Authors shape their work one calendar page at a time. By Jenna SchnuerAlready fretting over all those to-dos you're planning for 2007? Take a break from your life and check out one of our favorite trends in publishing: "year of" books. Ever since Peter Mayle first published A Year in Provence back in 1990 (yes, it was that long ago), authors aplenty have used that handy-dandy unit of time as their framework of choice for books about their doings. We checked in with three "year of" authors to see why this time frame is such a useful literary device and what made their year in question memorable.
This is your second "year of" book, and you're working on your third. What is it about a year that works for you?
It took me a long time to figure out it was a suitable framework. I tend to be rather impulsive, and I do love travel. Then my wife said, "You know, I don't get to join you on enough of these trips. Why can't we try a different rhythm altogether? Why can't we pick one place and go and live there for a good chunk of the year and focus a lot more on its authenticity, on its heritage, on why it's important, and bring back more resonance, bring back the deeper story about the people who live there, about their customs, about the way they see life?"
How far into your first "year of" title, Seasons in Basilicata: A Year in a Southern Italian Hill Village, did you realize the difference between the kind of reporting you've done in the past and what you were doing then?
All the way along. I [knew how to] do a big piece with many layers and levels on a region in a month or six weeks. I kind of knew how to touch the bases, but I hadn't been able to express the authenticity of places in depth. What I was looking for was, "What can we learn from these places before we lose them?" [The places I write about in these books] all have the seed of their own decline already fermenting.
A decade ago, Princeton professor Leonard Barkan spent time in Rome for a book about ancient sculpture. The academic revisited that year in a more personal way in his book Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24). "I got to Rome and didn't know a single human being," says Barkan. "I very easily could have been utterly solitary. My Italian at that point was not so very good. At the end of that year, I had a farewell party with 45 people. It was a year in which I had to invent a new life - and succeeded."
How did you reconstruct that year?
I had written a lot of letters that year. So I had this wad of writing that already was the kind of writing I was trying to do. In the end, it was interesting how very little of those letters came into the book. I never wrote a single word of it in Rome. I always seemed to be writing it in America. That partly informs the kind of book it is. The story is very much recollected and remembered, reinterpreted. [I] discovered … that memory is like other faculties; it really gets better if you exercise it. I discovered when I had some sort of cue, whether it was a picture or something I had said in a letter, I would have extraordinary memory discoveries of things that had happened to me.
What does a year mean to you?
If you're an academic, it's overwhelmingly characteristic to measure one's life in years. It's now interesting, being back in Rome and talking to many of the people who are in the book, that they don't remember what year it was that we all met; hardly any of them can remember. To a person, they think it was longer ago than it was. But I always remember what year things happen because I have this academic calendar. I never left school. The year is a very powerful marker to me.
Most writers don’t really retire — they dream up a big project and write a book about it. That’s just what Barry Golson did for Gringos in Paradise: An American Couple Builds Their Retirement Dream House in a Seaside Village in Mexico (Scribner, $26).
Why is a year such a handy tool for a writer?
The honest truth is that I didn’t go down there with the idea that this was going to take a year. My wife and I set out in November of ’04 to try out retirement and to buy a lot and build a house in Mexico that would be our dream house — because I had fallen in love with a little village on the coast. I really didn’t know how long it was going to be before I started writing, before I understood what the time frame of the book would be. By the following November, just before Thanksgiving, in a rush of craziness, we finished our house and, at the same time, invited my entire family down [for] Thanksgiving. We were nuts; our bank account was depleted, but we’d had the adventure of our lives. It couldn’t have been a better ending. It couldn’t have been more perfect. This is a long way of saying it was serendipity. I didn’t plan the year, but it sure worked out.
Did you write throughout the year?
There’s an old saying that good poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” My prose was emotion recollected two weeks later.