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The Truthful Fiction of Peter Ferry

Reading Peter Ferry’s debut novel Travel Writing reminded me of a vintage port consumed decades ago, in the Soho loft of a downtown art dealer. This was when I didn’t yet know that port came from Portugal, and novice taste buds couldn’t tell oak from tannins. To this day I recall layers of rich flavor that kept rolling off a single sip, transforming like Willy Wonka’s magic gum, from tart, to sweet, to smooth, to ah and mmm inducing. That sense of unraveling from one lovely sensation into another has become for me a measure of fine quality. Travel Writing unfurled for me like that glass of port, in unexpected and delightful ways.

Peter Ferry was inspired to become a writer at college, but it was decades before his debut novel was published, when Ferry was 61. His career reads like a check list for an aspiring author: textbook editor, travel columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and 27 years teaching high school English in Lake Forest, Illinois. In an interview, Ferry attributes the genesis of Travel Writing to “an assignment to teach creative writing a few years ago. Figured I’d better write something over the summer or I’d get the old ‘do you do or do you just teach?’ question.” 

Ferry took a sabbatical to finish his book and dove into the deep end of the literary pool, by blending genres: part love story, part murder mystery, with a dash of metafiction. Travel Writing starts with the revelation that protagonist Pete Ferry is an editor, teacher, travel writer, and storyteller. Says the author Ferry: “All fiction is based in fact or in real life experience, and […] all the stories we tell about our real life experiences are partly fiction.”

One early example of this purposeful blurring of fact and fiction is when Pete Ferry, protagonist, interacts with real people whom Peter Ferry, author, actually knew. On a summer program at St. Hilda’s College Oxford, protagonist Pete Ferry meets David Lehman, a poet who attended Cambridge University, and who strikes Pete as a “gawky […] eighteen-year-old kid with a New York accent and a Yogi Bear lilt in his voice.” Pete watches David at a poetry reading, and an entertaining scene unfolds that teaches Pete the importance of confidence and sparks his desire to write. Later on in the novel, Walter Tevis, the real-life author of The Hustler and The Color of Money, makes a cameo appearance as Pete’s former teacher who tells him, “You haven’t much to say, but you say it very well”— a pronouncement that spurs Pete to find something to say.

In a Chicago Tribune interview, Ferry recalls Lehman’s poetry reading at Oxford and how he was later “floored to learn that neither of the two men who accompanied him that night has any memory of the evening. ‘Have I invented something over the years?’ […] That’s the nexus of what I’m writing about: What is the real truth?’” Ferry plays with this question further by describing in the novel how Tevis was suing a man who claimed to be the real Minnesota Fats, a character Tevis says he created. In Travel Writing, not only do real-life people and situations cross over into fiction, but a fictional character like Minnesota Fats is appropriated as a real-life persona.

While Ferry raises some heady intellectual ideas, from the book’s first sentence he makes clear that what unifies fiction and memoir (and perhaps makes distinguishing between the two insignificant) is the power of good storytelling. The novel opens with Pete “trying to show [his] students the power of the story” by describing a woman he saw driving erratically one rainy night, how his car pulled up beside hers at a stoplight, his momentary vision of her beautiful head bobbing above bare shoulders, and the jarring, life-changing sight of her car crashing a few moments later.” He tells the class that the story is made-up, but several days later Pete is called out of class to meet with a detective investigating the death of Lisa Kim, the woman in the car. The guilty feeling that he should have done something to prevent the accident thrusts Pete along a new trajectory that impacts his relationships with the ghost of Lisa Kim, as well as the woman he lives with, Lydia Greene.

Much of the story follows the changing dynamics of Pete’s semi-committed relationship with Lydia:

She had a kind of attitude, one that she had gotten at Bennington or perhaps earlier, about the whole falling-in-love-getting-married-and-growing-old-together thing. She called it an “unfortunate sentimental narrative,” […] I accepted it and even adopted it sometimes. I did it as a matter of personal convenience. In truth, I thought then that there was something missing in her or me or between the two of us, something that could be defined only by its absence.

What Pete and Lydia do share is wanderlust, which we see in flashbacks of their life in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a region “all about flowers, cloudless winter skies, sidewalk cafes, swimming pools, and palm trees,” and which attracted luminaries like John Steinbeck, Merle Oberon, Henry Kissinger, and Malcolm Lowry; the kind of people Pete “wanted to be with and be.” Pete’s evolution as a character often pivots on his tendency to misjudge people—for example Charlie Duke, a man Pete and Lydia befriended in Cuernavaca.

Charlie was a tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, strikingly handsome man of forty-five […] he talked an absolute blue streak, and he talked as if we were old friends, mentioning people, places, and events for whom I had no frame of reference. I went back to our bungalow that afternoon and laughed at him […] Charlie became for me a sad emblem of what most expats really are: people who have way too much leisure time with which they do almost nothing but go out to lunch, drink, gossip, worry about their health, self-medicate, and complain about their gardeners.

Over time Charlie’s gossipy nature grows less pretentious, even entertaining. It’s not until Lydia and Pete’s last visit to Charlie’s house when they come across a newly born calf that Pete begins to understand him more fully.

It was standing in the field on shaky legs beside its groggy mother. Charlie threw open the car door, got out, and did something quite unexpected. He started to undress. […] Then, muttering something about needing to separate the calf from its mother, he stooped and gathered the little cow still wet with blood and afterbirth into his long arms. He hurried across the rocky pasture wearing only underpants and work boots, and I stumbled after him looking at his broad, strong back and realizing a rather astonishing thing. This silly man whom I’d been making fun of all this time was in possession of something I hadn’t even started looking for and hadn’t known until that moment that I wanted or needed. He was a complex, original, troubled, many-dimensional, self-invented, flawed and foolish but complete man, and he couldn’t care less if I was laughing at him. He’d probably known all the time.

Ironically, Pete’s description of Charlie could also be applied to himself, his own complex nature revealed more fully after Lisa Kim briefly enters and exits his life. He becomes obsessed with her death, her prior life and his suspicion that her car crash was no accident but rather murder, propelling him into unexpected and sometimes humorous situations. He attends Lisa’s memorial service, a scene that could be morbid, except that Lisa’s sister accidentally mistakes him for Peter Carey or Cleary, a former boyfriend no one has met:

“Peter?” Someone had taken my elbow, and I realized when I turned it must be one of her sisters.
“Oh, I thought you might be. I’m Maud, Lisa’s sister” […]
“I need to explain something.”
“You need to explain nothing,” Maud took me by the hand and walked with me. “No one could ever blame you for breaking up with her, believe me: we all know how difficult she could be. But we could also all see how good you were for her.”
“No, no.”
“We could see that. And we’re very happy you came. Mother, it’s Peter.”

Instead of telling Lisa’s family the truth, Pete sneaks out of the memorial service early and uses the identity confusion to befriend Lisa’s sister Tanya, to talk to Lisa’s circle of school friends and co-workers, and even her supposed ex-boyfriend, Peter Carey (not the real-life author). The more Pete learns about Lisa, the more she turns into an enigma: an aspiring actress whose acting flowed into real life, and whose cause of death remains mysterious (the autopsy shows opiates in her system that could have come from heroin, Tylenol, or a poppy-seed bagel). However, she is a catalyst that irritates and reveals the fragility of his relationship with Lydia. He arrives home one day to find Lydia “sitting on the couch with her arms crossed,” after hearing a message on the answering machine from Tanya, with the results of the autopsy report. Lydia asks:

“What is her sister doing calling you? I don’t understand. Are you seeing her sister now? […] Were you having a relationship with this woman? I mean, did you know her before this accident for Chrissake? Were you chasing her or something?”
“Chasing her?”
“Yes […] She’s dead and you’re still chasing her.”

Lydia’s impatience and jealousy over a dead woman throw the casual terms of their relationship off balance and force Pete to question the future he wants with her.

Each chapter of the book meanders down different paths, from Pete’s amateur investigation, to time spent with Lydia and his friends, to travel flashbacks in Mexico and Thailand, to a present-day canoe trip in the pristine wilds of Quetico, Canada, to the inside of a therapist’s office, to solitary time in a family cottage overlooking Lake Michigan, to a future scene in Clare, Ireland. The transitions between scenes and from past and present to future tenses, work in large part because Pete’s narrative voice is so consistent and likeable.  One does get a sense at moments, however, that author Peter Ferry’s love for travel writing takes over: a chapter called “Dateline: Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand” reads, for example, like a stand-alone travel article that was inserted unnecessarily into the story. The chapter includes intriguing observations about prostitution, sex, relationships, and love, but given Pete’s obsession with Lisa Kim and his issues with Lydia, it was surprising that Pete isn’t prompted to reflect upon his own tangled relationships—an addition that would have integrated the scene better with the larger story.

It was perhaps half way through the book when I realized that Pete’s relationship to Lisa had become a metaphor for me of an author’s relationship to his character. Perhaps I projected this because I am currently writing a novel and wrangling with my lead character. Pete’s first fleeting glimpse of Lisa Kim alive reminded me of how a character may first appear to a writer—a brief flash of someone vivid and compelling and unknown. Lisa changes Pete and propels him forward, just as a character influences and inspires a writer. Pete’s therapist uses hypnosis to access his unconscious mind, to understand his anxiety about Lisa, and how Lisa and Lydia influence each other, the way a writer taps into unconscious ideas, and people in a writer’s life influence his characters, and his characters influence each other. Even Pete’s friends’ reactions— amused, tolerant, frustrated by his pursuit—mirrored how friends and family often respond to the solitary and sometimes obsessive work of a writer.

Travel Writing is a novel laced with memoir, a crime mystery and a love story, literary storytelling interwoven with travel writing; there are action scenes with cars, guns, and cops. And even the cop is atypical: Officer Steve Lotts, an old friend of Pete’s, drinks white wine and “lives in an apartment full of plants and cats, wears horn-rimmed glasses and a Little Lord Fauntleroy haircut, and attracts wistful, waifish women.”

The novel could have been a cacophony of big ideas, divergent plot lines, and loose ends, but Ferry melds it all together, with a few minor exceptions, into a harmonious experience. Unlike protagonist Pete Ferry, who as a young man drank Spanish sauterne in a garage with Walter Tevis, and who did not yet have much to say, the older, wiser author Peter Ferry not only says things well, he shows that whether a story is fact or fiction may be less important than the quality of the story itself. And I hope that like a generous vintner, he will uncork the bottle and soon pour out another glass for readers to enjoy.

Click here to listen to Peter Ferry read an excerpt from Travel Writing.

Click here for a Q&A with Peter Ferry.

Bloom Post End

Wendy Siegelman is a Senior Grant Writer at, a NYC-based non-profit that connects e-mentors with at-risk youth. She held various marketing and web development roles at Dow Jones, Pershing, Nasdaq, the American Stock Exchange, and Newsweek, and was co-owner and Executive Publisher of ArtAsiaPacific Magazine. She founded the visual arts website and is currently writing her first novel. 

Homepage image via  sgtgary/flickr

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