Bloom: You mentioned in an interview that the “genesis of Travel Writing was an assignment to teach creative writing,” starting with 20 pages describing an accident you witnessed 20 years prior. Can you describe what interested you most about the memory of that accident?
Peter Ferry: It wouldn’t go away. Although the girl in the accident wasn’t killed, I kept asking myself, “what if she had been and I’d had a chance to prevent the accident? How would I feel then?” But if I’d stopped her from driving into the lamppost, then there would have been no accident for me to save her from. A little like Obama and the great depression we never had. Plus I could have been charged with assault or even kidnapping. It was a real moral dilemma.
Bloom: Did you know from the beginning that the protagonist would share your name and be a version of you?
PF: The twenty pages I started with were not fiction; they became fiction when I decided to kill the girl in the accident, and I just let the main character keep my identity because he started out with it. There are three other characters who are real people. Gene Brooke really is a psychologist and good friend of mine. Steve Lotts really is a Chicago cop and Carolyn O’Connor really is now my wife. All three had to sign releases stating that I did not misrepresent things they did or might have done. All of this is in keeping with my belief that the border between fiction and nonfiction, between fact and fancy, between reality and illusion is a fine and problematic one for most of us most of the time.
Bloom: What was it like for you as the author to decide which parts of your character would be like you and which parts would be fictional? Did it ever get confusing for you, or difficult to have the lines blurred?
PF: It was fun. There is a big difference between fact and truth. That which is factual is not always true and very often the truth has little to do with the facts. For instance, it is not factual that the girl in the story died, but if she hadn’t, then neither I nor the reader could have approached the truth that lies at the heart of the question, “What if you have it in your power to prevent another person’s death and you don’t do it?”
Bloom: Your story “The Accident” appeared in Issue 17 of McSweeney’s as a letter in which the teacher tells his class about the accident. Where were you in the process of writing the novel when this was published?
PF: I had completed a couple of about ten drafts.
Bloom: How long did it take from start to finish to complete Travel Writing?
PF: Seven years.
Bloom: Looking back, can you describe some of the highlights and pitfalls that you experienced while writing the novel? What came easiest, what was hardest?
PF: Well, I started with that twenty pages, and I liked them, so I put them away and told myself that if I still liked them the next summer, I’d continue. Now, in the course of that year, walking back and forth to school from the train each day, I figured out how the story was going to end, so the next summer I wrote the last eighty pages, and I liked them, so I took a sabbatical to fill in most of the in-between stuff, and then I polished and refined for a long time. The beginning was fun and easy because it was basically relating a single-event story. The ending came easily; it flowed once I knew what it was going to be. Getting from the beginning to the end was often difficult, full of starts and stops and lots of dead ends.
Bloom: Can you describe what your writing process is like, including the environment you like to be in, how you approach creating the initial draft, and revision?
PF: Motion enhances the creative process for me. I write in my head as I walk or ride my bike. Then I stop and put what I’ve written down in long hand. I do the same when I am driving alone. I pull over and get what I’ve written in my head down on paper. And writing is revision. The revising process begins as soon as a few words are on paper and it virtually never ends. Writing and revision become one and the same process.
Bloom: You taught high school for many years. What advice that you’ve given to your own students do you follow the most? What advice is hardest to follow? Is there any advice or lesson that you’ve learned from your students?
PF: Best advice is to write what you know and write from your heart and that may also be the hardest to follow. From my students I learned not to take myself too seriously, not to preach or lecture, not to think for even one minute that anything I say, do or write is in any way sacrosanct, all of which I have probably done in answering your questions. I really need a 17 year-old kid sitting at my side to roll his eyes and chortle at me.
Bloom: Did you consider how the novel would be read by people who know you, and did that impact the writing in any way?
PF: I don’t think I did. Maybe I should have.
Bloom: What was it like embarking upon your first novel later in life? Was this a source of greater confidence, or insecurity, in any way?
PF: Well, a little bit like falling in love or running a marathon or making a million later in life: all the richer because you’d come to believe it was never going to happen. As for confidence, I notice now that people are a little bit more interested in me and what I have to say because I have a credential, but being old and weathered prevents me from taking that too seriously. The truth of the matter is, I didn’t write a novel earlier in my life because I didn’t have much to say then. I’ve always been a slow learner.
Bloom: What are some of the novels and/or other works of art (films, music, etc.) that inspired or influenced you when writing Travel Writing? Were there models of authors inserting a persona of themselves into the work that you were aware of in particular?
PF: I learned a lot from The Turn of the Screw, The Sun Also Rises and The Catcher in the Rye for their use of narrators of questionable reliability. I love Dave Eggers arguing with his drunken friend about whether or not to use the friend’s real name in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and John Fowles giving us the briefest glimpse of his narrator standing across the street watching the action in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I love the way Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse and E.M. Forster in A Room With a View take the reader into their confidentiality, the playful, direct relationship Tony Richardson has Albert Finney establish with the viewer in the movie Tom Jones and that Tom Stoppard uses in Shakespeare in Love, and Robert Towne‘s use of the temporal setting in his script for Chinatown to create dramatic irony so that the viewer knows things that the characters do not. And I am a travel writer, so I like the works of Redmond O’Hanlon, Eric Hansen and Paul Theroux and how they make themselves characters in their own dramatic narratives. Also, I learned a lot about plot development and plot twist from Anthony Shaffer‘s script for the play/movie Sleuth.
Bloom: Just for fun—if you could magically make a fictional character come to life and spend time with him or her (or it), who would it be and why? (Feel free to mention a few if there’s more than one)
PF: Jesus, to the extent that he is fictional; Leopold Bloom to the extent that he is not; Jake Barnes although I’d probably have to slap him and get the shit beaten out of me; Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse; Gabriel Conroy of Joyce’s The Dead just to see the look on his face although it would probably kill me; Gretta Conroy because I’m in love with her; Hamlet, Ishmael, J.J. Gittes of Chinatown, Lucy Honeychurch from A Room with a View because I’m in love with her too; and Alan Clay of Dave Egger’s wonderful new novel A Hologram for the King, because he is us.
Click here to read more about Peter Ferry and his novel Travel Writing.
Click here to listen to Ferry read an excerpt from Travel Writing.