LOCATION, LOCUTION columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to the novelist Clare Flynn.
In this month’s LOCATION, LOCUTION, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Clare Flynn, the author of A Greater World and the just now published Kurinji Flowers.
Born in Liverpool, the eldest of five children, Clare Flynn read English Language and Literature at Manchester University, although spent most of her time exploring the city’s bars and nightclubs and founding the Rock ‘n’ Roll Society.
For many years she worked in consumer marketing, serving as the international marketing director for big global companies selling detergents, diapers, tuna fish and chocolate biscuits. This included stints in Paris, Brussels, Sydney and Milan.
She began her novel A Greater World, which is set in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, in 1998, after the first of many visits to Australia. When Clare had almost completed the first draft, burglars stole her computer. Determined that they would not get the better of her, she sat down and wrote it all again.
Her second novel, Kurinji Flowers, is set in a tea plantation in South India in the 1930s. The inspiration for the book came during a sleepless night in a hotel in Munnar in Kerala. The kurinji flowers of the title grow across this region and are renowned for flowering only once in every 12 years.
Both novels are about people being displaced. In A Greater World Elizabeth Morton and Michael Winterbourne are unwilling emigrants from England for Australia, driven away by tragic events. Ginny Dunbar in Kurinji Flowers, following a scandal that wrecks her future, is catapulted from her life as a debutante into the world of colonial India. None of these people is equipped to deal with what lies ahead.
Which came first, story or location?
Definitely location. My latest book, Kurinji Flowers, is set in a small hill town in South India. While on holiday in Kerala, in 2011, the plot came to me one sleepless night. By morning I’d mapped out the basic elements although, as always when writing, it’s changed radically since then. It’s set in the 1930s in a fictional hill town called Mudoorayam, loosely based on Munnar. After I’d finished the first draft I went back, alone, to the area and stayed in a former plantation manager’s bungalow in the midst of the tea gardens. As well as writing, I sketched and painted (then decided my main character would paint, too).
Photo credit: Kurinji flowers by Suresh Krishna (CC BY-SA 2.0); book cover art.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Definitely being there. I try to walk in my characters’ steps. A Greater World is set mainly in the Blue Mountains and Sydney. I was lucky enough to work there for six months—the perfect opportunity to imbibe a place. I went back after the first draft was written—again, alone, and just went everywhere, taking photographs and making notes. I do a lot of research as well—and gather pictures, both online and in books. As my novels are historical, old photographs are invaluable.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Photo credit: The Three Sisters, Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia, by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0); book cover art.
I think they all do. Plus sounds and smells—when the heroine of Kurinji Flowers
, Ginny Dunbar, arrives in Bombay from England, the scene is evoked with six different sounds, eleven smells and loads of colours. I also use trees, flowers, birds, architecture—anything that makes the place special and takes you there. Writing about London is hard for me as it’s so familiar—but the fact that my plots are historical helps: I have to do a bit of time-travelling. I try to use place as part of the narrative, not as add-on description—it has to have a fundamental impact on the plot.
Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
From Kurinji Flowers:
We went back to England and a bungalow on the downs outside Eastbourne, where after a while I started to become fond of the sheep, the curving contours of the landscape and the grey-green, chalky sea. But I missed Muddy. I missed the warmth of the late afternoon sun, the intensity of the rains, the bustle of the market, the vast undulating expanse of the tea plantations, the gentle cry of the Nilgiri pigeons, the sluggish, murky river, the blue of the morning glory, and the patchwork of the tea gardens in more shades of green than my palette could do justice.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
You don’t need to know it well, but you have to feel strongly enough about it to bring it to life on the page. There are people who write beautifully about places they’ve never visited—finding inspiration in other literature, in photographs and art. Shakespeare never left England as far as I know and it didn’t stop him writing about distant places real and imagined. And you can always use some artistic licence if you rename the place, as I did with my hill town.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
So many—but I’ll pick Dickens and Chapter 1 of Bleak House, which gives a fabulous evocation of smoggy, muddy, London in “implacable November weather,” with a whole page devoted to describing the fog. Read that and you can’t help but be there trudging through those streets and coughing up that filthy air. And what’s great about it is that the depiction of the fog is also an extended metaphor for the impenetrable fog that is the Court of Chancery.
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Next month’s Location, Locution: The Rucksack Universe series author Anthony St. Clair, with his travel fantasy books set in Hong Kong, India and Ireland.
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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