A woman next to me on a flight last night wanted to talk. Being something of a human sponge – if you tell me a story I’ll use it, and I have always maintained that there is nothing more interesting than other people’s lives – I would have been primed and ready to listen. But I had work to finish, I was tired after a charged weekend, so I politely indicated that I needed to write and fell into the republic of words.
But part of me then regretted turning back to my laptop. All stories compel me. And who knows what she would have told me. The grim story of her life to-date? Some crucifying sadness that she carries with her? A letdown, a disappointment, a marriage or key relationship that went wrong or south or both? A secret she has rarely shared with anybody… but, as Blanche du Bois notes in a certain great American play, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers….”
Travel is a mobile confessional box – and my narrative travel books and essays are peppered with encounters with individuals whom I encouraged to unburden themselves to me (as Joan Didion once noted, ‘writers are always selling somebody out’). But the fact is, we all have a great need to unburden ourselves of so much. One of the many reasons why Graham Greene remains, for me, such a central writer is because he married the Catholic need for confession with a larger existential concern: seeking some sort of forgiveness in a profoundly unforgiving universe.
The truth is, I have yet to encounter someone while traveling who imparted to me a happy story about their life. It’s what my character Laura notes in my new novel, ‘Five Days’ – if you look up any thesaurus you will find far more synonyms for unhappiness than for happiness. We are far more bound up in that which bedevils us than that which pleases us.
Then again, happiness is an elusive concept. I consider myself a reasonably happy man, but one with assorted attendant anxieties and complexities (like everybody else). But when a reader once asked me why my novels always deal with people in the midst of a gigantic struggle, I replied: “Isn’t everybody in the middle of a gigantic struggle? And don’t we all read to remind ourselves that we are not alone?”