Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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How far would you travel for inspiration? I ask because I would go to the ends of the earth and I might need a companion one day.

In recent years I have travelled to Chiapas, Mexico, home of the Zapatista Liberation Army. I drove 2000 km over a ten-day period to research a single chapter in The Honey Locust, my novel about a Canadian war journalist. I went there to learn what it means to travel in rebel territory with a formidable army presence stationed everywhere. Needless to say, I found out. The bullet holes in the highway signs are real. Don’t drive at night if you go, is all I’ll say here.

On another trip, I found inspiration in post-Katrina New Orleans, where I was awed by the destruction as much as by the strength of human perseverance. As of this writing, approximately 78% of the former population has returned home, some five years after the hurricane. That tells you how much the native N’Orleaners love their city. It's their inspiration and it will take a lot more than nature to drive them out again.

I also once made the apocryphal drive from Toronto to Key West, Florida. With three of us taking turns at the wheel, it took 21 hours each way. I’d hoped to get invited to a New Years’ Eve party to pick up a little atmosphere for my comic mystery, Death In Key West. What I didn’t realize is that the entire key turns into one big celebration at New Year’s. Bonus!

Most of my trips are carefully planned, but I once went to Palm Springs on a whim. Well, maybe not exactly a whim, but a very strong intuition that said, “Go west.” (Intuitions are not always as specific as you might like them to be.) I showed up at my aunt’s house in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego. It didn’t feel quite where I was meant to be, but I knew it would be a good base of operations.

“What are you doing here?” my aunt Phyllis asked, in a welcoming but bewildered tone.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I’ll find out.”

She lent me her car and I drove to Los Angeles, but that didn’t feel right either. While there, I dropped in on a friend, a very successful screenwriter living in Studio City. My friend is a nice man, but he never does anything on a whim unless he’s paid for it.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, looking suspiciously at my aunt’s VW Rabbit.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I’ll find out.”

Next, I went to the desert. That felt sort of right. Joshua Tree National Park is a mind-blower. The landscape is positively Martian looking. I tried every CD I had to see what soundtrack fit, as I drove mile after mile of deserted highway. Jazz didn’t work. Opera didn’t even begin to make sense of things out there. Finally, I inserted Jimi Hendrix’s acid-rock classic, Electric Ladyland. That worked in every possible way. I was finally getting somewhere.

Eventually, I arrived at the Desert Palms Inn, a sprawling hotel complex in Palm Springs. It has courtyards and gardens and a swimming pool shaped like a giant keyhole. That felt right, too, but in a weird way. Then things got strange. Wandering around the grounds at night, I noticed there were no lights on in any room but mine. Nor were there any cars in the parking lot beside my little VW Rabbit. I took a closer look at the pool, all lit up. The water was covered in algae. That was pretty eerie and probably unhygienic, too.

Just before midnight, I went to the check-in to ask for ice only to discover the desk clerk had vanished, leaving the TV blaring and the computer turned on. I went back to my room. From my window, I could see the blinking sign: Desert Palms Inn. Except, to my mind, it read, “Deserted Palms Inn.” I kept checking back at the office every half hour till 2:30, but the clerk never returned. The same thing happened each night I stayed there.

Palm Springs is a retirement town, so the lights pretty much go out around 9 pm. Bob Hope and his golf tournament made it famous. Lucille Ball once fainted there from an overdose of heat and margaritas, and Liz Taylor recently celebrated her 75th birthday there. It’s not my generation, however, so it never held much interest for me. But there I was and somehow it was feeling Very Right.

OK, I thought. You’ve come all this way on a whim…intuition—whatever…so don’t back out now. Each day, I woke up waiting for “It” to happen. It never dawned on me that I might be insane. Or even just delusional. If I am, then I’m comfortably so.

Early one evening, I found myself in downtown Palm Springs having supper at a chain called Hamburger Mary’s. Although I didn't know it at the time, one of their trademarks is that they bring your meal cheque in a ruby slipper. I ordered a hamburger, but somehow ended up with fried chicken, which I ate before I realized it. Then, I watched as a ruby slipper was delivered to the table next to me. The man pulled out his cheque and sniffed the inside of the slipper. (Not kidding!) I was having what I call a Marx Brothers Night.

After dinner, I found myself standing on a dark corner outside one of the few derelict buildings in town. There was no one around. Or so I thought. Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “Look up in the sky.” I felt a shiver. Without pausing to wonder where the voice had come from, I looked up and saw a passing plane, its lights twinkling. “That’s how they bring in the aliens,” the voice said.

At that moment, I felt the inspiration for an upcoming volume in my Bradford Fairfax comic mystery series. At the same time, I gained a colourful and entirely unexpected character, as well as a title: The Prophet of Palm Springs. I walked away, feverish with the excitement of discovery. Then I thought about the voice. It must have been a street beggar or someone lying on the ground unseen. The least I could do was offer him some money as a token of appreciation for having inspired me. Karma, right?

Not thirty seconds later, I returned to the spot where I’d heard the voice. It was deserted. I looked all around, but, as impossible as it seemed, I saw no one. Whoever or whatever it was, I’m very thankful nonetheless. It’s precisely for experiences like these that I follow my intuition, no matter how bizarre or erratic, no matter how far it takes me. That is what inspires me.

So, I’m thinking Patagonia in the New Year. Any takers?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jeffrey Round

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning writer and director. His most recent novel is The Honey Locust.

Go to Jeffrey Round’s Author Page