It's the perennially popular question that all writers, both newcomer and legendary, can expect to be asked at every book reading throughout their career: where do you get your inspiration from? The mystery of creativity holds us all in thrall. The miracle of how a person can seemingly become a lightning rod for stories that go beyond the individual to strike at our collective consciousness is one that we are determined to unravel, leading us to avidly seek the formula for success from those who appear to have it down.
Inevitably, a sense of place is part of this magical equation. If we write in the bathtub, as Agatha Christie did while munching apples, will we be able to pen a thriller for the ages? What about if we ponder on horseback, like Walter Scott riding in the Scottish countryside and ruminating on his epic poem Marmion? Maya Angelou, Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller and Toni Morrison produced master works from hotels and motels; while Roald Dahl, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf found a room of their own in the garden shed. Preferring the thrum of the outside world, Gertrude Stein and Vladimir Nabokov wrote from the passenger seats of cars, and Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre drew their inspiration from the smoke-filled tables at the Parisian haunts Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots.
However, the truth is perhaps simpler: rather than copying the specific routines and rituals of others, real creative freedom can be found wherever your imagination is most able to roam, whether that be in desert canyons or on a busy boardwalk. With this in mind, we asked several authors to describe the place that they feel freest.
Author of To The Lake
Some years ago, I made a radical change: I moved from Edinburgh and a lifetime of city living to the Scottish Highlands. I now live near the River Beauly, where the ruins of a medieval monks' priory remind me of the origins of the village of Beauly - bodies of water, forests, a vital connection with the earth. Every day I visit the river, the trees, the paths and clear my mind. Living here has reconnected me with my childhood love of mountains, pine-scented walks and the sea. An expansive inner space is always available to us - but in a city, we forget. Free of human stimuli, by the river I can tune into the source. My deep connection with the Highlands has taken me back to my native Balkans to explore their great human and natural ecosystems. Because it's all-connected.
Author of Mudlarking
I am at my most creatively free when I am by the Thames - I'm engaged in a love affair with it, and who isn't at their most creative when they are with the focus of their attention? It's a magical place, not just for the history it contains, but for the effect it has. I feel free there. Any cares that follow me are quickly taken away by the tide, so there's nothing for my thoughts to snag on. My mind can drift - and that's when creativity flows. On each tide the river is reborn; it's never still and never the same. There is always something new to look at: the way the wind plays with the waves, the shifting mass of the foreshore itself, even the colour of the water that changes with the weather and the seasons. It's simple things like this that focus my mind and inspire creativity.
Author of An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow
Sedona, Arizona is the most inspiring place I have ever visited. The red-rock mountains provoke an emotion that I can only describe as awe. The place is awesome, and I mean that in the way that the term is used in the Bible. To get there, I flew into Phoenix, which seems like the strip-mall capital of the world. For the first hour of the 90-minute journey, there was nothing to see but the occasional giant cactus. But then we drove around a curve and ahead of us were striated red spires standing like cathedrals. I went on a hike through Fay Canyon - it's an easy hike; I am a city person, after all - but when I got back, I started thinking about how the words "create" and "creator" come from the same root. The earth itself is the most wondrous work of creativity. I didn't do any writing while I was there - I can only make art when I have little or no stimulation. But when I came home and sat at my simple desk, the words came pouring out.
Poet and translator of The Lost Words (Geiriau Diflanedig)
It's no secret: some of the best places are the un-signposted. Theirs are the names that we carry in a collective memory, known by the knowing. They appear unannounced on journeys in all directions. From Llangynnwr, there's Ystrad Farchell to the north-east; Abergwenoli to the north-west; Pentrehaearn, east; and Pencaer, west. This last is the peninsular that nods its curious head across the Irish Sea from Pembrokeshire to Rosslare. It has no "croeso i / welcome to" sign, though I feel the welcome like an envelope. It sends me to coves and cairns that could inspire dead imagination. This is where one of my grandfathers worked in a long line of blacksmiths; the other was the minister in a chapel called Harmony. This is where as children we picked blackberries, caught mackerel, met giants and little folk, and flew on ropey Tarzan swings from trapeze branches in a landscape where a two-metre bush is a noble tree. ••
Author of Hamnet
I wrote much of my fourth novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, while living in Lucca, in northern Italy. My husband and I decided to get away from London for a while; we rented out our flat to some friends and washed up in Lucca almost by chance. We lived in the centro storico during the winter and spring of 2004 with our young son. He had just started to walk and most of the streets are pedestrianised, so he could wander at will. People were so friendly, especially to him; they were intrigued by his blue eyes. It is a mesmerisingly beautiful town, encircled by a towering, protective wall. I have strong memories of writing at night, at a desk overlooking a snowy piazza, and hearing all the church bells chime, one after the other, after the other. We have a family pact to return there together once every 10 years.
Author of Sleeping Letters
Chatto & Windus
My freedom has always been in the mountains, but now I find that I'm more aware of the waterfalls and tributaries that race into the lakes. I like to place myself on the shore of Bathenswaite in Cumbria and wait. In the fifth century, St Bega escaped a violent fate and built a hermitage on an island here. I sit on the shore and imagine what she would have done - stood in the tide for hours with a bowl held out for revelation, carved Celtic symbols like the Book of Kells into tree and rock, chanted meditations, laid offerings on the water. The lake used to be vast and connected upstream to Derwent Water. Now it's smaller and so the 12th-century church that remembers her is not on an island, but by the side of the lake. Watching such an ancient place of pilgrimage with the old church to my back feels peaceful, with a deep and creative sense of home.
Author of Three Women
Driving is where I feel the most free, because I am a moving target. I am not hunted by emails or needy toddlers. I am free to think about writing. I am free to pull over and email myself an idea. I enjoy driving through towns, stopping at the interesting-looking general stores. I love to park and watch people go by and tell myself their stories in my head. I like to drive with the windows closed and the heat or the air conditioning on. I like to do exactly what I want to do with nobody's interference (read: husband). Before driving, I used to feel free in Manhattan. I used to walk the streets from Harlem down to Wall Street, looking for some block or boutique or restaurant or crushed-out cigarette that I might have missed.
Author of Period
For me, it's Miami's beach boardwalk. All life is treading those wooden boards and with the sea breeze on your face and good food in your tummy, anything is possible. Drink it all in and feel like you are walking as one and in step with some of the most colourful characters around - it's alive with possibility and zaniness. Plus, it's the only place I want to be actively healthy. Just mind the rollerbladers - they are lethal.
Author of The Unwinding
I've never really been a traveller. I would always rather spend time painting. I am not a fan of the journeys made by plane, or car, or train. I enjoy seeing new places, but really I am happiest in the place I went on holiday to for a weekend 27 years ago. St Davids is the smallest city in the UK. However, it's not the city that interests me; it's the land, sea, sky, birds and animals around it. Here I can breathe. Here I live. And in the flight of birds and the light on the sea and the movement of water, I find ideas for painting, for writing. This is where my creativity is strongest. And now I call it home. Because 27 years ago, after a weekend away, I bought a small cottage, raised two children, filled it with cats. And I still live there.
Author of The Porpoise
The places where I have always felt most creative are the decks of ferries (Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island springs to mind as a particular favourite) and small cafés in the arched squares of bastide towns in south-west France. But it's all nonsense, of course. Feeling creative and being creative are very different things, and it's dangerous to mistake the former for the latter. The brutal truth is that being creative usually involves facing the wall and not even looking out of the window - and you can do that anywhere.
These writers are appearing at virtual and actual Hay Festival events throughout 2020, including upcoming editions in Rijeka, Croatia; Segovia, Spain; Querétaro, Mexico; Arequipa, Peru; Cartagena, Colombia; and Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
Find out more at hayfestival.org