Sunday, August 19, 2012

A "Here" of One's Own


Because you live in a city that has a year-round base of tourism, you are used to a wide range of attractions and accommodations for those who do not live here.  These attractions offer some degree of some of the features you get and enjoy most days, and some additional degree of the features you do your best to ignore.

On your nightly stroll this evening, you noticed one of the more grotesque aspects of tourism, an enormous, boat-shaped vehicle, filled with at least thirty tourists, being driven down the main drag, State Street, one probable destination the Mission.

Watching the vehicle lumber through various intersections, you thought about tourism in general and its adjunct, travel writing, which is a focus on the personality points and traits of a locale.  You could—and do—say that travel writing intends to portray interesting sidelights of a locale, making that landscape seem attractive rather than foreboding, an experience to be had, points of interest to experience rather than merely see.

These thoughts led you to the startling conclusion that there is a strong connection between travel writing, tourism in general, and fiction.  When you read a work of fiction, you not only want to be taken somewhere, you want to experience beyond the tourist locations.  You want to see the terrain and locals rather than the knobby knees of tourists wearing shorts and baseball caps with inane logos or advertising.

In some remarkable cases, you are taken places you’d not thought to go, experienced the discomfort of displacement, then made to see how remarkable and inviting such places are.  The writer Stan Jones has written a series of mysteries featuring a native born Alaskan State Trooper that has you slathering to visit Alaska.  You know well the terrain of the Tony Hillerman mysteries and yearn to return to that area, even though you understand from past experiences that you will be barely tolerated for reasons having little to do with race.  Having a murky cup of coffee and a side of fry bread in Tuba City will seem to you a luxury, even though you will be as invisible to the locals as tourists are to you here.

Only last week you read Peter Heller’s compelling post-apocalypse novel, The Dog Stars.  You found it an absorbing and compelling view of the kind of future feared by so many.  The work served its purpose; it transported you to a bleak, dreary landscape, and infused you with fear and despair.  Nevertheless, you enjoyed every page.  Much of the reason had to do with the narrator’s tone.

This experience opens the door for the awareness that fiction is in addition to mystery and alternate universe genera a viable form of travel writing.  Fiction turns you into a tourist, allowing you not only to travel to Navajo territory but to the future or the past. Stories allow you to mingle with the locals, visit the remarkable restaurant from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, and have colorful locals pointed out for you.  Although they have not attained the state of knobbiness, your knees will not betray your tourist status, subjecting you to offers of special deals on authentic souvenirs.

Because you have experienced Daniel Woodrell’s Ozarks, James Lee Burke’s Bayou Country, and Robert Penn Warren’s Baton Rouge, you have a sense of having been “there,” to a greater degree of intimacy than those times when you were there as an ordinary tourist.

An unstated pleasure to date about the novel you’re working on is the way it has rearranged some of the furniture in its Santa Barbara setting, removing the tourist spots and attractions, usurping acres of real property for your own purposes and in the process giving you a better sense of the place, even though you are a resident of some long standing.  As you devise scenes for your principal characters, you are reminded of the early Dashiell Hammett novels and short stories set in San Francisco of the 20s and 30s, which seemed iconic to you until you began spending time in San Francisco, flirted with the thought of living there, fell in love there. Then at long last achieved with San Francisco a sense of “thereness” that was your own.

You must remember not to render the Santa Barbara of travel writing, even though there are remarkable things for tourists to see and to.  But those “there” places are not your “there” places.  You’ve known any number of mystery writers who set stories here.  Their “heres” are vivid and idiosyncratic, and you are mostly in awe of them.  But you need a “here” of your own. 

You’re here has two essential areas, the ocean side of Ortega Ridge a tad north of Summerland, and Victoria Street from about Santa Barbara Street to State Street.   Here is the “here” of your own.

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