Monday, October 1, 2007

AWAY...Mapping the Travel Novel

I just finished reading AWAY by Amy Bloom when I happened to hear her interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered. I loved the novel--about a young Russian immigrant named Lillian Leyb who strikes out across North America toward Siberia to find her little girl. AWAY was engrossing, and also filled with the beautifully crafted sentences and scenes that Bloom is known for, and plenty of memorable characters (Gumdrop, the Seattle prostitute. You won't forget her). As an "epic adventure," AWAY chronicles Lillian's odyssey, and each chapter eventually means another stop on the map and another close call. Which got me thinking of the odyssey in contemporary novels--Charles Frazier's COLD MOUNTAIN, and Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, not to mention Kerouac, and Nabokov's LOLITA. The structure is ancient as myth, tried and true. And from a novelist's perspective the American road trip novel-- picaresque or dark adventure-- provides a tempting structure on which to hang (or fill?) one's prose.

A friend of mine, who is writing her fourth novel, says structure remains the hardest part of writing for her. Timelines, setting, plot points...yeesh! But with a travel novel, you have setting--already mapped!--you have time, you have a character yearning for something at the end of her harrowing journey, and you know it all before you begin chapter one. Still, Amy Bloom mentioned she had a poor sense of direction (which made me feel better...I rent a car with GPS and still manage to get lost...after awhile the voice just sighs and says whatever.) Amy Bloom had to pin up maps on the wall to remind herself where Lillian would venture next. And still, the author agonized:

When Bloom began writing Away, she didn't have a clear ending in mind. But gradually, one did reveal itself to her.

Bloom says she took three months off entirely from working on the book, "to wander around my house, tearing my hair out." She would take breaks late at night and go to the baseball field near her house to smoke cigarettes and kick around some dirt.

"'Doomed, doomed, doomed,' is what would be going through my head," Bloom recalls.

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