Novel Destinations — Author Interview

Novel Destinations cover. . . In our travels near and far, we’ve not only looked to novels to provide a new dimension to our travel experiences, but equally, we’ve sought out the literary places in our travels that will give us a deeper perspective on the books we cherish.
Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, Novel Destinations

If you love to read and to travel (and to read while you travel!) you will feel as though the authors of Novel Destinations wrote their informative and delightful book just for you. Subtitled A Travel Guide to Literary Landmarks From Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, this comprehensive handbook, including 500 literary sites,  is a dream come true for traveling bibliophiles. I think I used a whole pad of Post-it notes marking all the bookish places I want to visit. Like the authors (“two lifelong voracious readers who share an equally passionate appetite for exploration”), I prepare for a trip by reading novels about the area I’m preparing to visit.

The authors at Washington Irving’s estate in Tarrytown, NY

Part of the appeal of Novel Destinations is its creative organization and beautiful design. The book is divided into two sections, “Travel by the Book”, which covers literary experiences (author houses and museums, writers at home and abroad, literary festivals and tours, and book-related lodgings, restaurants, and bars), and “Journeys Between the Pages”, which describes in depth eleven locales immortalized by famed novelists. The two authors spent years traveling the world collecting information — from locations, dates, and hours to reading suggestions and fun literary trivia and gossip.

Shannon was kind enough to answer, in detail, my questions about her top tdestinations and her favorite books, authors, and characters. She even shared a few packing tips!

Of all the “novel destinations” you’ve visited, was there one that a) surprised you the most and b) disappointed (or underwhelmed you) the most? Can you pick your very favorite literary destination — one that you’d return to again and again?

A place that surprised me is Alexandre Dumas’ Château de Monte Cristo near Paris for how completely imaginative it is. First you walk along a wooded path and through man-made grottos, then past a waterfall and a moat-encircled pavilion Dumas used as his office. Finally, you reach the castle, which looks like a confection made of stone. One of the highlights inside is the ornate and colorful Moorish Room, designed by Tunisian craftsmen Dumas brought back with him after visiting the African nation. The Château de Monte Cristo is a domain worthy of an adventure writer.

Honestly, I haven’t been disappointed in any of the literary sites I’ve visited. Moderating expectations is a good idea, though, depending on the place because each one really is unique. Some are lavish like Sir Walter Scott’s castle in the Scottish border country, whereas Edgar Allan Poe’s tiny cottage in New York City reflects his hardscrabble circumstances. Mark Twain’s richly designed and decorated house in Connecticut incorporates his love of travel, while W.B. Yeats’ stone tower in the Irish countryside contains no furnishings but plenty of atmosphere.

Hemingway Home in Key WestA literary landmark that I have returned to again and again is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. I’ve been there three times, taking the excellent and entertaining tour on each visit. Although I confess it’s not only the literary aspect that draws me to the Hemingway Home. There are 50 or so cats that live on the property and have the run of the house and grounds, even sleeping in Hemingway’s bedroom. A ship’s captain gave Hemingway a six-toed cat named Snow White, and some of the felines that live there today are its descendants. With the combination of a literary connection and cats, the Hemingway Home is pretty much my version of heaven.

What would your five “desert island” books be? I find it impossible to choose just one, but if you can — go for it!

71ptfhgn4clIt doesn’t seem fair to select a novel by just one Brontë sister, so I would have to go with Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne). Plus while reading the books I could reminisce about visiting Brontë Country, the atmospheric moors in West Yorkshire, England.

Rounding out my picks would be two of my favorite travel books: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (gossipy and lyrical) and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the ultimate road trip memoir.

Do you read electronically when you travel, or do you carry paper books with you? What’s your favorite reading location — on a plane, a beach, a cafe, your hotel room . . .? Have you ever been stranded anywhere without anything to read?

I was slow coming around to the idea of an e-reader, but now I wouldn’t travel without one. It means you have a current read plus a choice of back-up books at the ready; it has built-in lighting, which is handy when sharing a hotel room with another person who wants to turn in earlier than you do; and it saves space. I spent the last three years trekking around the globe with a 40-litre backpack as my main piece of luggage, and there wasn’t much room to spare. And since I’ve been using an e-reader while traveling, I’ve never been caught without anything to read (every bibliophile’s nightmare!). Even if I’m somewhere with no shops around or finish a book late at night in a hotel room, I can download something .

I read printed books, too, especially when I’m in a fixed location for a while and don’t need to tote them along. On a book exchange shelf at a ferry terminal along Alaska’s Inside Passage, I found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and devoured it during the ride instead of admiring the scenery.

My favorite place to read is at the beach, with sitting in front of a roaring fire a close second—the latter is more of a fantasy, though, since it rarely happens.

Can you share any special packing tips for travelers? Anything you can’t leave home without?

m_56df5ef73c6f9f87d700d6c4Mostly my packing tips are about saving space, honed during years of living from a backpack. Some of my favorites: exfoliating soap bars (no need to carry both bath gel and a mesh scrubby; has a ton of varieties), a sun hat that can be rolled up (ones made of grosgrain ribbon are attractively detailed and sturdy enough to keep their shape), and Butterfly Twists folding ballet flats. And I always have a pashmina or other large scarf with me. It can double as a blanket on an airplane and comes in handy as a cover-up when visiting churches or temples.

What were your favorite books as a child?

I trace my wanderlust back to a book I read as a kid: an illustrated children’s version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The thrilling story was like a siren’s song with its depictions of distant ports of call. I was also partial to biographies about women like Clara Barton and Marie Curie. And Nancy Drew mysteries.

If you could meet a fictional character (or two), who would you pick?

Sleuthing with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson would be a great adventure. We would then cap off a day of detecting with a stop at the Museum Tavern, a London pub across from the British Museum where Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular.

1934If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?

I once took an online quiz, “Which Classic Literary Character Are You?”, and it came up with Jo March. Which seems appropriate because Novel Destinations was partly inspired by a trip I took to Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, with my mother, sister, and niece. Visiting Orchard House is like stepping into the pages of Little Women.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you want to know?

I would love an invitation to visit Edith Wharton at The Mount, her grand Berkshires estate. (She designed the 42-room house and elaborate gardens herself.) We would sit on the terrace and reminisce about our travels, including her journeys to Malta, the Italian Alps, and other destinations. Joining us would be Henry James, Wharton’s close friend and a regular guest at The Mount. The two once traveled together through France and toured the home of French feminist writer George Sand, whom they both admired. True literary travelers, the duo even nicknamed their car “George” in her honor.

9780345516541And finally — what’s the best book you’ve read recently (in the past year or so)?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan has adventure and romance, lovely writing and a literary angle. It’s a novel featuring Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Osbourne, how they met and their remarkable life together, which took them from an art colony in France to the South Seas. The story made me cry at the end, which I consider the sign of a good book.


Why I Love Epistolary Novels – and Real Letters

9781101971390If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Roger Angell, This Old Man: All in Pieces

Dear Fellow Bookworms,

When I was in grade school, I learned to write what was called the Friendly Letter. The Friendly Letter always included the Complimentary Close — “Yours truly”, “Your friend”, “Sincerely”, or “Love”. (Mrs. Pierce, my third grade teacher, warned us only to use “Love” when writing to a family member.) There are dozens of ways to end a letter, from the ubiquitous “Best”, (best what? I always wonder),”Fondly”, “Regards”, to the more elaborate closings of days gone by. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for example, ends this way: “This salutation by my own hand–Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.” Thomas Jefferson popularized the closing, “Your most humble and most obedient servant”. Charles Dickens often closed personal letters with the charming phrases “Ever your affectionate friend” or “Yours heartily and affectionately”.

cover-1-jpg-rendition-460-707Mina Harker, one of Dracula’s victims, closes her letters by saying “Your ever-loving Mina Harker.” Frankenstein’s ill-fated fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, ends a letter with “Adieu! Take care of yourself, and I entreat you, write!”. What do these two characters have in common? They both appear in epistolary novels, books written either entirely or mostly in letters.

When you read a good epistolary novel, you have a sense of immediacy and realism that’s usually not found in a book narrated in the first or third person. You feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a cache of private letters. I think the first novel of this type I read was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, published in 1912. It’s the story of a young girl raised in an orphanage who, through the help of a mysterious benefactor with whom she corresponds, is able to attend college. Katherine Reay wrote an absolutely delightful, and award-winning novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, which is a modern version of the Daddy-Long-Legs story.

Over the years, many of my favorite novels have been based on letters:

  • Alice Walker’s modern classic, The Color Purple, tells Celie’s story through her letters to God.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, aunt and niece) is a series of letters from a London writer to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey.
  • In Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, a young poet from the remote Isle of Skye receives a fan letter from an American student, and their correspondence turns into a complicated love affair.
  • Marilyn Robinson’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, is a letter from a dying minister to his young son.
  • Carlene Bauer based Frances and Bernard on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Like Gilead, this novel is concerned with the characters’ spiritual lives.
  • In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a brilliant teenager tries to track down her missing mother — and Maria Semple used letters, emails, blog posts, notes, and interview transcripts involving a wacky cast of characters to show just how she does that.
  • Julie Schumacher cleverly assembled a hilarious novel made up solely of recommendation letters that a beleaguered English professor is constantly called upon to write in Dear Committee Members.
  • Code Name Verity, a YA novel by Elizabeth Wein, is the gripping story of two young British women captured in occupied France during World War II, told through the “confessions” they write to their interrogators.
  • A completely different YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky) is a coming-of-age story consisting of letters from a shy and precocious teenager to an unnamed recipient.

51691419-1Of course, sometimes only real letters will do. I treasure several anthologies of letters from both famous and ordinary people.  War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Andrew Carroll) and Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (edited by Shaun Usher). Volume 2 of Letters of Note just came out last month, and I’m savoring every letter. My all-time favorite epistolary book is Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (which, surprisingly, was made into a movie that does justice to the book), which chronicles a 20-year correspondence between Hanff, a writer in New York, and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. Another favorite is My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, which contains just a fraction of the 1,100 letters that the couple wrote to each other during the many separations they endured over the course of their 54-year marriage. Their letters bring the world of this country’s founders alive more than any other surviving documents.

signed-sealed-delivered-9781451687163_hrIn a recent book called Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, Nina Sankovitch describes finding a trunk filled with hundreds of letters in a shed attached to a house her family was renovating in the Upper West Side of New York. The letters belonged to the original owners of the home, the Seligman family, and the vast majority of them were written by James Seligman to his parents (whom he addressed as “Dearest Mamma” or “Darling Parents”) during his years at Princeton, 1908-1912. Nina feels that rereading the letters James left behind “proves all over again, the power of the written, the handwritten, word.” Aside from a listing on an online family tree, James left no other evidence of his life. Nina says:

Paper and ink have created a lasting connection between James and me. The connection has made me a better person, if only for having laughed so much and indulged in so much pleasurable company through his letter. And isn’t that what we say about our friends, that they have enriched our lives and made us better people?

Ever your affectionate friend,

Ann @ Books on the Table


Annoying Things People Do on Airplanes

I know from experience that traveling with small children is no picnic. I sympathize with parents trapped with children at airports and on planes, remembering very well how difficult it is to entertain squirmy, fussy, tired children in an enclosed space. In the pre-iPad era, we relied on books, travel games, and snacks to keep the kids happy.

At an airport gate recently, I made the mistake of sitting near a parent who had a  different, but highly creative, solution to her children’s boredom. When they started to whine, she reached into her big Mary Poppins bag and voila! She pulled out two harmonicas, and the little cherubs’ pouts turned into smiles as they competed to see who could play his harmonica more loudly.

Untitled-5Since I was at the gate, not strapped into an airplane seat, I was able to move out of earshot of the impromptu concert, crossing my fingers that the young musicians would not be seated near me on the plane. I was really looking forward to finishing my book, Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees.

If you like to read, a plane trip can be a little piece of heaven. Several hours of peaceful, uninterrupted reading time, out of touch with the world below. I know many planes offer wifi now, but why pay for that? The best thing about flying — besides getting to your destination — is the sense of being disconnected from the world, immersed in a book.

Sometimes, though, it seems that my fellow passengers have conspired to make sure that doesn’t happen. I can deal with crying babies — it’s not their fault their ears hurt, and almost always, their poor parents are trying hard to soothe them. It’s the adult behavior that drives me nuts.

I’m a sociable person, but  don’t want to talk to anyone on a plane, and that includes family members. My husband’s solution is headphones — he immediately puts them on, whether he is listening to something or not, assuming that most people will not strike up a conversation with someone wearing headphones. The last time I tried this, Chatty Cathy in the next seat wanted to know what I was listening to. Nothing, I wanted to say. They’re just a prop to keep nice people like you from talking to me. I think one reason people leave my husband alone on planes is because he’s male. Women are sitting ducks; we’re supposed to be friendly and accommodating. I’d like to go on about men taking up more than more share of the space and hogging the armrests, but I don’t want to alienate my male readers, so I’ll stop.

“What are you reading? What’s that about?” I dread those questions.I love talking with people about books, but not on planes. Disturbing a reader on a plane is like approaching a marathon runner in the middle of a race — “How’s it going? How much longer? Where did you get those sneakers? How much did they cost?”  Sometimes I just hold up the book, showing the cover, and smile. A couple of years ago, I was reading a book about World War II on a four-hour flight, and I made the mistake of being overly polite to the man next to me when he asked me about the book. I was treated to a monologue about his father’s experience in the war, which involved working on a farm in Nebraska because he was unfit for service.

You can order this T-shirt from

I am always interested in what other people are reading, and one of the worst things about e-readers is that snoopy people like me can’t tell if someone is reading Fifty Shades of Gray or Anna Karenina. I once broke my own rule about talking to people on planes when I noticed my male seatmate was reading Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. I asked him how he liked it, and he told me it was his wife’s book club selection, so he thought he’d give it a try, even though it was a “chick book”.  I asked him why a book about a woman is a “chick book”, while a book about a man is just a book. That was the end of our conversation.

I should have kept my thoughts to myself the way I do when I see the following:

• People who fidget restlessly throughout the flight, flipping through the in-flight magazine.  They are wasting a golden opportunity; why didn’t they just bring a book?

• People who allow loud music to escape from their headphones.

• People who send their young children on a plane as “unaccompanied minors” and provide them with no form of amusement. I was once seated next to a seven-year-old boy who came aboard with nothing but a jacket and a pack of gum. Guess who entertained him for two hours?

• People who travel with small, yapping dogs. One time, my son and I sat across from a woman with a dog who yelped during the entire flight. She kept telling the dog that if he would be quiet, he’d get a treat when we landed.

• People who bring hot food on the plane — well, food that was once hot. I’ve seen people sit at the gate for an hour or more, clutching a bag of greasy McDonald’s food or a pizza box, and then decide, when the plane is airborne, that the time is right to treat everyone nearby to the aroma of fast food.

rosie-project-9781476729091_lgI did not have to sit near the harmonica-playing duo on the plane. Instead, I sat across from a young mother who had an infant in a front carrier and a two-year-old in the seat beside her. Both children fell asleep within 20 minutes of takeoff. (This never once happened to me, I want you know.) She ordered a Bloody Mary, settled back in her seat, opened her book (The Rosie Project, I couldn’t help but notice) and smiled at me. “Pure bliss, right?” I said to her.

Books on the Table in New Orleans

New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture – even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.
Ruta Sepetys

2957291075_51fce98859Most American cities name their airports for politicians (Reagan, JFK) or military heroes (Logan, O’Hare). Not New Orleans. The New Orleans airport is named after one of the 20th century’s most beloved musicians, Louis Armstrong — which signals to visitors that the city has a unique character. Tennessee Williams reportedly said, “America only has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

tennessee_williams_nywtsWe left the subzero weather behind in “Cleveland” (which in our case was Chicago) last weekend and spent three days in Tennessee Williams’s adopted city. During our food tour, which included six stops at New Orleans restaurants, we saw the house in the French Quarter where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. (I don’t think the eight miles we walked that day came even close to burning the calories we consumed!) Kenneth Holditch, Ph.D., longtime friend of Williams, co-editor of the Library of America’s editions of Williams’s works, and the author of Tennessee Williams and the South, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that  “New Orleans was created by writers and visual artists . . . Sherwood Anderson once said this is a ‘city of imagination.’”

IMG_1838For me, no vacation is complete without at least one bookstore visit. On our first day, we stumbled upon Beckham’s Bookshop in the French Quarter , which was everything a used bookstore should be — quirky, dusty, and packed with treasures. There was even a resident cat. My favorite section in the store was “True Crime and Rascality”. Because I’m unable to walk out of a bookstore without buying something, I picked up a copy of The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, by Julia Reed. Reed, a journalist, got married and moved to the Garden District of New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina struck. The New York Times critic, literary biographer Blake Bailey, gave the book a rave review despite his initial misgivings:

I really wanted to pan this book. First of all, with the exception of Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, I tend to dislike literature about New Orleans (oh the decadence! the quaintness!) . . . It’s also a Hurricane Katrina memoir. I’d considered writing my own Katrina memoir, and now I realize I probably never will.

Reed includes her “Favorite New Orleans Reads” at the back of the book.  She recommends, among others,  The Moviegoer (“it remains, even now, an accurate rendering of a certain subset of upper-class New Orleanians”); Bandits, by Elmore Leonard (“You can almost smell the inside of the Bourbon Street bars”); and The Feast of All Saints, by Anne Rice (“No vampires, just free people of color in pre-Civil War New Orleans”).

y648We rode the famous St. Charles streetcar to uptown New Orleans and visited a lovely independent bookstore, Octavia Books. I bought two more books: My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal, by Peter M. Wolf,and a signed copy of Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza. Piazza wrote his book in 2005, during “five agonizing weeks” following Hurricane Katrina. The updated edition, published in 2015, includes information about the city’s recovery. In the preface, Piazza says:

As long as New Orleans exists, it will attract the imaginative, the creative, the adventurous, and the soulful people of the world. Walking down almost any street and drinking in the cocktail of historical resonance, architectural whimsy, olfactory magic, savoring the peculiar mix of seriousness and play, of new possibilities, good and bad, around any corner, will remind you of why it is good to be alive.

IMG_1840Thousands of adventurous people were in evidence on Saturday afternoon during the memorial parade for David Bowie. The parade, led by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Arcade Fire, was announced on social media just two days ahead of time but attracted Bowie fans and curiosity seekers from all over. Even though we didn’t have appropriate attire (space suits, tutus, gold lame), we jumped into the fray and followed the parade. At one point, we were just a few feet away from Win Butler of Arcade Fire, who was dressed in a hot pink suit and singing Bowie’s “Heroes”.

Poster for the American Library Association marketing campaign, 1987

Apparently David Bowie was a world-class reader. Geoffrey Marsh, who curated the Victoria & Albert Museum retrospective exhibit of Bowie’s life,  describes Bowie as “a voracious reader” who often read as much as “a book a day”. Bowie told Vanity Fair that reading was his idea of perfect happiness — and that the quality he most admires in a man is “the ability to return books”.  According to the London Telegraph, Bowie (“a remarkably well-read man”) brought hundreds of books with him when he went on tour: “I had these cabinets– it was a travelling library — and they were rather like the boxes that amplifiers get packed up in . . . I have an extraordinarily good collection of books.” Readers who are interested in Bowie’s  100 favorite books can check out the list here. The books, both fiction and nonfiction, cover an enormous range of territory; art, music, history, religion, psychology, and poetry. I haven’t read (or even heard of) many of them, but we do share one favorite: Fran Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life.

0802130208John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, set in New Orleans, appears on Bowie’s list. I’ve never read this book, which is often referred to as a “cult classic” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Walker Percy said, “It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragi-comedy is at least made available to a world of readers.” If it weren’t for Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces would most likely never have been published. He was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans when Toole’s mother brought him her late son’s novel. Percy championed the book, and Louisiana State University Press published it. The book was the first novel from an academic press to win a Pulitzer — beating  out Percy’s novel, The Second Coming.

Rhoda Faust, owner of Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans, also helped Toole’s mother find a publisher. She told the Times-Picayune that the novel “captures New Orleans better than anything else on the face of the earth ever has”, but that it’s popular with readers everywhere: “Humor translates . . . the people within A Confederacy of Dunces are going through the same things other people and their families are going through.”

Susan Larson, author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans and host of the local NPR affiliate’s show on books, “This Reading Life”, says: “Few American cities have such a visible and inviting literary culture, played out on its streets every day.” Larson often reads two books a day — when she was a judge for the Pulitzer, she had to read 300 books in six months. That New Orleans reader could put the rest of us — including David Bowie — to shame!