I lived in Seattle for about five years, but only went up to Vancouver two or three times, and that was a crime on my part because it's a beautiful city: great landscape, good eating, packed with Canadians.
I took the train up from Seattle, and when you take the train, for a while it skims so tight along the coast that you look out the left-hand windows and see nothing but water. No rail, no shoulder, not even the line where rock meets wave. Just the water, the birds riding above it, the bare boulder islands cutting through the surface here and there. It's dizzying to slide across the surface, enclosed in the train car, air-conditioned and comfortable—futuristic and primordial at once. Eagles, seagulls, conifers, and the impenetrable sea.
And then: Vancouver. More of the ride is in the United States than it is in Canada, so Vancouver comes on you all at once. And the thing about coming to Vancouver, for me, was that I didn't expect it to be in Canada. Or, I didn't expect to notice that I was in Canada. Or, I didn't expect Canada to be a discrete country, at least not this part of Canada that was so accessible, so near, a place I'd seen over and over, posing as different cities on TV. It was on the same continent, it had the same climate, big whoop. But instead of anything so familiar, I looked up, saw Vancouver, and very suddenly realized that I was in a foreign country. It was in the quality of light falling through the air, in the tone of colors from the trees to the billboards. It was in the faces of the people: by God, Canadians! It was evident, it was irrefutable.
I was in a place that was itself, not anywhere else that I wanted it to be. Vancouver imposed itself on me. Most places will, given half a chance.
I'm not a great writer. I'm pretty good. I've got better sentencecraft than storytelling, and I'm working on that, and I'll be working on that for a long time. What I do know is what comes easily, what I was blessed with, what I could write with my back against the wall, ravening deadlines with their teeth at my neck, both hands tied behind my back, I could write you into a place.
Some will say that setting operates as another character in story, someone with lines and a delineated role, and I absolutely believe that's how those people work, and I sometimes wish I could work the same way, because setting is an all-encompassing obsession for me. It permeates character and it dictates vocabulary. The length of sentences and the shapes of paragraphs change with the scenery, and I can't for the life of me do it any other way. Fricative skyscrapers, sonorous hillsides. Micro, macro—for me, it all comes down to setting.
It won't do to be coy about why this is the case for my writing, why it's the case for me. I went to three middle schools in three different countries. I had to get my second passport at age thirteen when the first filled up. The first international move I did on my own, I did at age eleven. The term has gone out of style, but it's still the most apt: I was a "third-culture kid." The narrative of my life is dependent on a hyperawareness of where I am, where I was, where I'm going, and all the places I've left.
We left home when I was very young, and then we left again, and again, and again, and as an adult I keep leaving, and leaving. I try to stop, I try every time. I am a connoisseur of places that I couldn't keep. I left my bedrooms and the views through their windows, I left the rooms where we ate breakfast and dinner, I left my schools, I left my friends if I had them, I left our pets. Christ, we kept adopting pets every year, and every year we'd leave them and they'd never understand what I was saying when I said I loved them and I was sorry. I left languages half-learned, and now when I hear them I don't know what's being said, but I know that it's something I lost by leaving.
The first big move that I remember was when we left Philadelphia and went to Kobe, Japan. My parents, they were international development workers, and me, I was eight years old. I wasn't asked if I wanted to go, but I was enthusiastic. A two-year posting over there, and then we'd come back. An adventure, something to dazzle my friends with. I was a happy kid, I wanted to roam. So we went, and things happened, the city crumbled, plans changed, and I became a frightened, anxious, unhappy kid. But one day, one year later than I thought it would be, they said I could go home.
Home was a place in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, about a half hour from Philadelphia, in an apartment carved out of a Historical Society farmhouse. It was my bedroom at the top of a hidden staircase too steep and narrow for adults to frequent. It was the rotting guts of the unfinished majority of that house, accessible to children by secret and dusty means, inexhaustibly fascinating, smelling like the hollow of a tree trunk just after a summer rain. The flowering dogwood tree outside, and the towering mulberry. The barnyard where I built colossal snow forts with my father. The edge of the forest where once I was confronted by a stag whose presence was so overwhelming and uncanny that to this day I don't know whether it was a deer or a dream. All of this, for three years, I held in my memory. I stoked the vision with my loneliness and anger. I prayed to Pennsylvania. It was everything, this place. It had to be.
You know how this story goes. There's no such thing as going home.
We arrived, and it was different. Strangers everywhere. None of it was mine. It was shallow, unmysterious, plasticine. The sky was a wholly different color, and the sight of the place was an insult. We visited for a day, and then left. We kept leaving, year after year, farther and farther away.
There is nothing mystical about what writing a setting means to me. My motivations are not about technique, and though I use craft, it is not about craft. It is purely personal. When I'm writing about a place, be it Plymouth Meeting or Olympus Mons, I want you to remember. I want us to go back, together. I want to go back.
Write what you know. Okay. I will write the homes I lost, as precisely as I can recall them. I will tell you what they were to me, how precious and how surprising.
Here is a place from a story. It's about a city, far off in space, and it's about a morning, years ago, in Seoul.
He's at the window again, he can't stop himself. The spires are near and they are far, they trickle towards the horizon, they rise to pierce the sky. He raises his hand to the glass. He feels spun out like so much starlight. As if he could reach forward and prick his finger on the sharp peak of a tower.
Here is a place from a story. It's about a lake in Louisiana, and it's about endless, sleepy afternoons in Manila.
Heat like a hand at her throat, then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.
Here is a place from a story. It's Asgard. It's Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. It's an eight-year-old kid, running through the woods, limitless.
They were babes for a century, children for five. It was summer and then summer and then summer. Flowers in the air, stars beneath their feet. Riding on the narrow backs of hunting hounds, carving their names in flagstones, and always the cold breath on his neck. Always the premonition.
The places I escaped and the places I was torn from. If I work hard enough, and I learn my craft, and I keep trying, then maybe I can pin them to the page. Rip the book down the spine and slide inside, tucked into every bed I ever had. So get in the car, I'm leaving again. And I'm taking you with me.