A Short Walk Through a Wide World

By Douglas Westerbeke
(Avid Reader Press)

Interview by Diane Slocum

After nine-year-old Aubrey Tourvel encounters a strange wooden puzzle ball and an odd well, she suddenly becomes gripped by an illness that sends her small body into spasms and gushes of blood. The only remedy seems to be to move to a different location. At first, she travels with her mother, but after a few years, she knows the toll on her mother and the rest of the family is too much, and Aubrey sets off on her own. Her travels take her through every part of the world,  where she encounters remarkable people and fantastic situations, one of the most magnificent being gigantic libraries filled with mystery.

AUTHORLINK: What was your first thought that turned into this story? Where did you go from there?

WESTERBEKE: It originally began as a short story idea I had about an old lady with some minor ailment – arthritis or the like – whose doctor tells her to travel somewhere warm and dry for relief, a common prescription in the 1800s. But all she hears is the word travel, and spends the rest of her life on the run. It was a comedy of sorts, the idea that the cure is worse than the sickness. But the more I thought of it, the more ideas I had. It turned into something epic, and I knew it would no longer be a comedy. I also knew the disease was not going to be a minor ailment. The story got so big, the old lady became a little girl because I was going to need an entire lifetime to fit all these ideas in.

AUTHORLINK: Where in the process did you decide to include magical realism and fantasy elements?

WESTERBEKE: Back when the story was still about an old lady, I had an idea that maybe she should discover something unique about the world, something only someone who travels the world would know. And I wasn’t considering weather patterns or the mating ritual of silver-backed gorilla. I was thinking something big and fantastic. I think that was the point when I realized I was going to take the story in a whole new direction, from comedy to epic adventure with all kinds of otherworldly elements in it.

AUTHORLINK: Your Wide World covers a lot of territory. How did you decide where Aubry would turn up next and who would be there?

WESTERBEKE: I wanted to be very democratic about her travels – Asia, Africa, North America, South America, etc. It had to be as worldly as possible to take full advantage of the concept. While writing the story, I actually had a map of her travels in my head. That helped me structure
it a bit, but when I started writing, I threw the map away and obscured her paths as much as I could with flashbacks and “Brief Asides” and other techniques to make the story as epic as possible. Since Aubry could never stop her travels, I had this idea that she would have these brief encounters with men who would represent the various varieties of love out there – possessive love, romantic love, platonic love, unrequited love, etc. Then, since these were stories within stories, I often contrasted one love story with another. For example, she tells Lionel, who is a very romantic encounter on a train, the story of Uzair, a very possessive encounter from her youth. They made for a nice juxtaposition.

AUTHORLINK: What did you do to research the different locales and times?

WESTERBEKE: Some of the places I had been to before but, other than descriptions of deserts and jungles and the like, having been somewhere didn’t help because I was writing about the world as it was over a century ago. Bangkok today is nothing like Bangkok in the 1920s. So I had
to research if I was going to tell a convincing story. But I loved the research part. I was working at the Cleveland Public Library at the time, and I had all these resources available to me – books, microfilm, online resources, documentaries. I remember while writing the section in colonial India, a book of photographs of Indian royalty taken by a court photographer back in the day happened to land on my desk. Pure serendipity. I found an article about an anthropologist that lived with Tibetan nomads for a year, a travel book about the Trans-Siberian railroad. I read an entire 400 page book about prostitution during the gold rush for a ten-page scene in the novel, but research is a rabbit hole. It’s all so interesting it’s hard to stop. If you’re at all curious about the world around you, I’m telling you, the library is the place to be. Reading and research becomes like an addiction and writing some of the scenes with Aubry in the libraries reflects that.

AUTHORLINK: Aubry meets a lot of people in her travels, many of them ones she cares deeply about. Did you develop a fondness for any of the characters beyond what you expected when you introduced them? Who?

WESTERBEKE: I’m fond of all of them. There was something about each of them I liked a lot. Even Uzair, who doesn’t always behave well, I sympathize with because he’s a smart guy in a backward town, very lonely, convinced he knows all the answers when he doesn’t. I’ve been that
guy before. Marta is a very fun, very colorful character, but the tricky part about writing some of the side characters is that you picture them in your head, but then have a limited number of pages to really capture them. It’s not always easy to write them the way you intend them. Marta took a few attempts to get right. So did Uzair and Vicente. For that reason, the side characters were harder to write than Aubry. Everybody seems to have a favorite side character. I’ve heard people say Marta, Lionel, The Prince. I’m fond of Vicente myself, but I have a soft spot for curmudgeonly characters.

AUTHORLINK: You work in a very large library, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the ones in your story. Those libraries are not only repositories, but conduits. Can you talk about their significance?

WESTERBEKE: I first thought of them when I was wondering what the old lady was going to discover about the world. I had lots of ideas, but the libraries stuck. I was actually reluctant to use libraries at first. There are many examples of fantastic libraries in literature – Borges’ The Library of Babel, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell. I didn’t want to compete with those. But then, A Short Walk is also about a woman living a life in exile and trying to find meaning in what feels like a lifelong punishment. But the internal monologue we have going on in our heads is this constant story-telling machine. We are always creating the story of our life in our own head whether we’re aware or not. If you tell it badly, you can really screw yourself up. If you tell it well, then your life can be full of all kinds of meaning. How better to illustrate this than with a library of books about people’s lives? So that’s the direction I went.

AUTHORLINK: How did your involvement in the Dublin Literary Award help you with this novel?

WESTERBEKE: I wouldn’t have ever written a novel if certain things hadn’t happened. I got a job at the Cleveland Public Library for starters, which re-ignited my love for literature. Then my boss, Amy Dawson, recommended I join the Dublin Literary Committee. For those who don’t
know, the Dublin Literary Committee is a literary award in which libraries all over the world pick their favorite books and send them off to Dublin where they whittle the selection down to a winner. I was reading fifty to a hundred books a year for that committee, never mind all the other stuff I was reading. It was a huge education. You learn the kinds of stories you like or don’t like, the prose, the characters, etc. When I was a kid, I thought writing a novel was way beyond me, but the Dublin committee demystified it for me to a degree. After a few years of this, I thought maybe I could manage a novel of my own.

AUTHORLINK: What do you think we can learn from Aubry’s curse and blessings? In a way, I think it’s a story that happens to all of us to one extent or another. We’re happy, living a comfortable homelife, then something happens that disrupts all that and we’re thrust out into the world, into a hostile environment that we have to cope with. First day at school, leaving home for the first time, losing a job, a cancer diagnosis, a divorce. All these things qualify. To a large extent, A Short Walk is a very spiritual book. When I was a little kid, six or seven years old, I declared myself an atheist. But as I got older, I realized a lot of the stuff I was writing was about people who either didn’t believe or didn’t particularly like God, but were beloved by him anyway. Through my writing I realized I wasn’t nearly as atheistic as I thought I was. I still don’t know what I am, but my favorite stories, the ones that move me most, are stories about people contending with forces bigger than they are. Aubry’s story is exactly that, a little girl forced out into the world, trying to understand why. She’s at war with something she can’t comprehend, far bigger than she knows, a war she can’t possibly win but fighting it all the same, and to me that’s the most epic part of a pretty epic story. But if she can understand that, despite everything, there’s a beauty and a poetry to her life, unique to herself, then maybe that’s the key to finding her meaning. And if Aubry can do it, why can’t the rest of us as well?

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

WESTERBEKE:  I’m always working on something. The story I’m writing now is almost the complete opposite of A Short Walk – a large cast of characters, a single location, a short stretch of time. I don’t know if that’ll be the one that’s published next. We’ll have to see. There are other stories and half- written novels I could pursue instead. Whatever it is, I think I’ll just spring it upon people unsuspecting-like.

About the Author:

As a librarian in Cleveland, Ohio, Douglas Westerebeke had one of the largest libraries in the U.S. at his fingertips as he researched his first novel. He also had hundreds of novels to read as a member of the panel of the International Dublin Literary award. This convinced him to try writing his own novel. His earlier work included four screenplays that were optioned but not produced.