get lost these days? How do we isolate our characters, in order to put them in danger? We have to make sure they’ve dropped their smart phones down a well, or had their iPads nicked. Otherwise it’s historical fiction, or fantasy. Travel broadens the mind; can the same really be said for the internet? 


Susan Price said…
Loved this, Liz. Thanks - and Liz will be blogging for us every month from March onwards.
Mark Chisnell said…
Great post, and boats still work for isolation, Liz, so long as you break the radio and satphone and keep them far enough offshore!
Hywela Lyn said…

Fascinating post, Liz. Much as I love modern technology and comforts, I also love wild places. I write futuristic, so have things like sunspots and alien activity to stop my characters' signals for help from getting though! :)
Guy de Ferrer said…
Have your characters visit New Zealand. Large stretches with feeble or no signal.
glitter noir said…
Wonderful. This post made me want to reach for my old traveling shoes. You know, I'm doing just that as a I type.
Dennis Hamley said…
That was lovely, Liz. It's good to know what the origin of The Divide was. And Beware of Men with Moustaches sounds wonderfu. I shall get it: I reckon it's my sort of book. Guido, your new Zealand advice is spot on, though it has other attractions besides feeble signals!
Good to see you here, Liz! Good luck with the Kindle book.

As for those pesky mobile signals, I just zap them with a bit of magic...
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