Monday, September 19, 2011

Have Travel, Will World

I have to admit I'm cheating a little here -- this week in New Zealand SpecFicNZ is running a Blogging Week -- it begins the 19th of September. It's currently half-seven at night on a Sunday and I have Top Gear on the telly in the background because, well, I'm in the UK. And thanks to that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey...stuff, it's only the 18th here. And I really don't care, I just want to get this party started!

So, where shall we begin? I’m a New Zealander, and I write speculative fiction. I may even be good at it, as this year I have at last begun to have some success with the thing. But there’s a little thing we Kiwis like to call “the tyranny of distance,” particularly in my case as I come from a tiny little city right at the bottom of the South Island. I live in the middle of nowhere in a country with a very small market and somewhat limited resources for the budding author. I’m hoping to finish the draft of a novel in the next couple of months (not my first, but it’s going to be the first one I want to attempt to send through the publishing roulette), but even once that mountain is climbed I have a hell of a lot further to hike.

With that said, New Zealand’s geographical isolation isn’t really the topic of this post. But I am talking about something a lot of New Zealanders are very fond of doing: travelling. The Big OE is almost a mandatory rite of passage, in that going overseas is something most of us will do at some point. And it’s likely because we’re so far away from everything, and come from such a young country. Heck, let’s hit up youtube for some vids.

I have trouble watching this video whenever I’m away from home. It just makes me cry. Hilariously it’s always the tui birdsong that sets me off, because when I’m at my parents’ house the tui wake me up in the morning and I often feel the urge to bawl them out for doing so. Ha.

And my little baby country in song. Daw. But travelling, to me, is so important because it expands my horizons and gives me ideas. I’ve been making up other worlds since I was tiny; the first one I clearly remember involved rainbow bridges across lava and worlds inside suns (in retrospect, it wasn’t just Tom Hiddleston that made me drool all the way through Thor; I really just wanted me a Bifrost!). I evolved a bit beyond this, but I realised a few years back that my worlds were so westernised. Hardly unexpected, considering that I am Pākehā through and through; I’m a European New Zealander of mixed English and Scottish descent and am fairly certain that I have no Māori in me. So, even then, I miss out on a bit of culture; my understanding of Māori culture is just what we’re taught in school, and I got more of that in Wellington than Invercargill. But it does make for a slightly boring “speculative” world, for all that there are obviously fantastical elements to it.

Travelling is my way of looking for inspiration. I’ve not been to a lot of different countries thus far, and most of them have been in western Europe – but some have really stuck out in my mind, those being Mexico, Turkey and Japan. In some ways, I think it’s because all three were countries where I actually stuck out as being foreign; in places like France and Germany, my usual gormless head-in-the-clouds expression mingled with a determination to not look lost even when I totally am meant that on several occasions I was mistaken for a local and asked for directions. (And no, I don’t speak German or French fluently, but I know enough to pick up that much at least!) So, in these other places…I looked out of place. And I revelled in what was different.

The world I am working on at the moment involves four major distinctions, though it goes deeper than that. I work in three distinct time periods in these stories – corresponding to about 1850, 1900 and 1990 to the present in our terms – but I’ve had to go back a bit further into their history to deal with the changing of the gods. And as I went into the mortal lives of the four cardinal elementals while wandering around various airports the last few weeks, it occurred to me that even though there were four lands that had always roughly corresponded to Greek, Russian, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures, not one place was exclusively any one of these things. Not that any one of these things was distinct unto itself anyway.

A place like Istanbul really makes you feel history. I mean, I got that sense of age the first time I arrived in London in 2006, but then Istanbul…you can feel the different worlds there, the shadows of Constantinople and Byzantium still visible just beneath the surface, whenever the light changes. I had a similar thing in Mexico, when I went to Teotihuacan; I stood on the Avenue of the Dead and was absolutely floored by the fact I was standing on an archaeological site of such an age that the Aztecs had had to make up what they thought everything meant.

Japan also made me think. One of my father’s workmates once described it to me as “a giant theme park,” and frankly? I can’t argue with that. It really is. But Japan’s deep-seated syncretic habits are fascinating to me, as a writer of a world with so many people and cultures that were shoehorned into four provinces by some rather disinterested Elder Gods. Japan is a world unto itself, even when other worlds intrude upon it, and it’s a fascinating thing to see in practice.

It’s not just a matter of travel, mind you; I tend to find that various museums can provide fuel for fire. For instance, a brief wander around the Natural History Museum in London the other day (seeing as Irene kept me out of New York’s version) made me realise I really need to think more about the animals in various parts of the world. (At least Pelagos is easy; as my Atlantis-analogue, it’s just filled with whales and other aquatic delights, ha!) And wandering the Vault made me think of Janerin and the earth-god and worship of stone and gem and mineral, and…yeah. New Zealand simply doesn’t have museums like this. I miss them the most when I don’t have easy access to them, and not just because I can’t walk through Trafalgar Square without feeling the desperate urge to run into the National Gallery to pay homage yet again to my favourite painting.

I’m sure I look like an idiot every time I look at her. Honestly, I stand and stare and can’t move. Sometimes I think it must be the most wonderful thing as an author of fantastical worlds, to see your characters and places brought to life as a movie, but then I’d just embarrass myself. I really do suffer from something like Stendhal Syndrome; the first time I saw a Titian at the Louvre I burst into tears, and the other day when I walked into the back garden of Hampton Court Palace I started crying. For no reason. I’m sure I freaked these kind fellows right out:

Speaking of British museums, I really do have to mention the British Museum itself. Partly it’s because I am hoping to go to Egypt next week even though their collection makes me feel that I’ve been already, but when I was in Antalya last week I went to their archaeological museum. We’d been making bad jokes since Istanbul about how the British Museum has a lot of things it oughtn’t, but at this Turkish museum I was treated to this delightfully snarky description of the archaeological site at Xanthos:

I say this with some irony; I rather suspect what I saw as sarcasm is something more to do with the stylistics of the translation. I mean, I saw a sign beneath a statue in Antalya that was just the simplest thing in English. I can’t remember what the statue was, mind you. It wasn’t Ataturk, surprisingly enough, but let’s just have a picture of Ataturk being epic anyway. Because Janerin would approve.

I have to point out, though, that I took a picture of what the snarky sign was talking about. And I now rather see why they would be so very snarky about it being in Britain. O_o

But yeah. I was actually very shocked to realise how deeply entwined Greek and Turkish history is, and I say that as a girl who became an Alexander the Great fangirl early last year (…which is partially a lie anyway, I’m actually a Hephaestion fangirl…). But then, the first time I walked into Westminster I was deeply embarrassed because I was surrounded by the dead of so much British history and I didn’t know any of them. So…travelling has opened my eyes in a lot of ways, both to worlds as they were, and as they are now. And both of those things are what is improving my world-building.

So, with that said…much as I need to sit down and write, I rather suspect I’ll be off again to a fresh continent in the next couple of weeks. My Egyptian-obsessed nine year old self is ridiculously excited, but then my rainbow-lava-obsessed five year old self is whispering that I need to get back to the writing. I’m fortunate enough to be able to satisfy them both. I do so love being a Kiwi; we have our travails, but we have our travels, too. So much for the burden of flightlessness. ^_~ There are many worlds out our minds, but right at our doorstep, too.

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