My most recently published novel, The Other Side of the World, contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. The book appeared in early December, and since then readers and interviewers keep asking an obvious question: Have you ever been to Singapore and/or Borneo?
The answer: No …
And the response to this answer is often bewilderment, as in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to? To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, The Stolen Jew (1981), begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the nineteenth century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army — the dreaded cantonist gzeyra).
I had never been to the Soviet Union.
The list of writers who have written about places they’ve never been to is long and impressive, beginning with Shakespeare (his many plays set in Italy: Othello, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, etc.), and includes, for starters, Saul Bellow (Henderson the Rain King, set in Africa, which Bellow had never visited), Franz Kafka (Amerika, set on our shores, which Kafka never saw), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities, an imaginary dialogue set in China between Kublai Kahn and Marco Polo). And Shakespeare, I note, never met a Jew, for they were banished from England during his lifetime, yet he created Shylock.
William Saroyan, a splendid novelist and story writer, once did a travel piece for Esquire magazine about Mexico City. After the article appeared, his editor at Esquire called to tell him that several readers had written to the magazine saying they could not find some of the places Saroyan mentioned in the article. Had Saroyan visited them? “You asked me to write about Mexico City,” Saroyan replied. “You didn’t say I had to go there.” And of course there are the thousands of historical novels — novels that try to portray historical periods and figures by fictionalizing them — as opposed to what writers like Bellow, Calvino, Shakespeare, McMurtry, Charyn, Chabon, Laxness, Dickens, and others have done, which is to re-imagine historical periods and figures.
But why, in novels and stories, should writing about a place you’ve never been to be any different than writing about imaginary people you’ve never known? Or about historical figures you’ve never met (e.g., E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc)?
The great joy for me as a writer of fiction is to be able to go anywhere in time and place, and to be anyone. In my next novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company (March 2013), I’ll start out as a twelve-year-old boy in the year 1915 who, on a frozen lake in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is about to play the part of a young girl in a (silent) film his family is making. And the novel I am at work on now is told by a black man, born in Louisiana at the beginning of the twentieth century, who becomes close friend and “Man Friday” to the heavyweight champion, Max Baer, who famously, and in my novel, strode into the ring at Yankee Stadium on August 6, 1933, proudly wearing a Star of David on his boxing trunks, and proceeded to knock out a former heavyweight champion of the world, “Hitler’s Boxer,” Max Schmeling. And after that, I’ll probably be …
Jay’s newest book, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, will be published in March. Visit his official website here.