As with any genre, travel writing can be deliberately formulaic or ambitiously literary, depending on the writer’s intent and/or ability. From Petrarch to Percy Shelley to Tom Bissell, authors have used travel as backdrops for larger themes.
Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux (1336) makes mountain climbing an allegory for spiritual growth. Historians disagree as to whether Petrarch actually climbed Mount Ventoux or simply created a fictional narrative as a framing device for his humanist philosophy. Either way, Petrarch’s body of work was to be an important influence on later writers, including another famous traveler, Percy Shelley, whose unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life, was styled after Petrarch’s Trionfi.
Benjamin Colbert’s book, Shelley’s Eye: Travel Writing and Aesthetic Vision (Ashgate, 2005), examines Percy Shelley’s 1817 account of touring the European continent. According to Colbert, Shelley eschewed “the superficial populism of mass tourism,” and became part of “a growing body of travel writers eager to prove the experience of Italy on their own pulse and distrustful of the monopolizing pressures exerted by informational guidebooks over representation of the foreign.”
Taken to the extreme, this idea of venturing off the beaten path can be dangerous. Tom Bissell, author of Chasing the Sea (Pantheon, 2003), went to Central Asia for a first-hand look at the devastation of the Aral Sea, caused by irresponsible government policies. While Bissell makes it clear that he met many decent, caring people in Uzbekistan, it also recounts how the local police threatened to arrest him, and in an interview for Literary Kicks, Bissell told me, “I now test positive on every tuberculosis test I’m given, because I now carry the bacilli of the disease in my blood. It’s never become symptomatic (and, thus, contagious) but it’s a little gift from having spent so much time in the Aral Sea basin, home to one of the world’s worst TB epidemics.”
I recently spoke to three contemporary writers, whose works include, but are not limited to, travel literature. Eric Lehman, Kelly Lynn Thomas, and Michael Abraham each have a style of their own and different areas of interest, but they share a passion for travel, exploration, discovery, and writing.
Eric D. Lehman
I first learned of Eric D. Lehman through his Beat writer book reviews at Empty Mirror Books. Eric teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and is the author of three books, Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City, A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in Your Backyard, and Hamden: Tales from the Sleeping Giant, all published by The History Press. His ongoing project, Afoot in Connecticut, is a series of short videos in which Eric visits interesting and picturesque locations all over the state.
Bill: Are you originally from Connecticut?
Eric Lehman: I moved to Connecticut fifteen years ago, and to Hamden, Connecticut thirteen years ago. Just this year it became the place I’ve lived longest. I think, like many Americans, I felt like a nomad, constantly on the move from town to town, state to state. That gives a wonderful sense of freedom, but it also means we care less about each place we live in, and each place we visit.
I first began travel writing as a memoirist, trying to get a hold of my past, which mostly involved cataloging each place I had traveled to, and what each meant to me. I quickly became a more professional travel writer, though I still focused on the personal experience of travel. When I moved to Connecticut, it became the place I traveled in the most, (obviously). I treated it as such, writing about it, learning its history and customs, and delving into it as a place in a way I had never done with any other place. Now, as a travel and history writer, I am even more concerned with the dialectic between freedom and home. I have come to believe a sense of home is necessary, and when we do move around the like the modern gypsies we are, we should learn everything we can about the new place we encounter. Doing that helped me move away from purely personal experience, and become invested in the human race.
Bill: Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Hemingway said, “Paris is a moveable feast.” Do you think one’s home can be moveable?
Eric: Well, I think Wolfe’s definition of “home” is wrapped up entirely in the past. He’s right – you can’t go home again, if home is a fixed and immutable idea that you have in your mind. Maybe Hemingway means “a moveable feast” is an idea that you carry around with you, but I prefer to think of his quote as meaning that Paris (or whatever other place means something dear to you) changes you, and informs your life in a way not often realized, something we feast on for the rest of our lives, bite by bite. No matter where we are, we can enjoy that feast. In this way, Hemingway’s quote also looks to the past, but does not want to “go” there. Rather, the past becomes the bread that sustains our future.
Kelly Lynn Thomas
Kelly Lynn Thomas has a Bachelor of Philosophy in English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, certificates in West European Studies (focus on Spain) and East Asian Studies (focus on Japan), and is a candidate in Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes fiction, travel memoirs, and as she says in her website bio, “things that defy genre.” I found her blog while searching for articles on meta-fiction and was intrigued by the sub-heading on her website: writer, wanderer, witch.
Bill: Could you describe your book, The Goddess España , and what makes it metafiction?
Kelly Lynn Thomas: I have finished The Goddess España and am currently seeking an agent and/or publisher. The book’s full working title right now is The Goddess España: Memoir of a Young Witch. The “outer” narrative follows my month as a study-abroad student in the Madrid area, and the “inner” narrative follows my spiritual journey from Christianity to Paganism. As I was writing it, I felt that many of the people I met only briefly actually had the largest impact on my trip, like an elderly man in Valencia who sat down on a bench next to me and sang to me. Since the main narrative is nonfiction, I turned to short fictions as a way to explore why encounters like that one had been so illuminating. The nonfiction arc is written in present tense, so I do talk about wanting to write these stories, but ultimately they just appear at certain points throughout the narrative, and the reader has to assume that I wrote the stories when I got back from Spain, because there they are. The juxtaposition of nonfiction and fiction also creates a certain self-reflexivity in the text, and a certain kind of disruptive narrative, which I modeled off of Don Quixote.
Bill: I’m fascinated by the idea of people living in Europe, long ago, whose belief system revolved around nature, until the Christians arrived and tried to convert them.
Kelly: In general, the Christians did come into Europe and forced their beliefs on top of the beliefs of the pagan (lower case p, basically meaning non-Christian) peoples already living there. That is why, for example, we have Christmas trees and celebrate the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice when historically speaking he was probably born in the spring. The tree comes from the Germanic solstice festival of Yule, which celebrates the return of light to the world as the days start getting longer again. It’s the same with Easter, which always takes place around the vernal equinox, which is the traditional Celtic fertility festival of Beltane. So, that’s where all the fertility symbols of the rabbits and eggs come from.
I should mention that it isn’t just Christianity that has a history of oppression. Any religion that follows a hierarchical power structure will probably abuse that power at some point. Look at any modern Middle Eastern country living under Muslim law, or look at Tokugawa Japan, where Buddhism was the only religion allowed and officials made people step on images of Jesus to prove they weren’t Christian. I think it’s easy for us to pick on Christians because in the United States that’s the dominate religion and that’s what we have to deal with, but the real problem is hierarchical power that says “My way is better than your way” and “I have more authority than you, and therefore I can and should control you.”
I also have to say that modern Paganism (capital P), while it does draw from these traditions, had to mostly reinvent itself in the 20th century, because most of the traditional practices and beliefs have been lost. So, we modern Pagans bear little resemblance to the historic Celtic and Germanic peoples whose traditions we’ve attempted to reconstruct. And of course many Pagans follow Greek or Roman or Norse or Egyptian or other traditions, so it’s not even all Celtic and Germanic.
Bill: Who are some writers that you enjoy reading and/or have influenced you?
Kelly: My favorite authors are also the ones who have influenced my work the most. Structurally, there’s Cervantes. As I mentioned, I modeled The Goddess España off of Don Quixote. Two other big ones are Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood. Both are writing science fiction and fantasy with a strong feminist and environmentalist bent, and I always learn something wonderful about the world and writing when I read one of their books. I’m also a huge Star Wars fan, and I absolutely love some of the earlier expanded universe fiction by Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, and Michael A. Stackpole. Those were the books I read as a young teenager, so I’m sure they’ve seeped into my writing somehow.
Did you ever wonder why there is no East Virginia? We have North and South Carolina, North and South Dakota, but when it comes to the Virginias, there is West Virginia and Virginia. The answer is in Michael Abraham’s book, The Spine of the Virginias.
The border between West Virginia and Virginia runs along the rugged Appalachian Mountains.
“The metaphor of a spine took shape in my mind,” says Abraham, “as I saw satellite photos of the area and envisioned how the region was held together geographically and culturally the way a backbone supports a vertebrate’s body, holding it together physically. Along the way I heard other people use the word ‘spine’ relative to the region, convincing me the metaphor was apt.”
Extensive research went into this book, and not just from reading other books. Abraham went on the road, travelling through every county on both sides of the border. He visits a rural radio station, an underground house, an astronomy observatory, an all-female Harley-Davison repair shop, caverns, coal miners, Bluegrass musicians, doctors, beekeepers, farmers and much more.
Bill Ectric: During your travels, did you talk to anyone who was distrustful of your motives?
Michael Abraham: Yes, I met a few people who were mistrustful of me, but only a few. Anyone that spurned me, I said to myself they didn’t matter; there were always more. One guy was an amateur historian and he thought my book should have been written from stuff found in the library, so he was uncooperative and dismissal of what I was trying to accomplish. When I said, “I’m not trying to write another history book,” he didn’t really grok what I was trying to do. But I have always taken the approach that these are “my” people and if I treat them right, everyone will be happy. I always did transcripts of recorded conversations and I made sure my interviewees knew that while I might trim or edit, I would never write them saying something they didn’t say. Most people are genuinely flattered to see their name and thoughts in print.
Bill Ectric: Did the people you interviewed, other than the politicians, express any views as to how their lives were affected by politics and elections, or whether a Democrat or Republican was in office?
Michael Abraham: I think most people were just trying to get through the day. They were susceptible to the most recent, compelling political argument they heard. They were often the same political party as their parents. Most had a very narrow sphere of influence. Most felt that politicians deemed them expendable and the influence of government in general was negative, although many were beneficiaries of things like Medicare and Supplemental Social Security.
Bill: Off the top of your head, tell me about one interview that stands out in your mind.
Michael: Stuart McGehee was the essential interview, and he was terrific. Stuart was the curator of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in the Bluefield Public Library in West Virginia. I couldn’t have written the book without him.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Eric, Kelly, and Michael, three intrepid travelers, for taking the time to answer my questions. As Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.”