210. Close to the Ground

During 1987 and 1988, we spent 130 days in Europe, traveling by train, backpacking, and living in a dome tent. The tent cost twenty-nine dollars at K-mart. It kept the rain out until it rained; then it kept some of the rain out. All the summer of 1987 the fiberglass tent poles kept eroding at the ends, and the tent got progressively lower to the ground. Finally we started patching it with branches harvested from bushes at the campgrounds. When we got home, we took the ragged remnants back and they gave us a replacement. That one got us through 1988.

It was a vacation, and a cultural and historic tour, but I also had the rough outline of a novel in my head, and I was looking for places to let it happen. I visited the American consulate in Marseilles because I intended to have my protagonist make connections there. At the American embassy in Paris I mentioned that I was planning to write a novel about an American in Europe on the run from gangsters. The information clerk sighed wearily and said, “We wish you wouldn’t.”

We left looking like Americans. We came back looking like very fit Americans. Walking every day and eating very little will do that to you.

During those two summers we went all the way to the northernmost point in the Orkneys and as far north as the Arctic Circle in Norway. Looking out from the train from Myrdal to Flam, I saw a grassy cliff and knew that it would become the scene of the climax of the novel. We went northeast to Finland, southeast to Budapest and Greece, south as far as Pompeii, west as far as Portugal, and ten thousand places in between. We did not go to Berlin, because that was still East Germany and Eurail didn’t go there. Germany was a fairly tense place, those summers.

We took the train everywhere. Without Eurail passes, none of this would have been possible. We also walked, probably more than a thousand miles, around towns, on Alpine trails, and daily to and from the campgrounds which were always far out on the edge of the cities we visited. Those campground trips took us through back alley parts of cities normal tourists never see – seldom scenic, but always interesting. We only ate in restaurants where the exchange rate made them cheap; in Switzerland, we at a lot of bread and apples.

Being poor, or something like poor, can be an advantage to a writer. It’s hard to imagine Steinbeck writing Cannery Row or The Grapes of Wrath while living in a penthouse. Poverty, or something like, can seem exotic to those who have a little money.

Of course, most people want to read about the rich. After all, the James Bond novels wouldn’t work if he wore ragged clothes and drove a ten year old car.

I find life close to the ground interesting, and all those experiences allowed me to build a story in which my protagonist, Ian Gunn, has reason to live like I did, at least for a part of the book, and draw on those experiences for the rest of it. It is called Raven’s Run and it begins in Serial tomorrow.

At one point, he and his girlfriend meet a street musician, and Ian thinks:

On the ladder of affluence, we were near the bottom. Eric was one critical step lower. We knew that we could not eat in a restaurant; Eric did not know where his next meal was coming from.

Ian Gunn is about thirty, as we were, and on the verge of moving into better circumstances, but not quite there yet. He finds himself traveling on the cheap, like a teenager, but his age makes him a misfit in that crowd. I could tell you more, but check out Serial tomorrow and read it for yourself. 

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