Something to Write Home About

Can we find solitude when surrounded by technology?

Photograph by David Merrett
Agia Galini, Crete.

I wrote my first, never-published book in a fishing village on the south coast of Crete at the end of the 1970s. I went back, two winters later, to write most of The Summer Tree, with a contract in hand (not literally) for the trilogy it began. I am typing these particular words in the central highlands of Mexico, more than three decades later, thinking about “being away” and how what it means has changed—for me as a writer, and probably for most of us.

When I first went to Greece to write in my early twenties I was following a useful, and perhaps entirely pragmatic, Canadian literary tradition. Among other giants, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen had both found Greek islands effective places to live and work. Seemed like a splendid idea. I bought a used typewriter (It had umlauts!) in the flea market in Athens, lugged it aboard the night ferry to Crete, and eventually arrived over the mountains at what became “my” village, Agia Galini. It was my twenty-fourth birthday. Yes, there was ouzo involved. Also raki at night’s end. Don’t ask.

Technology began to have its way with us, and with the nature and shape of travel.

I had gone away to escape. To remove myself from people, distractions, demands. I had just finished law school, having promised myself when I’d begun that I would save for a period of time away after, to see if I could actually begin and complete a novel.

I was painfully aware of how demanding the sustained focus required was, and knew myself well enough to guess that relative solitude would be a factor in achieving it. Waggish friends pointed out I could go to Sudbury or Sheboygan and not install a phone line, but—on careful balancing of pros and cons—Greece appealed a little more.

It appealed, and in the event it worked. I discovered that I was, and am, guilt driven enough that I awaken in a glorious place and proclaim to myself that I have no right to be there unless I produce a substantial number of good words that day. And I did, on Crete twice, and on subsequent journeys to New Zealand, Tuscany, and Provence several times. I can only relax into a late afternoon or evening in such splendid locations if I’ve had a good writing day.

Isolation was critical at the start. I deliberately booked a room in the highest hotel in Agia Galini that first trip, up a long, steep, dusty slope, to remove myself from the extremely alluring temptations of the harbour cafes, and the game of seeing who had just arrived in town on the latest bus as it pulled in by the water.

Evenings were spent in the one place that stayed open in the quiet winter (summers were touristy, even back then). And in this, too, I was fiercely disciplined, saying a firm goodnight before midnight, just as the dancing was picking up among those who were in town to party. I concede that you can’t actually call yourself “monkish” if the bar blackboard has renamed the gin and tonic Guy’s Guzzle (an early form of immortality) but one or two drinks were enough for me, then The Writer climbed the hill to his blameless bed and an early morning start at producing words.

Midway through the winter I actually received a letter from someone who’d left the village, addressed to “Guy The Writer.” It arrived with everyone’s mail in the small wooden box on the post office counter. Another intimation of immortality? It felt that way to a twenty-something hopeful. Ratification of a kind. Even the post office knows!

But that wooden box is at the heart of these thoughts, looking back. We were all cut off, we long-term travellers. Mail came slowly, erratically, to that holy box on the counter. There was excitement as one walked in late afternoon (arriving too early would beat the delivery over the mountains from the north) to see if anyone had remembered our existence.

Being removed from the people in one’s life didn’t mean forgetting them. Relationships could founder on a declaration that one was going off—alone—for an indefinite period to see if writing a novel was possible. Other relationships could be nourished by the slow pace of mail and the thoughtfulness that went into a long letter, knowing it might be two weeks before it arrived and two more before a reply came back. No dashing off of quick notes then. I called home once a month from one of three telephones behind the counter in that same post office, after the senior postman set up the call. Everyone hanging around could, and did, listen in.

A few weeks into my stay I was bemused and unhappy to have received no mail at all. Surely people liked me more than that? Surely my parents did, at least? A New Zealander named Graeme was headed north through Athens. I asked him to do me a favour and check in with American Express, which used to handle mail for client travellers, to see if they had received the forwarding instructions I had sent. A few days later I arrived at the post office and the counter’s wooden box was All Kay. I had fourteen letters. On one envelope Graeme had scribbled: “I gave them a kick in the ass.”

What lingers in memory. But I owe that man.

I devoured those letters, read each on the breakwater by the harbour in the sun, and then again at night in my room, then over breakfast another time. It was like a tsunami of my life, romance, family, friends. It disrupted that next day, (predictably) as I spent too much time writing replies, knowing how delayed they were by then.

But in the upshot, that “not being there,” away, undistracted, focused, and having told the Immediate Universe before I left that I would return with a novel (self-blackmail, essentially)—all of it worked. I did write that first book, obtain an agent, get interest if not offers from major houses. I did finish The Summer Tree (which had been bought on seven chapters), during a second winter in Galini. And I was similarly productive in Tuscany writing Tigana, and in Aix-en-Provence researching and writing A Song For Arbonne, with focus and concentration. Going away really did mean being away.

Then a change began.

For the world, not just me. Technology began to have its way with us, and with the nature and shape of travel. For me it started, that change, during our third stay in Provence. The Internet had arrived. Laura and I had a three-year-old son, and the ire and dudgeon of grandparents at the mad idea that we’d spirit such a delicate, necessary creature overseas was assuaged only by a promise to try to achieve some sort of email connection. My father-in-law had business email by then, my mother had my brother to relay what we wrote. Agents and editors also made their views known, without ambiguity.

To be clear: there was no high speed internet then, no graphic web at all, this was the age of dial-up modems and the online world was entirely text-based. It was still a revolution.

I recall making a pilgrimage to the campus of Aix-Marseille University with a lawyer friend I’d made, from Washington, DC. We were in search of email access through the university, both armed with letters claiming we had academic connections back home. We met with a bored figure in the computer science department. He shrugged superbly and gave us the dial-up number and the necessary details to enter to be given access. We gave him a bottle of champagne. We’d decided to buy one, just in case. If we’d failed, we’d console ourselves by drinking it later.

Everything changed. Family got news, daily. Sometimes twice daily, if the child did something that could plausibly be deemed adorable. My agents and editors sent queries, updates. Some demands, couched, of course, as requests. I work with courteous people, mostly.

I even remember a moment that might resonate for the Facebook and Twitter and texting generation. It was my epiphany, my discovery that nothing would ever be the same about being away.

I played a decent game of tennis back then, and we had access to a good clay court. My wife and I had befriended an American couple also spending that late winter and spring in Aix. The woman was a former collegiate competitive swimmer. Her husband was alarmingly fit. First thing they’d done, they proudly told us, was join a gym. Our small children played together. C_____ and I played tennis. He was younger, bigger, faster, played a regular game back home and, couldn’t beat me. Cunning and guile and learning an opponent’s likes and dislikes on the court go a long way in tennis.

I will say, without shame, that it pleased me to no end to be able to win those games. But the changed-world story is this: in our very first match, which I’d entered into with glum resignation, figuring I’d at least get a workout while being annihilated on the court, it emerged that I actually knew how to play, and beat, this man.

Then, towards the end, as I was serving out the match, something happened that had never happened before. I began drafting a match report to my brother, as we were still playing.

I knew how to make him laugh, how to phrase the story with both wryness and hyperbole, and I realized I was actually grinning on the court, as I played and as I wrote, in my mind, the opening words of the report I would send.

It is passé today to note something like this. Everyone is online while they engage in their lives. Selfies, snapshots of restaurant food, or “What’s happening?” texts are how we live in the world. But back then, with a champagne-bribe dial-up account, this sense of immediate connection to home was utterly new. And it had already altered how I was, on the tennis court, as we went about our evenings in town, or when we took quick travel sorties around Provence.

I wasn’t “not there” any more. Not in the same way.

Never again would a month of mail suddenly overwhelm. A day or two without an email (from us, to us) would prompt a query. We were being ushered in to a different sort of travel life.

I am not going to editorialize about better or worse. I mostly want to note how it is different. Though I’ll make a point that for me, in one specific way, it is surely better. Once upon a lifetime ago, “not being there” meant the isolation that allowed me to write, in youthful insecurity. Now, being away—but still present online—is what allows these journeys. Being readily in touch with agents, editors, marketing and PR people, interviewers, family and friends is what permits us to go AWOL without actually being absent. It makes it possible to be typing these words in Mexico, and send a draft immediately to those who have asked for them.

In essence, a 180-degree reversal has taken place. Those growing up on a smartphone planet might not even be aware of how profound the alteration is. Those of us who have experienced the before-and-after can only reflect upon it.

I’m profoundly grateful that I can send notes, jokes, essays, photos to people back home. I love the steady back-and-forth, the reassurance as to how people who matter to me are faring. The business part of my writing life would be seriously compromised if I couldn’t be contacted easily. Technology lets me be reached, and reach back, and still be on a rooftop in San Miguel de Allende at the end of a workday, at sunset.

But, and this is an equal truth, for me at least: I still vividly remember the feeling that came as I walked into the Agia Galini post office from a windy winter street, and saw the heavily moustachioed postman raise an eyebrow at me from his desk, as he nodded with newfound respect towards the bulging wooden box on the counter, filled with my suddenly returned life from home.

Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay (@guygavrielkay) has written more than a dozen novels and books of poetry, including Under Heaven and River of Stars.
He was named to the Order of Canada in 2014. His new novel is Children of Earth and Sky.