My husband Mason offered to take me to Prague for my birthday one year. I didn’t know much about the city beforehand, except that absinthe was legal there and could be drunk in bars, rather than smuggled back from Spain and shared with friends in my living room. You could say I was on a mission.
As I researched in advance of our trip, I became fascinated with the history of alchemy in Prague. Once we arrived in the city, we discovered that one of the rooms in Prague Castle was full of dusty beakers and copper tubing and a stout furnace said to have been used by John Dee to try to transmute lead into gold. John Dee is a special fascination of mine: a multilingual spy for Queen Elizabeth I who was considered the most learned man of his age and who believed he could communicate with angels through special crystal balls.
After we explored the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Prague Ghetto, our guidebook encouraged us to visit the grave of Franz Kafka in the New Jewish Cemetery. We visited on a glorious October day, when birch leaves collected in golden drifts in front of the dramatic black granite gravestones. Kafka’s monument is pink granite, standing near the cenotaphs to his sisters, who disappeared in the Holocaust.
The New Jewish Cemetery really did have a crotchety Czech caretaker who shouted at us in words we couldn’t understand. In our case, he wanted Mason to put a yarmulke on before we came into the cemetery.
We really did drink one night in the Shot-Out Eye and the story of the monkey and mule who became highwaymen came from our guidebook. That was the first night we drank Hill’s Absinth (no e, although Alondra doesn’t mention that in the story). Like her, we tried to drink it in the French way. No one corrected us until the afternoon I had a glass in the Globe Bookstore Bar, near the art museum. Then a British ex-pat showed me how to manage the matches and spoon. Alondra’s vision of herself as an elephant on spindly legs, like Dali’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, came from one of my absinthe adventures in Prague, as did the headache like a guillotine blade she suffers the next morning.
Traveling in Prague was the first time I realized that I could combine my love of traveling, my enjoyment of traveling writing, and the kind of fantasy stories I loved. I spent an afternoon sitting at a sunny table in the Mala Strana jotting down notes for Alondra’s adventure there. I even picked out the building where her lab would take up the whole upper floor, its mansard roof pierced by skylights where the moon could peep in.
When I started to write, I didn’t know how Alondra was going to solve the Philosopher’s Stone when so many learned gentlemen had not. Her inversion of the dominant paradigm struck me as so audacious that I had to write it down and see if I could get away with it.