Many years ago, a babysitter I knew went deeply mad. Her story haunted me and inspired my second novel, Tinderbox. Wanting to protect her privacy and identity, I stripped away her biographical details, leaving only the emotional heart of what happened to her. Now a fictive character, Eva, she came through the strange alchemy of the imagination to hail from an entirely different corner of the world, the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru—the largest landlocked city in the world, accessible only by air or water, no roads able to penetrate the surrounding jungle and mountains—which I'd first learned about through Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo.
Like many writers, traveling and writing have always been intertwined for me. Friends often ask for the secret to how I have happily rented cottages in remote villages from Andalucia to Crete. The unscientific method draws from the same well out of which I conceive the settings for my stories and novels: using fragments of information that two decades ago would arrive in the mail in spidery letters and Xeroxed photographs or that these days reside on glossy websites, faster to access but with the same landmines of hidden highways and hornets' nests, to imagine the rooms, the garden, the village, the nearby mountains and sea. I wrote the first draft of the section of my first novel that takes place in the Pyrénées-Orientales in a thousand year-old mas in a village there. Stories have been set in Guatemala, Prince Edward Island, Paris—all places where I've spent time.
Now, though, I had a character from a place I had never seen and, with a new baby, would have no opportunity to visit any time soon. Thus began a process of learning about Iquitos and the surrounding jungle: reading histories and anthropologies and guidebooks of the region, countless viewings of Fitzcarraldo and the documentary about the parallels between the film and its making, talking to persons who had journeyed there. So extensive was this research that it was with some trepidation that many drafts into my novel I embarked on an actual trip to Iquitos. How, I wondered, would it compare with the place I had imagined?
Here are four things I learned in Iquitos that I didn't know before:
- For a landlocked city in the middle of the jungle, it's filled with an astounding din of an astounding number of motocarros (motorcycle driven rickshaws) careening through astoundingly dusty streets.
- Belén—the part of the city where native people who've come from the surrounding jungle live off the electrical or sewage grid in makeshift homes constructed on the rafts on which they've travelled to Iquitos—is called the Venice of the Amazon but is perhaps better visualized as a Venice depicted by Hieronymus Bosch. In the market, anything that moves can be bought alive or dead: turtles in plastic buckets and turtles butterflied on ice, monkeys in cages and slayed for food, guinea pigs in baskets and grilling for lunch.
- The Museu Etnográfico has 80-some life-size statues of members of Amazonian tribes presented without signage. According to the fellow who lingers at the entryway with no official liaison to the museum but somehow proprietor of a laminated sheet (available to borrow for a fee) that reveals the names of the tribes whose members are depicted, the statues were made by a Dutch artist who made fiberglass casts of his subjects.
- There is water skiing on the Amazon, though it may mean waiting for the operator to find gasoline for his motorboat and to then change motorboats after the first one fails.
Here, though, is what I really learned. Eva and her home had already been imagined. There were sights and smells that found their way onto my pages, but fundamentally the novel was unchanged on account of the trip. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that I am a writer-traveler, not a travel-writer—and thank God, since, fascinating as Iquitos is to me, I would be hard-pressed to recommend it as a destination for anyone else.
For the travel-writer, no matter how literary, information is at the heart of what is being conveyed. We read travel pieces to learn about the places where we will never go or will decide to go or are standing at this very moment. As a writer-traveler, information is, of course, also deeply important. If I have the traffic go uptown on Fifth Avenue, I will breach the fictive web for a lot of readers. If I don't distinguish between the current king of Morocco and his father, I will fail to respect the memories of the many people who suffered under the latter. As a novelist, though, travel is for me most fundamentally a supreme exercise of the imagination. Sleeping in an ancient mas where the animals once lived on the ground floor with their body heat warming the humans above, seeing the indoor plumbing and exquisite frescoes at Knossos and then the gold jewelry that Schliemann stole for his wife when he discovered Troy, watching Yaguar women fish for the family meal in canoes carved by hand from the rain forest trees with the sky mirrored in the water that at high season will rise 30 feet to the branches of those trees catapults me from my New York City life into other worlds.
Had I visited Iquitos before Tinderbox was so far along, it would have undoubtedly been a different book, but so too would it have been a different book had I written it before I had children or my parents reached a certain age or Obama was elected president. And this is the magic of the novel—its capaciousness, its capacity to hold both what we know and what we can imagine and to make of this mélange a fictive truth.