Karen Cushman asked Avi “My newest book, War and Millie McGonigle, started with a place: South Mission Beach, San Diego, where my husband grew up. You, too, have written books set in a place alive and rich. Will you share some insights into place in your stories?”
Avi: The truth is, I’m not particularly good at inventing places. But I love to fill real places with people that come out of my own imaginings. So it is that in recent years I have written three quite different books, all of which share one aspect: all are written about true places. None of the stories are true.
School of the Dead takes place in a private school in San Francisco. A number of years ago, I was visiting just such a school. It is located in a rather elegant part of the city, Pacific Heights, and had at one time been the mansion of a very wealthy 19th Century woman. The woman was particularly interested in education for girls. So, when she died, she left her home to be used as a school. Over the years it has been enlarged, but the old building still remains as its structural core.
It was while I was being given a tour of the school by a couple of students, moving about, up and down, and around its maze-like structure, some parts old, some parts new, that it struck me that it was a perfect setting for a ghost story. And so it was, and became, School of the Dead.
In utter contrast City of Magic takes place in the Italian city of Venice. I don’t think there is any other city like it, consisting as it does of some one-hundred and forty islands, more or less. It is more than a thousand years old, and is ribboned by canals, some wide, some narrow. No cars allowed. To get around you walk or take a boat.
I had the good fortune to live there for most of one year and came to know it fairly well. That said, I don’t think you can know it very well unless you grow up there. In any case, there is much that is medieval and renaissance still there, and with its often foggy weather, it can seem to be a mysterious place. What better setting for a novel of adventure and intrigue? But, of course, I had to go back for a visit to refresh my memory. Writers can live hard lives.
The third book, The Secret Sisters tells the tale of Ida Bidson, age fourteen, who, in the fall of 1925, goes off to board in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, so she can attend high school. She will be leaving her very rural home and family high in the mountains. The book is a sequel to The Secret School, about a one- room schoolhouse whose students, principally Ida, keep running so they can finish out the term.
I spend most of my year living near Steamboat Springs. It is now a ski resort town, but only recently has it changed. The high school, for example, to which Ida goes, is still standing, and functions today as an alternate school. And many of the buildings along Lincoln Avenue—its main street—are still standing just as they did in the nineteen twenties.
A book I am currently working on takes place in New York City. 1910. I am having some trouble with it.
Why? Covid restrictions have kept me from visiting. But I’ll get there, and I’ll finish the book.
Thank you to Avi for this look at the real settings in three of his books.
Learn more about Avi.