This painting from 1968, captures the moment I fell in love with reading and writing: a nine-year-old girl sits on the foredeck of a sailboat. Cream colored sails are rolled up along the mast, water glistens blue behind me. My legs are curled underneath to one side, one arm bent at the elbow with a hand disappearing in a curtain of long reddish hair, holding my chin. I’m looking down at my lap where the other hand holds an open book.
In that moment, I was transported to Devonshire, England, where there rose, ever dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by the jagged and sinister hills. I found myself walking home in the dark, heart pounding with the knowledge that an escaped convict was on the loose, when there rose suddenly out of the vast gloom of the moor, that strange cry, a rising howl, a sad moan. . . followed by a terrible scream, a yell of horror and anguish.
My eyes popped out and I looked up. Waves sloshed and swayed the boat. I gasped, breathing in the salty sea: I was safe.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had transported me twice: placed me smack in the middle of that creepy moor and scared me out of my wits.
That day, I was transformed from the languid reader to a girl of action. When I arrived home, I ran to my bedroom, sat down at my desk, grabbed a #2 pencil, and wrote like the wind. When I finished my story of a girl trapped in a castle high on a cliff in Wales , I leaned back and put my fingertips together: my reader would go to Wales and feel claustrophobic. I felt exhilarated, electrified.
For me, reading and writing have always been inextricable from travel. Charles Dickens placed my feet on the muddy streets of London while rain slopped sluggishly down, and stirred my compassion for the orphan. Howard Fast made the ground shake under my feet during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and I felt the hunger and desperation of immigrants. John Jakes’s “Bastard” showed me Boston, Leon Uris’s Conor Larkin took me through the troubles in Ireland, and Gabriel García Márquez placed me in South America to suffer the pangs of unrequited love. Hemingway put me in the path of the bull.
These writers showed me glimpses of the world and gave me twinges of the passions of humanity. They increasingly stirred within me a burning desire to do the same.
In my adult years, I traveled: I drove through England, my eyes peeled for the moor. In London, unsurprised at the dismal weather, I stood with my feet touching Charles Dickens’s grave marker in Westminster Abbey. I meandered through Chinatown in San Francisco surrounded by the descendants of The Immigrants. I hopped again aboard The USS Constitution in Boston Harbor, coasted down a river in South America remembering the time of cholera, and the ghost of Kilty Larkin guided me through County Kerry. I found beauty in the bullfight in Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid, thanks to “Don Ernesto”, who liked to sit in Section 9.
I still write to transport the reader twice. Never have I had a goal more worthy of my steel, for piecing a story together is often a mystery, distractions beckon with devilish cunning, and writer’s block sits in ambush. I’ve written of fear in South America, my ancestors in Ireland, literary spirits in The Tower of London, despair in Paris, and overturned expectations in Morocco.
I teach a writing workshop, Deep Travel, several times a year. I tell my writers that in my experience there comes a point while working on the third or fourth draft, when the story becomes a great Beast, vicious and blood-thirsty. If I keep wrestling with it, the heart of the story finally emerges, and I feel the blood run hot through my veins, like an electric current. Since 1968, this has remained the reason I write.
I am currently in Sausalito finishing a book of my travel stories. In considering how I fell in love with reading and writing, through the misty haze of memory I see images of place and feel emotions long since settled in my psyche. I am lured into desperate measures, distracted and disturbed by my research.
I have spent this day in a sinister haze.
I take my Kindle down to the docks, sit upon a bench and read, chin in hand. Our accomplished detective tells Sir Henry Baskerville: “As you value your life, do not go across the moor in any direction but the safe path.”
I look up at sunlight sparkling on blue water, hulls and masts of boats, hear the slap of lanyards against masts, and the cries of seagulls. My blood races through my veins.