Selfishly Curated Experiences: How Planning Trips Can Inform Novel Writing
İnci Atrek on Channeling the Intense Emotions of Travel Into Fiction
The other day, a friend visiting town sent me a text:
What was the name of that bar you took me to, the one with the incredible view?
As soon as I read it, I knew the exact place she was referring to. We had gone several Decembers ago. At 4:30 in the evening, too early for a cocktail but right on time to glimpse the spectrum of blues and grays of the Bosphorus as it sank into a winter’s night. As darkness fell, the bridge lit up on our left and the Hagia Sophia glowed to our right, bringing my mind back a few more years, to the very first time I had swiveled up to that bar, taken in that view.
My first time had been with a cosmopolitan Istanbulite, a woman who knew how to speak to everyone in the city. She had once told me: “I could never live or work elsewhere! Look how deftly I weave through the fiber of the city. Could you imagine me negotiating with a contractor in a different language? The art of it, my savviness would disappear.”
Later, while sipping drinks infused with jalapeno (hers), and soaked through with mastica liqueur (mine), she said she had fallen in love and was moving to the American suburbs. I looked out beyond my friend toward the water, mesmerized by the breadth of the city. The modern bridge that spanned continents, the minarets that reached their ancient, pointed fingers to the sky. For a moment, I understood what it meant to start over. The transformation, throughout the years, of a nation’s identity. The triggers—like love, like loss—that can suddenly shift your own.
When I left the bar, the sensation stayed with me, but lost its severity. It returns, in full, each time I slide back up to that bar and turn toward that view. It’s not enlightenment, but it’s also not an exaggeration to say it might be a hard, shining piece of it. Every significant moment of my life was rendered significant because of its backdrop. A sentiment can arrive, but it won’t stay unless it has a place to settle. A place that’s reflective of its own quality.
Like most writers, I’ve been told that the intensity of my emotions generally falls on the extreme end of the scale. This was annoying information! There had to be a way to get others—at the very least, my close friends—to understand my emotions. Very slowly, then all at once, it became the most important work of my life: curating an experience so that others could feel exactly as I felt. I knew of only two ways to do this. Or at least, two ways that I might be able to pull off: writing novels, and planning travel.The effort itself satisfies the urge, the work itself is the reward.
Some novelists like to pick apart the lives and emotions of others. This is a noble endeavor, just not mine. Mine is to make you feel—through an imagined setting and persona that makes for a good narrative, tight plot—the exact emotions that I have both suffered through and enjoyed. “A lie that tells a truth,” because the truth itself can’t get the reader quite where the writer wants her.
Or, you could move the entire journey into the real world.
My travel recommendations are long and detailed. They’re built out into days, often split into hours. I check sunset times to plan dinner, and call the restaurant to ask if they can reserve the specific table I have in mind. My recommendations for transport vary based on time and traffic. Do I want you frantic, gasping for clean air in a crowded metro, or safe and cocooned as you watch the city lights in the back of a cab? What sort of a breakfast on a rainy autumn day would have you feeling what I felt, seeing what I saw? If the city in question is my city, I send along a short note with my tips: If you’d like, you can cancel the hotel and stay with me. That way, you wouldn’t have to think about it. That way, I have even greater control over your experience.
Sure, this might be an obsessive level of control. But if I curate your experience I can possibly curate your mindset. At the right angle, in the right light, the place itself can feed you the emotion. And maybe then, you can step inside a feeling that I once had.
I texted my friend back with a Google Maps link of the bar. I wondered if she had experienced the same sense of temporality and transformation when I had taken her, and whether this weekend, her American husband would, too.
What I’m trying to do here is clearly unachievable. A million people could read the same book, then set it down with a million different takeaways. We’re too complex to be manipulated by a single novel, one trip abroad. Even if I reserve the perfect table by the water half an hour before sunset, at a restaurant at an ideal distance from the neighborhood mosque (so the call to prayer sounds distant and spiritual instead of loud and alarming), even if the white wine is at the right temperature, even if the lazy boats are out again this evening, even if this meal punctuates the end of a long day in chaotic bazaars and damp underground cisterns, you may not end up feeling the sense of mysticism and harmony that I had in mind for you. You may not end up feeling anything at all. Maybe just a bit of relief, that you’ve finally worked your way through my exhausting schedule.
But for me, the joy is in the journey. When a place kindles a specific emotion in me, I’ll always wonder how to bring a future traveler—or a future reader—to that state of mind. Somehow, I’m completely unhindered by thoughts of futility. The effort itself satisfies the urge, the work itself is the reward.
Holiday Country by İnci Atrek is available from Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, Inc.