My Inspirations for Letters to Strabo
Behind every great love is an epic story waiting to be told.
My first idea for Letters to Strabo came from the memory of a trip I made twenty years ago to Olana, the amazing Catskills home of the painter Frederic Edwin Church. It was a truly stunning experience. Both the exterior but more importantly the interior of this Moorish extravaganza produced a complete sensory overload that day that has stayed with me ever since. I’ve long wanted to write a love story that starts with a visit to this house by a young writer, but for ages I didn’t have a good starting point.
However, as I researched further, I discovered that the name the Churches chose for their hilltop home overlooking the Hudson was originally derived from a quotation contained in one of the first English translations of a Geography written by the first century BC Greek scholar Strabo: “Olane, one of the treasure-storehouses on the Araxes River, with a view both of a fertile valley and of Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest.” Frederic’s wife Isabella had given him a copy of this work for Christmas 1879. I confess I knew nothing about Strabo (Geography’s Herodotus) but my next discovery sealed my idea. I found that Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens to use his real name) made a visit to the Church’s just a few years after this and that Twain had referred to Strabo many times in his early successful work The Innocents Abroad. Furthermore, both Twain and the Churches had been touring the lands described by Strabo at almost exactly the same time but had never met. The die, as they say, was cast.
Twain was accompanied on his visit to Olana by his family and by Grace King, the southern novelist. Her description of his two elder daughters, Susy and Clara “More entrancing characters I have never met in my life” sparked me to research deeper into the story of these remarkable young ladies. Their loves, dreams and the personal tragedies they endured gave me the inspiration for the backstory of my heroine Eve. Further research provided me with neat links to Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Peggy Guggenheim and Homer amongst others.
Letters to Strabo is therefore both a love story and a coming-of-age tale, set in the late 1970s that takes the form of a fictional odyssey recorded with disarming honesty by my protagonist, an innocent young American writer called Finn Black. His adventures, both funny and evocative, follow closely the itinerary taken by Twain on his own périplus around the Mediterranean a century earlier and are structured around the seventeen chapters of Strabo’s great work. The amazing places Finn visits, the art and cultures he comes across and most importantly the people he meets are faithfully described by him for Eve, the Olana archivist, now his long-distance pen-pal. Eve’s replies, her Letters to Strabo as she calls them, however, not only reveal to Finn her own hopes and dreams but increasingly disturbing glimpses of a tragic past; a past that echoes that of Twain’s two daughters.
This proved a complex project and I greatly enjoyed the research but ultimately any novel must tell a story that captivates the reader. I therefore hope my story will both intrigue you and provide an opportunity for reflection on the doubts and dilemmas of youth. It’s deliberately rich, emotionally charged and at times intense, but also, I hope, ultimately spiritually uplifting and life-affirming. What else should a true love story be?
David Smith is a British author who has now published four works under the Troubador imprint. His first novel Searching For Amber has been described as “A powerful and notably memorable debut” with a review describing it as “masterly and confident” and another as “Extraordinary, poetic, enchanting, sublime”. In addition to writing, he is currently CFO of a blue chip UK public company and lives near the South Coast in England with his wife and three teenage children.