You’d think that it would be a writer’s dream to spend a month in Bali, doing research for a novel. You’d imagine long stretches of white sand beaches, lush mountain jungles, charming villages. You’d wonder: how did she get this gig?
In 2005 my husband and I traveled to Bali for a vacation. A few weeks before our trip, terrorists attached Bali for the second time in three years. The 2002 bombing killed over 200 young people at two night clubs. The 2005 bombing was less horrific but did great damage to the psyche of the Balinese people and to the struggling tourist industry.
We didn’t cancel our trip. We got to see Bali without tourists, a fabulous experience. Because we had more time to talk to the Balinese, we learned about their culture, their religion, their remarkable warmth. By the time that trip ended, I had an idea for a novel I wanted to write: the story of a young American woman who returns to Bali a year after she was injured in the 2002 terrorist bombings and her search for the man who saved her.
Yes, I had to return to Bali for a research trip as I wrote THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE. I planned a month long solo journey, with stops in different cities. I knew much of what I needed to discover, and yet much of what happened there was pure serendipity – conversations with people and experiences that helped shape my knowledge of Bali and my ability to create the island on the page.
I chose to stay in guest houses so that I’d learn more about the Balinese people and their remarkable hospitality. I talked to everyone I could about their recollections of the bombing. I learned about ex-pat life and Balinese life. I wandered the streets of Ubud and Sanur, absorbing the smells, sights, and sounds of those villages.
The tough part was really the best part of my trip. I spent two long days interviewing survivors of the bombing and families of some of the victims. I traveled by car, with an interpreter, to remote villages and to modest one-room homes in the center of the city where I sat on the floor with my hosts and listened to horrific stories. In one case, a woman tried to tell me the story of that fateful night when her husband did not return from work. She broke down and her teenage daughter finished her story by saying, “And so I have decided to become a doctor so I can help save my people.”
My memory of that month in Bali is filled with some of the images we all conjure up when we think of that gorgeous island. But a few other images are seared in my mind: a woman whose burns still cover most of her body and yet she played with her new baby as she told me her story. The memorial of the bombing in the center of Kuta – a carving that includes all the names of the victims. The lovely host at one of my guest houses who told me each morning that Bali is healing with each new day.
to learn more about Ellen and her new novel, THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE, check out her website: www.ellensussman.com