(A post from guest author Mary Burns)
A lifelong writer and reader, my travel research consists of immersing myself in novels set in the regions I plan to visit. Travel guides are useful for practical purposes, of course, but nothing can convey the feel of a place like a good novel or short story.
Feeling the South through fiction was one of my aims when I traveled by train from Montreal to New York, then Washington, D.C. and onto North Carolina, South Carolina, Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, and finally New Orleans. I abandoned my original desire to visit the hometowns of some writers who had influenced me because they were just too far off the track. The literal train track. And so, instead of Asheville, North Carolina, the home of Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward Angel I was re-reading on my Kobo, I landed in the low country of North Carolina, including New Bern, where the tourist office has wisely used the work of resident Nicholas Sparks to guide visitors on a walking tour through the pretty town, which was the colonial capital of this state, one of the original 13. While Sparks’ romances are not my preferred reading, I did like it that someone in power had recognized how books can establish a sense of place and meaning for visitors.
From the bedroom window of Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah I could see the imposing spires of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, and consider how religion had influenced her world view and the themes of her stories. More personally significant, though, was reading her stories while listening to voices around me speak in much the same manner. I found that the language she used in her deeply southern, gothic tales is the language still spoken today. I “might could” investigate that further, the way dialogue reveals character and setting, something I knew but which needs regular reinforcing, like other principles of good writing.
New Orleans was a big easy in terms of literary connections. Not only I did I visit the Faulkner House bookstore, which occupies the space where William Faulkner lived for four months in 1925 and wrote his first novel, Soldier’s Pay; the St. Charles streetcar, the same one Tennessee Williams called A Streetcar Named Desire, rumbled on tracks that lay just outside my hotel. It might have been annoying if it had not been so evocative. I saw the house where Williams wrote that play, and through a friend’s reference, was able to glimpse another Williams’ house, the one he owned in the French Quarter. I walked past the pool where he swam everyday when he was in town, and dropped into a bar and a pharmacy he used to frequent. I walked on Elysian Fields Avenue, along which Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, in The Moviegoer, rides the bus to Gentilly. Sadly, I just missed a literary conference devoted in part to Percy’s work.
Yet after awhile I had to ask myself: what is compelling me here? While a definitive answer eludes me, I think part of the compulsion to worship at literary shrines has to do with the way our perception of the world is formed by art. Before Tripadvisor’s tips on New Orleans, there were Hank Williams’ “Jambalya, a crawfish pie, file gumbo…;” Louis Armstrong’s “Basin Street Blues;” Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice and numerous other writers; and TV shows featuring prominent actors playing the so-called voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Then too, perhaps I was subconsciously hoping that what inspired many of my personal greats, some of my favourite writers, would also inspire me. Just by re-reading their work where they wrote it brought new appreciation for their observational skills and their imaginations, and reminded me of why I wanted to become acquainted with those locations in the first place.