The week before I came to see you speak at Avid Reader, I was sitting in a 1970s caravan, immured in the smell of moisture-warped chipboard, and reading The Lost Dog, because despite having tried for three hours to download Questions of Travel to my e-reader, every page had come up blank.
‘Damn you!’ I’d shouted, ‘Real books never give me this much trouble!’ So instead of travel, I was reading about Tom thrashing through the Australian bush in search of his dog, while sitting in a caravan parked in swampy bushland. Strangely, it required little imagination on my part.
I was also trying to write. Something. Anything. My imagination had run off, I was convinced of it, I was rubbing together dry little sentances willing them to make fire. Sitting there in a caravan by dams filled with lilly pads in a melaleuca forest, I was trying to force my mind elsewhere, to write stories set in other places, and being miserable that I couldn’t. After a while I gave up and sank back into the easy pleasures of reading.
When you spoke at Avid someone asked you how much poetry influences you. You replied that you had been lucky and was given poetry to read as a child. Your book Questions of Travel takes its name from the Elizabeth Bishop poem of the same name. After seeing you speak I sat eating still-warm dolmades from King Ahiram in West End, and read the Bishop poem:
‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come /to imagined places, not just stay at home?’
I wondered at how well this sentence echoed my earlier experience, stuck in my existential caravan funk. You spoke about how travel was both marvellous and sad. The marvellous part is quite self-explanatory, you said. The sadness comes from the disconnect from the lives you are travelling through, the inability to really understand what’s important to them.
Whenever I hear an erudite writer speak about their work, as you did, I marvel at their ability to make real the stories of the people in their heads. I am able to imagine and connect with them, and to understand them, sometimes with more clarity than I understand the people in my life. It is perhaps that same thirst for human connection which you said made travelling one of the saddest pleasures, which makes us seek out the imaginations of others’ in books.
Lying on a beach, just after finishing The Lost Dog, when (spoiler alert! Although, I imagine you remember this quite well, Michelle, having been the one to write it) the lost dog is found, a local border collie brought me a stick to throw for it. How odd that it was the ghost of my own ‘lost’ dog. The overlap between book, past and present produced a powerful sense of déjà vu, of familiarity of the place, and how I fit into it. My imagination caught up with the place I had travelled to and after that, I could see stories everywhere.
Sometimes, Michelle, we are so often travelling elsewhere inside our heads, that it takes somebody else’s imaginings to bring us home.