I've been traveling in the UK and Ireland for the last few weeks, doing a little publicity for Calling Me Home, but mostly just spending time with my family, staying in all the places I researched for hours and hours before we came, visiting the sights, eating the food, getting lost on the roads. (Mainly in Ireland--everywhere else, just lost in the neighborhoods!)
People love fiction because it takes us places we may not be able to visit ourselves, puts us in situations or relationships we might like to be in, but can't, and basically, allows us to live other lives. And a strange result of that is the stories, for the most part, are untarnished by reality.
In reality, traveling for nearly three weeks with my family hasn't been the fantasy version of a family trip to England, Ireland, and Scotland I've carried in my mind for the five years since I first visited some of these same places with my husband. I dreamed of this trip. We saved frequent flyer miles obsessively to make it affordable. And it was going to be perfect, right?
Just to note a few things from our last fifteen days ....
My teenagers like to sleep. They like to eat when they like to eat. They like to stay connected to their friends and they get homesick even when they are in the Highlands or the Emerald Isle.
We ride a train from London to Edinburgh and the air conditioner in our coach is broken. As usual, we have brought the heat wave with us from Texas, and the country is experiencing record heat. We are kept company by a "hen party"--a group of about ten young women returning from a bachelorette weekend. They are drunk and rowdy and singing at the top of their lungs. It's four long, miserable hours. My husband and daughter take turns standing in the space between cars where they find a little breeze.
My husband and I bicker over directions as much in Ireland and London as we do at home. Well, maybe more. The GPS gets a little confused. We can't remember if the castle we see from a distance is the RIGHT castle and argue about it until we spot the house we're renting, because we use the castle as a landmark to find it.
The car air conditioner has funky controls and doesn't make sense to me, but it makes perfect sense to the other three passengers, so they get all hot and bothered when I, closest to the controls, can't make the car cooler in less than ten seconds.
In a pub, we stand awkwardly to the side, squeezed into a doorway while we "listen to Irish music in the Irish Music Capital of the Word." We leave after 20 minutes because it's unbearably hot and we really don't know how to do this. How do you order? How do you pay? Do you tip? Do you sit if you're not drinking? Can a 15-year-old even be in this place?
We realize the house we're staying in, advertised as having "washer and tumble dryer," really only has a washer, and though I guess clothes tumbling in the breeze from the window while hanging on a rack counts, I pray the underwear I washed will be dry before morning, because I'm out.
We plan to make spaghetti one night to save money and because it seemed like the easiest thing to cook in another country. We realize we forgot Parmesan cheese, so we make a side trip of ten extra miles to grab some at the nearest supermarket--about the size of the local convenience store at home, and if possible, even less choice. It's unclear if the one canister labeled "grated cheese" really is Parmesan cheese or not. But we buy it and come home. We brown the "mince," not sure it's actually good as the refrigerator isn't quite as cold as the one at home and it looks and smells a little off. We eat, praying our stomachs don't start heaving before morning, and throw about half of the finished dish away because ground beef in Ireland doesn't taste like ground beef in Texas and nobody really likes it.
Anyway, you get the picture. This is nothing like the romantic visions of Ireland or Scotland or England I signed up for when I read Maeve Binchy or Rosamunde Pilcher. This is real life.
And of course there have been moments on this trip when I've looked around and thought, yes, this is what I was going for. This was my dream trip.
The moment in another pub tonight when I was swept up in the music, immersed in the sense of being in a "real Irish pub" and in the feeling that we were doing it right this time.
The moment when we laughed hysterically along the narrow, narrow road at the sign that said, "Dangerous Fridge Ahead"--some teenager's prank, a B changed to an F.
The moment when we sat in an Italian restaurant on the High Street in Edinburgh and practically lapped up the delicious carbonara sauce left in our dishes after the pasta was gone.
The moment when my daughter turned to me and said, "It's pretty amazing to be in Ireland."
But if all these perfect moments were written into a story within the context of the others, the reader would be pretty stressed out--maybe even bored.
And it makes me realize that authors have something extra in our job description I hadn't seen so clearly before:
Make fiction better than life. Take the reader away. Even if the story isn't all roses, even if it's dark, give the reader in the best possible version of a setting, a situation, a relationship. Reality may never be as perfect as fiction, but in the long run, it's why we read.