Several years ago the police chief in a small town in Bosnia accused me of being a spy.
I’m telling you this story because a couple nights ago a friend pointed out that I don’t have to become completely like Layla since in many ways (more than I myself can see) she believes I modeled Layla after me. She’s probably right. Certainly I’ve given Layla a couple of my personal adventures along with what was in me that got me through them.
The spy incident happened in the town of Olovo where I spent two hours in a dingy room on the second floor of the police station fighting to convince the police chief I was innocent. A local teacher served as our translator. His grim expression told me he was on the police chief’s side. Beyond a window loomed a neighboring building, its walls pockmarked with shell and bullet holes. The war in Bosnia had been over for some time, but the scars it had seared into its people and their country lived on.
The police chief couldn’t understand why I had flown into Belgrade in the neighboring enemy nation of Serbia instead of into the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. He didn’t believe me when I said I was a writer and driving through both countries because I wished to see both of them. No innocent traveler, he insisted, would rent a car in Belgrade. How did I get into Bosnia? Why didn’t my passport show my entry into his country? Where was my visa? He scoffed when I said no one in Belgrade would give me one.
Finally, after two painful hours during which I argued, pleaded, demanded and protested, I remembered a small scrap of paper in my wallet. I pulled it out and handed it to him.
The police chief stared at it. He sneered. He shrugged and grumbled. And a few minutes later, after I agreed to hand over the film in my camera, he let me go.
That scrap of paper saved me because it proved not only that I had crossed the Serbian/Bosnian border where I said I had, I had also bribed the Serb soldiers guarding it. No visa! one of the soldiers had yelled at me after examining my passport. I pulled out my wallet and said I’m so sorry — how much do they cost? That’s when the soldiers turned friendly and happily charged me about four times a visa’s usual price. Then in a shadow play that they were acting officially, one of them stamped a scrap of paper and gave it to me as a receipt. If I had been a spy for the Serbs, those soldiers would have let me pass for free. The police chief knew this.
In my original manuscript of The Compass Master I gave my experience at the border and in the police station to Layla Daltry. For the purpose of story development I had also added a rare medieval book that was hidden in the trunk of Layla’s car; she had been hired by its owner to retrieve it from an occupied town and return it to him. I loved this scene, I really did. But my agent correctly declared that it didn’t completely fit in with the rest of The Compass Master. And so — and this hurt me — I cut it out and rewrote chapter four which was also set in Bosnia and moved it up to replace chapter two.
Anyway, I’ve kept a copy of the original scene and plan to use it in a future book about Layla. Having lived through the story, I know it’s good enough to keep around.