Wish I Was There: Why We Love Exotic Fiction
The first time I went to Greece, I was in my early twenties and working insane hours. We covered four islands a day via ferries and cargo planes, and everywhere we went the locals would come out of their houses and give us flowers or offer coffee. As most islands had no hotels we were settled with families overnight – everyone wanted to open their homes to us because we were promoting a Greek holiday company.
We were showing others the beautiful islands, and thereby sowing the seeds of their fall from innocence. Destinations like Mykonos are now (according to the Sunday Times, at least) strictly for A-Listers and far beyond the price range of locals, while Rhodes is now a dumping ground for morbidly obese cruise-ship passengers, a place to buy Chinese-made T-shirts and plastic trash.
From the grand tour to Club 18-30 was a long way to fall, although it’s estimated that no more than one thousand people ever performed the grand tour, now comparable to traversing the world by private jet. And who can begrudge people for wanting to travel cheaply while they can still get about? I took the above shot in our local park as 200 cruise ship passengers wandered through in a state of bemusement, as if trying to remember which city they were in.
Writing exotic fiction is big business; if you can’t get there, it’s fun to read about it, and a lot of authors have carved out niches for themselves involving detectives working in Italy and France, those destinations seemingly the most desirable in readers’ minds. You can’t really write novels set in other countries without visiting them at least once. To write the novella ‘Reconciliation Day’ I spent a week crossing Romania, which was an eye-opening experience. I haven’t used my arctic trip in a story yet, but I hope to soon. To write ‘Lost Children’, author Christopher Hart clearly spent time in Central America. It’s a little like writing about the immediate past; it helps if you or someone else lived through it so that you have some direct experience.
It’s hard to write about the reality of other lands when the public wants clichés. When the TV drama series ‘Succession’ went to England their episode was set in a castle. I never even saw a castle until I was in my thirties. The England I knew bore no resemblance to the one I had read about or seen in films. Those glamorous tales in which lazy afternoons are passed beneath the mulberry trees in Italian gardens remained a fantasy. We prefer our dramas played out in the al fuera cafes of the ‘sobremesa’ – a great word meaning a lazy afternoon spent drinking over leftover meals – and of course, that’s what is sold to us in fiction, not the reality of neon bars, selfie crowds and cheap booze.
If crime novels are fantasies (and they all are – few detectives come face-to-face with a murderer during a killing spree) then ‘exotic’ novels are fantasies too – we want to believe in Persia, not modern-day Turkey, Ceylon, not Sri Lanka, and Siam, not Thailand. ‘The King and I’ was, unsurprisingly, a book and film considered deeply offensive to the Thai royal family, but we love the idea of it, just as it’s impossible to think of Maigret without snails and red wine. Bryant & May exist in a London that’s as real as I can make it without getting depressed, so I sprinkle on top the London I wish still existed.
When the truth becomes a delightful lie, you print the lie. Selling the dream is what we do best. But the reality can be just as much fun, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of the great travel writers.