Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.
The theologian Richard Niebuhr once wrote:
Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.
In that sense, today’s author, Joan Fallon, can be considered a modern-day pilgrim, of the kind often encountered within the Displaced Nation. She may not have walked the Camino de Santiago—but the path she took in her life led her to a place where she could write a novel about someone who did.
Joan was born with a foot in two cultural camps: her father was Irish and her mother, Scottish. Her first journey into a brand new culture was made as a child, when her family moved from Dumfries, Scotland, to the south of England, which many Celts consider to be a foreign country.
Joan went on to spend her formative years in England. She married, had a family (a son and a daughter), and worked as a teacher while also earning a BA from the Open University in History and Literature.
But in England, Joan was still a pilgrim; she hadn’t yet found the Way. In fact, she lost her way for some time after her son dropped dead unexpectedly when he was only 17. She abandoned her career in teaching (she couldn’t bear being around kids his age) to become a management trainer.
Soon, though, it was time to don her pilgrim’s boots again, this time for a journey into southern Spain. When her husband took early retirement, the couple set off just before the start of the new millennium for their new home in Benajarafe, a coastal village that is a few miles east of Málaga, in Andalusia.
This journey, which brings us to where we find Joan now, led her to the goal she was seeking all along: an opportunity to try out the life of full-time writer. As she put it in a recent interview:
It is something that I had been waiting all my life to do.
Joan completed an Open University course in creative writing, but it wasn’t until she’d spent six years taking journeys within Spain, learning the language and talking to people, that she would embrace her destiny fully. (She was also settling in, finding out how to cope with Spanish bureaucracy and generally dealing with the numerous everyday things that we take for granted in our home country or don’t need: obtaining an identity card, a social security card, becoming a tax resident, registering at the town hall, changing to Spanish number plates, making friends, finding a hairdresser that you like, a new dentist, a new doctor, a vet, a plumber…)
Eventually, her immersion in the Spanish language and local culture paid off. Always interested in social history, Joan decided to interview a number of older Spanish women about how their lives had changed since Franco had died in 1975. She translated the interviews into English, which led to her first published book, Daughters of Spain.
The research for this book also produced two novels:
Joan Fallon’s writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era. Photo credits: Joan Fallon’s author photo and book covers (supplied); Benajarafe, by Tony Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0).
One of Joan’s subsequent novels grew out of her experiences of mixing with both Spanish and foreign nationals: Loving Harry, a story about two women in love with the same man, set in expat Spain.
Joan’s frequent visits to other parts of Spain have also inspired books. It was a trip to Galicia that gave her the idea of writing Santiago Tales—about a woman whose life is in tatters and who decides to walk the Camino de Santiago seeking solutions.
Likewise a visit to the Moorish ruins at Madinat al Zahra near Córdoba inspired her to research and write The Shining City, a novel set in Moorish Spain during 10th century.
All of Joan’s novels feature strong women as their heroines—women who face some kind of difficulty and have to overcome it.
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Welcome, Joan, to Location, Locution. Spain clearly has had a powerful effect on your writing, but which comes first, story or location?
Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. It depends on the book I am writing whether location or story is the most important. Santiago Tales, as you’ve explained, was set on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain—location was essential to the story. Spanish Lavender is a love story set in the Spanish Civil War, but it takes place specifically in Málaga, a city I know very well—and therefore I started with the location. In another of my books, The Only Blue Door, which you didn’t mention, I wrote about three children sent to Australia during wartime. Never having been to Australia, I found it hard to write about a place I did not know personally so had to rely on my research. In this case, it was the story that was predominant, not the location.
It sounds as though you like to know the place very well before using it as a setting?
Yes, I prefer to write about places I know. If I don’t know the location well, then I will visit it a number of times noting the layout, the atmosphere and anything else I can put into my writing. Sometimes I will interview someone about a place when I know that they have a greater knowledge of the location than I do. This is what I did with Santiago Tales. I knew the area well but not from the point of view of a pilgrim, so I interviewed a woman who had walked the 800 km of the Camino and was delighted to tell me of her exploits. This gave me the little details that I needed to make my story credible.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I try to remember as many details as I can, imagining that I am there again and then imagining the character in the location as I knew it. If my story is set somewhere that I have only visited on a few occasions, then it needs more effort to conjure up the required atmosphere, and I will read about the location and look at photographs. Sometimes it is something as simple as knowing if there are hills in the area that the character has to climb or rivers that he has to cross or when he sits down what he can see. All this helps to transport the reader to the location that you have chosen. For me it is a mixture of combining what I know the place is like with the atmosphere I am trying to convey for the story.
Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?
Place is an especially important factor in The Shining City, which I wrote after visiting the ruins of a city near Córdoba called Madinat al Zahra. I was fascinated by the place and the fact that, although it was once a very prosperous and cultured city, it was abandoned and fell into complete disrepair after only 70 years. It seemed the ideal place to set a historical novel about the Moors in Spain.
Here is a passage from my book, depicting a character from England’s West Country who is following the French Way of the Way of St. James:
The Galician countryside is distinctive. It reminds her a little of her own West Country, with its small fields and dry-stone walls. The change was obvious as soon as she reached O’Cebreiro, set in the green, rolling hills across the border from León, and saw the round stone houses of the area, with their straw roofs and Iron Age design. She has even passed Celtic crosses at the roadside, so like the ones in Cornwall, and fields of fat, contented brown and white cattle. Just like the west coast of Britain and Ireland, Galicia receives its fair share of Atlantic wind and rain and this is evident in the verdure of its countryside. No, she is no longer walking through the dry Meseta; this part of Spain is very different and, to her, feels more like home.
Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?
All of those and more, depending on the location. Returning to the example of The Shining City, about a place that I had visited when it was a ruin, I had to do a lot of research into what it would have been like when it was a thriving city. I needed to know what food was available at the time, what they grew and what they imported, what type of housing people lived in, how they dressed and what the climate was like. Although this is a historical novel, set in 10th-century Spain, the fact that I live in Spain and know the area well made it so much easier to create the right atmosphere; I knew from experience what the weather was like at different times of the year, which flowers were in bloom and when; and I could imagine easily what the roads to the city were like then from what I could see today.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I read a book by John Lanchester called Capital, which was the story of a street in London told through the lives of the people who lived there. He used location very well and made it the central pivot for his novel. Donna Tartt also uses location very well and creates a rich and detailed background to her novels. Another writer that gives great importance to location in her novels is Barbara Kingsolver, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about two girls growing up in Naples recreate the atmosphere of that wild-child city beautifully.
Joan’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place
Thanks so much, Joan!
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Readers, any questions for Spain-obsessed Joan Fallon? Please leave them in the comments below.
And if you’d like to discover more about Joan, why not visit her author site +/or her site dedicated to her books that are set in Spain, A Spanish Notebook. You can also follow her on twitter at @joan_fallon and @notesonspain +/or like her Facebook page.
Until next month!
Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.
STAY TUNED for the next fab post!
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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).