One year ago, Displaced Nation asked me to conduct a series of regular interviews with writers on their use of location. Place is vitally important to my writing and that of my colleagues at Triskele Books . It’s our USP. After a year of interviews with authors from Brazil, America, South Africa, Ireland, France, India, Hungary/China, I’m looking back.
First, I’ve selected ten of favourite answers, on how these writers approach weaving literary magic carpets to transport readers to Bombay or Berlin, Syria or Odessa.
Secondly, I’ve added five of the most books that held me spellbound; works which make place a character in its own right.
Which came first, story or location?
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis:
“I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.”
Charlotte Otter, author of Balthasar’s Gift:
“The two are intertwined. When the first images began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.”
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Chris Pavone, author of The Expats and The Accident:
“I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pet. 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.”
JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult, and The Rise of Zenobia:
“With great difficulty. In writing Tristan and Iseult I evoked the wet and wind the British know only too well. I’ve always lived on the coast, though in the north, not Cornwall (Kernow), but those salt winds and perpetually grey skies are the same. The Rise of Zenobia is based in 3rd century Syria, and I’m finding that much harder. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.”
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Amanda Hodgkinson, author of Spilt Milk:
“All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.”
Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa:
“For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.”
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Steven Conte, author of The Zookeeper’s War:
“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.”
AD Miller, author of Snowdrops:
“You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.”
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
James Ferron Anderson, author of The River and the Sea:
“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.”
Share an extract from your work which illustrates place.
Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, on Geneva’s Water Fountain:
“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric charges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”
Books I’d recommend for use of location:
- Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. Iceland in the 1800s and the hardships of a frozen winter and the warmth of human empathy will melt you.
- Secrets of the Italian Gardener, by Andrew Crofts. This beautifully written novella features a Middle-Eastern dictator, a garden and behind the walls, some secrets.
- Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sharp observations on both America and Nigeria in Adichie’s second novel, along with great affection and humour.
- The White Goddess: An Encounter, by Simon Gough. A fictionalised memoir of the author’s time spent with his grand-uncle, war poet Robert Graves, on the island of Majorca.
- Accabadora, by Michela Murgia. A breathtaking tale of Sardinian village life, the relationships and bonds between two women, and the value of life and love.
* * *
In next month’s Location, Locution, our guest will be Jessica Bell, an Australian expat living in Greece, who writes fiction, advice for authors, and makes music too.
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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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charlotte Otter – South African expat and crime writer living in Germany
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: James Ferron Anderson, weaver, glassblower, soldier – and award-winning novelist
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Andrea Cheng, award-winning children’s author
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Amanda Hodgkinson, author of “22 Britannia Road” and “Spilt Milk”
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Chris Pavone, author of “The Expats”, on why story and location are inseparable
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jeet Thayil on bringing location to life in a semi-dream state
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Janet Skeslien Charles, bringing Odessa to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalize cities
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Liza Perrat on writing a location to life
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Award-winning author Steven Conte, bringing location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Booker Prize-nominated author AD Miller, on bringing a location to life through writing
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Expat author JJ Marsh on bringing a location to life through writing