I’ve always suspected that us devoted book lovers need books for deeper reasons than just entertainment or information. Speaking from experience, readers who’ve devoured books from childhood onward have found a coping mechanism between those covers. Books give us a way to escape, but even more, they can set us down in a private space of retreat and maybe even safety. In the same way that Lucy enters the wardrobe and finds snowy, magical Narnia, we enter a book and find a landscape that gives us rest from the intensity of our individual surroundings. And if readers use books in this way, then devoted book lovers who become writers have a similar, second escape route because our settings—and even the act of writing itself can provide a haven.
Last year, all of our settings were intense. Here in the Seattle area, we had a jump start on the fear and confusion the pandemic brought. My beautiful hometown of Kirkland, Wash., and my whole beloved Seattle area, was the hot zone for the coronavirus. To find our vibrant, lake-filled, mountainous, science-and-tech-smart city at the center of something so frightening was shocking, and it was surreal to witness the rest of the U.S. going about life as usual as schools shut down and grocery store shelves emptied and as our major corporations firmly sent workers home.
At the time, I was midway through the writing of One Great Lie, my novel about a young writer who travels to Venice for a summer writing program taught by a charismatic male author, and a woman who’s forced to confront some dark truths about the history of powerful men—and about the determination of creative girls—going all the way back to the Renaissance. Every time I write a novel, I make decisions about settings, of course—what’s best for the story itself, which backdrop will best add another layer of mood or meaning. But I also think about where I might want to go, where I want to spend the year or so it takes to write a book. I’ve spent that year on islands in the San Juans, in cliffside houses on the Pacific Ocean, at a divorce ranch in the Nevada Desert, on the hidden South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia. I’ve spent a year making my way across the country on foot, mile by mile, word by word, page by page. This time, though, I wanted to travel to one of my favorite cities: Venice. That enchanting, shabby, and surreal island of sinking villas and winding streets. I wanted its atmosphere and history to seep deeply into my story, and to give it the rich patina of 500 years of art and power, tragedy and resilience.
Oddly enough, or maybe not oddly at all if you’re writing about Venice, ancient plagues had already made their way into the book. The summer writing program my character visits takes place at a villa on La Calamita, a fictional private island in the Venetian Lagoon based on the very real “plague island” called La Poveglia, which served as a plague quarantine area during the many pandemics in the 14th through 18th centuries. Also, my characters experience two very real festivals that still take place to celebrate the end of those plagues. At the same time that we in the Seattle area were locking down, we were also seeing scenes of Italians in quarantine singing from their balconies, eerily empty piazzas, and quiet, yet unusually clear Venetian canals. So, when I delved back into my book, it was with both a bittersweet connection and a sense of retreat into the past, in more ways than one.
The book was already a love letter to the city, with its romance and mystery and its watery, drowning magic, but now my love for the city and for Italy itself felt more alive and insistent, as I witnessed that resilience I was writing about. And that retreat into the past was more alive, too, as, on the eve of its 1,600th birthday, Venice was once again experiencing a pandemic. Venice, the city that also gave us the word quarantena, quarantine, for the 40 days sailors were required to spend in isolation to avoid spreading the plague.
But disappearing into that book with its enticing, foreign location was also a straight-up, glorious retreat into my own visits there. When you write, when you get into your setting as completely as you should in order to convey it to readers, you’ll feel that sun, and taste that food, and notice the gold light of the late afternoon as you set the words on the page. In those intense and stressful days, stuck at home, confined and afraid, I was transported to that the spectacular, flickering stage-set that is Venice. I walked those narrow cobblestone streets, crossed over canal bridges, and peered into shop windows. I ate cicchetti in the Cantina do Mori, and drank teeny cups of strong espresso at an outdoor cafe. I sped across the lagoon in a speedboat, had a picnic on a plateau with a view of the Euganean Hills, and walked into the cold foyer of San Zaccaria, and then down the stone steps into the water-filled crypt. I indulged in all the things us book lovers adore and that this city offers in abundance, too: ancient manuscripts, a palatial and centuries-old library, and an utterly magical bookstore: the charming Libreria Acqua Alta, with its volumes upon volumes stored in boats and bathtubs to protect them during the seasonal floods.
This is the power of books, both reading them and writing them. The power of creativity and imagination and the written word to help you both understand your world and escape it. To provide entertainment and information, yes, but even better, connection and context, retreat and rest, and even a sense of safety when the world doesn’t feel very safe. Immersed in all of those lush details, you can catch your breath and even be consoled. Deep in the smells and sights and sounds of a curiously yet reassuringly unchanged Venice, I could hear its stories. Old stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. New stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. Just as it is when you are there in person, Italy, and Venice itself, was a feast for the senses and a tonic for the spirit. Those timeless buildings, the water flowing for centuries, all of the words—written on ancient manuscripts, typed on pages, sung from a balcony—were reminders of an ageless truth: human beings have suffered, but human beings have endured.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.