For better and for worse, I have a damn good memory. The better: When my husband asks “Where are my keys?” (a near-daily occurrence), I can always remember where I last saw them. In fact years ago, about six weeks after I moved to England but when the rest of the family were still in the States, he called me to ask where one of my daughter’s swimsuits might be, and I was able to tell him the exact spot in the closet where he’d find it. Also, I’m a whiz when it comes to trivia games.
The worse: Try as I might, I can’t forget being called Gorilla Arms in second grade, the humiliating incident in 10th grade when I had a meltdown while giving an oral report on “Diary of a Madman,” and every slight from every employer since my first job at McDonald’s as a teenager.
So though it’s been more than two years since I had to leave north Devon, England, and return to the States, images of the seaside town where I worked and of the market town where I lived remain vivid: how slippery with rain and seagull droppings the alleys off the High Street were in spring, so that you’d have to walk with mincing steps to avoid slipping and rolling into a mound of dog crap; the smell of methane while waiting at the bus shelter alongside one of the farms that dotted the main road between the two towns; the way the setting of the sun over the channel picked up speed the closer it sank to the horizon.
Nonetheless, editing Beyond Billicombe, the novel I’m publishing this autumn, has jogged details of the area that I’d forgotten.
Beyond Billicombe takes place primarily in a town on the Bristol Channel whose glory days were during Victoria’s reign, when it was a flourishing resort area; several key scenes are set in the nearby market town. Both locales are based on the towns where I worked and lived while writing the first draft. Although I changed the names so that I wasn’t beholden to journalistic accuracy (once a journalist, always a journalist), I’m certain people who know the towns will recognize certain aspects.
No matter how precise your memory, though, a recollection is not as acute as the reality. (Which is fortunate, because really, if women could recall in living detail every moment of giving birth, would anyone ever have more than one child?) Reviewing Beyond Billicombe brought back to me so many of the scents and sights and sounds of Devon so accurately, at times when I was finished with revising for the morning and drove back from the park where I work to my house, I’d have to pause while getting onto the road to confirm that I was meant to drive on the right side rather than the left, or once back in my home office and writing an email for work, I had to remind myself not to spell color with a u.
The revision process has almost been like a physical return to those two towns I love so much—though a bittersweet one, as ultimately, of course, I find myself not back in Devon but in the nondescript Connecticut town where I now live, in a house I don’t really like, unable to just walk a few doors down to buy a chicken pie from the butchers for lunch or to one of the numerous greens to hunker down beneath a tree and write while being serenaded by the wood pigeons I’d originally thought were some sort of daytime owls. (Unable to walk pretty much anywhere at all, really, as exurban living in the States is all about hopping in the car.)
My first book, which I wrote years ago, took place in a particular neighborhood in Philadelphia, not the one where I grew up but one where I did spend a fair amount of time. A friend of mine from a writer’s group visited Philly for a weekend, and when she came back she said that at one point she knew exactly what neighborhood she was in (Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods; a native won’t say she’s from Philadelphia so much as from Parkwood, or Mayfair, or Frankford), thanks to the descriptions in my novel. That was one of my proudest moments as a writer.
Hopefully Beyond Billicombe will make me just as proud, even if my readers haven’t been lucky enough to experience north Devon for themselves. And at least they’ll be spared the scrim of homesickness and nostalgia that falls over me when I read those some of the scenes again.
How important is a book’s setting when you’re choosing your next read? I’ve read books simply because they took place in north Devon (granted, I haven’t been able to find that many) or Reykjavik, another of my favorite places on earth. And what books have you read that have been especially masterful in transporting you to a location? I’d love to hear in the comments.
The photo above is of the Ilfracombe High Street, as seen just steps away from the office where I worked while in England. The photo doesn’t do it justice. God, I love that town, in all its gritty, gray-tinged, seen-better-days patina.