Known for her skillful blending of realism and fantasy, guest blogger A.L. Kennedy is an award-winning Scottish author of novels, short stories, and nonfiction. Her latest novel, The Blue Book, came out last week and has been lauded by the New York Times Book Review and the London Review of Books, among many others.
I came to boat travel in a serious way after my resistance to flying
overwhelmed me and any arguments—financial, logical, or personal—which might
have kept me on shore. I was old (I still am, if not older), I was scared, and
I could no longer tolerate the pre-flight regime of bullying, prodding,
herding, and being made to assume various bizarre 1970s disco poses for the
benefit of various bizarre scanners.
Writers these days are expected to keep moving or die. A bit like
sharks. (Except savvy sharks have learned they can rest in caves with
pleasantly helpful currents channelling through to tickle their gills.) I have
stumbled about on every continent barring Antarctica, and the journeys to and
fro are less charming than root canal work. So when a train was impossible—and
there was no rail service from London to New York—I tried the boat. The expense
was absurd, the paperwork was threatening, but it was all worth it.
If you’ve never trundled your bag up a gangplank, try it. That
long-lost movie-star age of vanished style? It lives on in the liners where
ladies of a certain age dance across floors toppled by the swinging gales
outside and the captain makes his daily announcements, apparently calling in
from 1928. This is a world where absurd class-obsession collides with shipboard
bonhomie, where vomiting and evening dress coexist, where the frail luxuries we
covet balance on a vast, indifferent ocean of lost birds, riotous sunsets, and
wrecking storms. And sharks. (For some reason I have neither a fear of drowning
nor of being eaten by beautifully evolved cartilaginous fish.)
My first liner crossing allowed me to walk straight ashore to
Manhattan with no jet lag. The immigration official who stamped me in was not
only welcoming but a fan of modern fiction. (I’m guessing the rich travel like
this all the time.) The passage also gave me the core setting for a book in
which I wanted to write about besieged mortality, the human passion for silly
distractions and treats, our drive for consoling wealth, and our wonderful and
terrible vulnerabilities. I had to fly home—rocking and shuddering all the turbulent
and bad-gravy-scented way.
Another transatlantic journey allowed me to work on the novel in
peace and in context. Although a hideous menu of activities is available aboard
liners, it’s possible to simply walk on deck under the big skies, be mildly
hypnotized by the waves, and clean your mind.
My next crossing gave me a week for rewrites on the initial draft of
The Blue Book. When I despaired over
this or that passage, a trip up to the light and water would cheer me. (And
it’s illegal to throw manuscripts overboard. Littering at sea is a serious
offense.) Then off I’d head to work once more, rocked like the overgrown baby
most writers are at heart, calmed into focus.