Curiously, today's installment of Seeing Red (which follows below) is called "Say It's Not True, Jesús!" The question of what's "true" and what's "fake" -- and how fiction writers make readers believe what they write -- is very much on my mind today.
That's because a reader of my new novel wrote a few days ago to ask if I would answer a few questions about the book for her travel blog, The Mindful Tourist. One of her questions in particular started me thinking. Shadia Garrison, who loves to travel and is fascinated by foreign cultures, asked this question:
"To capture Spain the way you did, with the intricate descriptions of places and people, you must have traveled there multiple times. Can you tell us about those travels?"
I have indeed traveled to Spain several times, but the truth of the matter is that I wrote Seeing Red -- a story in which a character Ronda Cari crisscrosses Andalucía in search of her guitarist lover -- using a Fodor's guide.
Here is how I answered the question:
"You know, Shadia, I am flattered that you find my descriptions so real. And I have traveled to Spain multiple times. But the truth of the matter is, I am trained as a reporter. That training, plus my imagination, helped me create the sense of reality that you feel in the book. The honest story behind the novel is this: I had been to Spain in 1998 visiting Sevilla and Granada. I did not get to Ronda on that trip. I actually wrote Ronda's journey consulting travel guides. AFTERWARD, Rich and I followed Ronda's trip in the book exactly and most everything I had written was absolutely on target. Fiction writers have a knack for creating reality that very much conforms to REALITY, even when they haven't experienced it themselves."
That last part is what got me thinking. It is indeed a mystery and a marvel that fiction writers can fool their readers into believing in what they write. And it isn't only geography that we novelists can "fake." When I wrote my first novel, Dreaming Maples, I had about 50 pages in which my young character, Candace, rode on a motorcycle behind her boyfriend, Mark. Candace was nine months pregnant, and indeed, she was about to deliver her baby (very exciting set of scenes.)
I wrote those first 50 motorcycle pages for a fiction workshop and later, presented them for review to an editor at a large publishing house in NYC. He praised the writing, and added: "I can tell two things are true about you: one, is that you've had a baby, and second, you've ridden a motorcycle."
I laughed. I'd had three babies. But I had never even sat on a motorcycle.
How is it that I convinced this reader -- and thousands of others -- that I had? How did I "know" what it felt like?
The answer is, I'm not sure. I just imagined it. I felt as though I was riding the motorcycle and wrote those sensations.
More complicated is the fact that I "imagined" what it was like for my character, Candace, to suffer intense post-partum depression after her baby was born. My sister Karen, who worked for a long time as a nurse in labor and delivery, read my book in hours.
She called me. "How did you know what it was like to suffer post-partum depression?" she said. I had never had a moment of blues after my three babies were born.
Again, I don't have any idea how I knew. I just imagined it. I also imagined my characters living in North Adams, Massachusetts. I imagine a bakery where Candace's boyfriend Mark worked. I imagined his apartment upstairs from the bakery. I imagined all kinds of things and wrote them and then, one day, I drove to North Adams to see how far from reality my writing was.
I was astonished to find that the descriptions felt real.
Some readers might be irked to find that they are reading novels by writers who in some cases "fake it" as they write. But then again, isn't that the point?
I read somewhere that a fiction writer can glance into a room and in a split second, absorb a "feeling" and a set of impressions that can then be transformed into a whole book.
A mystery, for sure. And a gift.
So here now is a little more Spain. Read the entire Q and A at The Mindful Tourist.
"Say It's Not True, Jesús"
She is riding in the black Mercedes with her stocking feet on the seat and her head resting on a soft white pillow against the door trying not to think about the way she feels. She drank too much sangría in the wee hours of the morning, and then she had that upsetting conversation with Jerez' friend, so upsetting that she didn't get to asleep until four; now it is six hours later and her head is spinning and slamming against itself, and her stomach is so queasy that even the smell of the automobile's buttery leather seats is making her nauseous.
The Mercedes swerves sharply to the left, passing another car, and Ronda is convinced she might throw up so she covers her face with both palms, as if to block her mouth, and then the car straightens and accelerates forward, and her stomach swells up and falls and she inhales and all of a sudden she has Galvarez' voice in her head, calling Jesús a "rogue" and a "rascal," and it is at that point Ronda groans out loud, apparently loud enough so that the driver, Hernán, can hear her.
"Señora, if this music is too loud, please tell me and I will be happy to..."
"Oh, no, no, it's not too loud at all," Ronda calls forward. "The music is wonderful. It's...it's just me." Hernán had arrived at the hotel promptly at 8:45 a.m., as Señor Jerez had promised he would. When the desk called, however, Ronda was still fast asleep.
"Oh my God, tell him I'll be down right away," Ronda heard herself say into the phone. Her head pounding, she exploded out of bed and into the shower; in less than minutes she was dressed and downstairs in the lobby, with wet hair and no makeup, and her eyes so puffy she could barely see. There, beside the exotic palm tree in the center of the lobby, the driver stood patiently, his hands crossed over his portly stomach.
"Buenos días, señora, I am Hernán," he said, bowing slightly. Ronda bowed back and apologized for being late.
"That is quite all right, señora, I am accustomed to waiting."
And then they were off, and the car was flying across the flat Spanish countryside on the superhighway leading out of Sevilla.
Forcing herself upright now, she leans forward slightly and tries to smile into the corner of Hernán's fleshy face that she can see in the rear view mirror. She has every intention of striking up a conversation, of saying something pleasant, but she realizes that this upright position is bad for her stomach, so she collapses back against the car window and turns her eyes against the cool clear glass and stares out at the passing landscape. As she does she thinks of Jesús, because in the end, he is the only reason she is racing across the dry plains of Spain in this Mercedes, feeling as torturously sick as she does.
Galvarez' face comes into view and the words he said to her last night at the flamenco club spin through her head and stick there, insisting themselves over and over again. "I wonder, señora, if you are quite sure you want to find this rogue or if perhaps you wouldn't be better off leaving the rascal to his own devices."
Ronda's mouth had dropped wide open then, and even now, she still can't quite digest the implications of what he said. She closed her eyes, and there before the blank screen, she had seen Jesús, the sleepy dark eyes, the alluring smile. But this morning she cannot muster any kind of picture of Jesús at all.
Her head resting on the dark glass, Ronda studies the landscape passing before her eyes: pale green olive trees growing in perfectly straight rows on pastel hillsides. Bushy groves of orange trees fill up vacant flatlands. And everywhere, it seems, there are grapes, rows and rows of hearty little green vines winding closely around sticks, some of the vines so heavy that the branches spill over and kiss the soil.
"Is there a time you would prefer to stop for lunch?" The driver asks from up front now and Ronda is tempted to tell the man about the condition of her stomach, that she can no more imagine eating lunch than she can imagine walking the rest of the way to Granada -- barefoot. Their destination is still 150 kilometers away.
"No, there is no special time," she mumbles, coming to the realization that she may have to say something very shortly, she may have to ask the man to stop the car. She cups her hand over her mouth, grateful that she knew enough to resist Jerez' efforts to come along.
"I really must go by myself," she declared as they sat in the smoke-filled taverna, waiting for the second act of flamenco to begin. "I appreciate your loaning me the car and the driver, and I appreciate your friends' connections in Granada, but I've got to..."
"But who will translate for you, who will assist you in your search?" Jerez had chosen that moment to slip his hand smoothly over her knee. Then he leaned so far forward that his silver hair mingled with hers over the tiny table.
"I can manage just fine on my own," Ronda replied hotly, her tone so curt and sharp and final that his head shot back. Ronda peeled his hand off her knee and dropped it to one side.
There was silence then. For a brief moment, Jerez looked hurt, then he lit a cigarette. She pulled herself upright.
"Look Enrique," she said, addressing the domineering older man by his first name, which she had learned only moments before, "I know you want to help, and what you have done for me already is so generous I can hardly thank you. But you've done enough. From here on, I can manage. Alone." He attempted to speak again but she held her fingers up and shook her head. "Please. If you continue to insist on coming along then I will have to decline your offer of the car."
Jerez rolled his cigarette between his fingers, and inhaled deeply, all the while keeping his eyes on Ronda. The smoke lingered in his mouth and then he blew it out in one grey blast.
"Fine," he said. "If that is how it must be."
The second half of the show began then. Two women in bright polka dot dresses and caped in long shawls stepped onto the stage, the guitarists were in place, and thankfully, Ronda and Jerez were no longer able to talk. Ronda smiled briefly and turned her gaze away, facing the stage. And when the music started, a tango, and the sound of rasgueado flew up from the strings, and the dancers began clapping and snapping their heels in a sharp clatter against the floor, Ronda turned to Jerez and lifted her glass, and nodded, and she knew she'd gotten her way.
The car slows now and Ronda wonders if maybe Hernán noticed on his own how awful she looks. But no, he is simply pulling into a gas station. Which is OK, she thinks, slipping into her pumps. She unbuckles her seat belt and opens the door before the car comes to a full stop.
"It will only take a moment to fill the tank," Hernán says, hurrying around the Mercedes to hold open her door. "Is there anything I can get for you, señora? They sell coffee here or soda or perhaps a...?"
"No, no, nothing. Thank you though." Ronda moves quickly off to one edge of the parking lot, where she fills her lungs with fresh air and lifts her face into the warm sunshine. Beyond the asphalt is the yellowish white sand that makes up so much of the arid soil of southern Spain. A dry odor, reminiscent of sage, rises off a low growth of bushes and as she stands there, inhaling the pungent fragrance, her stomach is soothed.
Back at the car, she opens the bottle of water she scooped out of her hotel refrigerator just before she left the room. Tipping her head back, she takes a small amount of water, just enough to swallow two pain pills.
"Are you ready, señora?" The driver asks from a respectful distance behind her.
"Yes," she says, self-consciously wiping her lips. She must look as white as the soil. "I just...I have a headache. Too much sangría last night." She smiles and he nods, but doesn't smile back.
She slips into the Mercedes and he closes the door, and as she hears the expensive clicking sound it makes, the clap of a finely-honed machine, it occurs to her that maybe ought to make it clear to Hernán that she is definitely not Jerez' lover.
"Seeing Red" is serialized once weekly on Tuesdays. Previous installments can be read at http://www.seeingredhuffpost.blogspot.com.