It's sunny and 52 degrees here on the south shore of Long Island. This place has such a tawdry reputation that you need to remind people that is actually has a bright, clean ocean around it, and shores, many miles of them. Tomorrow, when it is forecast to reach 82 degrees, I'll be researching my next book at a place called Long Beach, in a beach chair, reading War and Peace
(about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia that I'm writing about) while the surf hisses.
As my Irish immigrant father would say, "It was a lucky day for you when I came to this country."
The beach before Memorial Day is half-deserted. There are fishermen with 20-foot poles (I have always wanted to ask them what they are going for but never have), mothers with small children protected from blowing sand by elaborate screens, surfers, old guys who stare at the ocean, old guys who search the sands with their metal detectors. It is not yet loud and raucous as it will get on summer weekends. It's all potential, none of it spent.
I have always wanted to write a book about a beach during summer: the characters that haunt the place, the romances, the reminders of other places that wash up on the shore, the lifeguards, rescues, the people who sail away never to return. This is not the place, I don't think, but the American beach summer cries out for a classic narrative. We have the movies, but not the books.
Still, I'd rather be in Jamaica, even Port Royal, the sleepy village where the action in my current book is set. One of the advantages of writing narrative history is that you actually get to go places where they happened. Port Royal is so separated from the rush of our modern lives that the old travel-writers clichÃ© ? "it lives in a different century" ? is unavoidable. There was a fort from its privateer days and a museum (Henry Morgan's comb!) but the real life of the place was buried, in that part of the old city that had sunk beneath the waters in the earthquake that concludes Empire.
When I travel, I often try to dream up books that will allow me to live in foreign cities for months. In Brazil last year, I thought: a book on the capitol of soccer, a year of watching the beautiful game and living in Rio. Who wouldn't want to read that ? more importantly, who wouldn't want to write it? But the best players were in Europe, and the idea faded. Rio is such a seductive place, though, that I have to find a reason to go back. I'm sure I didn't see the real city ? one never does, in a week. But I will live on the edge of that ocean happily with the pulse of the interior washing up on Copacabana every day and write a travel guide, a blog, a manual for Brazilian cars, anything.
This summer, my wife, our baby Asher, and I are doing the "Imperial Cities" tour of Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I had wanted Rome ? I watched "La Dolce Vita" recently to remind myself why I wanted to go so much ? but there were no good packages during the summer.
I'm sure I'll have three ideas of how to make Prague work for a year. But there are no beaches there, and the lure of Rome will be ever-present. Italy calls. I even have the hotel I want to stay at picked out. Peter Robb wrote a great book on the Mafia, Midnight in Sicily. All I need is an idea as good as that and I'm gone.
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Stephan Talty is the author of Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign, the real story of the pirates of the Caribbean. "A pleasure to read from bow to stern," raved Entertainment Weekly, which gave it an A grade. His book Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture was published to critical acclaim in 2003.
His posts appear every Tuesday throughout the month of May on the Powells.com blog.