The Displaced Nation

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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!

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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!

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 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).

charles-lambert-oeuvre-525x
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.

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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!

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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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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…

* * *

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).

WONDERLANDED: Will I have a hard or a soft landing?—two excerpts from “Olivia and Sophia,” by expat novelist Rosie Milne

Will I have a hard or a soft landing? Photo credits: Like Alice in Wonderland you can go into the rabbit hole, by expat painter Frank Schwarz via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Inset: Book cover (supplied).

Yesterday we were Wonderlanded with Rosie Milne, a veteran member of the publishing world, a blogger on Asian books, and a novelist in her own right. This post, which I’ve titled “Will I have a hard or a soft landing?”, consists of two excerpts from Rosie’s about-to-be-published historical novel, Olivia and Sophia, which concerns the lives of the first and second wives of the founder of the British trading post of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. 

Set in London, Java, Sumatra and Singapore, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars—the story takes the form of two fictionalized diaries, one by each of Raffles’s wives. They are:

  • Olivia Devinish, a raffish beauty with a scandalous past. Born in India and raised in Ireland, Olivia accompanied Raffles, who was her second husband, to West Java, where he was serving as governor. She got ill from the island’s harsh conditions and died at age 43. Raffles erected a memorial to her that stands to this day, in what is now the Bogor Botanical Gardens.
  • Sophia Hull, no beauty, but curious and intelligent and eager to embrace the opportunity of an exciting life abroad. Born in London, of Irish descent, she met and married Raffles when he was on leave in England after becoming a widower. The couple then sailed for Bencoolen (Sumatra), where Raffles had been appointed governor general—making Sophia the first white woman to venture into the Sumatran interior. This was the period when Raffles founded the British trading post of Singapore. The couple returned to England in August 1824 because of Raffles’s ill health. He died two years later, one day before his 45th birthday. Sophia then dedicated herself to writing his biography.

According to the book description, Rosie Milne “takes us away from the cold, damp confines of Georgian London to the muggy, hostile tropics and to the titillations and tribulations of a life far away from home.”

And, importantly, for us Displaced Nationers, she also provides a sense of what it was like to be a trailing spouse in an earlier era. Do these two Victorian ladies feel as though they were falling down a rabbit hole, uncertain of where they’d land and whether the landing would be hard or soft? Let’s find out…

* * *

Excerpt from Olivia’s diary

Olivia writes this diary entry on board the Ganges, the ship on which she is sailing from London to India. I think it expresses her sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole in a self-explanatory way.

Sometime, someplace on the ocean

I remain confident the year is 1805, and I am aboard the Ganges, but I write as my heading sometime, someplace on the ocean ’cause sailing across the nothing, nothing, nothing, and yet more nothing of the sea has addled me about both calendar and map. The map I have quite lost track of. At dinner I say my daily toast to happy sight of the next land, and I think: where is that next land? Which is to say: where are we? With no landmarks to watch for by day, and, by night, not being able to read the stars, I am as ignorant now of place as must be the fishes swimming in the waters beneath me. The calendar too, is becoming hazy to me. The tyranny of breakfast at eight, dinner at two, tea at six, and supper at nine keeps me abreast of the hours, but when I think of day and date ’tis as if one of our chilly sea fogs has reached its fingers into my mind, so I no more know whether ’tis Monday, Saturday, Wednesday, or Sunday, than I c’d say our position on the globe.

Olivia Raffles as Alice

Photo credits (top to bottom): Frigate in fog via Pixabay; detail of Here be Dragons map; Down the Rabbit Hole, by thepeachpeddler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Olivia Raffles portrait.


Excerpt from Sophia’s diary

Sophia writes this diary entry on board the Mariner, the ship on which she is sailing home from India. It, too, expresses her sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole…

August 1824, the Mariner, off the Cornish Coast

And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land … I have had my first sight of Home for nigh on seven years. Tho’ in the Eastward Old England sometimes seemed to me unreal, like a dream of Home, and not a literal place on the globe, Cornwall is now crouched in the angry sea to our starboard, and is just as real as sharp granite rocks will allow. I hardly know how to say how I’ve changed since last I saw England. I sometimes feel so disunited from that Lady Raffles who sailed eastward on the Lady Raffles I can scarce think we are the same person – I cannot recall her, it sometimes seems, and must judge she was mistaken to think she ever could return Home. More, I scarcely know how to say who I am now, what I am, what manner of person? As for Tom, now turned of forty, lit now only by shadows of his youthful fires, he says he feels just as wearily jumbled as me, just as uncertain how to begin to make sense of all that has happened these past seven years, if indeed any sense can be made of our lives at all, and he says it is a puzzle to know whether his two sojourns in the Eastwood enabled him to put on, at various times, a new self, as a man may put on a new coat, or if, while in foreign climes, he became more than ever the man who first left, and now returns, to Old England.

Photo credits: Land's End, Cornwall[https://pixabay.com/en/ocean-rock-waves-wind-stormy-826155/] via Pixabay; Sophia Raffles portrait; Down the rabbit hole by Colin Smith[] via the Geograph Britain and Ireland Project (CC BY-SA 2.0) [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].

Photo credits: Land’s End, Cornwall via Pixabay; Sophia Raffles portrait; Down the rabbit hole, by Colin Smith via the Geograph Britain and Ireland Project (CC BY-SA 2.0).

* * *

Thank you so much, Rosie! I like the way you’ve juxtaposed these two excerpts, one showing the first wife setting out on a Far Eastern adventure, the other showing the second wife confronting the prospect of going home again. In fact, Sophia writes something that is extraordinarily akin in spirit to Alice’s statement:

I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning; but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

Readers, what do you think? Do these trailing spouses have it harder than their modern-day counterparts, or can you draw a reasonably straight line to today? And have these two excerpts from Rosie’s new novel made you want to read more? Olivia & Sophia, published by Monsoon Press, will be available as a paperback in Asia and Australia on November 1. You can also visit Rosie’s Asian Books Blog and/or stay social by following her on Twitter. And of course you can also express appreciation for Rosie in the comments below. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Liza Perrat on writing a location to life

Liza Perrat visualIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews  Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels.

Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living with her husband and three children for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator.

Spirit of Lost Angels tells the story of Victoire Charpentier and her courage in facing injustice and abuse in revolutionary France. Wolfsangel (due out in November 2013) follows Victoire’s descendant, Celeste, who finds that under Nazi occupation, the personal is political.

*  *  *

Which comes first, story or location?
So far, for me, it has been location. I’m enthused, enthralled or nostalgic about a place, and want to use it as a backdrop around a story. In the case of my current novels, the location has become as much a character as the real-life ones.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
My novels are set in the French rural area in which I live, which makes it much easier to evoke atmosphere. I take loads of photos of the countryside, the people and the buildings, during each different season. The local historical association has lots of sketches and documents on what it looked like through the ages. As I walk the dog, I jot down descriptions of sunrises, sunsets, stormy light, fruit on the trees, snow on the hills, flowers in spring and the icy river in winter.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Landscape, culture and food, certainly. But most of all, for me, it is the people who create a sense of location. Often, the people are the place. Also language, especially expressions, plays a part. Architecture too, gives a feel for a place. Smells also, create a sense of location.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
Intimately well. I’d have trouble creating a believable atmosphere if I’d not been to a place, or at least read widely on it.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
Many reviewers of Spirit of Lost Angels commented positively on the atmosphere created of La Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, during the late 1700s:

… I found the scenes of cruelty in the Salpêtrière Asylum painful to read – not because of the way in which they were written, but simply to have been shown such unpalatable truths …

… the section of the novel concerning Victoire’s stay in La Salpêtrière vividly illustrates what a horrible experience it must have been…

… part of the reason I waved to savour this book so much was because of the scenery and the settings…

The book vividly depicts the violent and inhumane methods doctors used to “treat” mental illness at Salpêtrière. To me, this was perhaps the most fascinating portion of the story- descriptions of the appalling conditions under which the women were kept, the rivalries that developed among cell mates, the rules one had to learn in order to survive this prison. The narrative was stark and believable and, believe it or not, educational. Since I’ve finished the book, I’ve been looking up the history of the Salpêtrière Hospital, intrigued at how low mental health care and the care of women had deteriorated at that time. Introducing an urge to learn more, dear readers, is the mark of excellent historical fiction.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Ones that come to mind:

  • Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves. Even more amazing as, apparently, she’s never been to the wilderness snowscapes of Canada.
  • Joanne Harris’s Chocolat evokes the small French village.
  • Nikki Gemmell’s Cleave and Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, describe so well the desolate landscape of central Australia.
  • Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife brings to life 1950s East End London.
  • Emma Donoghue’s Room brilliantly portrays an entire existence in a single, small room.

Thank you, Liza!

Next month, my guest on Location, Locution will be Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym and Eleven Minutes

* * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Award-winning author Steven Conte, bringing location to life through writing

steven conte visualIn this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews  Steven Conte, the Melbourne-based author of The Zookeeper’s War. The setting is the Berlin Zoo, 1943. An Australian woman, Vera, and her German husband, Axel, the zoo’s director, struggle to look after the animals through the air raids and food shortages.

In 2008, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, then worth A$100,000. The Zookeeper’s War has been published in Britain and Ireland and translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Barman, life model, taxi driver, public servant, book reviewer and university tutor are some of the jobs with which Steven has supported his writing.

*  *  *

Which comes first, story or location?
For me this depends on the project. The city of Berlin was definitely the initial inspiration for The Zookeeper’s War, in particular the atmosphere of enclosure and entrapment which I sensed there three years before the Berlin Wall came down. While I chose to set my novel in the Berlin of WWII, the Cold War tensions I had witnessed there in 1986 helped me to imagine what it might have felt like to live through the twelve terrifying years of the Third Reich. It was only after the novel was published that I realised I had chosen a setting which has powerful, indeed mythic, associations for many readers (some other examples being New York, Paris, London and, in the east, Hong Kong and Shanghai).

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Stimulating the reader’s senses is the most reliable way, though in a realist narrative a character needs psychologically plausible reasons to notice his or her environment, a difficult ask if focal characters are already familiar with their surroundings. Selecting a focal character who is a newcomer to the setting is one way to emphasise place. Another is to take the focal character on a journey. In The Zookeeper’s War I chose a setting which aerial bombing destroys day by day, compelling the characters to keep on noticing their surroundings.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above, provided that accounts of them belong in the story and ring true to the narrative voice. Ideally, descriptive detail reveals as much about the focal character or narrator as it does about setting. In contrast, “unanchored” description can sound like passages of travel writing or anthropology.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
With skill, only moderately well, though it’s probably wise to minimise the difference between your characters’ supposed knowledge of a setting and your own. This aside, the best fiction implies more than it states (Hemingway’s iceberg principle), and a few vivid details can be enough to evoke an entire town or city or region. I’d recommend not writing about famous landmarks, since locations such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate will remain clichés of place however brilliantly they might be described.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
In the following passage from The Zookeeper’s War the heroine, Vera, walks through Berlin the morning after an air raid:

In the Mitte, the old city, bombs had caved in the skyline, dropping telegraph poles, power lines and tram cables onto burnt-out lorries and trams. Shops were destroyed or boarded up, and glass, chunks of plaster and shrapnel paved the streets. Field kitchens had sprouted at the major intersections, and in alleys off Alexanderplatz girls were already soliciting. Outside one bombed-out tenement Vera read the chalked inscription, Everyone in this shelter has been saved. Around the corner: My angel where are you? Leave a message for your Sigi. In a house without walls on Unter den Linden, a man played Bach on a grand piano, and below him, in a lake fed by a burst water main, a fur stole clung to a hatstand. Half the people on the streets wore a uniform: police, air-raid wardens, women postal workers. Soldiers moved in squads and the only vehicles were staff cars and Wehrmacht lorries, as if the army had conquered Berlin and deployed clerks and shop assistants to the front in a fleet of private cars.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Cormac McCarthy for the poetry and grandeur of his descriptions, in Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy, of the border regions of Mexico and the United States. Colm Tóibín for his evocation of the eroding coastline of County Wexford in his early novel The Heather Blazing. William Styron for the magnificent range of settings in Sophie’s Choice, from post-war New York, New England and North Carolina to Warsaw under German occupation and the netherworld of Auschwitz.

* * *

Readers, what did you think of Steven’s suggestions on evoking place? Next month, my guest will be Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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“Unenthusiastic about enthusiasm”: On Sarah Lyall, the relief of being a returning expat, and never getting over the feeling of cultural discombobulation

CulturallyDiscombobulatedFor today’s post ML Awanohara (doyenne of this particular piece of the interweb) suggested that Sarah Lyall‘s recent piece in The New York Times (“Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome”) might provide me with a suitable topic to chisel out a post for the Displaced Nation.

I’ll be honest and admit (though I never articulated this to ML) that I was rather resistant and a tad unenthusiastic to the idea. I’d previously skim-read Sarah Lyall’s book, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, and found myself irritated by her observations about her life as an American transplant to London.

In short, I didn’t enjoy it. I was left uncharmed and felt it had about it an omnipresent smug tone.

Bill Bryson did it best

Recently, I’ve had a similar reaction with British academic Terry Eagleton‘s new book, Across The Pond (goodness, even the title sounds like another sub-Bryson knock-off), about his thoughts on living in America.

So I’m an equal-opportunity offender on this matter.

Perhaps foreigner-writing-about-their-adopted-home is a sub-genre that is not for me, which is unfortunate considering that’s the very subject of my personal blog, Culturally Discombobulated (now that I think of it, it sounds like a sub-Bryson knock-off, too). Having read Lyall’s article, I suppose she would call this attitude typically English: at once self-loathing and arrogant.

So I decided I would ignore ML’s suggestion and instead write another Capital Ideas post. As I was about to start writing it (well, start thinking about writing it, if I’m going to be entirely honest), I noticed in my inbox an email from my wife telling me to read this article.  Like Sarah Lyall, Mrs W is an American who has spent time living in London before returning to the US.

Putting my initial reservations to one side, I decided to see just what I was missing.

I must admit, Sarah’s right about L.G.

First, a little bit of background: Sarah Lyall has been The New York Times London correspondent for 18 years. Her article this week was about her repatriation to her home country.

I’ll be honest. Unlike when I read her book, The Anglo Files, I found myself more charmed by her writing and observations. This could be the result of the shorter form of a newspaper article, my mellowing, or far more likely our common enemy that is Loyd Grossman—Sarah’s wish on first moving to the UK was that she wouldn’t end up sounding like her more famous compatriot.

Readers who have not spent any considerable time in the UK are probably oblivious to L.G.’s existence. A television presenter (who was host of the original MasterChef, which other than name bears scant resemblance to Fox’s Gordon Ramsey vehicle) as well as a range of pasta sauces (I’ve no idea why, given that he’s not a chef), Loyd Grossman is in possession of the oddest transatlantic accent. It’s preppy New Englander meets Sloane Square yuppie, and just hearing it makes you want to declare class war.

For all of us in clear and present danger of one day developing a transatlantic accent, Loyd Grossman is a stark and terrifying cautionary tale.

…and about us?

Sometimes when I am reading a foreigner’s perspective on the British, I am struck by how awful we sound—a complete bunch of miserable bastards that have developed a carapace of irony and delight in popping positivity like it were a balloon at a child’s birthday party.

Is it any wonder Sarah got a bit fed up with our lack of enthusiasm:

…Britons are not automatically impressed by what I always thought were attractive American qualities—straightforwardness, openness, can-doism, for starters—and they suspect that our surface friendly optimism might possibly be fake. (I suspect that sometimes they might possibly be right.)

Once, in an experiment designed to illustrate Britons’ unease with the way Americans introduce themselves in social situations (in Britain, you’re supposed to wait for the host to do it), I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. “Hi, I’m Stephen Bayley,” my friend said, sticking out his hand.

“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?” the man responded.

The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with “I can’t complain” when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.

After reading this piece, my wife said that she’d forgotten that so much of my personality was cultural. “I thought,” she said, “that it might be time for you to have some therapy, but then I realized you’re just British—no amount of therapy can fix that.”

* * *

I’ve not experienced what it is like to repatriate yourself back home. I do know, however, that many of you have. Do let me know in the comments below what struck you about moving back and what you missed about the adopted country you left.

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