Writing about a Place You've Never Been: An Interview with Jesse Lee Kercheval
This weekend I had the pleasure of teaching two workshops and offering 1-on-1 consultations at the UW-Writers' Institute. One of the workshops, "Write Where You Don't Know," focused on the types of research one could use to write about a place they've never been. For more information about the experience, I interviewed Jesse Lee Kercheval, whose forthcoming novel, My Life as a Silent Movie (Indiana University Press, Break Away Books Series, Sept. 26, 2013), includes scenes from Moscow-- one of the few places she has never been.
Jesse Lee Kercheval is the other of twelve books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and is currently Zona Gale Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Research and Study Center at Harvard, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Corporation of Yaddo, and James A. Michener and the Copernicus Society. (And this is an abbreviated version of all of the wonderful things she is doing and has done!)
You’re a well-traveled writer—what prompted you to write about a place you’ve never been?
I think my first experience of writing about a place I had never been was in my first novel, The Museum of Happiness, which is set in Paris--but in 1929. I was born in France and have spent a great deal of time in Paris, but in 1929 Paris was a very different city. For that book, I used a tourist guide book, a 1927 Baedeker, and also a 1929 Plan de Paris par Arrondissement, the standard map book of Paris. I also looked at period photographs, newspapers and magazines. I wrote this book in 1990 so all my research was pre-internet, in dusty libraries.
When I returned to writing about Paris for my latest novel, My Life as a Silent Movie, writing about the city was easier! It is a contemporary novel. But near the end, I decided to have my characters fly to Moscow even though I was in Wisconsin and I didn’t really have the time to go there. I had been in Eastern Europe--Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary--but never Russia. What to do?
How much time did you spend researching Moscow? What were your main sources of research?
I fell back on the same methods I used for my historical research. I needed my characters to arrive at the airport, go to a hotel, then on to a Russian Orthodox monastery. I read about visas requirements and what airport arrivals and customs were like in several guidebooks. I watched a couple of youtube videos of the crowds waiting for taxis outside the airport and of the ride into the city. I made up a typical older hotel after looking at hotel websites to check out their decor. I researched the monastery on line as well, looking at pictures, reading about the lives of monks, and listening to MP3s of Russian church bells (very different than ones in the West). The resources available on line make this all much easier now than when I was writing The Museum of Happiness. Google street view is an amazing resource, as is Google images. And there are blogs written by visitors or residents for almost any spot on the globe that will help give you a sense of the place.
Did you run into any difficulties?
I worried endlessly about the airport--because so many people would have had that very experience--but in the end, I spent too much time thinking about that. The scene goes by quickly. I have been in Charles de Gaulle many times and O’Hare more times than I can count, but I would be hard pressed describe either to you in any detail. I find this is one thing to watch out for when using research--you end up wanting to use everything you find. For example, at first the ride from the airport into Moscow read like directions from Google maps.
Do you have any advice for writers who are interested in writing about a place they’ve never been?
Do your research, then put it aside and imagine the world and place your characters inhabit! That is the fun part. But also be very careful not to use any of the actual language from the guidebooks or websites or blogs you use for research. If you take notes and write down sentences that are not your own--mark them clearly so that when you go back, you do not think the words are your own. You do not want your name in bold on one of those websites that specialize in outing successful authors as plagiarists!
If you're willing to share an excerpt that highlights some of your research, that would be wonderful!
You can see how short the airport scene ended up in the book! The narrator, Vera, and her brother, Ilya, arrive in Moscow. She is the one (like me) who has never been there before.
We landed in Moscow just before midnight, but Sheremetyevo Airport was locked up tight. Not a kiosk or food stall was open. We followed our fellow passengers into a dingy basement and stood in the passport control line. A bored and sleepy official fingered our newly acquired visas and then stamped our passports. At customs, none of the three agents on duty seemed interested in searching my purse or Ilya's rucksack, though they descended on a poor African from our flight. Free to enter Russia, we wandered across the terminal, walking in a daze side by side. Then I heard someone whistle, high, shrill. "Ilya!" a man shouted. Ilya was slower. I poked him. A man with a silvery Elvis pompadour came toward us. He was as wide and tall as a door, but a whole lot thicker. Now Ilya saw him, too. For this friend he opened his arms. They hugged, Ilya clapping his friend on the back. Pavel, his Russian friend, rubbed the knuckles of his right hand on Ilya's head. Ilya let go first. He waved a hand at me.
"Pasha," he said, "meet Vera. Vera, meet Pavel."
"Enchanted," Pavel said with a much better French accent than mine. He looked around. "No luggage?"
Ilya shook his head. "We're living out of our pockets." Pavel laughed, as if this were either a joke or maybe an expression in Russian for traveling on nothing but raw nerves.
"Well, come on then," he said. "The car is parked right outside. I don't want to have to bribe the security guy twice."
Pavel's Mercedes was parked half up on the curb. Three security guards stood nearby, but when they saw it was Pavel, they all studiously looked away. Ilya got in the front seat, me in the back, and before I could figure out if there were seat belts or how to work them, Pavel put the car in gear, floored it, and we shot off the curb and into traffic as if someone had waved the checkered flag. The acceleration flattened me against the seat. "I didn't know you knew how to drive, Pasha," I heard Ilya say with what I thought was a light touch of irony.
"I didn't when I saw you last, Vanya," Pavel said. Someone cut in front of us, and Pavel stomped on the brakes, then just as rapidly put his entire weight back on the gas. "But I took lessons."
Many thanks to Jesse Lee for answering these questions! I had a wonderful time meeting so many enthusiastic and talented writers this weekend, and I look forward to seeing them on the lunchtime "Success Panel" at next year's conference!