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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Jo Parfitt’s creative life as serial expat


Columnist Doreen Brett is back, and she’s accompanied by another “great” in the expat publishing world, Jo Parfitt, who has published 30+ books herself while also helping at least a hundred new expat writers publish their first great works. Wow. Who among us can compete? —ML Awanohara

Hello Displaced Nationers! It is my pleasure to present to you the venerable Jo Parfitt, who has been an expat for more than three decades while also carving out a career for herself as author, journalist, writing mentor/teacher, and publisher.

This is not Jo’s first time on the Displaced Nation. A couple of years ago, another expat author, Ana McGinley, interviewed Jo about her decision to found Summertime Publishing, which specializes in publishing books by and for people living abroad.

Summertime, by the way, is turning 10 years old this year. Congratulations, Jo!

As Jo reported to Ana, one of her own books, A Career in Your Suitcase, remains one of Summertime’s top five bestsellers. Is it any wonder, given that Jo is her own best example? Among the many places where she’s lived and worked are three I know well: my native Malaysia, my husband’s home country of Britain, and my current home of the Netherlands, where Jo, too, now resides.

And now let’s hear about Jo’s experience as a serial expat—and how living in so many different places has fed her creative life.

* * *

Welcome, Jo, to the Displaced Nation. First let’s do a quick review of all the places you’ve called “home”. You were born in Stamford, a town in Lincolnshire, UK. A few years back, Stamford was rated the best place to live by the Sunday Times. But you were not content to stay put. Instead you have lived in Dubai, Oman, Norway, Kuala Lumpur, Brunei, and the Netherlands. What got you started on this peripatetic life?

I went abroad the day after I got married, when I was 26. My boyfriend had gone to Dubai for work and I had to marry him to follow him. Before that happened, I already knew I loved being overseas. I had done a French degree and a year abroad, so I was already travelling before I met my husband. But still, I hadn’t imagined living in Dubai and, in fact, did not want to go there at all. But my husband (he was my fiancé at the time) said: “Come for six months. If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” And thirty years later, we are still living abroad…

Why didn’t you want to go to Dubai?

At that time I was running my own business and doing quite well. And I was really happy in my career and didn’t want to give it up. Career has always been really important to me. When I closed down my business (I was in a partnership) to move to Dubai, I found it absolutely devastating.

So Dubai was a hard landing?

I was the first expat wife in my husband’s company. They had no support for me at all. We weren’t given our own apartment. I ended up sharing a flat with some other chaps who were in my husband’s office. I was lost and lonely and I knew nothing about networking, I knew nothing about portable careers, I knew nothing about being an expat. But then I found a job opportunity for somebody to do some freelance CV writing. So I did, and eventually I became a journalist. When I submitted my CV they said: “Well you’re not very good but you’ve got potential. So you work for me and I’ll shout at you a lot and you’ll learn.” So that’s what happened. One thing led to another and I had a career again.

Can you tell us about where you went next?

From Dubai, we went to Oman for two-and-a-half years, which was heaven. We loved it. We left too soon because after Oman we went to Stavanger, in southwestern Norway. We went from heat and and living outdoors and having help in the house to a cold and rainy place with no help. We stayed 18 months—actually, we cut that posting short. (I’ve been back to Stavanger since and I thought it was wonderful, but at that time, it was just not for me.) We moved back to Stamford, but I didn’t fit in anymore. We were based in the UK for seven years while my husband would commute on the plane or bus or train for work, until finally we decided it was time we all stayed together as a family again, and we went to live in The Hague. My husband and I also moved to Brunei for a short posting, staying just a few months before returning to The Hague. From there my husband got a job in Kuala Lumpur. For me, living in Malaysia was a dream come true. We’d traveled to Southeast Asia while living in Dubai, and I knew right away I wanted to live in that part of the world some day. It was fantastic.

When you repeat being an expat so many times, do you end up being drawn to cities, where you’ll find other well-traveled people?

In Dubai and Oman it was impossible to get to meet the locals; one has no choice but to live in the expat bubble. In Norway, my home was on the edges of the expat bubble because I didn’t feel that they were really my kind of person. To be honest, I don’t know who I thought my kind of person was. I was depressed in Norway, so nothing would have made me happy. When I went back in England, I realized I didn’t fit in anymore because I’ve lived overseas, so I found my community by starting up a professional network of women writers.

In general have you found that living in cities tends to feed your creative drive?

I wrote a blog called Sunny Interval while based in Kuala Lumpur. I wrote briefly in Brunei. Wherever I went, I found things to write about, generally about transition. I am a poet and a columnist at heart. I love finding parallels and being able to compare and contrast cultures. That said, I lost my mojo in KL for quite a long time—I couldn’t seem to find the beautiful bits. But then I had an experience that absolutely changed my life: an opportunity to write a book on Penang, which is located on Malaysia’s northwest coast. As part of the research, I had to interview Penangites, I had to understand the history and get under the skin of the place. That’s when I realised that getting under the skin of a place is the thing that WILL feed your soul, even if the place is not inherently beautiful. It was such a privilege to get to know Muslims and Buddhists, Chinese, Malay, and Indian, and call them all friends.

Does language tend to be a barrier when you’re in a non-English speaking place?

Even though I’m a linguist, I didn’t learn Arabic or Norwegian, I know very little Dutch. But when I went to Malaysia, I decided that I would learn Malay, and it made a huge difference. Boleh lah! (Can do!) And now that I’m back in The Hague, I’m determined to speak more Dutch. I think it’s very important to learn the language, and I am ashamed that I didn’t learn Arabic or Norwegian, or Dutch the first time around.

How about the more remote places you have lived? Do they, too, feed your creativity and if so in what ways? And how do you keep from feeling isolated?

I write! As I mentioned, I did a degree in French. As part of my studies, I did a year teaching in France in a really boring small town and I didn’t have any friends there either. I would walk around the town for something to do. And I would walk in the shops and I would look in the windows. And I looked at the wonderful display of tarts and I just thought: “”French Tarts”—that’s a great title for a book. I’ll write it.” And what it did was it gave me something interesting to do and a way to meet people and eat (which I loved!). Because I couldn’t cook I decided to ask everybody I met in the town if they’d have me to dinner, and if they had me to dinner they had to make me a tart and I would write about it and would put their recipe in my book! I was 20. I had utmost confidence that they would say yes. So I went to dinner with the doctor, the dentist, the lady who ran the baby shop, teachers from the school, the man who ran the bicycle shop… I just said to anybody, I want to come to dinner. And I wrote the draft of French Tarts, which came out when I was 24. That was my first book.

What a great story! And I happen to know that’s not your only cookery book. After all, you brand yourself as a bookcook…

When I was in Oman, I had the idea with a friend of mine of writing a cookbook on dates because none of the expats knew how to cook with dates. So we wrote a cookbook on dates. We invented the recipes (I could cook by then!) and did everything else. Though it looked terrible, it sold very well because people wanted the content.

Are there any other remote places where you’ve lived that have fed your creativity?

The most remote place I’ve lived in was Kuala Belait in Brunei, which for those who don’t know if a small sovereign state on the north coast of the island of Borneo (the rest of the island is Malaysian and Indonesian). Kuala Belait was really remote. There was nothing to do there at all. I actually went online and googled bloggers in the area. And I found one blogger, who was 20 years younger. I met her for coffee. I did everything I could to find people. In the end, I started a writer’s circle. I ran a few writing classes and joined a French conversation group. And I was only there for three months. You have to make an effort to reach out to people, but the Internet does make it easier.

I know you’re a great networker. Do you tend to network online or in person?

I network with people online. But I also make sure I network with people in person. I sometimes think, it’s been three weeks and I haven’t seen anybody apart from my family, so I get on the phone and book lunches and things.

Do writers sometimes find it a struggle to meet people IRL?

When I was working from home as a writer, I realised that if I stayed in all day and all evening and wrote, I got depressed. And so I used to go for a walk at lunchtimes and at least try to engage with somebody in a shop. I am an introvert when I work. But I feed my soul by being out. I like to see people face to face every week. I don’t think you get much energy from talking to somebody through the email and texting.

You have 31 books! Do you have a favorite?

Out of my 31 books, I would say that a couple have been pivotal for me. One I’ve already mentioned: French Tarts. It made me realise that If you’ve got a good idea, then you can do anything. The other is A Career in Your Suitcase, which is now in its fourth edition and still going strong. I had the idea for writing it when we first went to Norway. There were no English publications for me to write for. I started working on this and an expat anthology called Forced to Fly.

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

I’m in The Hague now. I like belonging in a community. I love the fact that everything’s familiar. When you’ve moved and moved and moved, you really want to feel that you belong somewhere. And knowing the way and not having to use a map and knowing where the doctors is: it’s a great feeling. Here in The Hague I’ve also come back to old friends, and that’s been fantastic. I didn’t have friends in England really. They’d all gone off to university or wherever. England was difficult. I think Norway was the hardest. England was the next hardest. Coming back here to the Netherlands has been the easiest because it wasn’t a repatriation as I thought it might feel. It was a reposting. It had all of the positives and none of the negatives.

Tell me about your new venture taking writers away on retreats. I believe you call them “me”-treats?

This has been an ambition of mine for some time. I’m holding what I call Writing Me-Treats. These are residential holidays for four or five nights. They’re for people who love to write, to come and indulge in writing and sharing and doing beautiful things that will make them feel really inspired. For example, in The Hague, we will do the walk in the Jewish quarter and talk about what happened to the Jews. Understanding that has really deepened my love of the place. My first writer’s Me-Treat is in Penang, this month. My next writer’s Me-Treat is in The Hague, which I have timed to be exactly after the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference. The next one is in France, in a mini chateau. Then Devon. Then Tuscany.

Do you have any advice for other global creatives?

If you’re a writer, try getting into a writers circle. That’s where I found my soulmates. People come, we do some speed writing, we share what we’ve written, then I create a task and we do an exercise. It’s about being forced to write, not having an excuse or procrastinating. It shows people what they can do in 10 minutes. It empowers them to think they are good enough. I think a lot of writers want to keep what they’ve written to themselves because they’re too afraid to share it. Or they’re too scared that somebody else will plagiarise it. Which is a real worry. What you get in a writer’s circle is a safe space. People get very friendly. They get very close.

I should remind our readers at this juncture that you have your own publishing house for expat books.

Yes, I run Summertime Publishing. I’ve been helping people to write books since 2002. I teach people online and have three online courses: people can study by email as well. Four years ago I decided to run this writer’s scholarship, the Parfitt-Pascoe Writing Residency. I would train writers, they would cover the FIGT conference, and I would publish what they wrote. This is about to be my fifth year. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to get training from me for free, to get lots of mentoring for free, and to increase their network.

Any recommendations for the wannabe writers out there?

The other thing I would recommend is that you either write a journal, and do it religiously, or write a blog. Whenever something happens, that I think is of note. I write a blog post. I write it for people I know, so I feel safe enough to be authentic and vulnerable, to show how stupid I am, and my mistakes. And I write as if no stranger will read it. And it becomes a record of my life. A lot of people are very scared to expose themselves like that. But don’t be.

Thanks so much, Jo, for sharing your story with us.

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Readers, any further questions for the extraordinary Jo Parfitt on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the communities you’ve lived in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see Doreen interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Photos via Pixabay.

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EXPAT AUTHOR GAME: What score does Chandi Wyant earn on the “international creative” scale? (2/2)


Readers, I’m happy to report that Chandi Wyant came up with a winning algorithm for her new memoir, Return to Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy. She is therefore proceeding to the second round of the Expat Author Game.

During this round, we’ll be trying to see how closely she measures up to the Displaced Nation’s (admittedly somewhat quirky) notion of an “international creative.”

On the face of it, Chandi has a solid claim to being “international.” Not only has she lived in Europe (Italy, Switzerland, and England) but also in South Asia (India) and the Middle East (Qatar).

That said, she recently confessed to one interviewer that after spending so much of her life abroad, she developed a huge appreciation for her native California:

I see it now as one of the most beautiful and healthy places in the world to live. Not only does it have every kind of stunning landscape you could want, it has an abundance of organic food, and an abundance of educated people who know how to think critically. I’m not too impressed with the US right now—but if I look at California just on its own, it’s a darn close second to Italy.

Furthermore, I think it’s fair to call Chandi “creative”. She was encouraged from a young age to paint and draw a lot, with the result that she often “sees photographs” in the world around her. (Notably, she shares one of her actual photos below.) Writing is also important to her. While in Qatar, she taught history at a local college and got to know a lot of young Qataris. She conducted interviews with some of them and some day hopes to turn those interviews into a book. That’s in addition to the memoir she just produced about her pilgrimage along the Via Francegena.

Even the title of her personal Website is creative: Paradise of Exiles, which is what the Romantic English poet Shelley called Italy.

But now it’s time to see how Chandi manages Round Two, where points are scored for intangible indicators of an expansive, global outlook and the ability to take a creative approach to exploring the world.

Welcome back, Chandi, and now let’s get started. Many residents of the Displaced Nation have had a moment or two when they’ve felt like a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, myself included. How about you? Or if you’d prefer, you can use a quote from another children’s book.

I’ll choose this quote from Dr. Seuss:

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.”

The feet in the shoes and any direction you choose reminds me of the time I got lost on my solo pilgrimage in Italy. My feet in my shoes were not doing well. I had developed plantar fasciitis and had bought arch supports but they were sliding around in my shoes. It was super hot, it felt like there was a gremlin in my shoes stabbing my heals, and I was lost in stark wheat fields somewhere south of Siena. Then I simply chose a direction, and by making a choice, I was able to stop being anxious about how to find my way.

Moving on to the next literature-related challenge: According to George Elliot’s Maggie Tulliver, the best reason to leave her native village of St. Ogg’s would be to see other creatures like the elephant. What’s the most exotic animal you’ve observed in its native setting?

An oryx in Qatar. It’s a large species of antelope that is native to the Arabian Peninsula. It nearly went extinct due to poaching but has been reintroduced.

Last but not least on this series of literary challenges: We’re curious about whether you’ve had any Wizard of Oz moments when venturing across borders. Again, please use a quote or two.

GOOD WITCH GLINDA TO DOROTHY: “You are capable of more than you know.” Definitely the capability thing comes up a lot when I travel alone (or move alone) to far flung places, both of which I seem to do. I didn’t necessarily set out to travel alone and move abroad alone so many times in my adult life. It all started when I was 19 (that was in the 80s), when I did a budget backpacking trip in Europe with a friend. After four months of travel together, we split up in Istanbul. In my first 24 hours of solo travel, all kinds of crazy things happened and I quickly learned that as soon as you cut through the fear and embrace the world, that it embraces you back. (These stories are recounted in more detail in my book.)

Moving on to another dimension of creativity: telling tales of one’s travels through photos. Can you share with us a favorite photo you’ve taken recently that in some way relates to your creative life, and tell us why it has meaning for you?


This one I took recently in Lucca, Italy (where I now live). It has meaning because doorways like these symbolize for me an opening of consciousness, and an invitation to step into mystery.

And now for our interplanetary challenge: Can you envision taking your exploration of other modes of being beyond Planet Earth? How about a trip to Mars?

I don’t want to offend anyone who is super into Mars but I have no interest in going to Mars or any other planet. I am awed by the planet we have and how special it is, and it’s an enormous shame that we’ve not learned to respect it and take care of it. I am much more interested in how we can better appreciate and take care of planet Earth, rather than attempt to get to Mars, which clearly is vastly inferior to Earth, as far as sustaining life.

* * *

Congratulations, Chandi! Just as I suspected, you easily rose to the challenge of Part Two of our Expat Authors Game. Personally, I found your Dr. Suess citation inspired! Readers, are you ready to score Chandi’s performance on Part Two? How did she do with her literary references? And what about that animal of hers: rather unusual! And don’t you like that photo of her up top, looking so joyful in an Italian setting? She says she hasn’t mastered the technical side of photography, but that photo of the doors in Lucca suggests otherwise…

Finally please note: If you want to keep cultivating your inner glow under Chandi’s influence, be sure to check out her author site and its companion Facebook and Instagram pages.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Photo of Paul and the ocean supplied; all other photos from Pixabay.

TCK TALENT: Author-speaker Chris O’Shaughnessy tells the Third Culture Kid story with belly laughs and substance


Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli is here again, in the company of another gifted Adult Third Culture Kid.

Hello again, readers! Today’s interviewee is the extraordinary Christopher O’Shaughnessy. A talented author, speaker and TCK advocate, he is passionate about what he does and also happens to be hilarious. As Lisa Ferland, editor of the Knocked Up Abroad series (see top 60 nonfiction expat books of 2016), tells it, Chris’s opening keynote speech at the Families in Global Transition conference in 2016 made a lasting impression “because he made me laugh so hard that I cried.”

Chris is a military brat. He was born in England to American parents, both of whom grew up as Third Culture Kids (his father was born in Germany and raised in France, while his mother spent most of her life in the UK). Following in the family tradition, he spent much of his childhood backing and forthing across the Atlantic as his family moved to bases in Florida and Nevada as well as to multiple US bases within the UK.

After graduating high school in the UK, Chris spent three years traveling between the United States, Germany, and Italy before returning to England to study at Ridley Hall, a theological college in Cambridge, for a degree in Youth, Community Work and Applied Theology, validated by Oxford Brookes University.

After college, Chris moved to Turkey “and then kept on gallivanting”: he can now boast of living and working across the globe and of having ventured to more than a hundred countries. (Right now he lives in Waterloo, Belgium.)

Meanwhile, his passion for nurturing youth and community has only deepened. After a career as a community director in the UK and the Middle East, and then eight years in a military chaplaincy, he became what he is today: a full-time speaker and writer sharing messages of empathy and hope with fellow Third Culture Kids, often through the use of self-deprecating humor. Particularly entertaining are his “lost in America” stories.

Chris’s first major written work is the book Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures In-Between, published by Summertime in 2014. Containing many examples from his own life, it has garnered high praise from the global community.

* * *

Welcome, Chris, to the Displaced Nation. Did growing up as a TCK influence your decision to become a writer and speaker?
Absolutely! In hindsight, a big part of the reason I chose to work with youth and communities was the desire to help people in transition. I didn’t learn the term “TCK” until my final years at university and was so thrilled knowing there was a concept which explained my experiences, that I wrote my final dissertation on TCKs. I’m a firm believer in the power of moving something from intuition to intellect. Learning I was a TCK shifted something I felt to something I could intellectually engage with, learn more about, and use as a framework to examine my life. Over the years I watched many of my peers who also grew up in transition face challenges without the benefit of realizing the strengths their upbringing had bestowed. That’s what inspired me to become a speaker and writer—I wanted “my people” to make the most of their experiences and appreciate their own unique stories. I wanted to help others process intellectually what they felt intuitively, just as I had done. That and my love of speaking into microphones.

In both your writing and speaking you’re able to touch your audience, make them laugh and think, weaving humor, empathy and hope throughout. Have you always had this ease and voice, or is this something you cultivated?
I’ve always had a love for telling stories—I find the human capacity to be moved by and immersed in story to be incredible and beautiful—and for trying to make people laugh. Laughter can be disarming because it’s genuine: it’s a physical outburst we’re relatively comfortable experiencing in a group. Comedy can be a fantastic teaching tool as we tend to remember things that have made us laugh really hard. So the desire to tell stories and make people laugh is probably in my nature, while developing the voice to do so has taken some effort. That said, I’m fortunate in that working with youth has afforded plenty of opportunities to practice and refine my public speaking skills. Kids are very honest critics!

What led you to write your book, Arrivals, Departures, and the Adventures In-Between?
I have been thrilled to see the number of books about TCKs grow over the years, many of which have been helpful for me in processing my own experiences. But while I would draw on this growing body of work in my presentations to students, parents, and school faculty, I found I wanted to leave my audiences with something more than I could possibly cover in that kind of format. So I decided to write my own book in a style that would hopefully entertain while educating and helping others process intellectually what they were going through intuitively.

How long did it take you to produce the book, and what did the process involve?
Admittedly it was a few years between deciding I needed to write a book and actually doing so. In fact, it took a friend calling me to task at a pub one evening and saying, “So, this book you’ve been planning on writing: are you ever going to actually do it?” My friend took it upon herself to hold me to deadlines; as a result, I had my first manuscript in about six months. (To be fair, I’d been thinking about things for so long, it was really just a matter of sitting down to record the concepts and stories in written form.) After I got together with Summertime Publishing, it took at least another six months to finalize the book working with Summertime’s editors and designers. Conveying stories and concepts in written form is a bit different than doing so verbally. I can be far more dynamic when presenting something live, and adapt to the audience as need be. Writing is static; it’s a different kind of discipline.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?
Actually I am in the preliminary stages of producing another book! I have been devoted a lot of my work to the concepts of hope, empathy, community, and connection in our ever-globalizing world. I firmly believe that the experiences TCKs and CCKs (cross-cultural kids) have had with multiple transitions and developing a global perspective carries wider lessons for what the world needs in order to thrive in a new era of technological connectedness and cross-cultural reality. I’m working on a book exploring these concepts—along with the need to go beyond mere tolerance toward something closer to healthy connection and community.

Do you have tips for other globally mobile individuals looking to publish a book or become speakers?
I’m sure it’s been said before…but get out there and do it! Writing and speaking are both skills that really require feedback and interaction to hone. Any opportunity to speak or write is a helpful one. No matter how small the audience, it builds experience and invites feedback. It requires vulnerability, and things don’t always go as planned. But isn’t that the very basis of a story? If it all goes smoothly it’s not very interesting! If we demand struggle and growth and mystery and reflection from stories to hold our attention, shouldn’t we expect the same from life?

I can see why people find your words inspirational! Finally, could you please share any other information or links you would like our readers to know about.
I am really excited about the What Expats Can Do project, put together by Cristina Balden and Claudia Landini of ExpatClic. It is an ingenious way to connect action with the concept of increasing empathy and bringing hope. They used some of the concepts I’d spoken about during my keynote speech at the 2016 FIGT conference (it wasn’t just belly laughs!) and took them so much further. There are challenges to participate in and stories to read—definitely worth checking out. Speaking of FIGT, I’m also a huge fan of Families in Global Transition. It’s got a wealth of resources and connections and hosts an annual conference where you can meet and interact with leaders, innovators, thinkers, and practitioners all focusing on the world of the globally mobile and cross-cultural. It’s inspiring and energizing! Last but not least, I frequently visit the following websites/magazines for inspiration and insight into our field:

Global Living Magazine
CULTURS Magazine
Denizen
• and of course, The Displaced Nation

Thank you so much, Chris! We appreciate all the great resources (and of course the shout-out!).

* * *

Readers, please leave questions or comments for Chris below. Check out his website and connect with him on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), because as Chris says, “I really do love connecting with people and exchanging stories and adventures!” And don’t forget about his book: you can preview three of the chapters here.

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, to Lebanese parents, Dounia Bertuccelli has lived in France, UK, Australia, Philippines, Mexico, and the USA—but never in Lebanon. She writes about her experiences growing up as a TCK and adjusting as an adult TCK on her blog Next Stop, which is a collection of prose, poetry and photography. She also serves as the managing editor of The Black Expat; Expat Resource Manager for Global Living Magazine; and is a freelance writer and editor. Currently based on the East Coast of the United States, she is happily married to a fellow TCK who shares her love for travel, music and good food. To learn more about Dounia, please read her interview with former TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang. You can also follow her on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for the biweekly Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and much much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top (clockwise from top left): Interviewee photo (supplied); Gate entrance to Ridley Hall, by Sebastian Ballard via Geograph project (CC BY-SA 2.0); book cover art; and Nellis Air Force Base by Airwolfhound via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Middle: laughing, by nosha via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0),
Bottom: Surfing photo via Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: The sensuousness of the French Mediterranean infuses the works of actress-turned-author Carol Drinkwater


Tracey Warr is here with the Anglo-Irish actress and writer Carol Drinkwater, who has chosen to live in the country that right now is the focus of world attention due to its impending election: France. Her works powerfully depict the Provençal countryside and other parts of the Mediterranean where olive trees flourish.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest is the writer, actress, filmmaker and farmer Carol Drinkwater.

But before we meet her and she transports us, with her words, into the part of the world that provides the setting for so many of her books, I should mention that Carol grew up between English and Irish cultures. Born in London to an Irish mother and British father, she spent her childhood between a farm run by her grandparents in the village of Coolrain, County Laois, and her family’s home in southern England.

In her early twenties, she moved to Rome—and still returns to that city three times a year.

And she was an aspiring actress working in Germany when the call came from her agent that would change her life: a chance to play the vet’s wife, Helen Herriot, in the hit BBC TV series All Creatures Great and Small, based on British veterinary surgeon James Herriot‘s semi-autobiographical novels.

The series was so popular, Carol Drinkwater became a household name in Britain. At that point, she thought she would end up in Hollywood. As she told the FT recently: “I did not expect my path would lead towards the Mediterranean and olives.”

But then another life-changing event occurred: she met French documentary filmmaker Michel Noll. After leaving All Creatures Great and Small, she headed to Australia to act in Golden Pennies, a TV series about the struggles of a mining family during the 19th-century Australian gold rush, for which Michel was executive producer. (The series would become the basis for Carol’s first book, The Haunted School, about an English governess who runs a school in a remote Australian gold mining town—which in turn became its own TV series.)

The couple moved to the French Riviera and purchased a very rundown olive farm overlooking the Bay of Cannes. As she told the FT:

I had only known him for four months, and there we were, buying a rundown property in France together. I wanted to embark on a new life and I was letting go of the other one, but I did not know where it was going to take me.

It has, of course, taken her into the life of a successful displaced writer. Since moving to France Carol has written 22 books, including

In 2015 Penguin Books UK announced a deal signed with Drinkwater to write two epic novels. The first, The Forgotten Summer, was published in March 2016 and is out now in paperback. Set in a French vineyard, the book is, as one critic declared, “packed with the sunshine, scents and savors of the South of France.”

The three works that Carol Drinkwater discusses in her Location, Locution interview

The second novel, The Lost Girl, is due for publication on June 29 (it’s available for pre-order on Amazon UK; international edition expected in September).

In addition to writing, Carol is organic farmer (her farm produces about 500 litres of high quality organic olive oil a year) and a filmmaker. Most recently, she created a series of five documentary films inspired by her Mediterranean travel books. Watch the trailer here:

* * *

Welcome, Carol, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

In the instance of The Forgotten Summer, location came first. I was travelling in Algeria for The Olive Tree. During my month-long visit I became aware, as I moved about that vast country, that all about me were magnificent overgrown vineyards. These, I learned, were abandoned by the French colonials at the end of the Algerian War of Independence (1962), when one million French were obliged to flee the country. Most of those refugees settled in the south of France because it offered a similar climate and lifestyle. That is where my story began: a woman, her son and sister-in-law escape Algeria. They purchase a vast vineyard in the south of France bringing with them secrets and large amounts of money. I was then on home ground. My main area of research after that was the local wine industry. I spent a great deal of time visiting vineyards all along the French Mediterranean coast, learning the work and tasting the wines. Great fun.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I need to live it. By that I mean that I will breathe in and note down every detail I can lay my hands on. Perfumes, temperatures, colours, geographical details, history of the region, food. I am meticulous. I will read everything I can. Cookbooks, history books, travel journals, sometimes diaries. I visit markets; I talk to anyone and everyone; try to wheedle my way into the homes of locals. I travel to all points mentioned in the books, of course. I also try to learn a little of the language. I am French-speaking so that helps me with all my books set in France.

But is there any particular feature that creates a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

The balance I give all these points very much depends on the book I am writing. Obviously if it is a travel book such as The Olive Route or The Olive Tree then the geographical location, history, probably culture and dominant religion and politics, matter greatly. For The Forgotten Summer, which is set on a vineyard in the South of France, the food and wines are essential to the storyline. Weather patterns also matter greatly to me.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Here is a short extract from The Forgotten Summer describing land clearance in rural southern France:

The oniony scent of felled vegetation: weeds, wild flowers and grasses levelled. It was an exhilarating perfume. The buzz and thrum of machines firing in every direction. There was an unexpected splendour, a grace, in the sight and motion of the men hard at work. Figures squatting in the shade of the pins parasols for refreshment breaks, labouring in the fields amid the sun-blasted yellow of Van Gogh, the delicate tones of Paul Cézanne, and even, in the pre-dawn light, if she were out of bed to ride with the crew, a hint of Millet’s The Angelus.

Distant pines reaching for the sky, bleached-out vegetation, sea and mountains with only heat and crickets to remind Jane that there was life born of this ancient rock-solid stillness. Rural panoramas were being stripped and reconfigured by the muscular labourers with their chainsaws and cutting machines, their strong hands as rough and hirsute as giant spiders….Ahead of and encircling them lay semi-jungled fields, groves, vineyards climbing towards the purple-blue mountains.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Time spent in situ and depth of experience are both extremely important to me. I am not comfortable unless I know how the streets smell, which varieties of trees and plants grow in the vicinity, the local wildlife. The tolling of church bells or the cry of the muezzin? Costumes, clothes of the period. For the novel I am currently writing, one of the two leading female characters dreams of being an actress, so I had great fun reading old French movie and fashion magazines. I love choosing the cars that each character will drive; what date the automobiles were produced. I think about how different the French Riviera is today compared to, for example, the late forties or early fifties of the last century. It is all these tiny details and many more that I have such fun discovering and that make the difference.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Graham Greene, of course, is a master. Few writers match his ability to create within one or two lines a local character or flavour. Just one example is The Heart of the Matter, which is set in West Africa: marvellous. You want to swot away the flies! (By the way, he lived near me in the South of France and we talked once or twice about books and publishing!) Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Or, if you are attracted to Naples and southern Italy, try the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. She is a novelist who allows you to smell the streets, hear the creaking wheels of old bikes and automobiles, the cries from on high in the tenements. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a very evocative and moving introduction to Kabul, Afghanistan, and really sets up the changes from pre-Taliban days. I read a great deal of travel writing, too.

Carol Drinkwater’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Carol, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Carol? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Carol Drinkwater and her creative output, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

And since ML brought up the French election at the outset, let’s give Carol the last word on the matter; here’s her recent tweet:

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Carol! I am intrigued that, unlike your last interviewee, Stephen Goldenberg, Carol favors meticulous research. Maybe it’s the actress in her, but she doesn’t seem to be a reclusive sort of writer. She says she’ll talk to anyone and everyone and also speaks French well enough to “wheedle her way into” people’s houses. I’m guessing this is why her readers find her books so authentic? —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; other photos via Pixabay.

All other visuals are from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: After spending summers in rural France, Stephen Goldenberg uses Villefranche as setting for murder mystery novel


Tracey Warr is here with a fellow British novelist Stephen Goldenberg, with whom she’ll soon be appearing for a book talk in Villefranche-en-Rouergue. It’s one of France’s most beautiful villages and the setting for Goldenberg’s latest mystery novel.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is fellow novelist Stephen Goldenberg, who was born, and has lived most of his life, in London. He now lives for a portion of the year in south-west France, a location that inspired his latest novel, Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive.

Goldenberg studied Law at Oxford University; but because of his love for reading great literature, he went on to train to be an English teacher. For the next 35 years he taught English in London secondary schools and became one of the first school teachers to introduce the subject of Media Studies.

Since taking early retirement, Goldenberg has written and published three novels and renovated an 18th-century stone-built farmhouse in the village of Calcomier in the Aveyron, a region of southern France named after the Aveyron River. He and his partner, Sue, have lived in the house for around five months a year for the last ten years. They try to be as involved as possible with the community, including helping out at the annual village fete. The house, Stephen says, is a perfectly peaceful place to write, especially on the small shaded terrace down by the river.

In addition to Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive, which came out last year and, as mentioned, is set in rural France, Goldenberg has self-published two other novels of suspense, both set in Britain: The Lying Game (Matador, 2012) and Stony Ground (Lulu, 2007). He says that his latest book reflects his fascination with the laid back rural French lifestyle and the lives of the many British expats who live there permanently.

What’s next? Goldenberg will be back on his home turf. His next novel, The Autobiography of an Invisible Man, takes place in London and is based on the life of a man who occasionally modeled for the displaced Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

* * *

Welcome, Stephen, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive it was definitely location. For my other novels, it’s been the story first followed by the assumption that it’s automatically going to be set in and around London because that’s where I’ve spent the vast majority of my life. But it was my partner, Sue, who suggested that I should set my next novel in south-west France since, by then, we’d had the house near Villefranche de Rouergue for six or seven years and were beginning to feel at home.

Your main characters are English expats?

Once I had my location, it was obvious to me that my main characters would be English expats who had relocated to rural France from London. And then, I decided that they would have made this move for the wrong reason—namely, because they were having troubles with their relationship and decided that a dramatic change of location and lifestyle would solve their problems. Also, at about the same time, the murder of an English expat, Jacqueline Wilson, who lived not far from us, had hit the headlines and gave me the idea of writing a murder mystery novel involving an Englishwoman who had recently relocated to the area.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

For me, sense of place is always created through a very light touch approach. I’m not one for masses of detailed description or massive amounts of research. A cumulation of small details can create a strong atmosphere. I particularly like to include the slightly quirky or unusual. For example, my use of a real café/restaurant in Aurillac called L’Abside, which is in a strange building grafted on to the side of a church.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Much as I’m a lover of food, especially the cuisine of south-west France, it doesn’t play much of a role in my novels. In the case of this novel, it was very much about culture—especially the experience of expatriates trying to adapt to the language and culture of their adopted country in circumstances that are far from ideal. As far as the landscape is concerned, I wanted to write something that reflected my experience as a big city dweller getting used to the radical difference in moving to a small village in rural France.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Jeremy had lost track of what day of the week it was until he drove into Villefranche at lunchtime and saw that the restaurants were crammed full. Of course. Thursday. Market day. He zigzagged around the stallholders in the Place Notre Dame packing their produce into vans, skipping out the way of the municipal dustcart hoovering up the fruit and vegetable detritus. He climbed the steps up to the terrace on the far side of the square and surveyed the café’s outdoor seating area, firstly to check that there was no-one there that he knew and, when he was sure of that, to find an empty table.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

If it is the main setting, then the answer is very well. Even though I don’t include that much description in my actual writing, I need to have a clear sense of exactly where my characters are. However, I do not believe in doing too much research for novels and, sometimes, I slip in settings that I hardly know at all (e.g., Decazeville in the present novel) just because it was the most convenient town between Villefranche and Aurillac.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Location isn’t something that particularly attracts me in choosing which novels to read and often, I find writers who are too heavy on atmospheric description off-putting. But there are two writers who, I think, use location really well. Thomas E. Kennedy is an American who lives in Copenhagen and sets his novels there. It’s a city I’ve never been to but, thanks largely to his writing, I hope to pay a visit soon. And then there’s one of my all-time favourite writers, Richard Russo, whose novels are set in small town upstate New York. I visited the area a couple of years ago and, because of his writing, found it strangely familiar.

Stephen Goldenberg’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Stephen, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Stephen? Please leave them in the comments below.

As ML mentioned at the outset, Stephen and I will both be talking about our recent novels in Villefranche-en-Rouergue, France. The event takes place on 21 April 2017 at the English Library. All Displaced Nationers are welcome! For further details, please contact me at traceykwarr@gmail.com

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Stephen Goldenberg and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Stephen! I find it intriguing that Stephen tries not to over-research location, even when using an adopted home as a setting. He is right that it’s a balance, and authors can get carried away describing place. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; London street scene via Pixabay.

All other visuals use photos supplied by Stephen Goldenberg or book cover art.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: For acclaimed British novelist Simon Mawer, not feeling at home anywhere fires creativity


Tracey Warr is here with the extraordinary Simon Mawer, whose work is on a par with Australian-born, U.S.-based Peter Carey and Sri Lankan-born Canadian Michael Ondaatje. Like them, he has used his displacement to produce an award-winning body of fiction.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is world-class novelist Simon Mawer.

As ML implied, Mawer is a natural fit for the Displaced Nation. Though British, he has lived in Italy for many years and to this day finds his imagination fired by the extraordinary and the unfamiliar.

He also had a peripatetic upbringing. His father served in the Royal Air Force, and his family spent three years on the island of Cyprus—an experience that informed his novel Swimming to Ithaca (2006)—and a total of five years in Malta.

About his childhood spent in other cultures, Mawer has this to say:

These experiences planted in me a love of the Mediterranean world which has lasted my whole life. They also gave me a taste for exile which I have never lost. When people ask me where I come from I am still unable to reply. I have lived in Italy for more than three decades, but Italy is not home. Home is where the mind is, perhaps.

Returning to the UK for boarding school, Mawer attended Oxford University where he earned a degree in zoology. He spent three years teaching biology at the secondary-school level in the Channel Islands, two years in Scotland, and two in Malta, before moving to Rome where he has lived ever since, teaching biology for over thirty years at St George’s British International School in Rome (he retired in 2010). Because teaching took up so much of his time, he didn’t publish his first novel, Chimera, until age 40, when he sold it to Hamish Hamilton.

Mawer’s ten novels are imbued with a compelling sense of time and place. His characters grapple with their own fraught and hybrid identities. The Bitter Cross (1992) is the only one set in the distant past: taking place in the 16th-century Mediterranean, it explores the theme of exile and belonging through the eyes of one of the last of the English knights, from the vantage point of retirement on the fortress island of Malta.

But the rest of Mawer’s novels take place in the early 20th century, with settings ranging through 1930s Czechoslovakia, 1940s occupied France, wartime Rome, 1950s London during the Cold War, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine.

The following six have won high accolades:

  • Mawer’s first novel, the aforementioned Chimera (1989), tells the story of a part-Italian, part-English archeologist who is haunted by his own past. On an archeological dig in central Italy, he recalls being parachuted into wartime Italy as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent. It won the McKitterick Prize for First Novels.
  • Mendel’s Dwarf (1997), described by the New Yorker as “furious, tender and wittily erudite,” blends fact and fiction by telling the story of the fictional Benedict Lambert, a distant descendant of real-life founder of the modern science of genetics, Gregor Mendel. Like Mendel, Lambert struggles to unlock the secrets of heredity and genetic determinism. However, Benedict’s mission is particularly urgent—he was born a dwarf. The book reached the last ten of the Booker Prize and was a New York Times “Book to Remember”.
  • Set partly in wartime Britain and partly in the anarchic world of British rock-climbing in the early seventies, The Fall (2003) is about many kinds of falling: off mountains, into love, out of love, from grace. It was the winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature.
  • The Glass Room (2009) centers on a couple who who live in a modernist house that resembles the real-life Villa Tugendhat, which the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed for a wealthy Jewish man and his gentile wife in Brno (now in the Czech Republic). But then the storm clouds of World War II gather and the family flees through Switzerland to the United States. This work was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Wingate Prize, and was a bestseller in the US and the UK. The Guardian described it as “a thing of extraordinary beauty and symmetry,” and the Washington Post found it “eerily erotic and tremendously exciting.” The Glass Room was adapted for the stage from the book’s Czech translation for a performance in the city of Brno (which, incidentally, is the seat of the priory where Mendel performed his experiments).
  • Mawer’s ninth novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze in the US) (2012) was described by the Daily Telegraph as “an absorbing novel full of treachery, twilight and terror.” Set during World War II, the novel follows the path of the half-English half-French diplomat’s daughter Marian Sutro. Her hybrid status is an advantage in wartime, and she ends up serving as an agent in occupied Europe. The Guardian once described Sutro as “perhaps the closest thing to a female James Bond in English literature.”
  • Mawer must have enjoyed the company of this complex female protagonist as Marian Sutro returns again in his most recent novel, Tightrope (2015), a cold war thriller set in 1950s London. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, Sutro tries to cast off her identity as heroine of the resistance, but the memories of torture, heartbreak and betrayal won’t leave her—nor will the longing for adventure. Tightrope was described by the Sunday Times as “a sophisticated, deviously constructed story,” and by the Mail on Sunday as “gripping stuff, with a sinuous plot and some haunting bedroom scenes.” It won the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and was Waterstones Novel of the Month (March 2016).

Mawer has also written two nonfiction books:

* * *

Welcome, Simon, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

This very much depends on the book. Most begin with an idea—for example my last pair of novels, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze, in the US) and Tightrope, began with the idea of a young woman—a mere 19 years old—being recruited into a clandestine warfare outfit in the middle of the Second World War. Everything else followed from that. Similarly The Fall began with a literal fall, in this case the fall of a climber from a mountain wall. But once I’d got a mountain involved it was pretty obvious that location was going to become important. Indeed the Sunday Times reviewer drew attention to precisely this:

“What makes The Fall truly valuable, and truly unusual is its sense of landscape. Much British writing these days seems to be self-consciously urban. Mawer’s novel, distinguished by its keen descriptive sense of rock-face, crag, lake, snow and stone, bucks that trend beautifully.”

However, two novels later The Glass Room most definitely began with a location—the mesmerising Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic that I first visited in 1994. Standing in rooms that seemed to have barely changed from the 1930s, in a building that to this day remains a touchstone for modernist design, it was obvious for me to think, “There’s a story here.” I’m a writer of fiction so the subsequent story had to be my own creation rather than the true story of the family that built the house; but there is no doubt that location came first.

the-glass-room-collage-w-quote

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

If there were only one technique it would be easy (and dull). There are many techniques but for me underlying everything is the idea that the reader must do some work. The writer’s task is to stir the imagination not replace it. So you evoke place with small hints, little details, small observations, and you rely on the intelligence of the reader to create the whole picture in his or her head. Don’t underestimate the literary intelligence of the reader—the ones without it are probably watching TV anyway. At best they’ll only be reading Dan Brown.

Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the location. For landscape one tends to resort to descriptive devices, leavened with metaphor of course. But it’s important not to overdo it and to restrain yourself from indulging in purple prose. Description should be brushed into the narrative with rapid, impressionist strokes. Urban locations, on the other hand, lend themselves to cultural references (see the example below).

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

How about Paris immediately after the war, as described in Tightrope:

Her first visit to the city since the war. Paris with a superficial gloss to it, like a piece of silver plate that has been polished up but is still worn away in places to show the base metal beneath: the drab buildings in need of cleaning, the broken pavements, the impoverished shops. But Paris with a strange, febrile vitality, Paris that was home to the theatre of the absurd and was itself a kind of theatre with people performing on its various stages, writers in the cafés of the Left Bank, politicians treading the boards of the National Assembly or berating crowds in place de la Bastille, black jazzmen from America sounding off in basements and cellars, models strutting on catwalks wearing clothes that outraged the poor of Saint-Denis and Belleville, tarts and pimps on the pavements of Pigalle. Paris canaille.

Paris canaille? Coarse, tawdry, crooked Paris. It’s the title of a song of the time written by Léo Ferré and first made popular by Catherine Sauvage. If the readers get that, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. But give them the opportunity to find out if they want to. You’ll find it here.

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

It is possible to know a place too well. I have lived in Italy for about 40 years and have written very little that is set in this country. It is too familiar to me (yes, Italy can become too familiar!). What fires my imagination is the extraordinary and the unfamiliar—so I’ve set novels in Israel/Palestine, Czechoslovakia, World War II London, Cyprus, 16th-century Malta. Of course once your imagination has been lit, then it is necessary to get to know the place sufficiently to write about it with conviction without ever losing the sense of newness and discovery.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Perhaps one writer above all: Graham Greene. He was a master at location, so much so that critics even bestowed his name on the world that his characters inhabit: Greeneland. You know it. It’s hot, arid, run down, plagued with dust and corruption and lost faith. That’s the ultimate achievement, to create a world so vivid that it transcends any real location and instead belongs entirely to you, the creator.

So true! I should tell you that my last guest, the novelist Dinah Jefferies, chose one of your books—The Girl Who Fell from the Sky—in answer to this question.

Thanks so much, Simon, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure, as always.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Simon? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Simon Mawer and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Simon! I have to say I’m particularly intrigued by Simon’s statement that he’s written very little in Italy despite (because of?) having lived 40 years in the country. That suggests that we international creatives should get started sooner rather than later if we decide to write about our adopted homes! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; Roman scene via Pixabay; Cyprus. Nicosia 1969 – 70, by Brian Harrington Spier via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Street and Glastonbury Tor taken from Walton Hill, by Edwin Graham via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
“Glass Room” visual: (top) Mies van Der Rohe- Tugendhat House, 1930, by Rory Hyde via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (bottom left) The Glass Room on stage at the City Theatre, Brn (Pavla Vitázková as Liesel, Svetlana Jantová as Kata), supplied; and Simon Mawer relaxing in the living room of the Tugendhat House, with the director of the house, Iveta Černá looking on, supplied.
“Paris as theatre” visual: (clockwise from top left): Acetate fabrics by Robert Perrier, 1951 Autumn-Winter via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); Screenshot from Catherine Sauvage “Paris Canaille” (live official), Archive INA; Waiting for Godot (cover detail) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0); and Zsa Zsa Gabor playing Jane Avril in the film Moulin Rouge (1952) via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain 1.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Novelist Dinah Jefferies melds themes of displacement and loss with the seductive beauty of the East

dinah-jefferies-location-locution
Tracey Warr is here with fellow historical novelist Dinah Jefferies. Dinah has led an unusually eventful life: not only has she lived in various countries but she has also suffered the loss of a child. These experiences have fueled a writing career that took off when Dinah reached her mid-sixties.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Dinah Jefferies, who was born in 1948 in Malaya—as Malaysia was known then—where she spent the first nine years of her life, growing up against the background of civil war. Once Malaya gained independence from England, her parents decided to move back home.

Dinah found it wrenching. As she told a UK magazine:

“I was incredibly happy in Malaya. We just wore flip-flops and pants at home; it was so hot… I loved going to the Chinese quarter with my amah, sitting cross-legged on straw mats with her family, eating bright yellow, strong-tasting ice cream. It was like nothing like I’ve ever tasted since.”

Moreover, England did not make a good first impression:

“I just remember absolute devastation when I saw what England was like: February, the middle of winter – grey, cold, wet; no sunshine; horrible clothes.”

Dinah was bullied at school, and although she defended herself, that “feeling of not being quite a member of anything has stayed with me all my life.”

This outsider status led to a certain restlessness, which should be familiar to any of our Third Culture Kid readers. As a teenager, Dinah lived in Tuscany and worked as an au pair for an Italian countess. Much later, with her second husband, she attempted to retire in a 16th-century village in Northern Andalusia—a plan cut short after they lost most of their money in the crash of 2008.

But the experience that shattered life as she knew it was the death of her son in 1985, when he was just 14. Formally trained as an artist, Dinah channeled her unrelenting grief into her art work. Later her move to Spain afforded an opportunity to experiment with fiction writing. After settling in Gloucestershire to be near her grandchildren, she took to writing full time and found she enjoyed weaving her experiences of loss and displacement into stories set in the “extremely seductive beauty of the East.”

Dinah’s first published novel, The Separation, came out in 2014, when she was 65 years old. Set in 1950s Malaya, the book tells the story of a mother who journeys through the civil-war-torn jungle to find out why her husband and daughters moved up country without her.

Dinah landed a contract with Viking Penguin for that book and has produced a novel for them every year since:

  • The Tea Planter’s Wife (2015). Set in 1920s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the book revolves around a young Englishwoman who has married a tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he’s been keeping some terrible secrets about his past.
  • The Silk Merchant’s Daughter (2016): Set in 1950s French Indochina (now Vietnam), the era when militants were determined to end French rule, the story concerns a half-French, half Vietnamese woman who is torn between two worlds.
  • Before the Rains (forthcoming, February 2017): Set in 1930s India, the book follows the progress of a British photojournalist who is sent to photograph the royal family in the princely state of Rajputana (Rajasthan). She ends up falling in love with the Prince’s brother…

To research her books Dinah has traveled to Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India. She will be speaking at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, should any of you Displaced Nationers find yourselves in that part of the world.
dinah-jefferies-4-books

* * *

Welcome, Dinah, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For all four of my books the location came first, though story comes a very close second. Once I’ve decided on the place, I then research the period and usually while researching that, the kind of characters I want begin to emerge. Sometimes I have the kernel of an idea before I hit on the location. For The Tea Planter’s Wife I did have the idea of a life-changing secret before I chose Sri Lanka—or Ceylon as it was then known.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

It’s all about sensory detail. For my third book, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, set in Vietnam, it was all about evoking the contrast between the elegant French quarter of Hanoi, as opposed to the clutter and noise of the ancient Vietnamese quarter with canaries singing in bamboo cages and the scent of charcoal and ginger in the air. The setting has to work to support the story in some way, and as this is a story of a woman caught between two worlds. I needed to show how different those two worlds were.

Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?

All those and more. I include everything I can to create the atmosphere of the place and the time. For historical fiction, one has to get the historical details right, too: the type of buildings, what people wore, their mindset, etc. It’s about what the characters would be seeing in their daily lives and how they would be interacting with their surroundings. For me the landscape has to almost be a character in itself. I try to re-create the beauty of the world in question as well as its unique personality.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From The Tea Planter’s Wife:

“Below her, gentle, flower filled gardens sloped down to the lake in three terraces, with paths, steps and benches strategically placed between the three. The lake itself was the most gloriously shining silver she’d ever seen. All memory of the previous day’s car journey, with its terrifying hairpin bends, deep ravines, and nauseating bumps, was instantly washed away. Rising up behind the lake, and surrounding it, was a tapestry of green velvet, the tea bushes as symmetrical as if they’d been stitched in rows, where women tea-pickers wore eye-catching brightly coloured saris, and looked like tiny embroidered birds who had stopped to peck.”

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I like to know it as well as I can and I always visit a location I’m planning to use. Just being in a place can help in ways you never could have imagined if you hadn’t been there. When doing research for The Tea Planter’s Wife, I was staying at a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and found a library of wonderful books I’d never have known about back home. Those books provided me with amazing details, as did sitting outside in the evening watching the fireflies and listening to the cicadas. Being there made it real.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I love Julia Gregson’s book East of The Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India. Also Simon Mawer’s The Girl who Fell from the Sky set in wartime France. Both are great books with terrifically realistic settings that are an important element of the story.

Dinah Jefferies’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Interesting! I should tell you that one of my other guests, the novelist Hazel Gaynor, chose your books—The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter—in answer to this question. Also, my very next guest will be one of your picks, Simon Mawer.

Thanks so much, Dinah, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Dinah? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dinah Jefferies and her novels, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Dinah! Dinah, your Third Culture Kid story tells us so much about you. I wonder if it’s the reason location comes first, before story? And hats off to you for starting a writing career in your sixties. What a tribute to resilience, as well as to the therapeutic power of art! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of Dinah in Hall of Mirrors at Amer Fort (near Jaipur, India) and of Malacca, Malaya, supplied by Dinah Jefferies; and photo of England: Rainy Day, by David Wright via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Visual that accompanies the quotation: Tea Picking In Sri Lanka, by Steenbergs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charles Lambert draws on his displaced life to produce psychological thrillers

location-locution-charles-lambert
Tracey Warr is here with fellow displaced Brit Charles Lambert, a master writer of literary thrillers. He was born in England, lives in Italy, and describes himself as deeply enjoying the status of being a foreigner.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is the writer Charles Lambert, who was born in Lichfield, UK, a cathedral city in the Midlands, but who has lived in Italy for most of his adult life. After graduating from Cambridge, Charles worked as an EFL teacher in Milan and Turin in the mid-1970s—one of the most tumultuous periods in post-war Italian history, which he has written about in his psychological thriller, The View from the Tower.

After two years, he moved to Setúbal, Portugal, a smallish town south of Lisbon—and found himself, once again, at the heart of a political situation he struggled to understand (see his novella, The Slave House). After six months and a disastrous love affair, he returned to the UK to “get a proper job.” He ended up working as an assistant editor at a medical publisher’s on Euston Road.

Fifteen months later, desperately unhappy, he turned down a promotion and headed back to Italy, where he has lived ever since—initially in Modena (northern Italy) and then in Fondi, about halfway between Rome and Naples.

As I’ve already indicated, all of these backings and forthings have provided rich fodder for Charles’s imagination. Even his current work, as a language teacher in Italian universities, a job he has done since 1982, “makes up in the endless variety of human contact what it lacks, signally, in career opportunities,” as he puts it. Charles has also worked as a journalist for the news agency ANSA, translated for academic presses in the UK and the USA, edited for international agencies, and written critical essays on, among other things, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, in which he confesses a unashamedly nerdish interest.

But his true passion is fiction writing—in particular, the psychological literary thriller. In addition to his many blog posts, the afore-mentioned novella, The Slave House, the occasional poem, and his acclaimed short story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon (for which he won an O. Henry prize), he has written four novels:

  • The Children’s Home (Scribner, 2016): An inversion of a modern fairytale, the story centers on a disfigured recluse living on his family estate, with a housekeeper as his only companion. His solitude is disrupted when stray children start showing up on his doorstep.
  • The View from the Tower (Penguin Random House, 2013): A psychological thriller and second in a planned trilogy about the darker side of Rome, the story centers on Helen, who has been having an affair with her husband’s best friend, Giacomo, an ex-terrorist, for 30 years. She is in a hotel room in Rome with Giacomo when she receives the news that her husband, a high-level politician, has been murdered. She simultaneously becomes a suspect and suspicious of everyone around her—forcing her to examine her own past and peel back the years of secrets and lies.
  • Any Human Face (Picador, 2011): The first in a planned trilogy about the seamier side of Rome, the story concerns what happens when Andrew, a quirky gay bookstore owner and sometime art/antiquity dealer in Rome, stumbles into a political vipers’ nest involving high-level politicians and Vatican officials while also struggling to overcome heartbreak from his past and learning to love again. When the book first came out, the Guardian called it a “sophisticated literary thriller set on the seamier fringe of Rome’s gay scene, a magnet for the lonely and displaced located a long way off the tourist trail.”
  • Little Monsters (Picador, 2008): Lambert’s début novel and the first of his books set in modern Italy, this is the story of Carol, a young teenager who, having witnessed her father killing her mother, is put into the care of her aunt, who hates and resents her, and her uncle, whom she eventually marries. The story is told in two time frames: Carol as ward and Carol as an adult, when she finds herself drawn to a boat-refugee child in Italy (the child reminds her of her unwanted teenaged self).

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He also recently produced a fictionalized memoir, With a Zero at Its Heart, capturing moments from his life in a unique, experimental format.

Charles says he has no plans to return to the UK, and Brexit is unlikely to persuade him to change his mind:

I don’t define myself as an expat. If I had to define myself, I’d probably go for “economic migrant” or, more simply, “foreigner”, a status I deeply enjoy.

For entirely pragmatic reasons, he is currently in the process of becoming an Italian citizen.

And now let’s hear from Charles about what techniques she uses to conjure up the Italy he knows so well as a long-time resident while also cherishing his status of outsider.

* * *

Welcome, Charles, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

Every book is different. My first novel, Little Monsters, began with a sentence and, within seconds, the sentence had found a home in the Peak District, where I spent most of my adolescence. That place, and my memories of it, dictated much of the narrative. The other half of the book was set in contemporary Italy, where I live, although the story took me to a part of Italy I didn’t know that well and I had to use my imagination. So, one novel, half story-led, half place-led. The next two novels I published were both set in Rome, and I can’t imagine them being set in any other city. Rome’s a city with a uniquely composted history of beauty and blood-letting, high ideals and dirty low-down dealings, and the novels dig into that humus with relish. My most recent novel, on the other hand, The Children’s Home, is set in an undefined place and time and the lack of temporal and geographical definition is an integral part of the story.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of these places?

When I’m writing I have a strong sense of where I am. It’s in my mind’s eye, so to speak, so all I need to do is look around and report on what I see. If the place is a real place, then memory is involved. If it isn’t, the details come as I need them. A shop, a street, a tree… As a general rule, though, I’d say less is more. It’s what I call the “Bakelite-ashtray fallacy”—the idea that obsessively name-checking historical materials and brands gives a sense of period. It doesn’t. It gives a sense of working too hard to create a sense of period, and is inevitably counter-productive. The same is true with a sense of place. Too much description draws attention to itself and to the writer’s eagerness to be believed, not to the place it’s supposed to be describing.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All three, to a greater or lesser degree, and I’d add language to the list—but, as I said above, with parsimony. It can be hard to resist the temptation to describe in detail every dish your characters are eating—especially if you love food as much as I do and the scene is set in Italy, as scenes in my work often are—but if the purpose of the scene is, well, non-gastronomic, you just need to do your best to keep the detail pared down. My agent, with exemplary dedication, once counted the number of bottles of red wine consumed in one of my novels (Any Human Face, if you’re curious). It was frighteningly high but, we both agreed, integral to the narrative, although it may have contributed to creating, for my characters at least, a serious sense of dislocation!
red-wine-bottles
More seriously, I think descriptions of place need to serve a double purpose. They provide a location, but that location must also give the reader something else, something about the characters’ relationship with that place, for example, or about the way the place might have shaped the characters, who they are, what they think, why they behave the way they do. Without that, it’s window dressing.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From Any Human Face (Picador, 2010):

Thirty years ago, Andrew lived just round the corner from Campo de’Fiori, in a two-room garret above the latteria. The latteria still sells its large white bowls of caffelatte and rusk-like biscuits, but Andrew moved on when the intensifying effect of a picturesque tiled roof on winter cold and summer heat became too much for him. Since then, like some bobbing object impelled by a centrifugal force he can neither understand nor halt, he has lived in a series of rented flats, each one a half-mile further from the centre than the one before. By an equally mysterious process, his worldly goods have accumulated as their worth has diminished; each time he moves, the boxes and plastic sacks into which he has stuffed his life seem more forbidding, more intractable. He shuttles between the old flat and the new in whichever car he has borrowed, just one step above a bag lady pushing an overloaded supermarket trolley, front wheel askew, his whole world teetering on a metaphorical wonky castor. He used to think corridors were wasted space. He doesn’t think that now.
roman-roof-tiles

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Intimately, fairly well, hardly at all. Once again, in other words, it depends. In the passage above, I’m describing a part of Rome I lived in for many years. I had breakfast in that latteria, I ate those biscuits, I sweated and shivered in the kind of garret Andrew lived in. In another novel, on the other hand, long sections are set in a town I spent four days in some years ago and have never revisited. I’m hoping no one will notice. I need to have “felt” the place in some way but that doesn’t necessarily require years of research (although Google Street View can come in handy) or lived, physical presence. Sometimes, a single word might be enough to evoke what’s needed. One of the most potent descriptions of place for me comes at the beginning of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “His room, a proper human room although a little too small…”, where the two words “proper” and “human” are enough to mark out the extraordinariness of what’s occurred. His room becomes our room, and yet not our room.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

In their very different ways, Cormac McCarthy and Penelope Fitzgerald. In works like the Border Trilogy, McCarthy’s vision of the world and of the lives of its inhabitants (both human and animal) make up a single vision: harsh, numinous, both indifferent and interwoven, a wonder of observation and lyricism. The settings in Fitzgerald’s last four novels range from 1950s Italy to pre-revolutionary Moscow, and there isn’t a moment when the world of the novel isn’t entirely believable. Once again, the trick is to reduce the detail to a bare—and convincing—minimum. There’s a moment in Innocence where children go to Upim (an Italian Woolworth’s) before school starts to buy their exercise books. I don’t know how Fitzgerald knew this, but it was all that was needed to persuade me of the authenticity of the novel’s world.

a-few-of-cls-fave-books

Charles Lambert’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Charles, for your answers. It’s been a great pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Charles? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Charles Lambert and his body of work, I suggest you visit his author site. You can also follow him on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Charles! I found this discussion fascinating. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, photo of Setúbal graffiti and of Italian cafe scene were supplied by Charles Lambert; A view of Lichfield Cathedral from the north West, by Roger Robinson via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). Visuals that accompany the two quotations: Empty wine bottles via Pixabay; Roof Tiles (Rome), by Stewart Butterfield via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Novelist Hazel Gaynor illuminates the lives of early 20th-century women with an adventuresome streak

location-locution-hazel-gaynor
Tracey Warr is here with fellow historical novelist Hazel Gaynor. As it happens, I recently read her book Memories of Violets, which makes me think we’re in for a treat!

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Hazel Gaynor. Originally from North Yorkshire, England, Hazel moved to Kildare, Ireland, in 2001, where she has lived since with her husband and two children. Both her place of origin, England, and her adoptive country, Ireland, feature in her fiction writing, and travel, along with adventure and displacement, is a recurring trope in her work, which thus far has to do with the lives of women of bygone eras whose stories have never been fully told.

This summer Hazel published her third novel, The Girl from the Savoy, which conjures up a vivid picture of London and social change in the 1920s. It tells the story of two women from very different backgrounds. Dolly is a new chambermaid at London’s iconic Savoy Hotel and longs for a better life. Loretta is a famous actress in the West End. Both are struggling in the aftermath of the Great War. The book came out in June and is already an Irish Times and Globe & Mail Canada bestseller.

I suspect that like ML, some of you are familiar with Hazel’s previous two novels:

  • A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London’s Flower Sellers (2015), based on the lives of London’s flower sellers. The book grew out of Hazel’s love of the plays Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. She decided she wanted to write about the real Eliza Doolittles—the women who sold flowers and watercress on the streets of London. The book has been a New York Times and USA Today bestseller.
  • The Girl Who Came Home, the story of a group of Irish emigrants aboard RMS Initially self-published, the book was published again in 2014, when HarperCollins picked it up along with A Memory of Violets—it went on to win the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award.

Hazel is also one of nine authors to contribute a short story to the World War I anthology Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War (2016). Her story, “Hush,” shows midwife Annie Rawlins doing everything she can to save an infant’s life, while her son, fighting in France, does everything he can to preserve his life in hopes of making it to the end of the war. Hazel’s work has been translated into several languages and she is represented by Michelle Brower of Kuhn Projects/Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, New York.

hazel-gaynor-works

And now let’s hear from Hazel about what techniques she uses to conjure up the lives of women in the early 20th century who, like you and me, opted not to stay put in the place where they were born and sought a more adventuresome life.

* * *

Welcome, Hazel, to Location, Locution. Obviously, as a historical novelist, you are inspired by the past. But which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

The idea for The Girl from the Savoy initially developed from a conversation with my editor and our mutual love of the 1920s. This was a period of real social change—especially for women—and that always allows for a great story. I knew I wanted to set the story in London, and that it would revolve around an ordinary working girl who had access to the glamorous women she admired and aspired to be like. The social scene of London’s iconic hotels during this era was the perfect setting. When I started researching the history of The Savoy I found so many fascinating accounts of famous people who had dined and stayed there. I imagined the young chambermaids gossiping about the hotel guests in their room late at night, and the story developed from there.

What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere of 1920s London and the Savoy Hotel?

It starts with lots of research so that I understand both the location and the historical era I’m writing in. I love the process of discovery and research and I’m always surprised by what I learn. In researching The Girl from the Savoy I spent an amazing afternoon with the archivist at The Savoy hotel. Sitting in the stunning foyer, talking through the hotel’s rich history was really special. I also spent several afternoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Theatre and Performance Archives, reading through scrapbooks of famous actresses and theatrical producers of the 1920s, which was incredibly inspiring. To help recreate the atmosphere of a particular time and place for the modern reader, I make ample use of the five senses, sound and smell especially, as well as visual description.

savoy-inspirations

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It depends on the novel. In The Girl Who Came Home, my novel about Irish emigrants on the Titanic, it was partly about depicting the simplicity of the rural Irish landscape and Irish culture, but also about recreating for the reader the sheer scale of The Titanic, and the chaos of the sinking. The central present-day character in A Memory of Violets is Tilly Harper, who leaves the sweeping landscape of the Lake District for the claustrophobic bustle and noise of Victorian London, to take up the job of assistant housemother at Mr. Shaw’s Home for Watercress and Flower Girls (based on the real-life story of John Groom’s Flower Mission). In The Girl from the Savoy my main locations are London and The Savoy, so I focused on capturing the contrast between the glamour of the hotel guests with the simplicity of my character Dolly’s life “downstairs” at the hotel. Culture—especially fashion and music—was also important in creating a real sense of era and location and really capturing that 1920s vibe.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From the opening chapter of The Girl from the Savoy:

I pass bicycle shops and tobacconists, wine merchants drapers and milliners, the rain falling in great curtains around me as I catch my reflection in the shop windows. I dodge newspaper vendors and sidestep a huddle of gentlemen in bowler hats as tramcars and motorcars rattle along the road beside me, clanging their bells and tooting their horns. Cries of the street sellers and the pounding hooves of a dray horse add to the jumble of noise. My stomach tumbles like a butter churn, excited and terrified by the prospect of my new position as a maid at The Savoy hotel.
cries-of-streetsellers

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I like to know the place very well, and always try to go there, if possible, to understand the shape of the landscape and to absorb the atmosphere. For example, I visited Addergoole in County Mayo, Ireland, which was the setting for the Irish scenes in The Girl Who Came Home. I also visited Covent Garden for A Memory of Violets and I know the Lake District very well, so could easily write the scenes set there.
violets-and-girl-who-came-home-locations
Of course, London and the Savoy Hotel and the Victoria Embankment Gardens (which are behind the Savoy) were essential places to visit for research, and to imagine Dolly’s life there in the 1920s.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I loved Hannah Kent’s descriptions of Iceland in Burial Rites. [Editor’s note: Kent was born in Adelaide but spent time in Iceland on a Rotary scholarship.] Dinah Jefferies also creates a wonderful sense of location in her novels The Tea Planter’s Wife, set in 1920s Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, which takes place in the turmoil of 1950s Vietnam. [Editor’s note: Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to the UK at the age of nine.]

Hazel Gaynor's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Hazel Gaynor’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Hazel, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Hazel? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Hazel Gaynor and her books, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter. And I urge you to check out the blog that she keeps for writing.ie, called Carry on Writing, consisting of interviews with leading novelists, including Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Mosse, Jojo Moyes and Cheryl Strayed.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! As I mentioned, I read Hazel Gaynor’s Memories of Violets earlier this year. I was impressed by her ability to re-imagine the lives of London’s flower sellers—of whom most of us have a romanticized image based on movies like Oliver Twist or Pygmalion. I liked that she combed the historical records for details she could use to ensure that her story came close to their everyday reality. In a sense she was helping to write their history but then filling in the gaps with her imagination. And I’m already looking forward to her next book, about the true story of two young cousins who claimed to photograph fairies in their Yorkshire village in the 1920s. The girls’ photos of the so-called Cottingley Fairies captured the public imagination, and Hazel’s version will no doubt capture that of today’s readers! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: In trio of memoirs, Marjory McGinn celebrates life inside the heart of Greece at height of economic crisis

Location Locution Marjory McGinn
Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.

Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:

“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”

Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.

At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.

“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”

Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.

MM Trilogy

Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.

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Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?

When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
Foteini quote

You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?

For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:

The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.

On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.

It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
Seduced by the ease of life

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.

MM fave authors

Marjory McGinn’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marjory, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.

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Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below.  And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address traceykwarr@gmail.com with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

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Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds fascinating! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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