Behind every great love is an epic story waiting to be told.
My fourth novel Letters to Strabo is both a love story and a coming-of-age tale, set in the late 1970s. It takes the form of a fictional odyssey recorded with disarming honesty by my protagonist, an innocent young American writer called Finn Black. His adventures, both funny and evocative, follow closely the itinerary taken by Mark Twain on his own tour around the Mediterranean a century earlier in: The Innocents Abroad. The novel is structured around the seventeen chapters of the ancient Greek Strabo’s great work: Geographica; a book that Twain quoted from extensively in his own tale. In Finn’s words:
“I researched how famous travel writers made their first journeys for a series of articles. It fascinated me how they all took something worthwhile out of that first experience on the road, whether they later became writers, journalists or even philosophers. It opened my eyes to all sorts of new possibilities I wanted that life. I wanted to get going, to write and make my fortune. Find out what had really happened to my pa and maybe find a bit more of that mythical free love I’d been missing, too.”
I very much enjoy doing the research for my novels and in this case I was able to incorporate information about quite a few historical figures, some of them named, some of them somewhat disguised.
As I mentioned above Mark Twain plays quite a prominent role in the idea for the book. My first idea for Letters to Strabo came from the memory of a trip I made twenty years ago to Olana, the amazing Catskills home of the painter Frederic Edwin Church.
I found that Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens to use his real name) made a visit to the Church’s just a few years after this. Both Twain and the Churches had been touring the lands described by Strabo at almost exactly the same time but had never met.
Twain was accompanied on his visit to Olana by his family and by Grace King, the southern novelist. Her description of his two elder daughters, Susy and Clara “More entrancing characters I have never met in my life” sparked me to research deeper into the story of these remarkable young ladies. Their loves, dreams and the personal tragedies they endured gave me the inspiration for the backstory of my heroine Eve. Further research provided me with neat links to Ernest Hemingway and Peggy Guggenheim amongst others.
Like Twain, Hemingway is an inspiration to our young writer. He visits the famous bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris associated with Hemingway in an earlier incarnation:
“I was given a few chores, which didn’t tax me too much. Then I used an old manual typewriter to write a long confessional to Eve about Francoise and scribbled several postcards to family and friends. Its cowling had been removed and the exposed fan works were dusty inside, but it worked perfectly well. It was kept on a lopsided old desk for anyone to use, underneath a print of Hemingway kicking a can down a dune. Apparently, hundreds before me had typed messages with that same machine or scrawled them by hand on scraps of paper. Many were stuck in a chaotic jumble on the walls and underside of the staircase. There was one note I particularly liked:
“The entire store is beautiful, but this very chair in this very nook moved me to tears. When I return to the States, I will be able to take this inspiration and feeling with me.”
It was signed ‘Loulou’.
Well Loulou, I thought. We’re both tumbleweeds drifting on the winds of change, aren’t we? I really fancied myself as a Hemingway disciple by then.”
Peggy Guggenheim, the famous American art collector also plays quite an important role. We first come across her in Lisbon, where Finn encounters the story of her Casablanca-esque escape from occupied Europe to the States. Later he visits her in Venice which his french girlfriend Françoise. Her plot to take advantage of the friendship that Finn and Guggenheim form is a key turning point in the story.
“From somewhere, who knows where, she’d apparently conceived the sickest notion that I’ve ever heard. She outlined it to me in clipped breathless words. She’d been told in a dream the previous night that I would be the last conquest, the last paramor of la padronna. She’d come up with a plan. There would surely be a Pollock, a Blue Pole, in it for me, or a Picasso for her. It was simple; it couldn’t go wrong.”
I hope you will enjoy meeting both the historical and fictional characters in this book, I certainly had a lot of fun working out how to weave their stories together.
David Smith is a British author who has now published four works under the Troubador imprint. His first novel Searching For Amber has been described as “A powerful and notably memorable debut” with a review describing it as “masterly and confident” and another as “Extraordinary, poetic, enchanting, sublime”. In addition to writing, he is currently CFO of a blue chip UK public company and lives near the South Coast in England with his wife and three teenage children.
*Thank you so much to David for taking the time to write out this blog post for you guys to enjoy. Be sure to check out his book! In stores now!*