Today we welcome expat crime writer JJ Marsh to the Displaced Nation. JJ grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. Having at this point lived in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France—she finally settled in Switzerland—JJ certainly belongs in our midst! But what makes her even more special is that she has offered to impart her knowledge to other international creatives about the portrayal of “place” in one’s works.
Currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs (on loan from Interpol), today JJ begins a new series for us, entitled “Location, Locution.” In the opening post, she will answer the questions she plans to ask other displaced authors in future posts.
JJ, we are positively THRILLED (in more ways than one!) to have you as a new columnist. Welcome! And now to get to know you a little better…
Which comes first, story or location?
Story, always. Or at least the bare bones of the plot. Then I audition various places before beginning to write. I have to know the setting, even before populating the novel with characters. The place IS a character. For example, once I knew the victims would be corporate Fat Cats in Behind Closed Doors, the first in my Beatrice Stubbs series, I looked around for a financial centre with the right kind of atmosphere. Turns out my home town of Zürich fitted the bill and even gave me the title.
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I’d say by really looking at it and digging deep. Not only that, but try to look at it from the perspective of your reader. It’s no coincidence that in many European languages, one asks for a description using the word “How”.
Wie war es?
Yet in English, we say “What is it like?” We want comparisons to what we know. I actively chose to use a foreigner arriving in a strange country/city, so as to look at it with new eyes.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
I start with the senses. We notice sights, sounds and smells first, and add to our impressions with tastes and textures, all the while comparing them to our expectations. Food and drink are essential, as they reveal something of the region but also much about the characters. Cultural differences have to be treated with great care in fiction. Lumpen great dumps of information are poison to pace. But subtle observations can be woven into the story, provided they are relevant. I’ve just abandoned a book set in Rome which was clumsily pasted chunks of guidebook against a sub-par Eat, Pray, Love plot. The reader wants to be immersed in the world of the book, not subjected to the author’s holiday snaps.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Speaking for myself, extremely well. I feel insecure describing an area I’ve never visited. But that’s not true for everyone. Stef Penney, who wrote The Tenderness of Wolves, created a beautiful story set against the backdrop of the frozen wastes of Canada. She’d never even been there.
While I am awed by that achievement, I don’t think I could do it. I need to ‘feel’ the place and also, to understand the people.
My nomadic past and interest in culture led me to study the work of Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars. One of their models is to analyze culture like an onion. The outer layer is Symbols—what represents the country to outsiders/its own people? The next is Heroes—who do the people worship and venerate? Peel that away and explore its Rituals—on a national and personal level. At the centre of the Onion, you will find its values, the hardest part of a culture to access. But that’s where the heart is.
Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
The recent UK horsemeat scandal amused me, as it’s part of the average menu in Switzerland. Here my combative detectives, one Swiss, one British, have just finished lunch.
Beatrice patted her mouth with her napkin. “Herr Kälin, your recommendation was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed that meal.”
“Good. Would you like coffee, or shall I get the bill?”
“I’ve taken up enough of your time. Let’s pay up and head for home.” Beatrice finished her wine.
Kälin hailed the waitress. “I wasn’t sure you’d like this kind of farmer’s food.”
“Farmer’s food is my favourite sort. Solid and unpretentious. Not the sort of fare they would serve in those crisp white tents at the polo park.”
Kälin let out a short laugh. Beatrice cocked her head in enquiry.
“It would definitely be inappropriate at the polo park, Frau Stubbs. We’ve just eaten Pferdefleisch. Horse steak.”
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Val McDermid, particularly for A Place of Execution. Not only place but period done with impressive subtlety. Kate Atkinson, for making the environment vital to the plot in a book such as One Good Turn. Monique Roffey for bringing Trinidad to life in The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. Alexander McCall Smith enriches his stories with a wealth of local detail, be it Botswana or Edinburgh. And Kathy Reichs for making her dual identity an advantage. Donna Leon’s Venetian backdrop, Scotland according to Iain Banks in Complicity, and Peter Høeg’s Copenhagen in Smilla’s Sense of Snow.
There are many, many more.
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Thank you, JJ! Readers, any further questions to JJ on her portrayal of “place”, or authors you’d like to see her interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments. You may also enjoy checking out the first three books in JJ Marsh’s Beatrice Stubbs series:
- Behind Closed Doors: Takes place in Zürich, where someone is bumping off bankers.
- Raw Material: Takes place between London and Pembrokeshire. Here Beatrice is joined by wannabe sleuth, Adrian. Amateur detectives and professional criminals make a bad mix.
- Tread Softly: Unfolds in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Beatrice is supposedly on sabbatical, but soon finds herself up to her neck in corruption, murder and Rioja.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s interview with Lisa Egle, author of Magic Carpet Seduction, two copies of which we’ll be giving away!
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Images: Typewriter from MorgueFile; picture of JJ Marsh and her book cover supplied by herself; map from MorgueFile