Once Around the Fountain is a book that many thought would be impossible to do, because it combines travel and romance, topics that-surprisingly to me-were deemed by many in publishing to be all but mutually exclusive. I believed otherwise because, over the years, I had been writing my romance-accented "Travels with Julie" series for North American newspapers. In "Travels with Julie," the experience of being in a place with my wife and muse, Julie Hackett Behr, often takes precedence over physical description of the place itself. That is not a common way to do a travel story; typically, the writer, though obviously accompanied, tells his story as if his companion were but a spectral figure, always near, but never quite touching the ground that is surveyed in the narrative.
In the article about the first place Julie and I visited together, the Netherlands, she surprised me (and her) by interposing herself on the page. By the time we had returned from our second trip together, to Italy, that I realized it would be impossible to write a truthful article about any place I went with Julie without admitting she was central to my experience of being there. I knew that because hotel clerks generally don't nod at each other and softly exclaim "Bella!" as I leave the front desk. Strange men don't often stop in their tracks to help me find my way along the Via Veneto. A squad of Carbinieri have never encircled me, hoping for a little quality time.
It didn't take long for editors to know me not as Alan Behr but as "The guy who writes about Julie." As I said in the book,
It soon became standard that, if I should walk into a party filled with writers and editors (hosted, inevitably, by public-relations people), I would be greeted with the phrase, "Where's Julie?" It would be superseded by "There's Julie!" the moment she would make her entrance, and all attention would, quite sensibly, fall upon her. It was making my job as a travel writer uncommonly easy. Where once I had to dig for my material, I now needed only to follow Julie with camera and microphone.
The book came about in an unexpected way. Although the articles from "Travels with Julie" would serve as preliminary sketches, the book would not be a compilation of published stories but an original, seamless narrative.
I outlined the book, but I did not write it. I was concerned because Once Around the Fountain would violate the fundamental convention of a travel book, which is that you start here, and you end up there. That is, you take one trip, to a single destination, stay there about eight to twelve weeks, and when you get home, you set down what happened to you. My book would take place over a span of ten years, over many trips to a number of places. It would be about how, as you mature, your perceptions of places you once visited have been altered. And it would be about how traveling with the person you love alters for all time your experience of traveling and the places that your travels take you.
Many people who want to write never do, and many who do write really don't write all that much. Literature, that most portable and readily pursued of art forms (any pen and blank sheet of paper will get you started, any hour of the day or night), makes up for its accessibility by gnawing on its always solitary, ever doubtful practitioner. Over the years, the only way I've found it possible to write is to forget all my doubts, convince myself that I am a genius and, thus absurdly deluding myself, just sit down and do it. Yet I kept delaying the start of Once Around the Fountain. Then, with barely any warning, Julie took seriously ill. The prognosis for recovery was good, but treatment would span many months. I was told frankly that, if I was to retain the fortitude and presence of mind fill my role as a "care giver," I would need something productive with which to divert myself. There is nothing quite like terror to clarify the mind and brace the will. Almost as soon as I got Julie home from the hospital, I took out my notes and began writing the book.
I had already decided that unity of a kind could be achieved by limiting the book to those locations within Western Europe where events propelled the narrative. During the period in which the narrative unfolds, I had visited many other places, from San Francisco to St. Lucia to Seoul, but they were left out either because Julie was not with me or because what happened in those destinations did not fit the "through line," which, as the book began to reveal itself, came to be about finding romance through travel.
In the end, the book surprised me by having its own view of what had happened on my travels, just as, I suppose, children will surprise parents by developing independent ways of approaching life and seeking its rewards and consolations. As the book took shape, I found that, unlike my practice with the articles that had inspired it, historical interludes would add dimension. Discarded, however, were digressions on the craft of travel writing itself, along with the original title, Dislocations, which might aid in having the book assigned in graduate-level literature classes but wouldn't exactly ring the bells of invitation from upon a bookseller's shelf. What stayed with Once Around the Fountain all through its development was the desire to demonstrate that travel and romance go hand in hand. If readers enjoy it for that reason alone, I will feel I've accomplished what I set out to do.