Writing on Islands – a guest blog from Andrew Blackman

As I write this post, I am gazing out at the following scene:

Andrew' Island View

Andrew’s Island View

On the hillside below me I can hear birds tweeting and the occasional tinkle of one of the bells tied around the necks of grazing goats. It’s all pretty idyllic. In fact, it’s more or less what I imagined when I was a child picturing ‘the writer’s life’.

But of course, life is not a holiday postcard. In this post, I’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the city in search of the ideal writing location.

The pros of island life

1. It’s cheap. When I tell people that I lived on the west coast of Barbados last year, and am in Crete this year, the most common response is to say how lucky I am (jealousy comes in a close second). The assumption seems to be that these places are hopelessly exotic and beyond the reach of everyone except someone with some unspecified ‘luck’.
In fact, the main reason I left London was that I couldn’t afford to live there. In Barbados and now in Crete, I am paying a fraction of my old London rent, and most other costs are cheaper too. What that means is that I can concentrate on writing, and not have to take on other work just to pay the bills. I’m not lucky; I’m an economic migrant.

2. It’s inspiring. Take another look at that photo I posted. Now imagine yourself sitting on a balcony with a laptop on your knees, gazing out at the sea whenever you’re lost for a word. Picture occasional ships gliding to and fro across a peaceful sea that subtly changes colour as the sun moves across the sky. You can’t fail to be inspired. You have to come up with an entirely new set of excuses for not writing.

3. It’s practical. Not so long ago, moving abroad meant finding work locally, unless you were in the happy position of being able to live purely off your publisher’s generous advances and royalties. Now, it’s easy to stay in touch with all your London contacts, get freelance assignments and make a living through the magic of the internet.

The Cons

1. The logistics are a nightmare. Shipping boxes of stuff from London to Barbados, back to London and then to Crete is expensive, ridiculous and time-consuming. I ended up selling off a lot of my stuff, including some treasured books, just because it’s so impractical to keep transferring them. But no matter how minimalist your lifestyle, there’s still a substantial transition cost every time you move. We came to Crete knowing nothing about where we’d live, so had to hire a car and drive around looking at places and staying in hotels for a couple of weeks before we got an apartment. All in all it cost several thousand pounds (partly paid for by the selling, but still a substantial drain).

2. You miss events. Although I said earlier on that you can stay in touch and get work via the internet, you still miss out on the important face to face stuff. Since leaving, I’ve been invited to give three talks and appear at a literary festival, which is particularly annoying since those invitations were not flooding in at the same rate when I was in London. I’m going to do one of the talks via a Skype connection, but I’ve had to decline the others. And it’s a lot harder to sell books over Skype.

3. You’re not connected with your subject. All of my books and the bulk of my short stories have been set in England, mostly in London. It’s where I grew up, and it’s the place I know best. And yet I’ve been living away from it for almost two years now. I missed the Olympics and a lot of other new developments. I’m slowly losing touch with what it means to be a Londoner. There’s a danger that I’ll keep dredging the same old barrel of images, and my writing will become stale, fossilized in the London of 2011.
Non-writers tell me ‘Oh, that’s great – you can set your next novel in Crete!’ The reality is that to write a novel in which the setting is actually important and not a mere backdrop, you have to know it really well. I lived in New York for six years, and didn’t feel qualified to write a New York novel. London is still what I know, and I think I’ll continue to write about it, even as I drift further and further away.

© Andrew Blackman 2013

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