Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Research Trip: guest post by Chris Pavone

CHRIS PAVONE is author of the New York Times bestsellers The Accident and The Expats, and winner of the Edgar and Anthony Awards for best first novel. He was a book editor for nearly two decades and lives in New York City with his family. With The Travelers (Broadway Books, January 10, 2017), which has been acquired for film by DreamWorks and is now in paperback, Pavone has crafted a jet-setting, fast paced thriller that transports readers from the beaches of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and the bustle of Barcelona to the isolation of northern Iceland—all beautiful places that are hiding a darker story of surveillance, lies, and espionage. 


I realize that it sounds a bit like bullshit: “I’d like to go to Mexico. For research.” It’s a frigid midwinter day in New York City, and what I’m telling my wife is that I want to fly someplace warm, by myself, to quote-unquote work. This certainly seems like a flimsy excuse for an indulgent vacation.

There are all sorts of ways to travel: on the cheap or in the lap of luxury, for business or pleasure, adventure or enlightenment, seeking art or food, activity or relaxation, for a day or a week or a month, for a year and a half. I’ve done all, with every sort of companion and their combinations—parents and grandparents, wife and children, in-laws and colleagues, friends and strangers, all by my lonesome.

I think every style of travel presents a different opportunity, enriching in a different way. For me, traveling solo is the least fun version, the most demanding. But it’s also the most rewarding for my current purposes. Removed from my daily routine, from all the people who inhabit my life, from repeat experiences, this forces me not merely to see the world in a different way, but also to become someone a little bit different myself, at least temporarily, at least in my imagination. More cosmopolitan, perhaps, or maybe more provincial. Richer, or poorer. Bolder, or more timid. More exciting, maybe more dangerous, sexier; it’s the rare hotel room that doesn’t make me think of sex, part and parcel of an overall sense of possibility, of adventure.

Wherever I’m traveling, I can’t help but wonder this: Could I live here? What would I do here? Who would I be?

Nine years ago, I found myself wandering the cobblestoned streets of Luxembourg contemplating exactly these questions, but this time in the concrete, not the abstract: my wife had just started a job in the Grand Duchy. I was forty years old, and except for college I’d only ever lived in New York City; never even considered anywhere else. I’d spent nearly all my adult life working as a book editor, surrounded by a rotating cast of similar characters.

But now suddenly I was a stay-at-home parent to twin four-year-old boys, living in an unfamiliar little city. I cooked and I cleaned, I planned our travels, I attempted to integrate myself into a community of utter strangers. I was an expat trailing spouse.

Nothing in this life was familiar. I didn’t know how to do anything I needed to do—speak French, take care of children, make new friends, fill my days in satisfying ways without a job. I had grown very comfortable, very competent, being the me who lived in New York among friends and family and a lifetime’s worth of accrued local competence. Now I was incompetent.

I realized that I needed to become someone different. Friendlier, more outgoing, more accepting; a more disciplined housekeeper, a more patient parent, a more supportive husband.

I also had to find a new career, and I needed to pursue it in a more self-motivating fashion. I started writing a novel, a story about someone who moves to Luxembourg, doesn’t know how to do anything—speak French, take care of kids, make friends, fill days in satisfying ways. That protagonist is a very different version of me: she’s a woman, I’m a man; she’s an ex-spy, I’m an ex-editor; she occasionally kills people, I never do. But I invented her as an alternative me, living a life very similar to mine.

That Luxembourg adventure came to an end, and we returned to a variation on our old life in New York. But I’d learned some important things about myself. I could become someone different enough to live a different life. I could become a full-time parent, and like it. I could imagine myself as someone else, and turn that someone into the protagonist of a novel. I could write a novel, all the way to the finish.

But sometimes I have a hard time doing it sitting here in New York, surrounded by everything that’s familiar, everything that’s the same old me I’ve always known. Here in New York, the thing I see mostly clearly is me in New York. And that’s not what I want to write about.

So I get on a plane.

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