Writing In La Vida Loca

Observatory, Reading & Writing

William Faulkner In Hollywood

There is a long tradition of writers working far from their natural habitats. Two that spring readily to mind are Somerset Maughan and Paul Bowles, both of whom used exotic settings to test the mettle of their heroes, although Bowles had an altogether darker view of human nature (I won’t easily forget the scene in which someone has a nail banged into their ear; I forget which Bowles novel, possibly ‘Let It Come Down’).

It seems a paradox that the more English the writer, the more they seem to stray from home and try their hand at exotic writing. I’ve written a fair few short stories over the years that have foreign settings – so much so that I filled one half of my collection ‘Red Gloves’ with new ones. And I suppose that although I’m a Londoner I’ve also lived in Los Angeles, the South of France, and now Barcelona, desert or semi-tropical locations all.

LA was by far the worst choice I could have made. It was foreign in a bad way, foreign to human dignity and grace of any kind, and after the initial euphoria wore off I felt as if I was going mad. Nor was it exotic, just extremely mundane and full of angry, indifferent people – I was working at the low-end of the film industry, and being treated accordingly.

It took longer for the shine on the South of France to wear off, but that too vanished when I realised it was like LA, primarily a stage set where the disenfranchised behind the scenes were ignored and abandoned. At the front, waiters delivered insanely overpriced food to rich tourists; behind, shattered teachers were taking guns off schoolkids.

Barcelona finally provided the balance I’d been looking for. A polyglot working town separate from the rest of Spain, it weathered the property collapse better, and is easier to write here than in London because I have a narrower social life, and therefore concentrate for longer periods. Apart from the heat, I formed a list of the most immediately noticeable components:

Sleeping well (because you get more exercise during the day). More work achieved. The pleasure of walking, with parks full at midnight. Outdoor communal activities, especially sports, dancing, singing and acrobatics in large groups. No traffic noise (and I’m in the city centre). A diurnal structure created by consistency. Bright light, reading time, a general atmosphere of wellbeing.

And room to think. This last point is key. In New York I always felt forced to move on; even a bench in Central Park  feels as if it’s running on a time limit. Here I work for four hours, take a walk in the park at around 11:00pm, sit in a square after midnight and watch old couples reading newspapers, return to work at 1:00am. What’s odd about this is that I’ve never been a late nighter.

You’re also provided with some space from your subject. If, as Colin Wilson suggested, outsiders make better writers, then distance provides an overview. However, there’s one big loss – the daily use/abuse of the English language. Although the internet reduces the problem (I’m always on Skype) it can’t replace the sheer vivacity of arguing in English with friends face to face.

I must say William Faulkner’s writing position doesn’t look very sustainable.

One comment on “Writing In La Vida Loca”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    His position looks like back pain alley. And he appears a tad heavier than in most photos, perhaps he was eating more, drinking less, during this period. His typewriter appears to be standard portable, note it sits in the bottom of its carrying case. Had one such my self – heavier than heck.

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