The Blank Page: Destinations that Inspire Authors

The Blank Page: Destinations that Inspire Authors

Ten authors divulge the destinations that inspire them to put pen to paper.

This article features in Vol. 31: The Freedom Issue.

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
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

Kapka Kassabova

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
. 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.

Lara Maiklem

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.

Tayari Jones

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.

Mererid Hopwood

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. ••

Maggie O’Farrell

Author of Hamnet

Tinder Press

I wrote much of my fourth novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme
Lennox, while living in
, 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.

Marie-Elsa Bragg

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

Lisa Taddeo

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.

Emma Barnett

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.

Jackie Morris

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.

Mark Haddon

Author of The Porpoise


The places where I have always felt most creative are the decks
of ferries (Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on Vancouver
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.

The Lowdown

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

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