One of the perks of writing books set in far-flung locations is the fact that I have to visit these places before I can write about them. Nobody ever accepts that these trips are ‘work’, and they are right. They are, in many ways, its opposite.
Looking for places for a cast of imaginary people to have adventures is a bizarre pursuit. It involves finding out what it’s like to be somewhere: absorbing the sights, the sounds, the smells, buildings and food of a place. As it happens, this often involves spending time on a beach. All in a day’s work.
It was travel that got me writing fiction. Fifteen years ago, I left a job at the Guardian and went away backpacking, more or less on the spur of the moment. It was one of the best years of my life. I had huge highs and terrible lows, but the moment I hit south east Asia I became obsessed with the idea of using it as a setting for a novel. I remember beginning to write a book, sitting on the beach at Palolem in Goa. I dug my toes into the hot sand and decided that I wanted an obnoxious main character, someone who would say exactly what she thought. If she was unbearable at the start of the book, then the experience of being out in the world on her own, forced to spend time alone, to talk to strangers, to fit into other ways of doing things, would change her. By the end of the novel I wanted her to be quite different. And her adventures would, of course, follow the same backpacking trail as my own.
Those notes grew into Backpack, and eleven more novels have followed. Three of them, written when I was living in France and had small children, did not involve a trip away, but were set partly in France instead. For every other one I have packed a bag and set off, usually with a friend in tow, to find a place for my characters’ adventures.
When I wrote The Perfect Lie, I caught an overnight train from Paris to Venice with my friend Sam and checked into the canalside hotel in which Don’t Look Now had been filmed (we only discovered that after booking: it was a fabulous extra detail, particularly since the place had clearly not been updated since the film was made in 1973). We spent six days wandering around Venice, jumping on and off boats, sitting at outdoor tables in bars sipping prosecco, and photographing and noting every detail. I would write every day, sitting on the hotel bed and staring out at the entrance to the Grand Canal that was outside the window.
It was ‘work’, but it was also, of course, the opposite of work. It was time away from everyday life. It was the chance to plan a few days around lunch and dinner in interesting corners of the city, and to spend the time in between looking at frescoes in churches, standing on boats staring at implausibly picture-perfect views, and imagining interesting scenarios. Planning adventures for made-up people can be almost meditative: nothing is a better escape from real-life traumas. I go on these trips to scour the locations, but they also invariably kick-start my writing.
The most obviously blissful research trip I’ve ever been on was the trip to Malaysia for Stranded. As the story largely takes place on a desert island, I needed to find a paradise beach in Asia and to spend time lying around on it – not something I was ever going to be able call ‘work’ with a straight face. My friend Vanessa and I hit upon Pulau Perhentian Kecil in Malaysia, booked up some accommodation, and set off.
It took us a while to get there on various buses, taxis and boats, and there were plenty of mishaps along the way, but eventually we were stepping off a boat and into the clear shallow water of a sheltered bay. The sand was white, the tropical flowers huge and bright, and there was nothing to be seen but a few wooden huts, one of which was to be our home for the next few nights.
‘This,’ I thought, ‘will probably do.’ Then I tripped over one of the boat’s ropes and fell headfirst into the warm sea, which, while undignified, was not the worst thing that has ever happened.
The days that followed were an amazing blast of writing in hammocks, reading on beaches, swimming in the sea and exploring the rainforest that forms the whole of the interior of the island. I came away with a book in my head, almost fully formed, and a notebook filled with ideas.
In contrast to the paradise beach, this year I went to Svalbard, deep into the Arctic Circle, on my own. I had not been away alone since my very first travelling, my trip around the world. This trip, in late May, was difficult to sell to potential companions: ‘Come to the far North of the world! It will be freezing and snowy and incredibly remote’ is not, it turns out, as enticing a proposition as the one about the desert island beach.
So I boarded a flight on my own, to Oslo, then Tromsø, then Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, an archipelago halfway between the north Norwegian coast and the North Pole. Norway is, of course, incredibly easy to navigate and extremely safe for a solo woman. Nonetheless, being alone again was very weird. Everything was so expensive that I existed on snacks. I didn’t speak to anyone. I stayed in the cheapest guesthouse in town, sharing a bathroom with a corridor full of hearty men in their twenties who all had explorers’ sledges piled up outside their doors with equipment for hearty expeditions. They said friendly hellos to me, but I was, essentially, on my own for five days. No conversation, no hot food, no alcohol: it was like a Buddhist retreat, but with midnight sun and snow.
It was, again, one of the best times of my life. I kept waking up, all night long, to check that the sun was still shining outside my window (it was). I went on a day-long boat trip that was breathtaking and otherworldly, and that culminated with the sight of a mother polar bear leading her two cubs across the ice. I wandered into the world’s northernmost church just as a woman was using a fork-lift truck to remove boxes with ‘Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra’ stencilled onto them. Everywhere I looked I saw something stunning. I plotted out a whole story, incorporating everything around me.
I have done the research: all that remains is the small matter of writing the book.
Emily Barr's latest novel, the sensational The Sleeper, is out now in paperback.