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Writers from this year’s Hay Festival in Wales tell us about the literary pilgrimages that inspire them.
This article appears in Volume 27: The Books Issue
For both readers and writers, travel and literature often go hand in hand. There are practical reasons for this: books are a form of portable entertainment impervious to bad WiFi and forgotten chargers, and therefore ideal for journeying. Moreover, the act of travel, of seeing new places and experiencing new things, often demands we bear witness, take pen to paper and capture the thoughts sparked along the way.
It’s a matter of perspective, too. When we travel we are foreign, an identity that casts the details of daily life into sharper relief and briefly bestows on us the observational gifts required of the greatest writers. Viewing life from the outside, we’re attuned to our immediate world in a way we often aren’t when at home. Travel itself is an act of imagination: a journey to somewhere always unreached, a distant vision that’s as much about us as it is about our destination. It represents a shift as we journey from one self to another in a perfect story arc.
Journeys like this are at the heart of much great literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah. These works carry the power to transport us somewhere new at the turn of a page. And where better to explore this than at Hay Festival, located in Wales’ own “town of books”? Each year festivalgoers attend from all over the world – last year from over 40 countries – to celebrate the power of words with some of the greatest writers of our time. From debut novelist Isabella Hammad to the author of more than 20 bestsellers Nicci Gerrard, I asked some of this year’s programmed writers to share stories of the travels that have most inspired their writing, as well as the literary pilgrimages they’re most eager to take.
Screenwriter, director and author of Mama’s Boy, John Murray
I often write stories that are drawn from history and love to write in or near the spaces where these tales originally transpired. Then, I’m not only walking on the same sidewalks my characters once stepped down, I’m also eating in the same cafés, shopping in the same businesses and on lucky days, sitting with the very people who lived the stories I’m tapping on my keys about. For example, when writing the film Milk and miniseries When We Rise, I often set my laptop up on a table in the front window of Spike’s Coffees & Teas on 19th and Castro Street in San Francisco. At this magical table there was no such thing as writer’s block. For inspiration, I simply looked out of the window or struck up a conversation with whomever was near. That perfect combination of caffeine, company and setting never failed to activate my imagination – and my fingers.
Author of The Parisian, Vintage
One cold spring I visited the site of Black Mountain College, near Asheville in North Carolina. Black Mountain was a short-lived experimental arts college associated with a multitude of mid-century, avant-garde artists who taught or studied there. At the time I was preoccupied with the Black Mountain poets, especially Charles Olson, who was the school’s rector in the later part of its life. Suffering funding issues, Olson sold the school in 1957 to a man named George Pickering, who turned it into a boys’ summer camp. Pickering still lives on the campus and we met him one day by accident while out walking. He described the night Olson came to offer the school: his young son answered the door to a gigantically tall man (Olson was six foot seven) wearing two pairs of pants and a bathrobe. Pickering asked who it was; his son replied, “Dad, I think it’s Jesus.”
Travel writer and author of Around the World in 80 Trains, Bloomsbury
My latest escapade was an homage to one of my favourite books growing up: Around the World in 80 Days. Thirty years ago I was fascinated by what then appeared so exotic, as well as the frenetic manner in which Fogg and Passepartout wound their way around the world, which seemed so physically draining yet exhilarating. The enormity of their journey held such appeal as they worked their way through most of my travelling bucket list. The travels for my own latest book were much less manic as I had no set time frame within which I needed to travel, but the encounters and adventures were no less extreme.
Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and author of The Creativity Code, Fourth Estate; out in 2019
One of my favourite short stories is Borges’ The Library of Babel. It tells the story of a librarian trapped inside a library trying to work out if it is finite or infinite. As he explores the space, he comes to the conclusion that it is unlimited but cyclical. What is so beautiful about the story is that Borges creates, using literary narrative, a mathematical, four-dimensional geometry that we think might be the shape of our own universe. I want to make a pilgrimage to the Jorge Luis Borges International Library in Buenos Aires. Newly restored, it contains many of the books Borges read during his life. I would love to know what science books he had in his library that might have inspired the many literary pilgrimages Borges made into the world of paradox, infinity and mathematics.
Curator, TV presenter and author of Queen Victoria, Hodder & Stoughton
I love seeing writers’ houses. As a museum curator, I’m interested in how the things they owned and the places they lived can shape a writer’s view of the world. A couple of years ago I set myself the challenge of sleeping under as many of the same roofs as Jane Austen as I could. For my book Jane Austen at Home I travelled all around Georgian Britain in her footsteps, from Hampshire to Bath to London. Once I learned that “home” to her was very often the smallest bedroom in the houses of the family and friends who treated her as the poor relation, I think I better understood her outsider’s view of Georgian society. You can do this too: her family’s temporary homes in Bath and Lyme Regis are both available as holiday rentals.
Author of Dignity, W&N
I’ve wanted for years, with urgency, to go to Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island – yet I resist its beckoning. A place of bards and pilgrims and the subject of at least two classic Welsh novels – Fflur Dafydd’s Twenty Thousand Saints and Brenda Chamberlain’s Tide-race – the island whispers in a literary voice of salt and seaweed from its spot off the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. It need only whisper, as I live relatively nearby. But Enlli remains an imaginary island to me. When I finally set foot there, the wind will chill by several degrees immediately, the island’s birds will become uncanny and threatening, and the sea will turn against me, never to let me home. Worst of all, perhaps I’ll dip my cup into the well of ideas and poems and stories that is Enlli only to come back still wanting and as blank as a fogged horizon.
Writer, campaigner and author of What Dementia Teaches Us About Love, Allen Lane
There’s a literary pilgrimage I do several times a week when I’m in London: I walk or run up the canal to St Pancras Churchyard and make my way to The Hardy Tree. When the young Thomas Hardy was training to be an architect, he was tasked with moving the graves there to make way for the new railways. He buried the remains and planted the headstones in a tight circle around a sapling ash tree. That was many years ago; now the sapling is wide and tall, and its roots have grown down into the old bones. It’s like a small city of the dead – and I love it because it feels so connected to the beautiful poetry that Hardy wrote in his old age, in which the dead and the living are fused together by memory. Whenever I go there, I walk once around the tree and its mossy gravestones. It’s probably the nearest I ever get to praying.
Classical musician, scholar and author of Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher, Bloomsbury
I would love to retrace the steps of the legendary bard Orpheus as depicted in ancient mythology, visiting the shores of the Black Sea, listening to the ancient music of Georgia and going to the Russian steppes where his music was said to have charmed the animals and swayed the trees with its beauty. I might even end up at the shores of the underworld, from which he was said to have rescued his beloved wife Eurydice, only to lose her again by looking back to check whether she was following.
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