Cover art “The Accident; Author photo Chris Pavone; Author photo JJ Marsh
In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews author Chris Pavone, whose first novel, The Expats, was published in 2012, and was a New York Times and international bestseller, with nearly twenty foreign editions and a major film deal.
The Expats was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Macavity, and awards from the Strand Magazine Critics Circle, the Mystery Booksellers Association, and the International Thriller Writers. It received the 2013 Edgar Award and the 2013 Anthony Award for Best First Novel.
Pavone’s new book, The Accident, will be published in March 2014.
Which comes first, story or location?
For some books I think the story and location are inextricably intertwined: the story is about the location. My thriller The Expats is one of those, defined by taking place in a country that’s not the protagonist’s home. The plot is driven by this situation, by her sense of disassociation and isolation, by the necessity of her reinvention.
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pets. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Something such as spying…
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
On the written page, I think the clearest evocation is via the physical landscape, especially when it echoes the culture. New York is the big brashness of skyscrapers and noise; London is the polite order of elegant uniformity; Rome is cheerful dilapidated chaos.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
As much as my characters. If they’re only in a city for a day, they don’t know that much about the place, and I don’t need to either. Both The Expats and my next book, The Accident, use a variety of locations, and the amount of time the characters spend in places—Luxembourg, Paris, the Alps, Amsterdam, London, Zurich, Los Angeles, etc.—is roughly proportionate to the amount of time I’ve spent there.
Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
This is the final sentence of The Expats . . .
Kate watches them merge into the flow of the dense crowd, all the streetlights and lamplights ignited in the Carrefour de l’Odeon, a little red Fiat beeping at a bright green Vespa that’s weaving in the traffic, the policeman oblivious while he continues to flirt with the pretty girl, cigarette smoke wafting from the tables filled with wineglasses and tumblers and carafes and bottles, plates of ham and slabs of foie-gras terrine and napkin-lined baskets of crusty sliced baguette, women wearing scarves knotted at the neck and men in plaid sport jackets, peals of laughter and playful smirks, hand-shaking and cheek-kissing, saying hello and waving good-bye, in the thick lively humanity of early night in the City of Light, where a pair of expats is quickly but quietly disappearing.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Hemingway was not only a master of evoking location, but also of using physical atmosphere as emotional metaphor. Empty barges on the Seine can represent a lot more than just boats.
Next month on Location, Locution: award-winning author Amanda Hodgkinson.
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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.
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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Expat author JJ Marsh on bringing a location to life through writing