Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Writer's Geography, I

Over the weekend, we drove a visiting friend up to San Luis Obispo. It was a disastrous drive--indeed, nearly it nearly became a fatal drive when we blew a tire at high speed in the fast lane of Interstate 5 in a section where ongoing construction had eliminated both of the road shoulders in favor of waist-high concrete barriers. But I digress.

While we were making our painfully slow way to San Luis Obispo--known as SLO to the locals, possibly becasue it can take so damn long to get there--we began discussing the virtues and drawbacks of the town. By the standards of Coastal California, SLO is relatively isolated; it's halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which means it's about 200 miles from either of them. It's a charming little town of about 40,000, with a good-sized university located on the outskirts and a decent beach not too far away. Much of the old-town section has been preserved or renovated, and it's a great walking-around town, with good restaurants, laid-back neighborhoods, and eclectic shops. It's smack in the middle of Central Coast Wine Country, so the supplies of big, fat, loud reds (Zinfandels, Syrahs, and Petite Sirahs in particular) are plentiful. (My palate isn't subtle, so I say big, fat, and loud by the way of compliment.)

A nice place. Would I want to live there? I'm not sure. It's a long, long way to any major symphony orchestra, and I wouldn't count on Death Cab for Cutie* or King Crimson swinging through town on tour, either. The movie theatres aren't exactly cutting edge, and the university is better known for agriculture and engineering than for the arts. And, although the restaurants are wonderful, it wouldn't be long before a resident exhausted all they had to offer.

It's the kind of town I think many writers imagine settling in--quiet, civilized, walkable. But it ain't Manhattan.

This got me thinking about the whole issue of the fantasy of the writer's life. One of the key elements of this fantasy is that, if you were supporting yourself well from your writing (I'm not), you could in principle live anywhere on the globe. This might mean retreating to a rural town with a hermit's writing hut out back of the cottage, ala JD Salinger, or staying in the metropolis to write in the mornings and emerge as man-about town in the evenings, like Noel Coward. As soon as they had the means, some writers--Somerset Maugham and Patrick O'Brian come to mind--immediately headed for the South of France, while others, like Stephen King and John Grisham, haven't budged from their native haunts (Maine and Mississippi, respectively).

Where would I live if there were no constraints? Heck if I know. I like seclusion, so way off in the country has an appeal. I like human-sized, walkable towns, so a small city might be nice. But I'm a sucker for cultural amenities, and I like having grocers nearby that can supply, say, seitan, natto, and garam masala.

In other words, my perfect fantasy city doesn't exist. This presents no real problem, since I'm not in a position to move there anyway, but says something (probably something unflattering) about the way my mind works. Or fails to.

Where would you live if making a living weren't an issue? Are your fantasies as confused as mine?

I'm not asking, mind you, where as a writer you ought to live. We'll get on to that in the next post. I'm asking about your fantasy.

*Factoid: It's reasonably well known that the band "Death Cab for Cutie" takes its name from the title (and chorus) of a Bonzo Dog Band song. Less known is the origin of that song title itself, which was inspired by the title of a story in a trashy American true-detective magazine from the early 1960s.

The Bonzos planned on doing a second song based on the title of another story in that same issue, but unfortunately Stanshall and Innes never got around to it. Too bad: the title was "It Was a Lovely Party Until Someone Found a Hammer." One can only imagine.


RDJ said...

This is something I've thought about a lot lately.

I could see myself taking long vacations from Los Angeles -- I would like to spend more than ten days in Paris, for instance -- but I doubt I'd leave for good. I know a lot of people in L.A. hate the place, but I'm not one of them.

Tim Stretton said...

Hmmm... maybe Manhattan. Everything's on your doorstep, including Central Park, but it's large enough to be impersonal as well.

There's a lot to be said for the Loire valley as well.

Neil said...

Does it need to be English speaking? To me it sounds like you want to move to the outskirts of a small Mediterranean city. How about Seville?

David Isaak said...

Hey, Ryan--

Like many folks who grew up in these parts, I have a love-hate relationship with LA. It has many more amenities and fine points than, say, self-satisfied San Francisco (possibly the world's most overrated city), but those amenities sure are diffused over a pretty big territory.

It's odd. People don't think of LA as a "writer's town," but historically and currently it's always been stuffed with writers, including some unlikely cases (Aldous Huxley, anyone?).

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Glad to see you have the same schizophrenic tendencies as I.

Manhattan has many virtues. Its only major drawback is that it tends to have a lot of New Yorkers. I'm a California boy. I tend to say "hi" to people. It's disconcerting to have them look at you with deep suspicion by way of response.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Seville sounds like a good idea...except for the lack of good English-language bookstores.

Barring that problem, I think there's a lot to be said for Rome, too--as long as I could have a second home somewhere in the country!

Alis said...

I'd live in Bath. Nice cultural amenities, beautiful Georgian architecture (which I would live in a slice of, natch) good University so plenty of bright young things to liven the place up and lots of lovely walking country virtually on your doorstep. And, as an added bonus, it wouldn't be a six-hour drive to visit my parents!

David Isaak said...

My, Alis--I do admire a woman who knows exactly what she wants!

And, I might add, I think that significantly ups the probability of getting it.

Meanwhile, why not set a novel there? Visiting can be written off as research expenses...

Matt Curran said...

I'd live in New Zealand, either Wellington on the North Island, or Nelson or Queenstown on the South. Sarah and I fell in love with NZ during our travels 6 years ago. Wellington is very much like Sheffield (which I adore) but on the coast, and it is, of course, home to a thriving movie industry.

We've always said if I make it “big” we'd get an apartment there or in Nelson (one can dream) but unlike Alis, it would take a helluva lot longer than 6 hours to visit family...

(PS: "Pariant" is today's word verification, and I reckon that sums up my thoughts on moving to New Zealand...)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

That's an interesting and unexpected choice. Quite pariant, too.

I haven't been to the South Island (alas), but I've spent a fair amount of time in Wellington and Auckland.

Wellington was a charming town, but it also struck me as a little like time travel; it definitely felt like a step into the past. (The large number of vintage cars still on the street helped.)

I didn't feel as though I were back in the present again until I flew into Sydney. (That's over on the West Island.)

Janet Ursel said...

I'm really bad at this kind of fantasy. My husband and I tried the other day, but the results were pathetic. He was more focussed than me (a little town not too far from Rome was his choice). I just can't shake the awareness that every place has its charms and its drawbacks. Somehow, drawing up a list of pros and cons doesn't sit well in a fantasy, but I can't stop myself. So I guess I'll continue to muddle along with my modus operandi of making the best of wherever I'm obliged to live.

David Isaak said...

Hiya, Janet--

Yeah, the only way I can solve this fantasy problem is by taking the fantasy one step further: A little village near Rome that is also equipped with teleportation devices that allow me to zip instantaneously to anywhere else on the planet.

Who wouldn't want that? I mean, apart from Boeing and Airbus...?

Janet Ursel said...

That would be pretty much ideal, for sure.

Arthur C. Clarke actually wrote a series of stories in which people learned to transmit themselves over a phone signal. What was really fascinating was how he explored the effect on culture. Nationalities and borders became totally meaningless and the younger generation could not relate to those concepts. The effect was even more profound than that of the Internet and modern telecommunications. I'm kind of sorry he was wrong on that count, myself.

I'm afraid my first response to my husband's fantasy was "It would have to have good internet access." We've got relatives there who don't.