Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
“I didn’t start out to do this intentionally, but as I wrote, the structure of the narrative took the shape of a trip, moving from one place to the next, sometimes by plan, sometimes by whim, just as we move around in actual travel…in that sense, the shape of the book reflects its subject. “
Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s new memoir, Not Now, Voyager, weighs the pros and cons of travel as she relates her own misadventures around the globe. Schwartz’s mixed feelings about leaving home change in the telling of her personal history, and her memoir in itself comes to represent a journey. The author recently sat down and answered a few of my questions on her writing.
Not Now, Voyager could be called an anti-travel polemic. Is that too extreme? How would you describe it?
When I first began writing it, it did feel like an anti-travel polemic. I’d just returned from a trip I really didn’t feel like making, and was feeling rather grumpy about traveling in general. But as I continued writing, I realized that was much too narrow a view. I’d had some trips that were quite wonderful, and probably I’d have some good trips in my future. And the pleasures of travel are undeniable. So the book shifted into an exploration of travel—why people keep running around, what they’re seeking and what they’re fleeing, what they discover, and above all, why I find it so difficult and anxiety producing. It became a kind of memoir seen through the lens of travel.
How did you choose your title?
Most people are familiar with the great Bette Davis movie, “Now, Voyager,” in which Bette Davis is a meek, nerdy virgin dominated by her mother. When the mother dies, she finally revives, has a complete makeover—becoming the Bette Davis we know—and goes on a trip, where she finds romance with Paul Henreid. Of course this has nothing to do with my book, but I’d always loved the movie and the title, and so Not Now, Voyager, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the film. Once I decided to use it, I checked out the title and found it was originally the title of a Walt Whitman poem, which also has very little to do with the film.
Can you recall your worst travel experience?
Well, that’s a hard question—there are so many to choose from! One candidate is the incident I describe at the opening of the book, when I was in a tiny room in a deserted Greek village and woke in the middle of the night to find the lights were out. That really freaked me out, and exemplified the terror of travel in general—you don’t know where you are, or why, and you wonder if you’ll ever get back to real life, where the lights work. Then there was an awful night my husband and I spent in Paestum, the town in southern Italy with the famous Greek temple. We expected the south of Italy to be warm, but it was so cold that we thought we’d freeze to death before the sun finally came up. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for minor discomfort, which isn’t a good trait for a traveler.
On the other hand, your year spent living in Rome in 1963 seems like it was a positive and transformational experience. What made that different?
Yes, that was a marvelous year which did change my life. I learned Italian, a beautiful language, made friends, and got to know Rome fairly well. As I say in the book, that’s the best kind of trip—when you’re not a tourist but have a real life in a new place: an apartment, a phone, a grocery store, a purpose, all the things that make your life feel authentic. In comparison to that, being a tourist feels artificial—a time cut off from reality. I always feel I leave my real self behind when I become a tourist, and after a while looking at monuments and museums can grow tiresome. At least that’s how it seems to me; I know others feel differently. Today, while I’m not eager to be a tourist anymore, I’d pack up immediately and go to a new place if I could have a job there, and somewhere to live and an opportunity to get to know people.
Your story meanders, covering much ground—from memories of your childhood and family to the books you’ve read lately. Would you describe your writing process itself as a journey? How long did it take, and how did you manage to make everything so cohesive?
Not Now, Voyager is very much a journey. I didn’t start out to do this intentionally, but as I wrote, the structure of the narrative took the shape of a trip, moving from one place to the next, sometimes by plan, sometimes by whim, just as we move around in actual travel. One subject led to another, jumping around in the past, incorporating parts of the present, in a free-associational way. In that sense, the shape of the book reflects its subject. Of course, once I realized this was happening, I tried to control my meanderings. The hardest part of writing the book was organizing it, keeping the sense of free movement, but not slipping into aimlessness. For that reason it took a long time to write—more than two years, which is pretty long for a short book.
What have you been reading lately?
I just finished reading the poems of the Greek poet, Cavafy, partly because I’m preparing a poetry collection of my own. I’m reading the stories and novels of the British writer Francis Wyndham. And as soon as I finish that, I’ll read Geoff Dyer’s new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He’s a wonderful writer. I’ve read almost all his books and can’t wait to start that one.
What’s your six-word memoir?
Read too early; learned too late.
READ an excerpt from Not Now, Voyager
BUY a copy of the book
VISIT Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s website