When Traveling to Strange Places, Books Make You Feel at Home

by Tommy Hays, Executive Director, Great Smokies Writing Program

Over Christmas break, my wife, my daughter and I flew to Scotland to join our son, Max, a junior at the University of North Carolina, who was spending his fall semester abroad at the University of Edinburgh. We went because we knew that if he’d simply returned home at the end of his semester, Max, being on the taciturn side, would’ve given up no more than a couple of paragraphs’ worth of information about his four-month adventure abroad and that would’ve been that.

In fact as soon as Max had been accepted to the University of Edinburgh, I noticed money being mysteriously moved from our checking to our savings account. My wife’s doing, it turned out. She’d already decided that we couldn’t miss this chance to visit Scotland, so she was squirreling money away for the trip. The other thing she began to do was listen to Alexander McCall Smith novels in the car.

If you’re unfamiliar with Alexander McCall Smith, he’s an unbelievably prolific writer, having written nearly 100 books. He has kept five different series of books going, the most famous of which is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series which follows the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s only female private detective. My wife had listened to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on CD several years ago. So she was delighted when she discovered that McCall Smith, who lives in Edinburgh, had a series 44 Scotland Street about characters who lived in New Town, a neighborhood of Georgian townhouses in Edinburgh. Often I’d get in the car after my wife had been driving, and I’d start the engine and a gentleman with a Scottish brogue would start into narrating a story, usually somewhere in the middle. I only heard snippets of the novels, bits of dialogue and description, except for a few times when my wife and I listened together on long trips. But it didn’t really sink in what she was doing until we were actually in Edinburgh, and she recognized neighborhoods, streets, shops and even a pub that the characters in 44 Scotland Street had frequented. By listening to the novels, she had been preparing for our trip, not only learning the landscape but getting a sense of the people as well. For her, listening to the books had been a way to make the trip mean more.

McCall Smith wasn’t the only writer who shaped our trip. One chilly rainy afternoon (come to think of it, most of them were chilly and rainy), Max took us to the Elephant House, a cozy tea and coffee house in the vicinity of the University Edinburgh, where J.K. Rowling wrote her early Harry Potter books. The place was packed, mostly with college students. As we sipped our tea and ate our crusty bread and butter, we were awed by the notion that one of the most important writers of our time, and one that both our children had read many times over, had labored away perhaps a couple of tables over from where we sat. The idea was almost as magical as Hogwarts itself.

One other writer gave us perspective on Edinburgh. On our last day, Max asked if we could climb the Scott Monument, something he’d never gotten around to during the semester. The memorial, an immense Victorian Gothic spire, had been erected in 1840 to celebrate one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Sir Walter Scott, who lived from 1771 to 1832 and died in poverty, trying to write himself out of debt. We climbed the series of narrow spiral staircases which led from viewing platform to viewing platform until we eventually reached the top where we could look out over the city. Up there I thought of my father who’d had several Sir Walter Scott novels among the books he’d cherished from his boyhood. When we climbed back down, the monument attendant gave us each a certificate which stated that we had ascended all 287 steps to the top.

We’ve been back from Scotland now for two months. Max is back at college, our daughter back at high school, my wife and I both back at work, and in many ways the trip feels years in the past. But I’ve noticed that the gentleman with the brogue is back, too, when I start up the car. My wife has continued to listen to McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels. She says the stories have been like an extension of our trip for her, and if McCall Smith’s output continues at its current rate, my wife might not be coming home for quite some time.

Tommy Hays is Executive Director of UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. He also teaches in UNCA’s Master of Liberal Arts Program. His middle grade novel What I Came To Tell You will be published in September by Egmont USA. For more about his other books, go to www.tommyhays.com.