On Writing Places I’ve Never Been To by Hugo Wilcken

Wilken_Hugo_2015As a teenager, I’d spend hours on my own wandering the stacks of Sydney’s State Library. Its vast, airy reading room mimics those of libraries I later used in London and Paris, with books running several storeys up walls criss-crossed with wrought iron walkways. Inside, I felt I’d escaped my surrounds and was no longer in Sydney – a rather stodgy, provincial city back then.

In the library I pursued all kinds of quirky interests, which most often centred on the idea of being elsewhere. This appeal of other places was deep within me. At the age of nine or ten, I’d been obsessed with the Pacific kingdom of Tonga, to the extent that even today I can reel off the names of Tongan kings and queens. Around the same time, I’d been fascinated by the imaginary countries of Syldavia and Borduria in Hergé’s Tintin albums – their author clearly sharing a similar taste in elsewhere-ness. Later, I learned that for his albums set in real locations, Hergé would meticulously research the places, but never visit them.

In my library years, my attention turned to the models for those Ruritanias: the remnants of the lost world of European principalities. I’d pull out thirty-year-old histories of Andorra, San Marino or Liechtenstein, bewitched by black-and-white images of folkloric scenes and mediaeval villages. Luxembourg in particular entranced me. It seemed the most Tintin-like of places – the world’s last grand duchy, its culture a fusion of the Romantic and the Teutonic, the fairytale fortifications of its capital straddling a deep ravine. A full-blown country on a miniature scale, like those tiny bottles of whisky they used to serve on aeroplanes.

A few years later, I went to Luxembourg. I actually made a detour in my travel plans, just to visit the country. Need I say it was a disappointment? On a tight budget, I remember grabbing a cheap bite at the local McDonald’s on the main square. I learnt my lesson: reality is a fine thing, but is it ever as vivid and strange – or even as real – as the fantasy version of it?

I lived in London, then settled in Paris – two cities that exist in a state of constant tension with their own myths. I became a novelist. My first novel, The Execution, was the relatively straightforward tale of a hubristic life tipped into tragedy. It was set in London, which I knew well. But for my second book, Colony, I wanted to do something different. I had a more ambitious idea: an existential story about a French penal colony lost in the jungles of South America.

I started planning a trip to French Guiana, where my penal colony had been located up until the late 1940s. But something held me back. At first, it was the fact that I wasn’t sure I could write this book, and didn’t want to spend money going out there until I could be certain.

But there arrived a point when I knew I’d write it. So what’s to stop me going to French Guiana now, I thought. Still I held back – until eventually it struck me. It was Luxembourg all over again. Since the novel was in my head already, why would I want to risk having the real thing spoil it for me?

I got on with the book, hewing as closely as I could to the ‘reality’ as I found it in accounts I read in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Even then, there were times when the ‘real’ got in the way of the story. And when it did, I jettisoned the reality, not the story.

wilckenThat novel finished, I cast about for an idea for the next one. I’d been watching a lot of film noir and reading American suspense fiction from the 1940s. I’d become fascinated by a psychiatric strain in the popular works of this period, and a peculiar focus on questions of identity. I wanted to run with those ideas – and if I was going to riff on film noir, I thought, then I could only set the novel in New York.

I have the strangest relationship with that city. I’ve never been there, although I’ve had a strong desire to go since the age of 15 at least, when I read Catcher in the Rye, heard Lou Reed’s Transformer and saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I’ve almost gone on several occasions. Once I even bought a plane ticket to New York, but something came up and I didn’t use it. And while working on my New York novel, I would often dream of the city – exhilarating dreams where I’d whisper to myself: ‘Finally! I’m here!’

I spent weeks scouting for locations on Google Streetview, trudging the city’s streets with my mouse. I bought old guides from the 1940s. I read up on the history. I researched bars, restaurants and hotels, I asked questions on Internet forums, I pored over maps. I remember quizzing a couple of longtime New Yorkers about the city’s geography, and smugly correcting them when they got it wrong.

There was a moment in my immersion when I felt I knew everything I could know about New York. When it was there like a a vast architect’s model in my head, more substantial than places I’d lived in. On the other hand, I knew nothing at all about it. Being in a city for just an hour gives the best sense of it, and I’d never had that.

My New York was of a different order, I realised, and my novel wasn’t about that city. It was about the idea of it. Its myths as relayed through a million images, words, movies and sounds. No less invented than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and yet more vivid and strange, more real than the New York’s actual streets and buildings.

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Hugo’s new novel Reflection is reviewed in our Fiction section here.

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