In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Steven Conte, the Melbourne-based author of The Zookeeper’s War. The setting is the Berlin Zoo, 1943. An Australian woman, Vera, and her German husband, Axel, the zoo’s director, struggle to look after the animals through the air raids and food shortages.
In 2008, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, then worth A$100,000. The Zookeeper’s War has been published in Britain and Ireland and translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Barman, life model, taxi driver, public servant, book reviewer and university tutor are some of the jobs with which Steven has supported his writing.
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Which comes first, story or location?
For me this depends on the project. The city of Berlin was definitely the initial inspiration for The Zookeeper’s War, in particular the atmosphere of enclosure and entrapment which I sensed there three years before the Berlin Wall came down. While I chose to set my novel in the Berlin of WWII, the Cold War tensions I had witnessed there in 1986 helped me to imagine what it might have felt like to live through the twelve terrifying years of the Third Reich. It was only after the novel was published that I realised I had chosen a setting which has powerful, indeed mythic, associations for many readers (some other examples being New York, Paris, London and, in the east, Hong Kong and Shanghai).
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Stimulating the reader’s senses is the most reliable way, though in a realist narrative a character needs psychologically plausible reasons to notice his or her environment, a difficult ask if focal characters are already familiar with their surroundings. Selecting a focal character who is a newcomer to the setting is one way to emphasise place. Another is to take the focal character on a journey. In The Zookeeper’s War I chose a setting which aerial bombing destroys day by day, compelling the characters to keep on noticing their surroundings.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above, provided that accounts of them belong in the story and ring true to the narrative voice. Ideally, descriptive detail reveals as much about the focal character or narrator as it does about setting. In contrast, “unanchored” description can sound like passages of travel writing or anthropology.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
With skill, only moderately well, though it’s probably wise to minimise the difference between your characters’ supposed knowledge of a setting and your own. This aside, the best fiction implies more than it states (Hemingway’s iceberg principle), and a few vivid details can be enough to evoke an entire town or city or region. I’d recommend not writing about famous landmarks, since locations such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate will remain clichés of place however brilliantly they might be described.
Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
In the following passage from The Zookeeper’s War the heroine, Vera, walks through Berlin the morning after an air raid:
In the Mitte, the old city, bombs had caved in the skyline, dropping telegraph poles, power lines and tram cables onto burnt-out lorries and trams. Shops were destroyed or boarded up, and glass, chunks of plaster and shrapnel paved the streets. Field kitchens had sprouted at the major intersections, and in alleys off Alexanderplatz girls were already soliciting. Outside one bombed-out tenement Vera read the chalked inscription, Everyone in this shelter has been saved. Around the corner: My angel where are you? Leave a message for your Sigi. In a house without walls on Unter den Linden, a man played Bach on a grand piano, and below him, in a lake fed by a burst water main, a fur stole clung to a hatstand. Half the people on the streets wore a uniform: police, air-raid wardens, women postal workers. Soldiers moved in squads and the only vehicles were staff cars and Wehrmacht lorries, as if the army had conquered Berlin and deployed clerks and shop assistants to the front in a fleet of private cars.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Cormac McCarthy for the poetry and grandeur of his descriptions, in Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, of the border regions of Mexico and the United States. Colm Tóibín for his evocation of the eroding coastline of County Wexford in his early novel The Heather Blazing. William Styron for the magnificent range of settings in Sophie’s Choice, from post-war New York, New England and North Carolina to Warsaw under German occupation and the netherworld of Auschwitz.
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Readers, what did you think of Steven’s suggestions on evoking place? Next month, my guest will be Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels.
JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.
STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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