Aug 15, 2013
03:12 PMArts & Entertainment
Rwanda and Actress Connie Britton's Hair? Literary Weave Buoys Connecticut Travel Writer
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What compels you to travel?
Well, I think it’s different now than it used to be. It used to be just experience. When I was younger, I wanted to go somewhere because I wanted to see somewhere. I wanted to experience whatever it was—the Parthenon at night, the weeks when the mimosas blossom in Marrakesh. Now, it’s much more a way of coping with time that’s passing. For me it’s almost survival—travel is almost a way to really, really love what you have at home.
How has travel altered your perceptions of home and conceptions of what home is? For me, when I travel, every single time I go to a new place I walk around and think to myself, “I could live here,” and it’s always hard to leave.
That’s very accurate—I agree! You get to thinking, “What am I doing at home, doing the same old thing, being at my same old corner grocery store, in my same old little life?” I never want to go back! I used to be like that. But these days there are very few places I really want to stay. Except maybe Stockholm. I was in Stockholm this past winter and that was just fascinating. I loved Sweden. My friend has been living there all of her adult life, and I just kept saying, “I want to come live here. For like, a month.” And my friend kept saying, “Two weeks. Two weeks is all you can take.” It was interesting to feel like I had that connection with a place. I loved my hotel, I found my coffee place, my little café for lunch. I was sad to leave Stockholm. But in general, I’m very happy to walk back in the door [of home].
Along with what compels you to travel, what compels you to write about your travels?
Travel writing is so much about the meaning of life. Any good story is really about characters. This is super cliché, but we really are all more similar than we are different, and your powers of observation are much more sharp when you travel. The smallest thing has meaning. You hear a song at a bar in Haiti, and you remember what that song might’ve meant to you 20 years ago, and how far you’ve come, and what’s brought you here today versus who were you then. Travel is a way to make sense of your life. Where you are, who you are and what you’ve done. And where you’re going. I’m a big fan of going back to places. A trip to Dubrovnik with your girlfriends in college is not the same as going on your honeymoon there, and it’s not the same going back as a mature woman with grown kids. It’s [travelling] always a point of reflection.
I also think—I think this is important—travel gives you an instant lesson in bringing out your best self. You may not be in the market to meet people, but you do recognize that you need others, and you need to appreciate their kindness. Even if you’re not wanting to make friends or exchange emails and be connected for life on Facebook, you still really need to be kind and you really appreciate the inherent generosity of others.
Travel writing ostensibly is exclusively about the place you are and reporting on that place, but your travel writing, and some of the best travel writing I’ve read, is extremely personal as well.
Often there’s a story I want to tell, and travel is the way to frame it. Like my piece about Lapland is really about how I need to be alone sometimes, and how the winter is the perfect time to do it. The place becomes a vehicle to tell that story. The place becomes almost a character. It’s more interesting telling that story 50 miles from the Arctic Circle than it is in Bethlehem. The Connie Britton story is really about, why do we feel so compelled to conquer our fears? I set out to write that story and said to myself, “I am going to climb a mountain.” And I got there and I thought, “This is terrible. I can enjoy Rwanda and I don’t have to climb a mountain. This is not me; there’re other things to find in Rwanda.” Why do we have to conquer our fears? Does it make us live fuller? Does it make us more fulfilled people? Does it make us carpe the diem? So that was sort of an excuse to tell a story; it could have been told many other ways. But I used the location [of Rwanda] as a frame.
How do you approach rendering a place a character? How do you think about that and how do you transfer that to the page?
Place is a way into the story. I’m a big believer in descriptive detail although it’s not very popular. People want sparse writing but I like the small things in the background: I like describing the airport, the bathtub in your room, the bulb that flickers. I think those things set up the atmospherics—where is this person, what is this person surrounded by at this moment? It’s descriptive detail and knowing that the lights at night move as distinctly as a human being. The sky changes, the air changes, the wind changes, the smells change. And so sometimes place can take on very human characteristics. In Rwanda, all I could think of was, “This is a tragedy.” This is a place that has endured such incomprehensible horror and it will never be okay. And I realized that that wasn’t the case. It’s like any victim of a violent crime—they’re making their way back, and doing a pretty good job of it. That’s how Rwanda is a character.