An author on book tour becomes, like Updike's traveling salesman, a connoisseur of cities. After sitting in one's own apartment, typing and reading alone, often in one's underwear (am I revealing too much me here?), one finds oneself driving around all the different but similarly gentrifying downtowns, the abandoned or converted factories, the glossy office buildings done in the bland, tipped-over refrigerator style.
It takes a while, but writers are supposed to be professional noticers, and so — even after only a day — we like to think we pick up the place's local feeling-tone: Portland's Seattle-without-the-preciousness vibe; Chicago's this-is-more-like-a-large-scale-Minneapolis-than-a-Midwestern -version-of-New-York air. Austin's we're-a-real-cool-town-but-remain-more-Texas-than-we-like-to-let-on thing. Etc.
Still, at least for me, some cities resist the taking of their pulse; I just can't get an accurate reading. Like Denver, for one. What's Denver's feel? I know there're mountains, and people in western hats, but I never got a good sense of the city. This is my fault, I'm sure. I'd lived in Colorado as a ski bum for a year, and have great affection for the place, especially since I just made their bestseller list. (Stay classy, Mile High City!)
Maybe it's because I didn't have friends who live there; friends make all the difference. when I was in Seattle, my buddy Soren took me to great Sushi and coffee places; in Portland, Pauls Toutonghi asked me to sign his girlfriend's assets over to him. (Long story.) In Minneapolis, I learned that there are more theaters-per-square-mile than in any U.S. city but New York, and we also had great Midwestern beef in our salads, in a plaza overlooking the national headquarters of Target, Inc. (My Minneapolis friend told me that the people who choose all of Target's buying decisions — like the head of Bath Mats, or erasers — are 24-year-olds...)
Anyway, of course it's silly to think a city will reveal itself to you in two days; even when you have a friend showing you around, a place has time only to pull clothes off some parts of itself, while holding kerchiefs and veils over others, with fluttering eyelashes.
But it's good training for a novelist, to try to discern the truth about a place after only a few glimpses of it. Often it's the people who know a place least well who write about it best, because they see it fresh. I'm thinking of Martin Amis's Money, maybe the best book about 1980s New York, which was written by a Londoner. It's like Tolstoy said: to b a writer you have to look at the world as a space alien would (I'm paraphrasing here), seeing everything as if for the first time. The way I see it: that unfamiliarity buys you a little more emotional padding; there's a sense of riding higher in the saddle, seeing more terrain.
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Darin Strauss is the author of the international bestseller Chang and Eng, the New York Times Notable Book The Real McCoy, and the national bestseller More Than It Hurts You. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he teaches writing at New York University.
Books mentioned in this post
Darin Strauss is the author of Half a Life