I've been working on a book set on the French canals. Working title is “The Gangster, the Putain, and the Floating World.” I don't think this will really work as a title, but I like it anyway. I worked for a month on a tourist barge many years ago, a rich and rewarding experience except when the boat caught fire. Oh, and that time we managed to run aground in a canal, which really takes some doing. Silt had built up unseen. When the boat stopped, the skipper threw me a line as I stood onshore and asked me to pull the 100 foot, steel-hulled boat to a spot where he could moor. What? Why? What's the problem. He didn't explain, just kept telling me to pull the boat. I told him there was no way in the world I could pull an eighty-ton barge up the canal. Of course we couldn't let the guests know we had problems, so this discussion was very quiet, at least at first. As the skip kept telling me to do the impossible I kept saying more loudly variations on, “You're nuts.” He kept insisting. I finally gave it a try and nearly gave myself a hernia. I asked for the tenth time why he couldn't just motor over to the side of the canal. He stage-whispered, “I've run aground.” Oh, right, good! I'm going to move an eighty-ton barge that's stuck in the mud. Sure why not? I was so agitated by this point that I was actually hopping around onshore like a madman. For the life of me, I can't remember exactly how we got it unstuck. Maybe we got everyone off the boat with our tiny lifeboat and then gunned the motor. What does this have to do with my book? Not a lot. Maybe next week I'll share the first chapter.
I work hard to create good characters and interesting plots. Increasingly I realize, though, that all these years I may have been writing, more than anything else, about place. A look at my titles should have clued me in: “Tangier,” “Madagascar”and, looking to a November release, “Sri Lanka.” I also have a work-in-progress, “King's Valley.” Yet, all these aspects – character, plot, setting – tie together. Some places so shape who we are and what we do that they become their own character. The things that happen there would not have played out in the same way anywhere else.
My Foreign Service career changed my life, leading me to experiences I could not have anticipated in places I never imagined I would see. And I have felt an urge, really an obligation, to share what I have learned about the people of other cultures and the things that can happen in them. It's no coincidence that each story revolves around a character new to these places, as I was in each of them. A stranger in a strange land. I also served in Paris and in Mexico, but plenty of Americans have written fine books about those places and, as for now, I don't think I have anything to add.