Author photo – James Ferron Anderson
In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews James Ferron Anderson, author of The River and The Sea.
James was born in Northern Ireland, and worked there as a weaver, glassblower and soldier. He eventually had children, moved to Norwich, UK, studied at UEA, and began to write in different forms, including poetry, short stories, plays and, more recently, novels. One of his first short stories, The Bog Menagerie, won the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. He won an Escalator Award winner for I Still Miss Someone, and a Writers’ Centre Free Reads Award winner. The River and The Sea won the Rethink Press New Novels Award in 2012, and was published in November 2012.
The River and The Sea is set in British Columbia. James is currently working on Terminal City, set in Vancouver. While he’s visited British Columbia and Vancouver many times (his once estranged brother lives there, but that’s another story) he has never lived there.
Visit his website at jamesferronanderson.com.
Which came first, story or location?
Location, and more so as I continue to write. I’ll stick with Terminal City, the novel I am currently working on, but it applies equally to The River and The Sea. I was already studying the history of British Columbia, and focusing on Vancouver, when I read that Errol Flynn had died there. It was the human touch that caught my attention: once flamboyant athletic actor reduced, much against his will, to selling his last possession of any worth, his yacht. Shattered, riddled with diseases, looking like seventy instead of the fifty he actually was, he dies. But if my head had not already been filled with images of Vancouver from its lumber town days in the early 1900s to its evolution into the city of glass it is today I may not have found myself, I would say unintentionally, making up stories based around a Flynn-type character.
Politics and mores are as an integral part of a location as are its streets or hills. It was what I knew of the political aspects of this West Coast city in the 30s and 40s that determined that Terminal City would be a crime story. I wanted that mixture of danger and timidity that noir provides: the lure of the forbidden and the pulling back from it. I’d say location determined the form, feel and nature of the book. The rest was my regular desire to tell stories of how people need each other, hate each other, love each other and dispense with each other.
Simply put, it begins with location, finding an interesting event and/or person in that location when I’m not knowingly looking, and getting hooked.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I think finding myself writing a story set in Vancouver (and it felt like finding more than choosing) was a just a wonderful gift. For a start, almost no one in the book was born in the city. They have a past at variance with their present, having come there from across the world for their own purposes. They are testing it, examining it, seeing what they can get from it. Will they be satisfied with what they’ve found? With the people they become over the twenty years of living there from 1939 to 1959? It makes the city, like the Thompson River in The River and The Sea, a protagonist in the book.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Vancouver is a mild-weather city with plenty of rain. For noir it knocks LA into a cocked hat. It’s a city on a great bay so there are beaches, ships pass in and out visibly and constantly, there are well-forested and, for large parts of the year, snowy mountains rearing up just across Burrard Inlet. The wild and magnificent outdoors is no more than half an hour away, even in 1959.
Vancouver is a port, and more culturally mixed than an interior city. It’s in the far west of the continent: the final destination, like it or not, for the drifter or seeker after a better life. A large Asian presence leant, certainly in the period of which I am writing, a feeling of tension to nightlife, whether justified or not. My desire to use all that shaped the story.
Buildings matter. I have old all-wood housing from when Vancouver first laid down its streets side by side with the rise of its first multi-storey offices: a city in flux, home to people from elsewhere, also in flux, looking for roots and stability, looking for meaning too in the aftermath of a war.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I couldn’t imagine locating a story in a place I didn’t know well. I was relishing knowing Vancouver more and more anyway. To set a novel there was an excuse to know it better again, from visiting, diving into the City Archives on-line, to examining Google Earth Street View for hours. Plenty, then. I want to make what I write correct as well as relevant to the story. That doesn’t mean that very much of what I know has to go on the page. I read a comment that Colm Toibin in writing his novel on Henry James, The Master, wore his learning lightly. I want to know everything that’s relevant, and more, and use it lightly. The tip of the iceberg theory.
There are tricks also. Why would a local person wonder or remark on anything like the view or the tram tracks in the streets? I feel description has to grow out of incident and dialogue in the narrative. The first person narrator of Terminal City has, in the 1939 scenes, only lived in Vancouver for a year and is still coming to terms with it. He can wonder and notice and remark a little more freely and yet, hopefully, realistically. In 1959 he can reflect on changes, good and bad.
Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
From The River and The Sea:
‘Snow was falling and visibility down to a few feet. We stopped in the afternoon and managed to light a fire and had tea and sugar. In a break in the snow Harry saw a raven. That meant there were caribou, and on the move.’
‘It did, did it?’
‘For a certainty, Harry said. We crossed a frozen lake, for easier walking, and came back onto the river. The wind was unrelenting. Even on the lake it took us four hours to make a couple of miles.’ Edward drank his tea. This was the most talking any of us had done for a long time. ‘We found a little clump of spruce. We ate some of the hide matting for the first time, but neither of us slept from the cold and the need to keep the fire going.’
It’s a narrative told to inform someone else and, almost incidentally, informs the reader. The intention was to convey their location as a site of cold, hunger and desperation, but it had to be an integral part of the story, not a piece of description standing to one side.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch. ‘The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.
Next month’s Location, Locution: Jill interviews Charlotte Otter, South African author – now living in Germany, whose homeland provides fertile fictional soil.
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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.
Author photo: J J Marsh
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