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The travel destinations that inspired this summer's hottest novels

Ahead of their appearances at this year's digital Hay Festival, five acclaimed authors, including Lisa McInerney and Robert Jones Jr, reflect on the places that inspired, supported or provoked them while they created this season's hottest novels.

By Tahmima Anam, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Robert Jones Jr, Lisa McInerney, Julianne Pachico
Published 26 May 2021, 17:49 BST
A reader reclines on the grass at a previous Hay Festival, in the Welsh town of ...

A reader reclines on the grass at a previous Hay Festival, in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. This year, a free digital programme of events is being held from 26 May to 6 June 2021.

Photograph by Hay Festival

The 34th Hay Festival is now underway, this year featuring more than 200 authors, historians, poets and pioneers in a digital programme of literary debates and performances that runs until 6 June. As well as bringing together writers and readers to discuss some of the biggest issues of our time, it’s the platform for launching the best new fiction. Here, five hotly tipped novelists from this year's lineup reflect on the power of a place to inspire or support the creative process and share travel tips for their favourite destinations, from Cork to Queens.

Bangladeshi-born British writer Tahmima Anam's latest novel draws on her experiences during a summer spent in the New York borough of Queens. 

Photograph by Tahmima Anam

The Startup Wife (2021) explores the struggles of protagonist Asha as she battles misogyny in the tech world.

Photograph by Canongate Books Ltd

1. Tahmima Anam on the magic of Queens, New York

Two years ago, our family moved to Queens, New York, for the summer. We rented an apartment in Astoria, a neighbourhood I’d never been to before. I fell in love with it instantly — partly because it reminded me of my childhood years spent in New York, but also because it’s everything I adore about the city: vibrant, diverse and with a strong sense of community.

Within days, I’d gotten to know many of the local hangouts: the coffee shop — For Five — where I picked up my morning iced matcha; the fruit market where the peaches were as big as baseballs; and the taqueria under the train line, a dark, linoleum-lined place where magical things were made and immediately devoured. The neighbourhood was loud and unrelenting, and yet something about the kinetic energy of the place made me feel deeply energised.

On weekends, we took the kids to the local public libraries, which New York does beautifully, escaping the midday heat into milky air conditioning and quiet, book-lined rooms. In the evenings, we’d sometimes stroll down 31st Avenue to Milkflower, where I tasted a brussels sprout pizza I’ll never forget. On the way over, we’d stop at Loveday31, a vintage clothing store where I bought a wool Vivienne Westwood dress that’s possibly a size too big for me, but which I wear every time I want to impress anyone.

When we returned to London, I immediately began work on my novel, The Startup Wife. I’d always meant to set the book in New York, but after that summer I decided the protagonist, Asha Ray, would have grown up in Queens. I decided she would have grown up somewhere like Astoria, to the sight of long queues in front of the ice cream shop, the wide, loud avenues and the people of all colours, shapes and sizes, who appeared to be exactly where they belonged.

Tahmima Anam’s book, The Startup Wife, is out now.

Read more: Hay Festival authors discuss a responsible return to global exploration

At the heart of Irish author Lisa McInerney’s writing is her love for Cork, a city the locals refer to as Ireland's 'real capital'.

Photograph by Lisa McInerney

The Rules of Revelation (2021) follows the lives and intertwining scandals of a diverse group of people in present-day Ireland.

Photograph by John Murray Press

2. Lisa McInerney on the food and flâneurs of Cork, Ireland

Confined to my own county during Ireland’s lockdown meant that though I’m only two hours from Cork City, I couldn’t visit. A nightmare: I’m happiest in Cork, Ireland’s ‘Real Capital’ according to its locals, seat of the Rebel County, built on the second-largest natural harbour in the world, home to Ireland’s liveliest turns of phrase and most disarmingly content people. As the joke goes — how do you know if someone’s from Cork? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

All three of my novels are set in Cork, but the latest, The Rules of Revelation, is blatantly a love letter to the place. In it, Cork is at its best: welcoming, vibrant, arty and delicious. Split by the forked tongue of the River Lee, here’s a city surging towards a prosperous future while happy to sport its charming, shabby chic. There are rising glass offices and boutique hotels, but also flea markets, street art, winding lanes and — it being very hilly — so, so many steps.

Cork City Council is to pedestrianise many smaller city centre streets to encourage outdoor dining and socialising; wonderful news, as Cork is a treat for garrulous foodies. Chef Takashi Miyazaki (of Miyazaki’s takeaway and Michelin-starred Ichigo Ichie) deserves his success, as does Denis Cotter of renowned vegetarian restaurant Paradiso. That’s to name only two local heroes. No need to worry about overindulging, because Cork is also a city for flaneurs. Between meals, you can wander this very walkable city, some bold roast from one of its many innovative coffee places in one hand, something delectable from the famous covered English Market in the other.

Places to inspire and amuse include the Crawford and Glucksman galleries, the 17th-century Elizabeth Fort at the bottom of Barrack Street (locally, ‘Barracka’), the old City Gaol, the Shandon clock tower with its ‘goldie fish’ weathervane. A jaunt out past St Fin Barre’s Cathedral and the university will bring you to Fitzgerald Park, with its mirrored tree and Cork’s beloved Shakey Bridge, refurbished last year with its lovely wobble intact. And back into town then, following the water, for clever cocktails, pints of Cotton Ball, Rising Sons or Franciscan Well craft beers, and the kind of mischievous conversation the bouncy Cork accent was made for and that I’m so driven to get right on the page. It’s a pull to home for me. I can hardly wait.

Lisa McInerney’s book, The Rules of Revelation, is out now.

New York-based writer Robert Jones Jr's debut novel tracks the love story of two slaves in the America South.  

Photograph by Robert Jones Jr

Robert Jones Jr's acclaimed debut, The Prophets (2021), explores the forbidden love of two young slaves, Samuel and Isaiah, in rural Mississippi

Photograph by Quercus Publishing

3. Robert Jones Jr on spirits and soul food in Savannah, Georgia

I felt an instant connection to Savannah when I visited in 2016, and for good reason. My father was born there, as were my grandparents and most of my paternal relatives. In fact, my late great-uncle Herbert traced our family’s lineage back to the 1800s when my enslaved ancestors were brought to the city by an English clan called Habersham, after whom a breathtaking street in Savannah is named. It’s a shame that my visit came just a year before my grandmother’s and Uncle Herbert’s deaths. If I’d more time, I’d have asked more questions. Those spirits, my ancestors and others, certainly haunt the city. And residents freely admit this. There’s a booming industry in ghost tours.

It’s not hyperbolic at all to say that Savannah is the most beautiful city in the United States. There’s a stately beauty to the architecture — ranging from Dutch colonial to French provincial — and a listless grace to the ubiquitous southern live oaks, whose drooping branches drip in Spanish moss. It’s glorious for wandering, even on hot days.

Looking back, I felt both a sense of home and a sense of dread (confederate flags and mammy figurines are still abundant in the Deep South). I imagine this must be true for Black people living anywhere in the United States. But, still, it’s a city that greets visitors warmly — there are even rocking chairs at the airport. I got my first taste of fried green tomatoes in Savannah, at The Olde Pink House. Southern cuisine — soul food in particular — is a great comfort. If you go, try the best pot pie of your life at The Little Crown by Pie Society, a tiny bistro in the heart of downtown, and lemon coolers that melt in your mouth at a cookie shop called Byrd’s.

Robert Jones Jr’s book, The Prophets, is out now.

Read more: Hay Festival authors reveal their all-time favourite travel books

British-American author Julianne Pachico grew up in Cali, Colombia, where her parents worked in international development. 

Photograph by Julianne Pachico

The Anthill (2021) by Julianna Pachico follows the story of a woman returning to Colombia after 20 years in England, now on a quest for answers about her past.

Photograph by Faber & Faber

4. Julianne Pachico on cabin stays in Rio Claro, Colombia

Colombia is a place my fiction has always been rooted in. I grew up there but because of the political situation in the late 1980s and 1990s, I rarely had the chance to travel locally. That’s all changed. Today, if a meditation exercise asks me to visualise a peaceful place — a place I can escape to and be calm — in my mind, I always go to Rio Claro.

Located south of Medellín, Rio Claro is a nature reserve famous for its beautiful landscapes, diverse wildlife, and eco-friendly policies.  The river is indeed very ‘claro’, meaning ‘clear’ — you can see right through the water to the bottom. I love getting my shoulders sunburnt while watching little fish swim over green rocks and chunks of limestone.

I recommend drinking a cold Águila beer while eating an overtly sweet coconut popsicle sold by vendors touting around a Styrofoam container. There are options to water-tube through rapids and hike through caves, but my favourite activity is simply swimming, relaxing and watching the monkeys. You have to carry a torch with you at night to get to the cabins, and if you leave any food out overnight, it’ll definitely get eaten by rats.

Julianne Pachico's book, The Anthill, is out now.

British-Ghanaian writer Caleb Azumah Nelson was working on his new novel, Open Water, in Spain, just months before travel was halted due to Covid-19.

Photograph by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Set in modern-day east London, Open Water (2021), by Caleb Azumah, explores race and masculinity through a love story between two artists.

Photograph by Viking

5. Caleb Azumah Nelson on editing on the Spanish coast

In January 2020, just before the world was turned upside down, I took an impromptu trip to Seville with a friend. The early part of the trip was a disaster: we both got food poisoning on the second day. He was due back in London, but I’d come to Spain with intentions of editing Open Water, so stayed on, taking a train down to Cadiz. Ten minutes before we pulled into the city, the water appeared, the sea bright and blue and endless, and I knew this would be a magical trip.

I quickly got into a routine, waking up late, wandering down to the beach (my apartment overlooked the water) and taking an early morning dip. After a late breakfast or early lunch, I’d read at a cafe close to the beachfront, listening to the waves crash on the shore. Later in the day, armed with my manuscript, I’d walk into the old town, heading to La Clandestina, a cafe and independent bookstore with great coffee and calming atmosphere.

I’d get lost in my work — hours would pass before I noticed the grumble of my stomach, and I’d find somewhere to eat, maybe Taberna El Tio de la Tiza or La Tapería de Columela, both serving incredible tapas. From here, I’d go to a bar and work some more, or walk home along the beachfront. The routine was beautiful and necessary to finishing my novel, and I can’t wait to return.

Caleb Azumah Nelson's book, Open Water, is out now.

Explore the programme and register for free at hayfestival.org/wales

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