Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Journey is Inspiration

(illustration © 2013 by James Rumford)
As I mentioned in my last post, I was asked to write an essay for the website It is titled “It’s Not the Destination. It’s the Journey.” The essay is now up on their site 
Even so, I thought I’d post the essay here with some illustrations from my books.

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Some people are pretty much focused on where they are going. The journey doesn’t matter. It is just a means to an end. These people sleep through a train ride or a car ride. They read a magazine or a newspaper on the subway or bus and always seem a bit relieved when they have arrived.

I’ve never been that type of person. I am one of those who can’t read on trains or go to sleep on bus rides. There is just too much to see, too much for me to think about as scene after scene unfolds before my eyes. I’m not looking through a window in a car or a train or an airplane. I’m watching a magical television screen with drama at every step of the way.

In my book Calabash Cat, An Amazing Journey, I explore the notion of destination versus journey. Calabash Cat wants to find out where the world ends. He sets off down the road, but when it ends, he is convinced that this, too, is where the world ends. A camel comes by and tells him the world is far greater and offers to show him. But when the camel gets to the edge of the desert where the grasslands begin, he stops and says, “This is the end of the world.” Of course, it isn’t, for a horse happens by and offers to expand Calabash Cat’s world even further. It turns out though that each animal Calabash Cat encounters, lives in a limited world. Finally, in despair, Calabash Cat sits down and laments, “I’ll never find the end of the world.” It is at that moment we understand the yin and yang of destination and journey. An eagle appears and offers to take the cat on an amazing flight—around the world. Suddenly we see the illusion of destination. All is journey.

(illustration © 2013 by James Rumford)
Calabash Cat, An Amazing Journey came as a result of spending several years working on Traveling Man, the Journey of Ibn Batuta, 1325-1354. Ibn Battuta was a true traveler, in every sense of the word. In 1325, at the age of twenty-one, he set off for Mecca from his home in Tangiers. What was to be a holy pilgrimage turned into a pilgrimage of a different sort. Ibn Battuta did not return for over thirty years, but traveled the known world through Africa and Asia, even staying for a while in the jewel of Christendom at the time, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). When he returned he dictated his travels to a Moroccan secretary. The book that emerged was filled with all of the exaggerations you might find in a medieval book, but there was also the truth of a man who had seen and done much. 

As you might gather, Ibn Battuta’s book was detailed and complicated. In order to cut it down to size for a children’s picture book, I decided to summarize whole pages, even chapters by making up what might sound like proverbs about traveling. When Ibn Battuta told about how lonely he had been on the road shortly after he had begun his journey and how overjoyed he was when a stranger took him in, I wrote: Traveling—it makes you lonely then gives you a friend. I followed this formula through the book. When he arrived in Jerusalem, I wanted to show his exuberance: Traveling—it offers you a hundred roads to adventure, and gives your heart wings! When he returned home, after years away, I wrote: Traveling—it gives you a home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.  But by far, my feeling about Ibn Battuta and his book can be summed up by this: Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

To me traveling and storytelling go together. Every voyage is made of the building blocks of any good story. Every voyage has a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps this is why so many great books begin on a train or a boat or simply, when one steps out the door. You the reader know that, as mundane as locking the front door is, soon something will occur and a story will begin to unfold. All Alice had to do was follow that rabbit down the hole. The wandering sailor Ishmael found himself aboard the Pequod. Dorothy was carried away on a tornado. And didn’t Harry Potter’s adventures begin when he took that train from platform 9 3/4?

Not all of my books deal with traveling, but many of them do. In The Cloudmakers (1996), the action unfolds after a grandfather and grandson set off looking for work as they wander through the western most reaches of eighth-century China. In the Island-below-the-Star (1998), I tell the story of Polynesian navigators who first came to the Hawaiian Islands over fifteen-hundred years ago. And recently in Chee-lin, A Giraffe’s Journey (2008), I relate the tale of the first giraffe to go to China in the early fifteenth century and his trip from Africa to Bengal and finally on to Beijing.
(illustration © 2013 by James Rumford)
In Chee-lin, I put forward the idea that the journey is never over. By the end of the book, Tweega, the giraffe, is old. We gather that he has died. Even so, I write:

        Some say that heaven’s messengers took him home that summer’s day.
Other’s say that he escaped from the imperial park. They mention a gate left open by a careless servant girl. But how could that be? Surely, someone would have spotted a tall-necked beast roaming the streets of Peking.
(illustration © 2013 by James Rumford)
Perhaps this is another reason why stories of voyages are so compelling to writers. The stories they craft have the possibility of being open-ended, of allowing the reader to imagine the rest of the voyage and become, in a sense, part of the creative process. In Traveling Man, when Ibn Battuta was old and white-bearded, a child says to him: 

“I wish I could go where you went, see what you saw . . . .” 
“You can,” said the old traveler, his eyes aglow. “Traveling—all you do is take the first step.” 
(illustration © 2013 by James Rumford)
Thus, the book becomes an invitation to all to make a journey and to enjoy the road ahead . . . perhaps to be like a writer: alert and expectant, watching as each scene unfolds and comes into focus.

This is how I felt as I wrote Scrapbook. I was on a mental train ride, looking out the window watching the scenery change, as the story of Rozelle’s incredible journey unfolded. I have heard this from other authors as well: I never know what each day may bring, what will happen to my characters, what events will transpire. This is the fun of writing. I know, I know: good writers, have to plan, but the fun of writing is the adventure or discovering what lies ahead. Is this the stuff of inspiration? Maybe.

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Below is the next installment of Scrapbook, which I began on September 30, 2012. Because much time has passed, perhaps this synopsis will help recall the flow of the story. Just click on the images to enlarge.

Introduction: When Kenneth Dore’s grandmother dies, he finds on the kitchen table the scrapbook he and his sister had found in the attic several summers before. The scrapbook was intriguing and recounted the life a Rozelle G. Hodges, adventurer extraordinaire. Kenneth decides to reread the scrapbook.

Chapter One: Rozelle recounts her childhood and her and her brother’s fascination with Mandeville. Once she meets an Indian man who seems to corroborate Mandeville’s tale about finding the well of eternal life. Rozelle decides that she must find that well one day.

Chapter Two: Rozelle obtains a degree in anthropology and in 1929 sets out for Egypt to investigate a dog-headed people. There she meets Col. Lamont. The two fall in love, but he must return to England, where they plan to meet in a couple of months. Rozelle decides to take this opportunity to go to India to find the well.

Chapter Three: In India Rozelle goes on a wild-goose chase. Before she can do any real investigative work, the stock market crashes. She must return home.

Chapter Four: Col. Lamont, unable to wait for her, marries another. Dejected, Rozelle decides to go to Paraguay to search out Mandeville’s garsynts, long-necked llama-like animals. She is caught up in a war. She escapes and makes it to Brazil.

Chapter Five: In Brazil, she is almost lost in the Amazonian jungle looking for Mandeville’s cocodrylles. She falls in love with a Col. Lamão, but nothing comes of the affair. She returns to America and involves herself for a short time with actors and actresses in Hollywood.

Chapter Six: Tired of Hollywood, she decides to go to the southern Soviet Union in 1937 to look for griffins. She meets a Russian Col. Vasily Lamontov. The two fall in love, but he is sent to Kamchatka for fraternizing with an American.

Chapter Seven: Rozelle goes north into Siberia in search of Mandeville’s green-skinned people. She meets a Jewish family going east. She helps them enter China.

Chapter Eight: Rozelle goes into China to look for centaurs. She stays with a Col. Lai Man-t’e. In late 1937, she decides to go to India to look for the well again.

Chapter Nine: Rozelle goes to Rajasthan, where she believes the well to be. She meets up, quite by accident, with her college roommate, a German woman named Angela Mannheim, who is also a fervent Nazi.The Nazis want to find the well, too. They break into Rozelle’s hotel room and steal her notebook hoping to find clues to the well’s location.

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