Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Lambert Nagle, Kiwi/Brit co-writers of international thrillers.
Today we welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for this month’s “Location, Locution.” If you are new to the site, JJ, who is a crime series writer (see her bio below), talks to fellow fiction writers about their methods for portraying place in their works. We’re excited that her guest today is the better half of a husband-wife team who have composed an eco-thriller that takes place all over the world, including places where they’ve been expats.
Lambert Nagle is the pen name of co-authors Alison Ripley Cubitt and Sean Cubitt. They write thrillers set in sunny climes.
Sean’s day job is Professor of Film and Television, Goldsmiths, University of London. He has been published by leading academic publishers.
Alison worked in TV and film production for companies including the BBC and Walt Disney but her passion has always been for writing. She is an author, screenwriter and novelist.
Serial expats, Lambert Nagle have lived in Malaysia, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and are now based in leafy Hampshire.
Now let’s find out how they perceived the connection between location and locution for their debut novel, Revolution Earth. (Alison is answering for the pair.)
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Which comes first, story or location?
We knew that Revolution Earth had to have a circular structure as one of the themes is that an event in one part of the world will have an impact in another. We needed a major global city for the inciting incident as well as the conclusion and we chose the one we know best—London. Sean was once a bicycle courier and he knew what it was like to have to dodge potholes and taxis in Soho and still get the delivery there on time.
We wrote the New Zealand section after we’d reluctantly left my native land and moved to Melbourne. It was a bit of a love letter to a place we adored but needed to leave in order to pursue professional opportunities abroad. In southeast Australia we were thrilled to find that there was an oil refinery—identical to one we had driven past in Cheshire years ago, which inspired the story.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
For the Antarctica portion of the story, Sean had spent four years in Canada as a post-graduate student. The memory of cold is something that never leaves you, so we drew on that, starting from the physical experience and expanding out into the visual side of things.
Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Kakadu in the Australian outback, by Muireann Ní Cheallacháin via Flickr; book cover with photo of Snowy Mountain region of New South Wales, Australia, taken by Alison Ripley Cubitt; lady bicyclist in London, by Danica via Flickr; Alberta, Canada, by davebloggs007 via Flickr (all Flickr photos CC BY 2.0).
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Revolution Earth was originally a screenplay. As a screenwriter you have to know a place extremely well before you’d dare use it as a setting. Film is a literal medium and your job is to give very clear instructions about an actual place—as a camera has to be able to film the location exactly as you’ve described it. So we went to extremes: including a trip to a uranium mine in the Outback, thousands of miles from where we lived in Australia.
Eventually we realised we needed to write a novel first, before we could interest film-makers. But by then, we knew we couldn’t get to every location and would have to inhabit some places purely through imagination. The important thing is that the imagined places have to be just as detailed, just as carefully tuned to the physical experience of being there, as the real ones. Something really familiar like a dusty, disorganised office in a backstreet in the East End of London should be as deeply felt as battling a storm in a leaky boat in the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica. As someone who goes green at the mention of the phrase “rough seas,” this is where the imagination comes in as well.
The liberation of cresting the top of a hill on a bicycle before swooping down towards the valley is the same everywhere, but knowing the twists of the road, the steepness of it, how it burns up your lungs before filling them with joy, is all the richer if you can take your reader into what is special about this road, this time of year, for this character.
Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?
Whether it’s real or imagined, a place comes as a feeling first. Then you identify the elements of that feeling: what can you hear, smell, see, taste. How do people talk? Hot, cold, windy or still? What plants and animals, how personal or impersonal, what sense of the past, ancient or recent, does it communicate and what are the things that carry that sense—things like the absence of birdsong or the sound of a kettle boiling. Sometimes you reach out to the reader to share an experience, but sometimes you have to lead them into an experience they have never had, and then it’s often the emotion of the characters and scene that drive the description rather than its physical elements.
Can you give an example from Revolution Earth that illustrates place?
Great mountains of blue-white floating in a sea caught between the colour of the sky and the fresh green of young pine forests under mid-summer sun. Between them, smaller floes drifted about aimlessly, as though in some kind of trance. On the horizon she saw, thanks to Novak, a steep rise of endless white cliffs. This must be where the glaciers came down to the sea, where the icebergs calved. It was as alien a place as she had ever seen, more alien even than a science fiction film because it was right there, illuminated for her in the startling clarity of dazzling sunshine.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
For Sean, Dickens immediately comes to mind: hardly a scene goes by that isn’t redolent of a life lived in it—stuffy banqueting rooms, Essex marshes, debtors’ prison… I admire Tim Winton who writes about his home state of Western Australia in such a way that I just want to jump on a plane and go there. He’s as comfortable describing what life’s like for the struggling poor living in beachside shacks as he is showing the reader what the inside of a wave looks like from a surfer’s point-of-view.
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Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Lambert Nagle and the Cubitts, we encourage you to visit their author site.
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 next month’s Location, Locution, with Carl Plummer, who lives in China and writes comic thrillers as Robert E. Towsie.
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- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Clare Flynn, a well-traveled novelist who specializes in geographical displacement
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Fran Pickering, London-based crime writer and Japanophile
- LOCATION, LOCUTION: Catriona Troth, novelist – from Scotland to Canada to a long stay in the Chilterns