From Annie Barrows to all my blog readers
July 8, 2009
The most basic of all writing-class rules is: Write what you know.
To which I say HA!
When I began working on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I was in a hurry. My aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, had written a book, set on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, and sold it to The Dial Press, but just as the editor’s revisions came in, she fell ill, too ill to work on the book. When Mary Ann asked me to undertake the rewriting of her novel, I immediately agreed, because I wanted to help my aunt, but secretly, I fussed about adopting her voice and characters. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The voice, the characters, the story itself came easily. It was the island that baffled me. I was writing a novel set in a place I had never been and knew next to nothing about. Thanks to Mary Ann, the history of the Channel Islands’ Occupation by the Germans during the Second World War was more familiar to me than it probably is to most people, but the island itself was a mystery that I needed to solve—and fast. The official manuscript deadline was, bloodcurdlingly, “as soon as possible.”
So, following lifelong tradition, I turned to books and read up on Guernsey: climate, topography, population, history, language, folklore, cuisine, customs, artistic traditions, local archaeology, religion, important figures, government, relations with France and England. Okay, I thought. Got it. But I didn’t have it, not in the way I needed. In the midst of writing, I realized that the information I really needed wasn’t easily found in a book. I needed to know how far from the edge of a Guernsey cliff an apple tree was likely to grow, which beaches were accessible by trail so one of my characters could fetch saltwater when he was supposed to, if the distance between the Calais Road and the beach at La Courbière was too great for a five-year-old to walk. Most maps were uselessly vague, but I managed to find a 1932 surveyor’s map of the island at my local university, and together with a fishing map (Guernsey is a fishing destination), I pieced the answers together. I also had persnickety botanical questions, followed by even more persnickety architectural questions. By hounding the very nice people at the Guernsey Museum and the Guernsey Botanical Trust, I managed to secure the correct information.
But there was a very large missing piece, and that was the sense of what it felt like to be in Guernsey. This is close to but not precisely the same as what it looks like. The difference is this: I could read that the bushes and shrubs grew low to the cliffs and that wild morning-glory grew over them, but what’s missing from that is the sense of the relation between the two, the sense of “how it looks” that is inevitably personal and subjective. Pathetically, I logged on to the Guernsey Weather cam, hoping for scenery. It showed me the same view of the foggy harbor for days on end, which at least allowed me to understand the nature of the island’s sky. For the rest, I had to make it up.
Not surprisingly, I was terribly nervous when I finally got to visit Guernsey, long after I had turned in the manuscript, long after it was too late for me to correct errors. The ferry churned across the Channel and so did my stomach. When we arrived at St. Peter Port harbor, the first thing I did was look up to the topmost point of the city—one of the most difficult things to find out is what you can see from any given point—and heave a sigh of relief. The view from the harbor was exactly what I had hoped—and said—it was. Lucky.
The next morning, I got up early to walk to the edge of the cliffs along a twisting road that led through the very neighborhood where much of the novel is laid. I saw, now, how the road was bordered sharply by stone walls, then more lackadaisically by hedges, a fence here, and a low wall next to it. I saw blackberry bushes, and—surprise!—eucalyptus trees—and vines crawling triumphantly over everything in sight, and a field of nothing much except rabbits. Rabbits! I had never imagined rabbits. When I came to the edge of the island, the cliffs were sheared off, black and ragged, and topped with indiscriminate mixture of wildflowers, sea grasses, and cement gun emplacements left over from the war. I stood on a little point thrusting out over the Channel, took an enormous whiff of salt air and damp grass, and finally understood what Guernsey looked like.
I suppose the moral of the story is that there’s no substitute for the reality of a place, which means that the charm of travel will never cease as long as the earth endures. The other moral of the story, for me in any case, is that being in Guernsey was a lot more fun than sitting in my office doing research.
I would like to thank Annie Barrows for gracing my blog with her presence today! Come back tomorrow for my review of The Guersney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.