My first trip abroad was with my father, who hadn’t been back to Poland since he’d been deported to Siberia twenty-five years previously. The iron curtain was a border few people crossed in the sixties. I can remember it all so clearly; the queues of people we could see from the train when we passed through Berlin, waiting to cross from east to west for Christmas. The soldiers carrying sub-machine guns on the trams, the horse-drawn sleighs that acted as taxis. It was the sort of experience destined to have a permanent effect on me, and from then on foreign travel became an obsessive goal. During my student days I hitch-hiked round Europe, getting as far as Istanbul and meeting interesting people, getting in and out of sticky situations, and becoming more and more hooked on other cultures, climates, scenery, wildlife. It’s only now I’m in my sixties that I’ve had the time and money to pursue my addiction – the gathering of exotic material for my writing.
I re-use everything. The continental divide in the cloud forest of Costa Rica gave me the central idea for the Divide Trilogy, and I went to Iceland to research the setting for the final book in the series. My trips to Kenya, Zambia and the Ivory Coast led to a reluctant reader book about elephant poaching. A meeting with a feisty eleven-year-old girl in Mongolia presented me with a wonderful character for another children’s book.
The more far-flung the place is the better. Airports, coffee shops and jeans are the same the world over. When you’re creating a fictional character it’s their differences that are important, not the things that are common to everyone else. The same is true of fictional places. My book Beware of Men with Moustaches is set in an imaginary ex-Soviet state, which is an amalgamation of my experiences in Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
Writing from experience is so different from researching something on the web, which is predominantly visual, with maybe a bit of sound. You’re so much more aware of everything when you’re somewhere new. When I look at the photo of the main staircase in the George Hotel in L’viv, I remember the smell of coffee, the taste of caviar from breakfast, the feel of that smooth wooden banister. Who knows what hands had slid along it in days gone by?
I’m drawn to the few places where mobile phones don’t get a signal, and internet access isn’t available. They’re becoming fewer and fewer. I think the wake-up call for me was being able to access my emails in the jungle in Borneo. How does anyone get lost these days? How do we isolate our characters, in order to put them in danger? We have to make sure they’ve dropped their smart phones down a well, or had their iPads nicked. Otherwise it’s historical fiction, or fantasy.
Travel broadens the mind they say – how do you think that the internet has changed this? Are you too absorbed with updating those you have left behind to observe closely your new surroundings, or does research beforehand enrich the experience. Either way, has this influenced your writing?