End Notes: On the Road

When writing a novel, Evelyn Waugh found it useful to go off to a hotel in the provinces and hole up there for the duration. Without intending any exalted comparison, I have in the past 15 years or so followed a similar course, with a difference: Waugh stayed in England; my practice is to fly off to Europe—usually Italy—rent a car, and drive. When I hit a likely spot, I stop, take a room in a hotel, and begin. Often I will stay in a place for three to four days, then move on. My requirements are simple: a motel, restaurants, a church. There is no place in Italy where these requirements are not satisfied. Or in Pantelleria to which I once took the ferry on impulse.

Where do I go? Some places have become favorites. Maiori, on the Amalfi coast, Agrigento in Sicily, and resorts on the western coast of Sardinia. Last year, I began in Nice, picked up a rental car, and headed for Italy, though originally I was going to stay in Provence or go to Spain. I have written in both, but the car headed for Italy, and below Genoa I saw a sign to Rapallo and turned in. There, at the Hotel Italia e Lido, a modest three-star place overlooking the harbor, I began Prodigal Father, the 21st Father Dowling mystery.

After three days there, I drove to La Spezia and took a ferry to Corsica and, writing as I went, moved down the island, took a ferry to Sardinia, and settled in at half pension in a hotel at Alghero looking out to sea. I returned to the mainland, spent time in Rome, and then went back to Rapallo for another three days. My routine represents optimum conditions for a writer. I calculate that I put in four writing days every day on such occasions. After Mass and coffee at a café, I write for a few hours, take a nap, write again, eat dinner, and then go back for one last stint before I retire. Small wonder that my wife would never travel with me if I brought my computer along.

This year, I tacked a week onto a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas at the Vatican, picked up a car at Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and headed for Rapallo. It occurred to me that without reservations, I was taking a risk, it being high season. But I was lucky, I was remembered, and I got the same room and began the 22nd Dowling, called Last Things.

A feature of Italian towns and cities is that one finds plaques on walls commemorating the birthplace of some artist or writer or the visit of a foreigner. A plaque in Rapallo records the 24-year stay there of il poeta Americano, Ezra Pound. Jean Sibelius spent time in Rapallo and composed there a movement of one of his symphonies. And, stranger still, another plaque states that Nietzsche wrote the first part of Thus Spake Zarathustra in Rapallo. I mention these in the same spirit that I invoked Waugh at the beginning, as a point of reference, not comparison. I do not anticipate that future generations of tourists will be told that I wrote mysteries in Rapallo.

I don’t suppose most readers give a thought to where what they are reading may have been written, and it is, of course, a prime instance of the per accidens. Still, some writers note where a book was composed. For example, Waugh cites the several places where he wrote Scoop. What is incidental to the reader can seem essential to the writer, at least in purely autobiographical terms. Recently in Rome, I stood on the Via Ugo Balzani and looked up at the window in the apartment where we lived when I wrote both The Priest and Spinnaker. On the Via Aurelia is the apartment where I wrote Connolly’s Life. No plaques commemorate these crucial moments in Western civilization, but I experience profound emotions when I revisit such places. The memories of these Roman sites include my wife and children, since we were all there on sabbatical together, so the sentimental flood is full.

Does a writer require an exotic setting in which to write? Of course not. The professional writer can write on a train like Trollope, on a plane, or in the basement of his home (as I usually do). A writer can write anywhere and is likely to. So what is the point of this travelogue? A writing vacation enables one to pursue more intensely what one usually does in a more measured way. I can draft a mystery in a month in Europe—because it is the equivalent of four ordinary months. There is a section in Nietzsche’s work titled “Why Am I So Wonderful?” The question begs a question, of course, but perhaps even the most modest of writers knows the feeling, and if you can quadruple it, the prospect is irresistible.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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