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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Canadian author Dianne Ascroft lives, eats, breathes—and writes—Ireland, past and present


Tracey Warr is here with Dianne Ascroft, a Canadian writer who left the hustle-bustle of Toronto for Northern Ireland, a place she found so compelling that she ultimately settled in the countryside and has specialized in writing books set in that part of the world.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. I hope your summer is off to a productive start. To give you that extra inspiration, I hope you’ll enjoy my interview with this month’s writer, Dianne Ascroft.

Dianne grew up an urban Canadian, in Toronto. But those roots would hardly be apparent if you met her now. In the 1990s she moved across the water to Northern Ireland, where she still finds herself a quarter-of-a-century later.

Dianne started out in Belfast, where she moved for work. Then, after living in Troon, a town on the west coast of Scotland, for a spell, she returned to Northern Ireland and settled into rural life in County Fermanagh, with her husband and their assortment of strong-willed animals.

Dianne says that this gradual downsizing of her surroundings reflects her pursuit of a writing career. Since moving to Britain, she worked in various offices and shops; but her head was always in books and she harbored a passion for writing. She is an avid reader and started writing her spare time more than a decade ago. Now that she is living in the countryside, she can concentrate on writing fulltime.

“When I’m not writing,” she says on her author site, “I enjoy walks in the country, evenings in front of our open fireplace and folk and traditional music.” She also plays the Scottish bagpipes though has given this hobby up since moving to the farm, which she says is “just as well as it’s rather disconcerting to turn around when you are practicing in a field and find that you have a herd of cows for an audience.”

Dianne mostly writes fiction, both historical and contemporary, often with an Irish connection. “I love where I live and I am fascinated by it,” she says. Her current project is The Yankee Years, a collection of short reads and novels set in World War II Northern Ireland. “After the Allied troops arrived in this outlying part of Great Britain, life here would never be the same again,” Dianne says. “The series strives to bring those heady, fleeting years to life again, in thrilling and romantic tales of the era.”

Her other fictional writings include:

  • An Unbidden Visitor, a ghost tale inspired by the famous Northern Irish legend of the Coonian ghost. (Dianne lives a couple of miles from the house that sparked the legend.)
  • Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves, a collection of six short stories about farm life in Northern Ireland.
  • Hitler and Mars Bars, an historical novel about a German boy growing up alone in postwar Ireland.

Dianne occasionally writes non-fiction for Canadian and Irish newspapers. In 2013 she released two e-book collections of her articles: Fermanagh Gems and Irish Sanctuaries.

* * *

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

The two are very closely related in my writing so it’s rather hard to say. I tell stories that are sparked by interesting items that have caught my attention. Since I write historical fiction mainly, sometimes that’s something I read in an old newspaper or a history text, or maybe something I’ve noticed in the landscape around me. But, no matter what the original inspiration was, my stories will always be inherently part of the place where they are set. They can’t be separated from their location. The Yankee Years, my Second World War series, is set in County Fermanagh where I’ve lived for more than a decade now. The war was a pivotal point in Northern Ireland’s history; and the influx of Allied troops had a major impact on the economy and culture of County Fermanagh. Army camps and Air Force flying-boat bases sprang up, and the population of the county grew until approximately a quarter of the entire population consisted of military personnel. Fermanagh must have been so different from the quiet rural area that I know today, and imagining this recent past really intrigued me. The events during the war and their impact on the county grabbed my imagination—and that’s how the series was born.

How is it possible to conjure up the past now that the Yankees have gone home, so to speak?

Despite the impact the war had on Fermanagh, there was an interesting dichotomy in the county. The old way of life was disrupted and challenged by the incomers from unfamiliar cultures; but, at the same time, fundamental aspects of rural life didn’t change so I can easily imagine what farm life was like at that time as small farms are still very much the same today. The continuity of this way of life through the generations is another feature of the province that fascinates me and it is a great bonus for an historical fiction writer. It makes imagining the past much easier to do.

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

I have to admit that I like lots of detail. I want to paint a picture of the place so that readers feel like they are there. But, I try not to be too wordy, and I follow the guideline that, if readers are likely to be familiar with a place or historical detail, then I don’t need to describe it in great depth. But, if I’m describing a place or item that won’t be familiar to most readers, then I try to show exactly what it was like. By evoking sounds and smells, as well as visual details, I hope to bring it to life in readers’ minds. I think it’s important to draw readers’ attention to details that they may not be familiar with and to use all the senses so they can fully experience it.

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

I’d say that all three are important but, for the stories I tell, the landscape and culture are central. The way of life in this rather remote, rural part of Northern Ireland has evolved from the work of the people inhabiting it: making a living from the land or water, farming or fishing. People lived their lives close to the natural world and, therefore, the landscape and culture were intertwined. The people who lived here a couple of generations ago, in the days before mechanised farming, were proud and capable yet they also needed the co-operation and support of their community. My plots are often built around elements of this simple, hardy way of life.

In the case of Northern Ireland, you also have the clash of religions. Do you weave this thread into your stories as well?

When I first arrived, I hesitated to tackle writing about Northern Ireland because of the history of sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics that has divided the country into two communities for centuries. This history makes Ireland very different from the society I grew up in, but I think it has to be woven into any writing about this part of the world as it is a unique characteristic of the country. It can be difficult to capture the nuances of life in this complex society where the tensions between the communities stretch back generations and still influence many aspects of modern day life. But, since I wanted to write stories about the Second World War era in Ulster Province, I decided I would have to tackle the issue. I think that viewing the society as an outsider gives me unique insights into it which I can use to convincingly convey the place and the people to my readers.

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

Here is the beginning of Scene 2 in Keeping Her Pledge, the third story in The Yankee Years Books 1-3:

“Standing at the upstairs hall window in the early evening, her wet hair resting on the towel she had thrown across her shoulders, Pearl looked across the single field that separated the farmhouse from Lough Erne. She watched as a large lumbering Sunderland seaplane sliced through the water, gathering speed until it launched itself into the air. As it lifted off, a torrent of water sprayed out from it and she heard the roar of its engines.

Chuck had said that he wasn’t supposed to tell her but he was on an anti-submarine patrol today. He would have left the base at RAF Castle Archdale, on the opposite side of the lough, soon after first light this morning. There were patrols around the clock, and planes were taking off and landing day and night. She often heard the roars of their engines as she lay in bed, before she fell asleep and as she awoke. Sometimes she would stand at her bedroom window and gaze out at the row of navigation lights that guided the planes in to land, strung out like lanterns on a rope across the field and into the lough.

“I thought you’d be getting ready.” Davy walked up behind her.

“In a wee minute. Isn’t it a lovely night? I was just watching the planes.”

“Looking for your sweetheart, are you?”

“Don’t be daft. And he’s not my sweetheart.” Pearl smiled to herself. Although she had only recently met Chuck, neither of them was seeing anyone else. They were as good as walking out together. No doubt, she would soon be able to tell the world that he was her sweetheart.

“Well, if you’re standing here daydreaming, I’ll wash and shave. Race you to the mirror.”

Davy walked down the hall to the bedroom he shared with their two younger brothers, Charlie and Ian. Pearl hugged herself and sighed as she turned back to the window. The flying boats looked so graceful gliding through the sky, not at all cumbersome as they were in the water. Chuck had told her about the view up there. He said everything on the ground below looked tiny. It was like looking at a miniature picture with new images constantly spinning past inside the frame. She would love to see her house and Lough Erne from the sky. It was such a perfect evening. Chuck just had to return in time to meet her at the dance. She squeezed her eyes shut and wished.

Half an hour later Pearl stood in front of the large walnut mirror in the downstairs hallway. As she ran the brush through her hair, teasing and shaking the tangles out of it, she heard the drone of an aircraft approaching. With RAF Castle Archdale so close, she had become accustomed to the hum of the steady stream of aircraft flying overhead.

She twisted the brush sharply and tugged at a knot as Davy sidled up beside her. Without pausing, she stepped sideways to share the mirror. From this angle, she saw the landscape outside reflected in the glass: peaceful rolling hills divided by rough stone walls and thick hedges. A dark shadow moving rapidly in the top corner of the glass drew her attention. She turned away from the mirror to look through the small window in the front door. The flying boat she had heard was approaching the lough much closer to the ground than they usually flew at this distance from the water.

Davy followed her gaze. When he spotted the aircraft he ran to the door. “That plane won’t make the lough,” he shouted as he jerked the door open and rushed outside.

Pearl followed him. As she stepped outside the door, she heard a high-pitched whine before the seaplane’s engines cut out. The aircraft plunged steeply towards the ground and crashed in the field beside the water. Flames shot up from the wreckage and crackled like a huge bonfire. Davy, her father and two neighbours who had called in for a chat, Tommy Boyd and Dick Morton, were already running toward the aircraft.

Pearl hurried across their farmyard and crossed the road but stopped at the gate to the field. The smoke billowing from the plane nearly choked her. Her stomach clenched as she gawked at the debris strewn across the charred grass and she had to grip the top rail of the gate to keep her knees from buckling. Something gleamed dully under the hedge beside where the aircraft lay. She squinted through the smoke at the seaplane’s massive engine lying there intact and focused on its unsullied bulk, unwilling to look at the carnage surrounding it.”

Thank you for sharing that passage. How well do you feel you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Because my stories are set in a region that features in few books, fiction or non-fiction, and one which many readers will not be familiar with but I want them to understand, I feel compelled to create for them an almost three-dimensional mental image of it. My first novel, Hitler and Mars Bars, takes place in several locations in the Republic of Ireland as well as the Ruhr region of Germany. During my research for the book, I visited each of the locations in Ireland to see exactly where the story would unfold. I noted minute details about each place so that I could use the relevant ones in the novel. I wasn’t able to travel to Germany but I did study detailed maps and historic photographs of the area where that portion of the story is set so I could imagine it fully as I wrote. The Yankee Years, the series I’m currently working on, is set in various locations in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. As for my first novel, I visited each location I had chosen for these stories in order to get a feel for the place. I wanted to be able to see the place in my mind as I wrote. I then also referred to historical photographs of the area to see what it was like during the Second World War when my stories are set. Before I started writing, I compiled detailed information about the physical and man-made landmarks in the region, the distances between various places, the sights, sounds and smells in the region and I drew on all of this information to create real places for the reader to step into.

Last but not least, which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are two in particular that immediately spring to my mind, and I have to admit that I admire these writers for many aspects of their writing styles, not only their use of location. What I like best is that they both use lots of detail—to describe characters, settings and the action unfolding in the story. Diana Gabaldon and Manda (M.C.) Scott are the writers I’m referring to. Although I admire both of them, Manda Scott has the edge. There is just something wonderful about her novels. Her ability to breathe life into characters, unveil complex stories and create vivid settings, as well as her skilful use of language, is absolutely wonderful and keeps me enthralled. I love stories like hers, that come alive in my mind.

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

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

* * *

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dianne Ascroft and her creative output, I suggest you visit her author site & blog, where you can sign up for her newsletter. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Dianne! I for one certainly wouldn’t expect to meet a Canadian playing the bagpipes in the Irish countryside. Dianne, you are fantastically displaced! As far as your creative output goes, I’m particularly impressed by your “Yankee Years” series. Like many other Americans, I had no idea that the first U.S. soldiers to enter the Second World War landed in Northern Ireland. Good on you for writing fictional histories about that period, which might otherwise be lost to posterity or else overshadowed by all the stories of sectarian violence in that part of the world, AKA The Troubles. —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 and photos of Irish countryside, supplied; other photos 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!

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; other photos via Pixabay.

All other visuals are from Pixabay.

Top 60 books for, by & about expats and other global creatives in 2016 (1/2)

top-60-books-2016-part-one-fiction

Are bookworms like earth worms: do they come to the surface during the spring rains? In which case, the Displaced Nation’s timing—we publish our yearly roundup of recommended books for, by, and about expats and other global creatives in late February and early March—may not be as eccentric as all that. And at least we’re not competing with lots of other “best of 2016” lists that came out in December!

Without further ado, we’re calling on all of you displaced bookworms to come out and start feasting! This year there are 60 books on our list, a first. Hopefully it means you’ll find a title or two that you missed. Or perhaps you’ll see books whose titles sound familiar—especially if you subscribe to our Displaced Dispatch—but of which you forgot to make a note.

Part One, published today, presents 36 works of fiction, both novels and story collections, indie as well as traditionally published works. Part Two will add 24 works of nonfiction, bringing the total to 60. As in years past, the books appear in reverse chronological order.

* * *

Fall 2016

the-good-officer_coverThe Good Officer: Can they love again? (Newhurst Press, November 18, 2016)
Author: Helena Halme
Expat credentials: Born in Finland, Halme lived in Sweden as a child and felt displaced when her family moved back to Finland when she was 14. She left Finland to live in England (now London) after meeting and marrying a British man (yes, he was in the military!), but she still celebrates Finnish customs.
Synopsis: Kaisa has betrayed her husband, the handsome English naval officer, Peter. What can she do but move back to her native Finland? But then she takes a job in London and meets Peter again by chance. Can they love each other again? The third novel in The Englishman series following the tumultuous 1980s love affair between a Finnish student and a British naval officer, based loosely on Halme’s own life story.
How we heard about: Halme has been featured several times on the Displaced Nation: see, for instance, her Random Nomad interview, still one of our best!
Why we recommend: How often do you get to read a Nordic military romance?


a-year-and-a-day_coverA Year and a Day (Penguin Books, Nov 17 2016)
Author: Isabelle Broom
Expat credentials: Broom travelled through Europe during her gap year and went to live on the Greek island of Zakynthos for an unforgettable and life-shaping six months after completing her degree in media arts in London (her first novel, My Map of You, is set on that island). Since then, she has travelled to Canada, Sri Lanka, Sicily, New York, LA, the Canary Islands, Spain and lots more of Greece. She loves to write books set in far-flung locations.
Synopsis: Three different couples find themselves staying in the same hotel in Prague, and we follow them as they mingle and get to know each other and form a bond.
How we heard about: Trip Fiction review,with Prague promo.
Why we recommend: According to several of Broom’s Amazon reviewers, the Prague of this book is “magical” and becomes an “additional character.”


swing-time_coverSwing Time (Penguin, November 15, 2016)
Author: Zadie Smith
Expat credentials: Smith is the product of a black mother and a white father, whom her mother married after migrating to England from her native Jamaica. Now a professor of fiction at New York University, Smith has traded London for New York City for at least part of the year.
Synopsis: Set in England and West Africa, the story concerns the friendship of two mixed-race girls who meet in a tap dance class in London in 1982. One has talent; the other has ideas.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Particularly when the action moves to West Africa, the novel parses race and global politics in a way only a writer of Smith’s caliber can.


tokyo-short-stories-book-1_coverPostcards from Tokyo, Book 1 (November 3, 2016)
Author: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga
Expat credentials: Born in San Francisco, Tokunaga has lived in the Bay area all her life except for when she lived in Tokyo during the early 1980s. Her husband is Japanese.
Synopsis: Six stories that are all inspired by Tokyo, a place that writer Tokunaga has observed both first-hand and from afar. Highlights include a story about a young American who leaves her hostess job to become a kept woman but instead of finding solace is unable to escape her own demons, and a story about an American cat that becomes a stowaway with the intention of becoming a social media sensation in Japan.
How we heard about: We have featured Tokunaga a couple of times on the Displaced Nation (see, for instance, this interview) and follow her on social media.
Why we recommend: Tokunaga has a knack for telling stories about Japan that are culturally insightful while also being highly entertaining.


je-taime-maybe-book-coverJe T’Aime…Maybe? (TGRS Communications, November 3, 2016)
Author: April Lily Heise
Expat credentials: April Lily Heise is a Canadian writer and romance expert who has been living in Paris for over a decade. This is her second novelized memoir on her romantic misadventures.
Synopsis: After barely surviving a turbulent series of relationships in the City of Love (shared in the first volume of the series, Je T’aime, Me Neither), our heroine Lily is ready to throw in the towel on amour. That is, until she receives a very unexpected email—one which revives her hope in finding true love…yet at the same time awakens the mischievous, passionate energy of Paris. Will she manage to connect with her potential soul mate, located on the other side of the globe?
How we heard about: We follow the HIP Paris Blog.
Why we recommend: Readers of Heise’s blog and book appreciate her for being “hilarious,” “brutally honest” and “badass” about love in the city that celebrates that emotion. As one of them puts it, this book is a “sort of Parisian-style Bridget Jones’s Diary.”


a-portrait-of-emily-price_coverA Portrait of Emily Price (HarperCollins, November 1, 2016)
Author: Katherine Reay
Expat credentials: After living all across the United States and a few stops in Europe, Katherine and her family recently moved back to Chicago. It’s also the first book Reay has written that’s based in a place where she hasn’t lived, though she did visit Italy multiple items when living in Europe.
Synopsis: Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. They marry and Emily follows Ben home to Italy, where she finds she can’t quite adjust to his family and culture.
How we heard about: From Publishers Weekly listing
Why we recommend: It’s interesting that an author who usually takes her inspiration from Jane Austen has entered Henry James territory, portraying clashing worldviews and other cross-cultural miscommunications. What’s more, the book includes sensually evocative descriptions of Italian food and scenery, for which it has earned comparisons with Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun.


the-boat-rocker_coverThe Boat Rocker (Pantheon, October 26 2016)
Author: Ha Jin
Expat credentials: Xuefei Jin, who publishes under the nom de plume Ha Jin, is a China-born but United States-based author. A former Chinese army soldier, he chose to stay in the United States after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Synopsis: Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin is a fiercely principled reporter at a small news agency that produces a website read by the Chinese diaspora around the world. Danlin’s explosive exposés have made him legendary among readers—and feared by Communist officials. But his newest assignment may be his undoing: investigating his ex-wife, Yan Haili, an unscrupulous novelist who has willingly become a pawn of the Chinese government.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: At a time when the press is under attack, it is interesting to read a novel by a writer who has lived under two very different sets of rules: the Communist Party’s elaborate control of mass media and the free market’s complicated influence on what we read and watch.


how-to-pick-up-a-maid_coverHow to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square: Stories (Thistledown Press, Oct 16, 2016)
Author: Rea Tarvdas
Expat credentials: When her husband, a management consultant, was transferred to Hong Kong in 2000, Tarvdas placed her job as a psychiatric emergency-room nurse on hold and packed up the house and moved for two years to Hong Kong. She has since repatriated to Calgary, Canada.
Synopsis: A collection of stories that creates a fictional community of hardworking men and women, bankers and brokers, maids and househusbands, who are, in the author’s words, “all trying to find their way through the space in which loneliness and alienation intersect.”
How we heard about: From Tarvdas’s personal essay in Quill & Quire.
Why we recommend: Tarvdas has used fiction to channel the intense feelings that come up when you’re an expat, particularly a trailing spouse, in Southeast Asia, including dislocation, loneliness, alienation, and even sexual redundancy.


from-pavlova-to-pork-pies_coverFrom Pavlova to Pork Pies: From New Zealand to England searching for love, laughs, and the way home (Writer’s Cat, October 2, 2016)
Author: Vicki Jeffels
Expat credentials: Jeffels has lived in four countries, both hemispheres and has travelled around the world only to end up back where she started, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Synopsis: Based on a true story and an award-winning blog, the plot concerns a divorced mother-of-three from New Zealand who goes on a European tour and meets the man of her dreams, an Englishman, in the City of Light; starts a long-distance relationship with him; and then moves with her family to live with him in the UK, only to have disaster strike when she and her kids are threatened with deportation.
How we heard about: We have known Jeffels back in the day when she was blogging about being an expat in Britain, married to a Brit she met in Paris—she was one of our early Random Nomad interviewees.
Why we recommend: Jeffels has a droll sense of humour and loves travel, chocolate, food, and wine. You can’t go wrong with an author like that.


conquest_coverConquest: Daughter of the Last King (Impress Books, October 1, 2016)
Author: Tracey Warr
Expat credentials: Warr was born in London and lives in the UK and France.
Synopsis: The first in Warr’s new Conquest trilogy, the book is set in the early middle ages when Britain was invaded by William the Conqueror. It concerns the fate of Nest ferch Rhys, the daughter of the last independent Welsh king, after she is captured by the Normans following their assault on her lands, taken to their lair in Cardiff, imprisoned in the motte, and forced to learn Norman.
How we heard about: Warr is our Location, Locution columnist.
Why we recommend: With so many people being displaced by war in the present era, it seems strange to think that this kind of thing was going in the 12th century as well. Is forced displacement an inevitable part of the human condition?


cartes-postales-from-greece_coverCarte Postales from Greece (Hodder, September 22, 2016)
Author: Victoria Hislop
Expat credentials: Hislop has nurtured a passion for Greece for more than three decades. She speaks Greek and keeps a second home in Crete, where she spends several months of every year.
Synopsis: Englishwoman Ellie mistakenly receives a series of tantalizing postcards from Greece. Once the cards stop coming, she spontaneously organizes her own trip to Greece and, with the help of a mysterious notebook she receives just before her departure, discovers a wonderful world of tradition, folklore, love and betrayal—a world not usually accessible to first-time visitors.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s interview with the author
Why we recommend: Hislop traveled in Greece with a Greek photographer and has used his photos to illustrate the book. In some cases, the stories developed because of the photos; in other cases, it was the other way around. The idea was to have the words and pictures work very closely together. The idea sounds super creative, and we’re curious how it turned out.

Summer 2016

the-pull-of-it_coverThe Pull of It (Underground Voices, September 21, 2016)
Author: Wendy J. Fox
Expat credentials: Fox was raised in rural Washington state, and lived in Turkey in the early 2000s. She was still living in Turkey when she started the manuscript. She now lives in Seattle.
Synopsis: The story of a young wife and mother who takes a solo vacation in Turkey to recharge, and ends up diving into a new culture. She skips her flight home and boards a bus to the interior of the country, where she will stay for another six months, until her previous life pulls her home and she must confront her demons.
How we heard about: Writer Lisa Morrow quotes from Fox’s novel in Part One of her interview with us, published in November of last year.
Why we recommend: The premise of the story sounds interesting. As Fox told reviewer Mark Stevens, she thought her protagonist would need to be immersed in a “realm that was totally foreign” as only then could she “get down to the core of herself and understand what she wants.”


the-other-side-of-the-world_coverThe Other Side of the World (Atria Books, September 20, 2016)
Author: Stephanie Bishop
Expat credentials: Her grandparents migrated from England to Australia in the 1960s. Although her grandmother lived more than half her life in Australia she still thought of England as home and Bishop grew up listening to her complain about how much she missed Britain. As a young adult, Bishop herself experienced “dual homesickness” as she moved back and forth between England and Australia for her education (she got her Ph.D. from Cambridge and will soon have a visiting fellowship at Oxford).
Synopsis: A novel set in England, Australia, and India in the early 1960s. Charlotte is struggling with motherhood, with the changes brought on by marriage and parenthood, and with never having the time or energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, an Anglo-Indian, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the mailbox—Australia brings out the best in you—gives him an idea. Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it they are traveling to the other side of the world. But upon their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on the couple and gradually reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for.
How we heard about: Nina Sichel promoted it on the Writing Out of Limbo Facebook page.
Why we recommend: The novel explores Bishop’s fascination with a dual sense of longing and nostalgia about two places one considers to be “home.”


him-me-muhammed-ali_coverHim, Me, Muhammad Ali (Sarabande Books, September 19, 2016)
Author: Randa Jarrar
Expat credentials: Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and Egypt. She moved to the United States after the first Gulf War, at the age of 13.
Synopsis: Stories about Middle Eastern women much like Jarrar herself, strong girls and women who’ve somehow landed in the United States, interlaced at times with magic. We travel from Cairo to Yonkers, from the West Bank to Wyoming.
How we heard about: From a tweet by M. Lynx Qualey (@arablit).
Why we recommend: This is Jarrar’s first story collection, following the debut of her first novel, A Map of Home, which won an Arab-American Book Award. As one critic writes, the anthology reflects Jarrar’s own experience of moving between continents and cultures through characters that always seem to be searching for that one place where they fit in: “Often, they don’t, so it’s the nebulous in-between space where their lives unravel.”


tea-planters-wife_coverThe Tea Planter’s Wife (Random House Broadway Books, September 13, 2016)
Author: Dinah Jefferies
Expat credentials: Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. Her idyllic childhood always held a special place in her imagination, and when she began writing novels in her 60s, she was able to return there—first in her fiction and then on annual research trips for each new novel.
Synopsis: An historical family drama set in Ceylon in the 1920s. Gwendoline, a young Engliah woman, fresh off the boat who has come to join her new husband at his tea plantation. She faces a big culture shock and then a mystery surrounding this man.
How we heard about: Tracey Warr’s interview with Jefferies in her Location, Locution column (published 3 December 2016).
Why we recommend: One of Warr’s other interviewees, Hazel Gaynor, chose this book by Jefferies for its “wonderful sense of location.”


singapore-love-stories_coverSingapore Love Stories (Monsoon Books, September 2016)
Author/Editor: Verena Tay (she contributed “Ex” )
Coordinator/Compiler: Raelee Chapman (she contributed “The Gardener”)
Expat credentials: Tay is based in Singapore but was educated internationally. Chapman is an Australian writer living in Singapore.
Synopsis: Leading Singaporean and Singapore-based writers explore the best and worst of the human condition called love, including grief, duplicity and revenge, self-love, filial love, homesickness and tragic past relationships.
How we heard about: Valentine’s Day post by Trip Fiction, replete with travel tips and giveaway
Why we recommend: The writers are a diverse group, including Singaporeans and expats, both Western expats and expats from within Asia, and also established writers and those published for the first time.


behold-the-dreamers_coverBehold the Dreamers (Penguin/Random House, August 23, 2016)
Author: Imbolo Mbue
Expat credentials: Mbue moved from Cameroon to New York City ten years ago.
Synopsis: The story of a Cameroonian couple and their son who settle in Harlem hoping to capture their piece of the American dream amidst the 2008 financial and housing market crisis.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, Heinemann’s African Writers Series and British classics she read growing up, Mbue told one interviewer that she decided to write about what she knows best: the Cameroonian immigrant experience.


monsoon-summer_coverMonsoon Summer (Simon and Schuster, August 9, 2016)
Author: Julia Gregson
Expat credentials: Gregson has worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent in the UK, Australia, and the US. She grew up a military brat as her father was in the Royal Air Force. She has worked as a jillaroo in the Australian outback as well as a model for Hardy Amies in London.
Synopsis: An epic postwar love story moving from England to India. English nurse Kit meets Anto, a young Indian doctor finishing up his training at Oxford. They secretly marry and set off for South India—where Kit plans to run the maternity hospital she has already been helping from afar. But life in India does not turn out as she imagined.
How we heard about: From Tracey Warr’s Location Locution interview with Dinah Jefferies, who said she loved Gregson’s East of the Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India,
Why we recommend: Critics praise Gregson for understanding both the harshness and beauty of India, its land, culture, and history. When researching this novel, Gregson went to Kerala and lived with an Indian family. She traveled in a rice boat up many of the back waters she describes in the book.


still-here_coverStill Here (Hogarth Random House, Aug 2, 2016)
Author: Lara Vapnyar
Expat credentials: Russian-born author Lara Vapnyar moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994 as an adult, picked up English quickly, and started publishing short stories about the daily-life concerns of Russian émigrés like herself.
Synopsis: Vica, Vadik, Sergey and Regina met in Russia in their college days but remained in touch. They now have very different, yet intertwined, lives as immigrants in New York City. The story follows them as they grapple with love and tumult, the challenges of a new home, and the absurdities of the digital age.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: One reviewer has praised it as “minutely observed, razor funny and wholly wonderful.” That’s a spectacularly high endorsement!


this-must-be-the-place_coverThis Must Be the Place (Knopf, July 19, 2016)
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Expat credentials: O’Farrell is a domestic expat of sorts. Born in Northern Ireland, she was brought up in Wales and Scotland, and now lives in Edinburgh.
Synopsis: A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, Daniel Sullivan has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn, and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive French-English ex–film star given to pulling a gun on anyone who ventures up their driveway. Once the most glamorous and infamous woman in cinema, she orchestrated her own disappearance, retreating to the seclusion of an Irish farmhouse. All seems well enough until the couple must struggle to hold things together in the face of a secret from Daniel’s past.
How we heard about: New York Times Book Review
Why we recommend: As one Amazon reviewer says, O’Farrell has created a set of “misplaced and lost characters, searching for an authentic place within themselves.” She notes that their “searching leads to external travels and internal jaunts. They are searching: for love, for connection, for identity, for affirmation, for understanding.”


dancingwiththetiger-_coverDancing with the Tiger (Putnam, July 12, 2016)
Author: Lili Wright
Expat credentials: A former journalist who has lived a year in Paris, a year in Italy and two years in Mexico, Wright, who recently earned an MFA, is now a professor at DePaul University in Indiana. During her many trips to Mexico, she has studied Spanish, lived with Mexican families, and had many adventures including watching dancing tigers parade down the streets.
Synopsis: Anna flees her dead-end life in New York City (she has just broken up with her fiancé) to hunt down what her father, a mask collector, believes to be the death mask of Aztec King Montezuma, from an American looter in Mexico.
How we heard about: A press release
Why we recommend: Wright says she tends to mix French, Italian, and Spanish together, but critics say she gets her cultural references just right in her debut novel, set in Mexico.


intrusion_coverIntrusion (Little A, July 1, 2016)
Author: Mary McCluskey
Expat credentials: Born in Warwickshire, McCluskey lived and worked in a number of cities in Europe—London, Brighton, Vienna, Munich, Athens—before finding a home in Los Angeles, California, where she married and gave birth to two sons. She now lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, twenty miles from where she was born, though still spends time in LA. She considers both LA and Stratford “home.”
Synopsis: A psychological drama about a couple dealing with the hardest of losses: the death of their only child, set against the backgrounds of Southern California and Sussex, UK. The marriage is thrown into a tailspin when the wife’s old schoolmate from England shows up, ostensibly to help the couple get over their grief.
How we heard about: TripFiction interview with the author
Why we recommend: McCluskey has lost a child (an experience a couple of authors on our site have had) and knows how it feels. She also has a nuanced view of the differences between the UK and the US.


the-lovers-portrait_coverThe Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery (Traveling Life Press, June 22, 2016)
Author: Jennifer S. Alderson
Expat credentials: After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, Alderson moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and their son.
Synopsis: In the second of a series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson, Zelda scores an internship at the prestigious Amsterdam Museum, where she works on an exhibition of paintings and sculptures once stolen by the Nazis, When two women claim the same portrait of a young girl entitled Irises, Zelda is tasked with investigating the painting’s history.
How we heard about: Alderson’s first Zelda Richardson novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu, was one of Booklust Wanderlust columnist Beth Green’s three book picks in honor of Mother’s Day this past year. (Notably, Alderson also contributed to Green’s column canvassing several writers on their recommended reads for the not-quite end of summer.)
Why we recommend: The novel draws on the author’s experiences gained while studying art history in the Netherlands and working for several Dutch museums.

Spring 2016

the-girl-and-the-sunbird_coverThe Girl and the Sunbird: A beautiful, epic story of love, loss and hope (Bookouture, June 17, 2016)
Author: Rebecca Stonehill
Expat credentials: Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi with her husband and three children where she teaches creative writing to school children. Synopsis: East Africa 1903: When 18-year-old Iris Johnson is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger, Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land, she bravely decides on the latter. But when Iris meets Jeremy, she realizes in a heartbeat that they will never be compatible. Determined to make the best of her new life, she begins to adjust to her surroundings; the windswept plains of Nairobi and the delightful sunbirds that visit her window every day. And when she meets Kamau, a school teacher, Iris finds her calling, assisting him to teach the local children English.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s interview with Stonehill about her adopted home city of Nairobi
Why we recommend: Many readers compare Stonehill with Victoria Hislop, who has also made our list. Her first book, The Poet’s Wife—based on the 18 months she spent living in Granada—was a big hit with readers.


i-promise-you-this_coverI Promise You This: Book Three in the Love in Provence Series (Lake Union Publishing, May 17, 2016)
Author: Patricia Sands
Expat credentials: A Canadian, Patricia Sands lives in Toronto, but her heart’s other home is the South of France. An avid traveler, she spends part of each year on the Côte d’Azur and occasionally leads groups of women on tours of the Riviera and Provence.
Synopsis: The series follows the adventures of Katherine Price, a sensible Canadian woman who is undergoing a midlife crisis, a symptom of which is falling for a Frenchman named Philippe. She follows Philippe to his idyllic home in Provence but worries it’s a fantasy life. So, is Katherine ready to leave everything behind for an unknown life abroad? We find out in the conclusion to this trilogy about second chances.
How we heard about: TripFiction’s giveaway of Sands’s trilogy
Why we recommend: Sands herself is a good example of second chances, having taken up writing in her 60s. She chose a theme close to her heart: France, which she first fell in love with when she backpacked around the country for a year when she was 21, a love affair that has only grown throughout her life. She considers herself to be a “possibilatarian” and encourages the rest of us to do the same.


the-mirror-thief_coverThe Mirror Thief (Penguin Random House, May 10, 2016)
Author: Martin Seay
Expat credentials: As Seay put it in an interview, one of the sparks that led to the book was his memory of “a couple of misty Lenten backpacker days” in Venice: “at the time and still today the strangest place I’ve ever been.” He now lives in Wheeling, Illinois.
Synopsis: The novel consists of a series of nested stories telling of three Venices in three locations and eras: the Venetian casino in Las Vegas in 2003; Venice Beach, CA, in 1958; and the original city-state, in 1592, the time when its mirror-making industry was at its peak. Seay weaves all three stories together in a tour-de-force.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: The book came out to huge critical praise and has been called, among other things, a “masterpiece,” a “startling gem,” a “beautifully plotted potboiler,” and a “true delight.”


back-to-moscow_coverBack to Moscow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 3, 2016)
Author: Guillermo Erades
Expat credentials: Guillermo Erades was born in Málaga, Spain. As a career diplomat for the European Union, he has held posts in Moscow, Berlin, Baghdad and Brussels, where he is currently based. He has also lived in Leeds, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg. He wrote this book, his first novel, during a two-year posting high-security compound in Baghdad, where there were few distractions.
Synopsis: Martin came to Moscow at the turn of the millennium hoping to discover the country of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and his beloved Chekhov. Instead he found a city turned on its head, where the grimmest vestiges of Soviet life exist side by side with the nonstop hedonism of the newly rich. Along with his hard-living expat friends, Martin spends less and less time on his studies, choosing to learn about the Mysterious Russian Soul from the city’s unhinged nightlife scene. But as Martin’s research becomes a quest for existential meaning, love affairs and literature lead to the same hard-won lessons. Russians know: There is more to life than happiness.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: The novel draws on Erades’s life in Moscow at the beginning of the Putin years. It was his first EU posting, and he was in his twenties. He found it to be a special time: “There was a lot of fun and adventure and a Wild West feeling.” His book is the expat version of a Bildungsroman. He intended it as an ode to the city of his (mis?)spent, as well as displaced, youth, a motive that those of us who spent our formative years in foreign countries can well understand.


amotherssecret_coverA Mother’s Secret: A beautiful, heartbreaking novel of love, loss and hidden tragedy (Bookouture, April 6, 2016)
Author: Renita D’Silva
Expat credentials: Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India.
Synopsis: Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants, struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.
How we heard about: D’Silva’s latest novel was featured in Beth Green’s Booklust, Wanderlust post last May, celebrating displaced female protagonists in honor of Mother’s Day
Why we recommend: D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, about an Indian woman who’d been exiled for more than a decade and is living in London, was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014.


reader-i-married-him_coverReader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre (HarperCollins, March 22, 2016)
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Expat credentials: American by birth, British by geography, Chevalier lives in London with her husband and son. Her first novel, which made her famous, was The Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Synopsis: A collection of short stories by writers across the globe whom she’d asked to respond to the famous opening line of Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” Turkish author Elif Şafak, for instance, contributed a story about an Islamic woman who becomes infatuated with a young Dutchman who has arrived in her town to learn Turkish. Hm, but does she marry him? Linda Grant’s “The Mash-Up” tells of a disastrous wedding between a Jewish woman and a Persian man. (Yes, she did, unfortunately!)
How we heard about: The book release was commissioned as part of the commemorations for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, for which Chevalier also curated an exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Why we recommend: It’s one of literature’s best-known lines, and we love the idea of having it interpreted by a group of global creatives.

Winter 2016

shelter_coverShelter (Picador, March 15, 2016)
Author: Jung Yun
Expat credentials: Yun was born in South Korea, grew up in North Dakota, and was educated at Vassar College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She now lives in western Massachusetts.
Synopsis: The story of young Korean American professor Kyung Cho and his Irish-American wife, which leads to the story of the complicated relationship that Kyung has with his wealthy parents. Kyung’s parents immigrated from Korea to the US as his father went to graduate school in engineering. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: It’s a family drama with a cross-cultural dimension: Kyung chose a white woman in part to distance himself from the rules of his own Korean upbringing, but can he make all of these relationships work?


forty-rooms_coverForty Rooms (Penguin, Feb 16, 2016)
Author: Olga Grushin
Expat credentials: Grushin was born in Moscow but is now based in the United States. She is an American citizen but retains Russian citizenship.
Synopsis: A Russian-born woman aspires to be a poet but ends up becoming Mrs. Caldwell, a housewife and mother in suburban America.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Displaced writer Alexandra Fuller, who made my own list for 2015, was favorably impressed.


ways-to-disappear_coverWays to Disappear (Little, Brown and Company, Feb 9. 2016)
Author: Idra Novey
Expat credentials: Born in western Pennsylvania, Novey has lived in Chile, Brazil, and New York.
Synopsis: A noirish literary mystery with a translator at its center. Deep in gambling debt, the celebrated Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda is last seen holding a suitcase and a cigar and climbing into an almond tree. She abruptly vanishes. In snowy Pittsburgh, her American translator Emma hears the news and, against the wishes of her boyfriend and Beatriz’s two grown children, flies immediately to Brazil and tries to unravel the mystery.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: Novey is an award-winning poet. This is her first novel and it draws on her experience of working as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature.


the-photographers-wife_coverThe Photographer’s Wife (February 2, 2016)
Author: Suzanne Joinson
Expat credentials: For ten years Joinson worked part-time in the literature department of the British Council, traveling regularly in the Middle East, China, Russia, and Eastern and Western Europe. She has worked in and explored Yemen, Egypt, Syrian, Greece, and many other countries.
Synopsis: The casually glamorous Eleanora Ashton scandalizes the British expatriate community in Jerusalem by marrying a famous Arab photographer. But then she falls for William Harrington, a British pilot who is working for the architect Charles Ashton. The affair threatens her marriage, particularly when William discovers that her husband is part of an underground nationalist group intent on removing the British. Years later, in 1937, Ashton’s daughter Prue is an artist living a reclusive life in Shoreham, Sussex, with her son. Harrington arrives and what he reveals unravels her world.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: Like Joinson’s first novel, A Lady ­Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, set in Central Asia, the book is concerned with people who feel displaced; as the New York Times reviewer puts it, “they are looking for a guide, a map, some thread to lead them through the maze of their own lives.”


black-deutschland_coverBlack Deutschland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2, 2016)
Author: Darryl Pinckney
Expat credentials: A black writer from Indiana, Pinkney somehow ended up in the divided Berlin of the seventies and eighties and fell in love with it. Currently he divides his time between New York City, and Oxfordshire, UK.
Synopsis: It’s the early 1980s, and Jed, a young gay black American from Chicago who suffers from an addiction problem, has just finished reading Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. He is inspired to flee to Berlin in the tradition of other black writers and musicians: he hopes to escape American racism and homophobia.
How we heard about: New York Times Sunday Book Review
Why we recommend: For black writers and musicians in the postwar era, Europe’s cultural capitals provided a space for people like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Dexter Gordon, Nina Simone and many others to practice and be appreciated first and foremost as artists, rather than be caught up in America’s race tragedy. Pinkney’s second novel imparts an appreciation for this history.


what-belongs-to-you_coverWhat Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 19)
Author: Garth Greenwell
Expat credentials: Greenwell moved to Bulgaria to teach at the American College of Sofia in 2009. Because of his non-fluency in Bulgarian, he lived “between languages” but claims to have liked that experience.
Synopsis: An American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria is barely able to keep up a conversation in Bulgarian or ascribe concrete value to the leva and stotinki he keeps in his wallet. But then he enters into a transactional romance with a handsome and enigmatic Bulgarian male hustler named Mitko. His love for Mitko remains unrequited, but the relationship forces him to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in.
How we heard about: Made the Publishers Weekly list of most anticipated debut novels of Spring 2016
Why we recommend: As Jeffery Zuckerman puts it in his review for The New Republic:

“Garth Greenwell’s writing is alive to the foreign and the unknown; he opens our eyes to worlds we had not realized existed alongside our own. Even the landscape of Bulgaria, one of the poorest and least-known countries in Europe, is made vivid and vibrant.”


the-expatriates_coverThe Expatriates (Penguin Books, January 12, 2016)
Author: Janice Y. K. Lee
Expat credentials: Janice Y. K. Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong. She received a BA in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard College. A former editor at Elle magazine, Lee lives in New York with her husband and four children.
Synopsis: Lee explores with devastating poignancy the emotions, identities, and relationships of three very different American women living in the same small expat community in Hong Kong.
How we heard about: From the special “Border Crossings” edition of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, focusing on books about global migration.
Why we recommend: As novelist Maggie Pouncey put it in her review of the book, Janice Y.K. Lee is a “female, funny Henry James in Asia.”

* * *

And so we have it: our top picks for displaced fiction that came out in 2016. What do you think, dear reader? Are we missing something you think deserves to be on the list? Kindly let us know in the comments!

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has a section in the weekly Displaced Dispatch where she mentions the latest expat books. Why not subscribe as a treat to yourself during the winter doldrums?

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Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

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.

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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!

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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; 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

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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).

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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.

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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!

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, 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.

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Expat creatives recommend books for the (not quite) end of summer

End of Summer 2016 Reads

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, has canvassed several international creatives for some recommendations of books that suit the various end-of-summer scenarios those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon be in (if we aren’t already!).

Hello Displaced Nationers!

I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, and now I’m wondering what I can do, as summer slides into autumn here in Prague, to bask in those prized last few moments of glory before the days get shorter and a chill enters the air.

I decided to canvas fellow international creatives about the books they would recommend for those of us who are:

  • Striving for one last beach read;
  • Stranded at an airport on our way “home”; and/or
  • Getting back to work/school/reality as autumn sets in.

There was just one catch: I asked if they would please recommend books that qualify as “displaced” reads, meaning they are for, by, or about expats or other internationals and so speak to members of our “tribe” (see ML Awanohara’s contribution below).

And now let’s check out their picks (correction: I should say “our” as I’m a contributor this time)—it’s an eclectic mix, but I predict you’ll be tempted by quite a few!

* * *

JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and writer

TheGoodThiefsGuidetoParis_coverWhen I read on the beach, the story’s got to be light and quirky or it goes back in my tote bag. The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris (2009), by Chris Ewan—or really any of the other four books in Ewan’s popular series of mysteries about a globetrotting thief-for-hire—fits the bill perfectly. I actually dislike the much-displaced Charlie Howard immensely—yet somehow end up rooting for him along the way. An Englishman, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere and travels the world to get inspired to write his next novel—and then ends up involved in criminal activities that mirror his fictitious plots. Each novel revolves around Charlie’s bungled robbery of an artwork or antiquity in yet another famous tourist destination: Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Las Vegas, Berlin… Ewan’s descriptions of each city are spot on and quite beautiful, in contrast to the wonderfully sarcastic tone of the novels themselves. The capers are silly, absurd constructions involving the shadiest of characters, which inevitably leave a smile on my face. I’ve already finished Paris and Amsterdam. The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice is next.

The City of Falling Angels_coverI actually have two suggestions for books I wish I’d had in my carry-on when stranded en route, both set in one of my favorite countries in the world: Italy! A few days before my husband and I set off for a week-long holiday in Venice, I popped into a local secondhand bookstore and spotted John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels (2005). I absolutely loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so I bought it without even reading the description on the back. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out of my suitcase and realized it was all about the same magical city I’d just arrived in! It is an absorbing, magnificent novel that effortlessly blends fact and fiction. (Berendt moved to Venice in 1997, just three days after the city’s Fenice opera house burned down during a restoration—accident or arson?) The fabled city and many of her more eccentric residents form the soul of this book; art, opera and architecture are the main ingredients. Let yourself get lost in Berendt’s unique, almost conversational prose and follow along on his deliciously slow journey through one of the prettiest (and most mysterious) places on the planet.

BridgeofSighs_coverMy other pick is the captivating historical novel, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams (2015), by former expat Pamela Allegretto. The story follows one Italian family through the 1930s and 1940s, when Mussolini and later Hitler ruled the land. It is a sometimes gritty, sometimes romantic, tale of betrayal, intrigue and—above all—survival. The author’s beautiful yet compact descriptions of the landscape, people and culture effortlessly transport the reader to this fascinating and complex period in Italian (and European) history. I highly recommend it.

Whichever of these two books you choose, you’ll wish your flight was delayed indefinitely.

The Disobedient Wife_coverI’ve only read the first two chapters of The Disobedient Wife (2015), by Annika Milisic-Stanley, yet I’m already hooked—and would recommend it for anyone trying to get back into work/school mode. It’s such an eloquent description of the expat experience; from the first sentence I felt as if I was reading a soulmate’s description of how it feels to move on to a new destination after building up a life in a foreign country: we say goodbye while wondering what, if any, lasting impact we’ve had on our temporary homes. [Editor’s note: This book also made the Displaced Nation’s “best of expat fiction” list for 2015.]

The official synopsis reads:

The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid, Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

In the first chapter, Harriet is thinking back to her last post in Tajikistan: about the friends she’d willingly left behind and about her home, inhabited by another family only days after her own departure:

“All traces will be erased until the Dutch tulips I laid last September rise above the earth to bloom in April and pronounce that I really was there. The language, learned and badly spoken, is already fading from my dreams…”

These sentences stirred up so many memories for me of people left behind and as well as adventures past. I sometimes wish I could go back—even for a moment—to all of the places I’ve been in this crazy world and just say hello to the people I once knew there and remind them that I’m still around and do think of them once in a while. I cannot wait to finish this book. [Beth’s note: I did NOT mention to Jennifer that Annika is also participating in this column’s roundup—quite a coincidence!]

Jennifer S. Alderson has published two novels, the recently released A Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery and Down and Out in Kathmandu (2015), which cover the adventures of traveler and culture lover Zelda Richardson. An American, Jennifer lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and young son.


ML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding editor and former expat

Inspired by the new BBC One TV miniseries, at the beginning of the summer I downloaded War and Peace (new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) onto my Kindle. And, reader, I finished it! And now I’m having trouble finding any novels that hold my attention. By comparison to Tolstoy’s masterwork, they all seem too narrow in scope, and their characters aren’t as beautifully developed. Sigh!

Tribe_coverI’m thinking I should turn to nonfiction until the W&P spell wears off. Right now I have my eye on Sebastian Junger’s latest work, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging—which I think could serve any of the purposes Beth has outlined above, though perhaps is best applied to the third condition (getting back to reality). Junger has been compared to Hemingway for his adventure non-fiction and war reporting, but this book is more of an anthropological look at the very human need to belong to a tribe. Though we expats have left our original tribes, I don’t think that this decision eradicates our tribal instincts. On the contrary, we are attracted to tribes of fellow expats; and some of us even find new homes in cultures more tribal than ours—where the people value qualities like loyalty and belonging more than we do in the West.

Junger provides an example to which I can personally relate. Recounting the history of 18th-century America, he says that no native Americans defected to join colonial society even though it was richer, whereas many colonials defected to live with the Indian tribes. They apparently appreciated the communal, caring lifestyle of the latter. That’s how I felt after I’d lived in Japan for several years. I really didn’t fancy returning to my native society, which I’d come to see as overly individualistic and centered on self to the exclusion of little else. To this day (and especially during election years like this one!) I struggle with America’s you’re-on-your-own ethos. Wealth doesn’t necessarily translate into well-being: why can’t my compatriots see that? It’s something I can feel in my bones because of the more tribal life I had in Asia. Could this book help me understand the roots of my displacement?

ML Awanohara, who has lived for extended periods in the UK and Japan, has been running the Displaced Nation site for five years. She works in communications in New York City.


BETH GREEN, Displaced Nation columnist and writer

Hotel_Kerobokan_coverI tend to pick beach books by the setting. So if I am going to the Caribbean, I’ll pick something set in the Caribbean. My last beach destination was Bali, and the book I wish I’d taken with me was Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail (2009), a sharply observed account of life inside Indonesia’s most notorious prison, by Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella. Also great is her subsequent nonfiction title, Snowing in Bali (2012), a graphic look at Bali’s cocaine traffickers. Stories that depict true-life crime in unexpected settings (isn’t Bali supposed to be paradise?) automatically go on my to-read list—but I forgot to pick up Bonella’s book when we were at the airport and then wasn’t able to find in the area around my hotel. I know, most people go to the beach for good weather and strong cocktails; but for me, a holiday isn’t a holiday until I can peel back the veneer and peer at something darker underneath.

The Bat_coverWhat I actually ended up reading was in fact very good—Jo Nesbo’s thriller The Bat, in which he introduces his hard-headed detective Harry Hole and sends him to Australia to pursue a serial killer—but I wish I’d planned ahead and got something that blended with the scenery.

It’s a terrible feeling to get to the boarding gate and realize you don’t have enough chapters left in your book to get you through takeoff. (This is one reason I love my e-reader and try to have it loaded with dozens of books at all times.) For air travel especially, I look for the fattest, longest reads possible.

The Mountain Shadow_coverFor my next long flight, I’m hoping to read Gregory David Robert’s The Mountain Shadow, which came out last year and is the sequel to his equally weighty Shantaram (2003). At 880 pages, this book will take even a fast reader like me a while! Set in Mumbai, India, it continues the story of an escaped Australian prisoner who finds a new niche as a passport forger—but also a better self—in the underbelly of the South Asian crime world. Engrossing and beautifully written, I think it’s the perfect companion for marathon flights. Even if you did manage to finish it mid-flight, you can spend the rest of the trip wondering how close the story is to the author’s real-life history as an escaped convict. Roberts spent 10 years in India as a fugitive after escaping a maximum security prison in Australia, and his first novel, at least, is rumored to be autobiographical.

CatKingofHavana_coverFor the goal of channeling our more serious selves as autumn approaches, how about a fun read by the peripatetic Latvian author Tom Crosshill (he spent several years studying and working in the United States, as well as a year learning traditional dances in Cuba). Crosshill will release The Cat King of Havana (2016) this month. The eponymous Cat King is a half-Cuban American teenager who gets his nicknames from the cat videos he posts online. When he invites his crush to Havana to learn about his heritage and take salsa lessons, he discovers Cuba’s darker side…

Beth Green is the Booklust, Wanderlust columnist for the Displaced Nation. Her bio blurb appears below.


HELENA HALME, novelist and expat

Murder in Aix_coverFor a last hurrah on the beach, I’d recommend Murder in Aix (2013), Book 5 in a mystery series by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, an ex-military dependent who is passionate about France, travel and writing. One of my secret pleasures in life is to settle down with a cozy murder mystery; I also have a passion for the South of France. So when I found The Maggie Newberry Mystery Series, consisting of nine books that featured an expat protagonist-sleuth who solves mysteries in and around Aix-en-Provence, I couldn’t wait to download the whole series onto my Kindle. In the fifth book, Maggie Newberry is heavily pregnant but that doesn’t stop her as she finds herself scrambling to prove the innocence of a dear friend arrested for the murder of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her partner, a ruggedly handsome French winemaker, doesn’t approve of Maggie’s involvement in the case. “It’s too dangerous,” he tells her.

The novel is pure bliss—a feeling enhanced if you can read it by a pool or on a beach, preferably accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé!

TheBreathofNight_coverFor those inevitable airport delays, I’d recommend The Breath of Night (2013), by Michael Arditti, a much-neglected English author. The first book I read by him, Jubilate, said to be the first serious novel about Lourdes since Zola’s, is one of my all-time favorites, so I was delighted when The Breath of Night came out soon after. This is a story of the murder of one Julian Tremayne, a Catholic priest from England who was working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s. Since their son’s tragic death, Julian’s parents have pursued a campaign to have him declared a saint. The story is told partly through letters from Julian to his parents and partly through an account by a friend of the family, Philip Seward, who has gone to Manila 30 years later to find out the truth about the miracles he is said to have performed. Did Julian lead “a holy life of heroic virtue”—one of the conditions for canonization? While telling an intriguing and captivating tale of life in the Philippines, the book provides a broader commentary on love and faith.

TheParisWife_coverWhen the time comes to settle back into your routine, I would suggest a read of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain (2011). It’s a fictionalized story of Hemingway’s first years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s, told from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley, a naive Southern girl who suddenly finds herself suddenly plunged into a life of drunken debauchery in the French capital. McLain’s writing is precise and beautiful; her background as a poet comes through in her careful choice of words. Her descriptions of Hemingway when Hadley first meets him are particularly ingenious:

“He smiles with everything he’s got…”

“I can tell he likes being in his body…”

“He seemed to do happiness all the way up and through.”

It’s a brilliant read that will take you somewhere completely different and keep the challenges (boredom?) of work or school at bay a little longer.

Helena Halme is a Finnish author of Nordic women’s and romantic fiction. She lives with her English husband in London. Her works include the best-selling autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed on the Displaced Nation), its sequel The Navy Wife, Coffee and Vodka (about which she wrote a guest post for us) and The Red King of Helsinki (for which she won one of our Alice Awards). The Finnish Girl, her latest novella, is the prequel to The Englishman.


MATT KRAUSE, writer and expat

A Time of Gifts_coverFor any of those circumstances, I would recommend A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977; reissued in 2011 with an introduction by Jan Morris). At the age of 18, Fermor dropped out of school to walk from the heart of London to Constantinople, and his account of that journey—which started in December 1933, not long after Hitler has come to power in Germany, and ended just over two years later—is hailed as a classic of British travel writing. Hitler’s abuses were not yet evident, and Fermor describes drinking beers with Nazis once he reaches Germany. But I particularly enjoyed his account of a luxurious extended weekend in Geneva (or some city, I don’t remember) with a couple of girls he met along the way. I read this book as part of my research before walking across Turkey in 2012–2013, and really liked it.

Matt Krause is a communications coach based in Istanbul. He is the author of the memoir A Tight Wide-Open Space (reviewed on the Displaced Nation) and is working on a book about his walk across Turkey.


ANNIKA MILISIC-STANLEY, ATCK, expat, painter, campaigner and writer

two more book picks_Aug2016When I am on the beach, I get no longer than half an hour of uninterrupted reading time. For that reason, I took a book of short stories with me this year: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home (2015), which has stories set in the UK, USA, France and elsewhere. Brilliantly engaging, with an amazing use of language, alternately fun and fantastical, this debut, award-winning collection is well worth a read.

Some of you may not be short story fans, in which case I’d recommend The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga. The “white tiger” of the book’s title is a Bangalore chauffeur, who guides us through his experience of the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society. two book picks_Aug2016_515xThe novel won the 2008 Booker, but don’t let that put you off. It is surprisingly accessible and a real page-turner: funny, horrifying and brilliant.

For an agonizing airport wait, I have two suggestions: Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2015) and Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (also 2015). Both feature immigrants describing their former lives, their motive for departure from their countries of origin, and the harshness of life in a new country as illegals.

CentresofCataclysm_coverAnd once you’re back at the desk, I would recommend giving Centres of Cataclysm (2016, Bloodaxe Books) a try. Edited by Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine, it’s an anthology celebrating fifty years of modern poetry in translation—full of beautiful gems from poets from around the world. Profits go to refugee charities.

Raised in Britain by Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Annika Milisic-Stanley has worked on humanitarian aid projects in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. She currently lives in Rome with her family. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe. The Disobedient Wife, about expatriate and local life in Tajikistan, is her debut novel and was named the Cinnamon Press 2015 Novel of the Year. Annika invites you to like her book page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


PAMELA JANE ROGERS, expat and artist/author

Saving Fish from Drowning_coverFor that last trip to the beach, I’d recommend Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). A group of California travelers decide to go on their planned trip to the Burma (its southern Shan State) without their (deceased) travel director, and in their total ignorance of the customs and religion of that part of the world, create havoc—and commit what is considered a heinous crime. I was directing a travel group in Greece when I read it, which may be why it seemed quite plausible, as well as darkly hilarious.

If you haven’t read it yet (though most on this site probably have), an absorbing read for when you get stuck in an airport is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)The Poisonwood Bible_cover, about a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Between the evangelical Christian father wanting his converts to “gather by the river” in Africa for their baptisms, to the chapters written by his wife and daughters at different ages—the reader is in for a rollicking, sometimes absurd, sometimes sad and sobering, ride.

And when it’s time to face work again, I recommend the book I’m reading now: Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul (Springtime Books, 2015), by Madeleine LenaghPassage of the Stork_cover, an American who has lived in the Netherlands since 1970. This is her life story. [Editor’s note: Madeleine Lenagh and her photography have been featured on the Displaced Nation.]

Pamela Jane Rogers is an American artist who has adopted the Greek island of Poros as her home. She has written a memoir of her adventures, which she recently re-published with a hundred of her paintings as illustrations: GREEKSCAPES: Illustrated Journeys with an Artist.


JASMINE SILVERA, former expat and writer

The Best of All Possible Worlds_coverFor the beach I would recommend The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013), by Barbadian author Karen Lord. It’s what many people call “social science fiction” because the story is less obsessed with technological advances than with their interpersonal ramifications. The book opens after a cataclysmic event destroys the home planet of an entire civilization, rendering everyone who managed to be off-world at the time of destruction displaced. It follows the journey of a leader of a group of survivors, who decides to team up with an “assistant biotechnician” to find a suitable replacement home on a colony planet. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time! But it reads a bit like a “he said, she said” travelogue; and one of the two narrators has delightfully funny moments (I’ll let you decide which one). There is humor and sweetness, a bit of intrigue, and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Pilgrimage_coverFor an absorbing read suitable for a long wait in an airport lounge, try The Pilgrimage (1987), by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. [Editor’s note: He was once featured on the Displaced Nation’s Location, Locution column.] I’ll be honest, my experience of the Camino de Santiago was nothing like the one depicted in this book (more technical fabrics and guidebooks, less overt mysticism); but I still find Coelho’s account evocative and moving. Like the work considered to be his masterpiece, The Alchemist, it’s part engaging adventure, part allegory—and a wonderful story. It’s a good one to transport you elsewhere when you’re “stuck” in a place you don’t want to be in.

Committed_coverIf the Way of St. James isn’t your thing, then I might recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (2010) for an absorbing read. I can’t imagine what it would be like to attempt a follow-up to a book that was a huge commercial success, let alone a direct “sequel.” But that’s what Gilbert did with Committed. People love or hate the book for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a good one to stick with, IMHO, because it explores not only the byzantine banalities of bureaucratic regulations (something all displaced persons deal with at some point in their adventures) but also the innermost workings of one’s heart as you navigate knowing when to go and when to, well, commit. And while Gilbert occasionally allows herself to navel gaze in less charming a fashion than in Eat, Pray, Love, overall this book is an honest, thoughtful exploration of what marriage and commitment means in a world of divorce, infidelity, and the “best friending” of one’s partner. The book starts out with a decision made and then backtracks through the process—but it’s the journey that counts, after all. [Editor’s note: Hmmm… Will she write a sequel now that she is divorcing her husband of 12 years?]

Kinky Gazpacho_coverFor getting back into your groove at work, I’d recommend Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (2008), by Lori Tharps. There are relatively few travel memoirs written by people of color, so a book full of observations around how race is experienced in different cultures is a rare treasure. As a black woman from the United States, I have found race to be an intrinsic part of my experience in traveling and living abroad. From being stared at, to being touched, to stumbling on some unexpected bit of exported racism where I least expect it, I would say it’s an oversimplification to think that race is something we only struggle with in the land of my birth (that said, I’ve known a few African Americans whose decision to live abroad was based in no small part on the gravity of the struggle for racial equality in America). Nowhere is perfect, and Tharp explores what happens when the fantasy and the reality collide during her year of study abroad in Spain, as she attempts to reconcile that country’s problematic past with its present. She also extends her adventures beyond those of a traveler to become an expat (this is not a spoiler: she marries a Spaniard). I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but this book resonated with my personal experience of travel and life abroad much more deeply.

A world traveler and former expat who remains a California girl at heart, Jasmine Silvera will release her debut, Prague-inspired novel Death’s Dancer in October (it was recently selected for publication by Kindle Press). Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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Thanks, everyone, for participating! Readers, what books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Under pseudonym A.J. MacKenzie, Canadian expat couple set crime fiction series in 18th-century Kent village

Location Locution Mackenzie
Tracey Warr is back, this time with a Canadian couple who are practically British—to the point where they have even started writing quintessentially British crime fiction! **Who would like to win a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery set in Romney Marsh? Two copies on offer. Details below.**

My guests this month, Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, have written more than twenty non-fiction books between them, on subjects ranging from doing business in China and managing for success (Morgen) to medieval warfare and economic history (Marilyn). They are also the joint authors of The Road to Crécy: The English Invasion of France, 1346.

But today we’ll be talking about a work of fiction they have produced. The Body on the Doorstep is their first novel as a couple—and the fulfilment of a long-held dream. Fiction writing is where their heart lies, and this novel is just the beginning of a planned series featuring a pair of unlikely sleuths: the tipsy Reverend Hardcastle and the widow, Amelia Chaytor.

Marilyn grew up in Ontario, in the suburbs of Toronto, while Morgen’s family come from northern British Columbia. They met at the University of Victoria, where both were studying history, and married two years later, taking two years out from university to work and travel in Europe before returning to complete their degrees. They were determined to come back to Britain and settle there if possible. “From almost the first moment of arrival, I felt at home here,” says Marilyn.

They came back to Britain in 1987, living in London and then for 12 years in Kent before moving to Devon in 2000. After nearly thirty years living in Britain, both are a little confused by the question, “What is it like to live abroad?”

For them, England is home; Canada is abroad, even though both still have strong family ties in the latter. Questions of ethnicity and belonging, for them, are complex. While both feel that Devon and England are home, they are also very much aware of being Canadians, immigrants.

That sense of being an immigrant, of being from somewhere else, was helpful when it came to the two lead characters of The Body on the Doorstep. Reverend Hardcastle knows his smuggling parishioners well, but is well aware he is not one of them. Amelia Chaytor is also an outsider, a widow still bitterly grieving, and craving solitude. The immigrant experience, say Marilyn and Morgen, taught them about the self-reliance and self-sufficiency, qualities they have passed on to their characters.

Growing up in northern Canada in the 1960s, Morgen lived an essentially pre-modern lifestyle without electricity, running water or most of the conveniences of modern life. That, he says, makes it easier to empathise with people living their lives by candlelight and drawing water from wells in late 18th-century England. Whereas Marilyn feels a little displaced: how did a medievalist end up writing novels set in the late 18th century? She is still looking for an answer.

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Welcome, Morgen and Marilyn, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

We had to stop and think about this one, because we couldn’t remember! But probably it was the location, Romney Marsh, because that is so crucial to the book. Romney Marsh is a very distinctive and particular space, a flat open plain jutting out into the sea and fenced off from the rest of Kent by hills. In the early 19th century the Reverend Barham nicknamed the Marsh “the Fifth Continent” because it was so obviously different from the land around it.

This is a historical novel, set during the time of the French Revolution, and the themes involve smuggling, spying and the threat of imminent invasion. You couldn’t ask for a better location for this story; and to a large extent, the location shaped the story and became part of it.
Body on the Doorstep_cover_400x

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your novel? After all, the action takes place long ago.

For us, the key thing is to engage the senses. We like to do more than just describe the visual image of a place. We try to engage as many of the senses as possible, to make the reader feel as if they are actually there.

Sound is vital: the hiss of wind in trees, the suck and roar of waves on shingle beaches, the bleating of sheep, the sound of bees, the rattle of silver in the dining room. Sounds evoke very powerful images, as do smells: of mud, dung, fine wine, perfume, gunsmoke. One feels the glow of a fire, the hot sun on one’s face that causes sweat to break out, the bitter tang of a north wind bearing snow. And taste too: on a stormy day by the sea you taste salt spray on your lips. You taste the food you eat, from stale ship’s biscuit to quails with Madeira sauce. Combining all the senses can make people feel they are part of the scene, not just onlookers, and that is what we try to do.

Also, we tend not to stop and engage in long descriptions of landscape or scene. Most of our descriptions of the landscape/location are made while characters are on the move. Their interaction with the location is key. Those are okay if the landscape or scene is particularly important, or dramatic, but there is always a risk that you will interrupt the flow. We try to introduce a sense of movement into our descriptions.

Ideally, the scene should be dynamic, not static. Even it is just lambs jumping and playing in a meadow, there is something happening so that readers can focus their attention. Just as with the sensory details, the aim is to make readers feel like they have stepped through the looking glass. They are not just watching, they are there, participating.

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

Everything. We’re historical novelists, and everything about people’s lives can be used to give a sense of place, and most importantly, of place-in-time; that is, a particular place at a defined moment in time. So it is landscape, culture, food, dress, methods of transport, housing, drugs, servants, weapons; all the things that tell readers where and when the action is happening.

We also find weather an important scene-setter because weather affects mood so much; it can impact on the mood of the characters, and if we get it right, even the readers. Again, as historical novelists, weather is even more important because, except for the very well-to-do, there was no escape from it. There was no central heating, no rubber boots, no Gortex. People lived with the weather and in the weather, and experienced and felt it far more than we do now.

That said, it is really important not to go overboard and start sounding like an encyclopedia when describing a location. We have a term we use when we think we are indulging in too much description: “Reykjavik”.

Yes, we’d better explain that, hadn’t we? While travelling in Europe on honeymoon, during a very cold winter many years ago, we both read a thriller that happened to be lying around. In the course of the story, the hero is travelling on a plane from Washington to Moscow. Midway through the journey the plane lands in Reykjavik. There then follows a short essay on Iceland, its geography, history, economy, politics, culture and so on, all very accurate and detailed. We waited to see how the story would unfold in Iceland. Instead, the plane refuelled and took off again, without the hero setting foot on the ground! So, “Reykjavik” is code for “interesting detail which does not actually set the scene or advance the story”.
Reykjavic code

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

We’ll offer two, if we may, each of which illustrates a particular way of how we (try to) do it. In the first, the two heroes, Mrs Chaytor and Reverend Hardcastle, are driving back to St Mary in the Marsh. Mrs Chaytor has the reins.

They trotted briskly through Brenzett, and once past the village she whipped up on the long straight to Old Romney. The gig flew down the road, so fast that the rector had to hold onto his hat.

‘What puzzles you now?’ she called over the noise of iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels.

‘Two men died that night, half a mile apart and within five minutes of each other.’

‘I see. You wonder if the two events might be related. Either your killer, or your victim, or both, might have had some connection with the smugglers.’

‘What other reason would either have for being out on the Marsh on the night of a new moon?’

‘I see your point,’ said his companion thoughtfully, shaking the reins and urging the horse to further speed. ‘It does not feel like a coincidence, does it?’

‘Over the years, I have learned to distrust the very idea of coincidence,’ said the rector, clutching again at his hat. ‘My dear Mrs Chaytor, there is a dray in the road ahead.’

There was indeed a dray in the road ahead, loaded with timber and drawn by two plodding horses. Mrs Chaytor touched the reins to guide the pony and, without slackening speed, pulled around the dray on the outside, one wheel running onto the grass verge, and then swerved back onto the road. The driver of the dray, startled out of his doze, yelled abuse after her. The rector stared at his companion, wondering where she had learned to drive. Thereafter he concentrated on holding his seat as they shot through Old Romney at a speed that left chickens squawking indignantly in the road behind them, and raced on towards the coast. Only on the outskirts of St Mary did she slacken speed, and she trotted the gig sedately up the high street towards the church.
Hold your seat Old Romney

Here, we’re trying to keep things moving. The emphasis is on both picture and speed; that’s the dynamic aspect we talked about.

In contrast, here is the scene where a group of smugglers are ambushed on the Marsh:

From somewhere up ahead there was a hissing noise, like a snake preparing to strike. Suddenly light exploded across the Marsh, an eerie, shivering, unearthly blue light that showed the scene before them in garish contrast. The light glowed off a column of men making their way silently across the Marsh, masked and hooded men with weapons cradled in their arms. Nearer at hand, other men crouched in the grass or in a ditch, their own weapons levelled.

The imperative here is different. Something very violent is about to happen. The scene is deliberately static; we give you detail of what you can see, so that you have it clear in your heads before everything explodes. We use the blue light of the flare to make the scene shocking and disturbing.

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

Very well, but not too well. You have to know it well enough to appreciate its distinctiveness, for your purposes, the things that make it stand out. That means visiting the place, of course, and not just driving through it. It is really important to get out and walk the ground, get your boots dirty, as anthropologists say. Look at the landscapes and the buildings, and talk to people: they will give you all sorts of details you will find nowhere else.

As historical novelists, we also need to get to know that place-in-time, which means stripping away the veneer of roads and bridges and power stations and housing estates and trying to work out what the places looked like in 1796. Documentary sources are a great help with this, as are maps. For example, Romney Marsh today is crossed by modern, tarmacked roads. In our period, as the geographer Hasted writes, apart from the high road from Appledore to New Romney and on to Dymchurch, most roads on the Marsh were distinguished from their surrounding fields only by the presence of a fence on either side.

But you can get to know a landscape almost too well. Again, there comes the urge to describe it in such intimate detail that you lose sight of the story. When that happens: time to call “Reykjavik!”

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

Lindsey Davis does a marvelous job with ancient Rome. Fountain Court, where her detective hero, Falco, lives, comes alive; we can see it, and hear its sounds, and smell its smells (she is particularly good with smells). Dorothy Dunnett made the Scottish borders feel like an old friend long before we ever visited them; years after first reading The Game of Kings, walking in Yarrowdale we expected to see Lymond and his horsemen sweeping over the hills. Dick Francis makes you absolutely feel like you are on the back of a horse. Andrea Camilleri evokes Sicily in the same way that Donna Leon evokes Venice; reading their books, you can close your eyes and you are there. But the master is Tolstoy. Be it a battlefield, a ball or a sleigh ride in a winter forest, he does it with both artistry and craft. He puts you there, in the middle of it all, as a participant. One can only admire.

Fave Books Mackenzie

AJ MacKenzie’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marilyn and Morgen, for your thoughtful answers.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marilyn and Morgen? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about A.J. MacKenzie, you can visit their author site and blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

BOOK GIVEAWAY***********
I have two free copies of A.J. MacKenzie’s new novel to give away to the first two readers to send the correct answer to the question: How many wheels does an 18th-century gig have? Please email your answers ASAP to traceykwarr@gmail.com
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À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be a Finnish novelist who lives in England, and writes about the future.

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Thank you so much, Tracey! I love the way AJ MacKenzie bring the past alive in the Kent marshes. And to think, they are both Canucks! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

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 supplied by the authors or downloaded from Pixabay, with the exception of: Two Gigs in Trouble, a painting by Thomas Rowlandson, located at Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)..

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Deborah Lawrenson’s latest novel is inspired by the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast—plus she’s giving away a copy!

Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the novelist Deborah Lawrenson, who started out life as a diplomatic kid (in America we call them “foreign service brats,” with “brat” being used in a good way). **NOTE: Deborah is giving away a copy of her latest book, 300 Days of Sun. Details below.**

My guest this month is British novelist Deborah Lawrenson—who, as the child of diplomatic service parents, was displaced from an early age, spending her childhood moving from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Deborah worked as a journalist in London, the highlight of which was working under gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, until she built up her confidence to start writing novels. She has now produced eight, including:

  • The Lantern, a modern gothic tale set in the lush countryside of Provence, in the tradition of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca; has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club (watch discussion HERE).
  • The Art of Falling, which was chosen for the prestigious WHSmith Fresh Talent promotion (2005)—set mostly in Italy, past and present.
  • The Sea Garden, consisting of three novellas set in southern France.
  • Songs of Blue and Gold, a love story set in a lush, richly imagined Corfu, inspired by the life of British writer Lawrence Durrell (incidentally, ITV recently screened a hit drama series based on the Durrells’ expat life in Corfu).

Deborah’s latest novel, 300 Days of Sun, which came out in April, is an atmospheric tale of spies and lies set in Portugal.

Deborah lives in Kent with her husband and daughter—though the family spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in the Luberon region of Provence, France.

* * *

Welcome, Deborah, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

In the case of my new novel, 300 Days of Sun, it was definitely location (though this isn’t always the case with my books). I went to Faro, in southern Portugal, to accompany my 17-year-old daughter when she enrolled in a two-week Portuguese course in the town. While she got to grips with a new language, I wandered around the old town with my notebook and camera, and let my imagination flow. Once I was inspired by the setting, I began to research the history of the country—and was drawn to the fascinating years of the Second World War when Portugal, as a neutral country, was a cauldron of intrigue, spies, enemies, opportunists and double-dealers. Since then, the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast has become known as a wonderful, friendly place to spend time in the sun—three hundred days of it a year—but there have been some dark events there too, in particular, a notorious case of child abduction.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

I’m quite a visual person, so I will always try to paint a vivid picture of the landscapes and immediate surroundings of my characters. Recently someone very kindly—and perceptively—told me that when I evoke a sense of place, it should more accurately be termed “the senses” of place. That is what I try to do: to write sensuously, to make the narrative conjure up the sounds and feel, and the smells, of the story. It’s the details that help the reader feel immersed in a place or time, and I do carefully research to make the transportation as accurate as possible.

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

It’s all of these. You could argue that they are all interlinked anyway, as the culture of a place develops from its unique landscape. Whether that’s the harsh pragmatism of a people scratching a living from the soil of the Provençal uplands, or the geographical situation of Portugal that made it an historically outward-looking seafaring nation and the last escape hatch of Europe during WWII, the physical attributes of a place will influence the character and achievements of its inhabitants. If there was one unifying factor in the novels I write, it would probably be that. And food is simply another aspect of it: fish by the sea; cheese in the mountains from the goats and sheep that are the most viable form of livestock; endless variety in the melting pots of the great cosmopolitan cities.

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

Here are a couple of paragraphs setting the scene in Faro, from the opening pages of 300 Days of Sun:

“My first few days in the country, I was astonished by how many Russian tourists there were here, chattering in the shops and streets. Then I realised: to the uninitiated, Portuguese sounds like Russian. The language is nothing like the soft singsong of Spanish or Italian. The sounds shush and slip around like the shining, sliding cobblestones under your feet.”

“The temperature was climbing. The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges. I walked down to the ferry, needing to get out over water to catch some fresh wind. As the boat ploughed through green salt marshes, I did breathe more easily.”

"The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara..."

“The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara…”

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

Obviously, knowing a place well will give a novel real depth, as I hope I achieved in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, both set in the South of France, which is my second home. However, I do think it’s possible to visit somewhere relatively briefly but to look hard and use what you see as the basis of a setting, so long as you do some decent research as well. After all, the characters in a novel might only visit a particular place once, and in that case, first impressions will be very useful.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah's second home.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah’s second home.

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

For me, Lawrence Durrell is the undisputed master. I also love the way Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier combined evocative locations with romantic suspense.

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

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

Thanks so much, Deborah.

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

And if you would like to discover more about Deborah you can visit her author site and blog, where she writes not only about her books but all things inspired by the South of France. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
Deborah is offering a free copy of her new novel as a prize. To enter the competition please “Like” Deborah Lawrenson’s Facebook page. Then find the link on her page to this interview and enter a comment underneath.
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À bientôt! Till next time when my guests will be a Canadian husband and wife team who write novels together about a pair of unusual sleuths in an 18th-century Kent village, and who are themselves displaced inhabitants there.

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Thank you so much, Tracey! I note that one of the Channel 4 reviewers raved about Deborah’s first book for its “extraordinary description of place and descriptions of smell”; and readers have asked her if they can get the perfume, Lavande de Nuit, she describes in that work. (As it turns out, it exists only in her imagination!) —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

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 supplied by the author, apart from those of Kuwait and Cambridge, which are from Pixabay.

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