I started in New Zealand. For nearly six months I was extremely intense and not very friendly. It was my second six-month stay and people understood. During the first six months I had volunteered in a local school in the Maori village of Manaia; I had to give that up. And I ventured out less often and invited people over very infrequently. The first time I rented the house by myself. This time I shared it with Jean, the owner. She was great and totally respectful of my quirky focus. My friends, Ray and Barbara Richards, literary agents, were cheering me on, but the writing was sluggish and I was frustrated.
After six months my extended visa was used up and I had to leave. I moved into a friend’s apartment in New York. She was off in San Diego and I paid the very reasonable rent (for New York City) of $1,000 a month, more than I paid anywhere I’d been for the last fifteen years, but a fabulous deal for a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.
Then I paid a visit to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, the one with the lions that’s in all the movies. They have this room there called, The Allen Room. It’s just for writers who have legitimate contracts with publishers. You actually have to bring in the contract and they photocopy it and then give you an electronic key to the door of the magic room.
There are cubicles with beautiful desks, Aeron chairs that I see advertised in the Times for $799, unbelievably comfortable, and shelves. You can leave your things there overnight and you can do your research on an in-room computer. You do have to bring your slips to the reading room, but then they deliver the books to your desk and you get to keep them for weeks.
The best part of the Allen Room is that there are all these other people struggling with words and suffering as much as you are. There’s no talking except in the hall and everyone honors the silence. I met Laura who’s doing a history of American women through their cooking, and Betsy who is writing about women and their image as sirens. And Gloria who was nearly finished with her history of New York City, and others who were extremely esoteric and academic……Joyce, ballet, etc. I loved working there and I went to my Allen Room office every day except Sunday.
I did not do anything else during the writing of TALES OF A FEMALE NOMAD. I didn’t call friends or go to theatre or read other people’s books. I read newspapers, magazines and watched TV. And mostly I cooked, almost always stir-fried something.
The problem was that I was writing about a fifteen year period during which I did not keep journals, take pictures, or record anything. In order to call up the details, I had to reenter the places I was writing about and recreate the scenes so that I would remember the details. I spent most of the year in a mild trance, revisiting those scenes and wandering the routes I had taken with the people who were a part of my experiences. It worked. As I walked again, in my head, down the streets in Antigua, I noticed people and remembered incidents and even conversations. Then I could sit and write what I had just recalled. It was a fascinating experience.