Holidays can teach us many things — about a destination, about other people and about ourselves.
When I was a child my parents always said, "Charlotte doesn't like change". Any change of location or routine would bring on anxiety, resistance, potentially a meltdown. To their credit, my parents didn't let this get in the way. Battling their way through my protests, they went on subjecting me to change, mostly in the form of travel. The first school I ever attended was in France; after that I went to one in London. When they could, they loaded the family into an ancient van and drove us on camping trips across Europe, only stopping near Spain when the van's steering failed, we crashed, and my mother's head went through the windscreen.
Change was a constant, so I was a difficult child. I hated elevators, boats, tunnels, Tube trains, flying. I would spend an entire international flight expecting the plane to crash. And yet something must have been altering, as I lived right up at the high point of anxiety. It started to make sense to go forward rather than back, to embrace the thing I hated. If I disliked change it was presumably because I feared it; if travel was what I feared, perversely I would end up with a fascination for it.
In broad terms, I hardened up. Aged 25, I changed everything. I became a mother, left my job as a lawyer, moved to London, had another child. A baby is a huge change, there's no right time for it, no wrong time either. With small children in tow, Paul and I travelled all over Europe, spending our meagre cash on budget airfares and cheap hotels. We had two shabby pushchairs, one for each kid. I remember pushing the strollers around Amsterdam, stopping to breastfeed our 6-week old daughter.
For years we trundled the kids through European cities, and I wrote about it, turning the distances travelled into fiction. Writing in London, I discovered where I really belonged. I dreamed of Tamaki Makaurau, the bush, the sky, the sheen of light over the Hauraki Gulf — and I transported myself home by writing.
One year in France, with our three children crammed in the back of a rental car, we skidded into a wall, wrecking a wheel. There was a shocked silence. I turned, and all three kids were laughing. I was struck by this. As a child in those circumstances, I would have been paralysed with horror. Their hardboiled mirth was gratifying: my kids were not anxious.
Like travel, writing is a compulsion with some element of the perverse, going towards rather than away from the thing I used to fear. Growing up I was shy and often silent, yet I developed this drive: to express myself publicly in writing.
Travel broadens the prose, enriches the ideas. In my two linked novels, The Night Book and Soon, now published as a compilation volume and filmed as TV series The Bad Seed, I created a character who's a New Zealand Prime Minister. To do that plausibly I needed to have the view from outside, to be aware how tiny and isolated we are, how power in this country takes its own small, subtle, idiosyncratic forms.
While travelling and writing the books I came across this excellent advice: Increase your tolerance to uncertainty. I gave it to my principal character, Simon Lampton, and I repeat it to myself now when things seem out of control.
These days, travel is even more of a compulsion. Writing my latest novel Mazarine, I roamed around London, Paris and Buenos Aires, drawing those cities into the fiction. I went to the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, where terrorists killed 90 people. I looked at the tributes to the dead, the bullet holes gouged into its walls. In Buenos Aires, writing about a mother who'd lost her child, I watched the protests of the Mothers of the Disappeared, women whose children were murdered by the military dictatorship.
Mazarine (long-listed for the 2019 Ockham Award) is about power, election-tampering, terrorism and love in the age of Trump. It's a story about travel and what it means: escape, change, renewal, living at the high point of anxiety, going towards fear instead of away. It's also about the perspective gained when we travel, the need to challenge insularity and inwardness. Only by looking at the world can we award proper judgments at home. Travel makes you grateful for New Zealand. Despite our problems, we have our physical and political freedoms, our inclusive identity and beautiful territory.
When he was a boy, the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard dreamed of Argentina as a mythical place. I've always dreamed about foreign cities — and Mazarine borrows from Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities. I've been interested in foreign cities and the way they express power ever since I read the French novelist Balzac, and decided to write my own Antipodean Human Comedy. Cities are characters.
Despite its romantic reputation, Buenos Aires is a tough place, with its poverty and cruel memories of dictatorship. In Moscow there's a different kind of harshness, an iron quality, something coldly watched and watchful. The atmosphere inside the Kremlin feels dense and packed, as if surveillance has altered the very composition of the air. In Jerusalem, you can go shopping with your assault rifle slung over your shoulder. Crossing into the Palestinian Territories, beyond the vast security wall, you feel the tension, the West Bank population locked in, seething.
Most of all, travel writes the story. Not long ago in Istanbul, I got desperately sick. I lay all day in a small hotel between two mosques, listening to the calls to prayer. The courtyards below were full of prowling cats. By evening, I felt I might just survive. I didn't know why, but this long day between mosques seemed significant. It was, I realised, the beginning of a new novel.
• Charlotte Grimshaw is the author of The Bad Seed. The TV adaptation, starring Matt Minto, Dean O'Gorman, Madeleine Sami and Chelsie Preston-Crayford, screens tonight on TVNZ1, and plays across five consecutive nights.