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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.

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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.

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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!

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 Irish countryside, supplied; other photos via Pixabay.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Doreen Brett’s creative life as an expat in Holland


At a moment when I feel far from the madding crowd myself despite being in a big city—it’s Memorial Day weekend in the United States, when most New Yorkers flock to the beach—it’s my pleasure to welcome new columnist Doreen Brett to the Displaced Nation. She was introduced to me by former Culture Shock Toolbox columnist Hélène (“H.E.”) Rybol: they met in Singapore, where they were roommates for a while.

Like Hélène, Doreen grew up among several different cultures. Her grandparents emigrated from India to Malaysia, and the family spoke English as their first language. While based in Malaysia, she attended school in Singapore.

Doreen’s horizons widened still more once she reached adulthood. A few years ago, she moved to the UK with her British husband; they now make their home in the Netherlands.

Doreen loves exploring wild, remote places—and it’s this passion of hers that has inspired her column, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” From next month, she will be interviewing expats who have chosen to live in some off-the-beaten-track locations. Did the experience lead to cultural immersion, and in what ways did it foster creativity?

To kick off the series, Doreen has agreed to have me pose to her the same series of questions she plans to ask other international creatives.

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Welcome, Doreen, to the Displaced Nation! I understand you grew up in Malaysia but were educated in Singapore. How did that come about?

I was born in Johor, the Malaysian state on the Straights of Johor, which separates Malaysia from the Republic of Singapore. When I was six years old, my parents decided to send me to school in Singapore, since my family was English speaking and schools in Malaysia tend to teach only in Malay. My parents were influenced by a neighbor of ours, a close family friend, who was the principal of a school in Singapore. She spoke very highly of the city-state’s educational system. In any event, that’s how I came to living in one country while attending school in another! Every morning I would wake up at 5:00 a.m., sit sleepily on a yellow school bus and travel across customs. Once school finished, I would make my way home again, through immigration checks. As a child, it became second nature for me to keep my passport in my pocket, for daily use. It marked the beginning of what has thus far been a life of travel.

What brought you to your current location, the Netherlands?

My husband is British. We moved from Singapore to his native UK to live and work. We lived in his home town, Billericay (a small town in Essex, not far from London), for a few years before moving to London to avoid the commute to work. We only recently moved to a small city in the Netherlands, again for work.

Those of us who have been Third Culture Kids or repeat expats tend to gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” How did you find life in Singapore as compared to in Malaysia?

When I think of Malaysia, there is very much a community feel to the place and the people. You always know your neighbors; family and friends drop by without any notice (and are readily welcomed with a snack–every house always has snacks prepared for impromptu visits); and weddings are celebrated on a large scale–500 people is a small number. In fact, the further you get from the city, the more of a village feel there is and the more you will experience these community bonds. Rather than finding your “tribe”, the tribe will find you and welcome you with open arms! Singapore, by contrast, is very much a global city, with all the conveniences such places have to offer, including a vast variety of food choices available day and night, efficient and safe transport links, and of course, a plethora of cultures living in one space.

Once you moved to the UK, you went from living in a small town to living in London. Which did you prefer?

To be honest, coming from a background that values community, I felt alienated in both locations. If only I had known about the Displaced Nation then, I would have realized there was nothing unusual in my reluctance to head out into what I perceived was an unfriendly environment. Even when I moved to London, a place where virtually everyone is “displaced”—it is very much a global city—I still felt this disconnect. Being in a global city does not guarantee a sense of companionship and belonging. You can be in a room full of people and still feel alone. It was only when I took steps to reach out, and get past cultural differences, that I began to find people I could connect with. And while city life is of course convenient, and there are always things to do, I found that I never got any space to myself, to just BE.

How do you feel about your latest “home”?

Where I live in the Netherlands is much quieter than the flat we had in London. It’s a complete switch in lifestyle. Like a detox of sorts. I absolutely love it. All in all I have to say that I love being outside of global cities. On the surface, cities have more people and hence provide more opportunities to connect with others; but I think that relationships forged in communities outside the city limits will trump this any day.

How do you keep from feeling isolated?

I do not feel isolated, no matter where in the world I am. I always have a small, steady group of friends and family I can turn to—my global tribe.

I understand you enjoy writing. Do you foresee that in your current location you’ll be able to nurture your creativity?

Being in the Netherlands gives me time to pursue my creative interests and the opportunity to develop my writing. Currently I am working on writing a fictional piece, and of course my protagonist travels, and I am embellishing the tale with the flavours of the different cultures I have experienced.

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

I’ve only just moved to the Netherlands, so I would like to stay put for a bit. Fingers crossed that this move goes well!

Thank you, Doreen!

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

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

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

Photo credits:
Opening collage (bottom to top): Sultan Ibrahim Building, Johor, Malaysia, by Bernard Spragg via Flickr (CC0 1.0); Singapore, by Neils de Vries via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Bellericay High Street, by Steve Hancocks via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Picadilly Circus, by mrgarethm via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Doreen Brett feeling happily displaced in Holland as the sun is shining (supplied). Sea image is from Pixabay.
2nd visual: Madi + Pika // Reception, by Azlan DuPree via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
3rd visual: Oxford Street in London 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:

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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.

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, take the measure of the new location first and, as far as reentry goes, pack a roadmap


Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is here with her final guest in her Culture Shock Toolbox series. We’ll miss her, and her column, dearly but wish her well in starting a new life in Montreal. (Hélène, don’t be a stranger!)

Happy April, Displaced Nationers!

For my last Displaced Nation column, I’d like you to meet Cate Brubaker. Some of you might know her from her website, Small Planet Studio, which focuses on addressing re-entry challenges. As the banner announces:

MAKE GOING HOME
THE BEST PART OF GOING ABROAD.

Cate first experienced reverse culture shock as a teenager when she returned home after spending a year as an exchange student in Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All she could think about was going abroad again. She majored in German in college so that she could spend a year abroad in Stuttgart, and then she became an English teacher after graduation so that she could spend another year abroad. Her next move was to enter graduate school, which, because she was earning a PhD in German Applied Linguistics, gave her the perfect excuse to continue living and traveling abroad.

As much as she thrived on her time overseas, Cate had a lingering feeling that something wasn’t quite right. She began asking herself questions like:

Who am I if I’m not living abroad?
What does “global” mean to me at this point in my life?
What’s most important to me right now?
Who am I and what do I want?
What is it about traveling and living abroad that makes me feel so alive?
If I move abroad again, what do I want the experience to be like?

It took some time, but she finally resolved her re-entry issues and is now helping her fellow global adventurers thrive before, during and after they go abroad. Toward that end, she recently published The Reentry Relaunch Roadmap: A Creative Workbook for Finding Happiness, Success & Your Next Global Adventure After Being Abroad. As the title suggests, it’s designed to help expats navigate reverse culture shock but still retain their love for the global life.

Cate’s other creative projects include a website launched last year called International Desserts Blog, where she invites visitors to join her as she bakes her way around the world (she offers two free e-books,  Easy Mini Tarts and European Christmas Cookies); and a young adult novel that she just started writing. Although fiction, it is heavily based on her year as an exchange student in Germany.

Cate kindly took time out from her busy life to share some of her culture shock and reverse culture shock experiences with us.

* * *

Hi Cate, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox! Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I’ve lived in Germany for four years as well as in three very different regions in the US. I’ve also worked, traveled to, and had extended stays in many other countries within Europe, Central and South America, and Australia.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

So many times!

Any memorable stories?

Here’s one I’ll never forget. I was enrolled in a German university, and it was the beginning of the semester. My literature professor announced he was trying to organize a weekend class trip. He went around the room asking our opinion of the plan, and when he got to me I said “I don’t mind” in German…or so I thought. From my classmates’ gasps and chuckles, and the dismayed look on my professor’s face, I realized that the phrase I’d used had came off as sarcastic and flippant rather than relaxed and agreeable. Oops!

How did you handle the situation?

I tried to quickly rephrase and hoped that they’d forgive me as I wasn’t a native speaker. The problem was that by that time, my German was pretty good, which meant that people who didn’t know me well would assume I meant exactly what I said and was in control of my tone.

Looking back, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse? Why do you think that was?

Not so much particular situations but I was able to finesse my overall approach. Before I went abroad the second time, I made a conscious effort to reflect on the challenges I’d encountered during my first stint abroad and how I could do better in future.

If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

I guess I would tell them to take out their tape measures. Don’t judge until you take the measure of what’s going on and have more information—and you’ll also need to figure out culturally-appropriate ways to gather that information.

Yes, and sometimes you have to get used to a new way of measuring things, literally as well as figuratively.

If the shoe doesn’t fit at first, don’t worry! It just means you need to take the measure of your new location.

Let’s move on to reverse culture shock, which has had such a big impact on your life.

It was simultaneously easier and harder than I expected. Easier in that I actually enjoyed the first few weeks of being back home with my friends and family. I easily adjusted to the visible aspects of reverse culture shock (food, language, cars, etc). I had a much harder time with the invisible aspects I felt but couldn’t articulate.

I like that you make a distinction between the visible and invisible aspects. Feeling conflicted seems to be at the heart of most re-entry experiences. Do any of your reverse culture shock experiences stand out for you?

There was one that occurred when I first returned home after a year abroad a teenager. As my family sat down at the table for our first dinner together after my return, I found my brother sitting in “my” seat. He tried to convince me that it was “his” seat at the table, as he’d been sitting there all year. I got really upset and ran off to my room. Through my tears, I kept telling myself, “It’s just a chair, it’s no big deal”; but in my heart it felt like a really big deal. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but that one experience summed up how I was feeling in re-entry…as though I no longer fit in with my family and friends or at “home” in general. My life back home felt a size too small. I was conflicted because, while I was happy to see everyone at home, I missed the life I’d led in Germany. I was also questioning everything: my identity, my future plans, friendships, expectations…everything!

Did you develop any tools to handle these feelings?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any tools or people to help me navigate re-entry or reverse culture shock, so I didn’t handle it as well as I could have. I mostly relied on the so-called 3 Cs: crying, complaining, and contemplating my escape. 😉 That’s ultimately why I created the Re-entry Relaunch Roadmap workbook. I want other global adventurers to have an easier time than I did!

Indulging in the 3 Cs? Then it may be time to invest in Cate’s creative workbook!

What kinds of tools do you offer in the workbook?

At the beginning of the workbook, there are several activities that focus on things like feelings, identifying reverse culture shock coping skills, finding a way to reframe re-entry into something you find appealing, reflecting on how being abroad has changed you, intentionally creating a support ecosystem and an adventure passport, and much more. The rest of the workbook helps you find your unique Global Life Ingredients, which you can then use as a compass for identifying your best next steps. Readers have told me that going through the workbook felt like having a friend guide them step-by-step through re-entry—I love that!  

I really like the idea of reflection as a reverse culture shock tool. By delving into the facets of our experience that enriched us, we can go from being a collection of loose patchwork pieces to becoming a beautiful patchwork quilt, strong seams and all! Thank you so much, Cate, for taking the time to share your experiences with us. Oh, and when you mentioned ingredients just now, it made me think of your new international desserts blog. Hm, can you pass me a slice of that Bienenstich (German Bee Sting Cake) before you go?

* * *

How about you, Displaced Nationers? What are your Global Life Ingredients? Let us know!

And if you like Cate’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her website, Small Planet Studio, where she occasionally blogs and also holds (online) events for expats and travelers who are looking to find their next global adventure. While you’re at it, don’t forget to check out her creative workbook on repatriation. You can interact with Cate on Small Planet Studio’s private Facebook page or on Twitter. Oh, and don’t forget those international desserts! Finally, Cate is serving as a Webinar coordinator for Families in Global Transition (FIGT) so would love to hear from you have an idea for one. Please contact her at webinars@figt.org.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” for a good long while as I bid farewell to this column…but not to the Displaced Nation! (Thanks, ML.)

Prost! Santé! Thank you all for being such great readers!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Photo credits: All photos supplied or from Pixabay, apart from the “complain” photo in the last collage: [untiled], by ttarasiuk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to generate more writing ideas than you can handle (expats, you have an advantage!)

Diary of an Expat Writer
It’s been much too long since we’ve heard from Shannon Young, an American expat in Hong Kong who recently achieved her dream of becoming a full-time writerThose who have been following her diary from the beginning won’t be surprised to learn that she’s been extremely productive in the interim. About to finish her five-book fantasy adventure series and begin the next, she shares some proven methods of generating story ideas.

Dear Displaced Diary,

Forgive me for letting so much time pass since my last entry. As you can probably guess from my previous entries, I’ve been busy! Nearly a year ago—on April 1, 2016—I published the first book, Duel of Fire, in my second fantasy series, called Steel and Fire. It’s a five-book series, whereas my first series, Seabound. was a trilogy. As the title suggests, I’ve been writing an adventure series; the Seabound books are dystopian fantasy. Also, from the start, the Steel and Fire novels have done much better than my first set, which I hope can be taken as a measure of my success as a budding writer.

The last time I wrote you, I was about to finish Book Three in Steel and Fire. I’d also set myself the goal of launching Book Four by the end of 2016: achieved! Then in January I wrote the rough draft of the fifth and final Steel and Fire novel.

As I wrap up this series and gear up for the next, I thought it might be an opportune moment to tell you about how I get my writing ideas—something we haven’t really gone over before.

Here are my four main techniques for generating story lines:

1) Draw on life experience to build a new world.

As a science fiction and fantasy author, I am challenged over and over again to build a world that is different to everyday reality.

Expats like you and me have a serious advantage. We have literally transplanted ourselves into a new world already. Viewing people, customs, vocabulary, clothing, and architecture as a newcomer or outsider already puts us in the mindset for developing a compelling world for our stories.

The more you work with a world, the more you can push the boundaries beyond what you already know about it. It’s not so much creating a world as it is excavating one—an idea I lifted directly from Stephen King’s On Writing. As King says, it’s easier to expand upon and discover ideas than to think them up cold. Build outward from an initial concept, and the ideas almost write themselves.

In my dystopian Seabound series, for example, I chose a post-apocalyptic ocean setting and developed my ideas from there. I gave the characters entire vocabularies that revolve around nautical terms. All of my similes had to be relatable for people who have lived on the ocean for sixteen years. “Salt” and “rust” became swear words. I created an oil rig that is a central meeting place, versus a market.

2) Don’t forget about the story—and the power of contrast in telling it.

As anyone who’s written fantasy will know, it’s easy to get so bogged down in the details of a world that you forget about the actual story. Travel writers know this, too: it’s not enough to describe a cool place. You have to take your readers on a journey through it.

One way to come up with a story idea is to set up an inherent contrast. Two characters from different social classes fall in love. A by-the-book detective has to work with a rogue. A normal girl teams up with a paranormal being/secret agent/feisty old woman to defeat a bad guy. Use the built-in tension of contrasting characters to help figure out what your conflict should be. Again, starting with the seed of an idea and building outward is easier than thinking up a whole story from scratch.

3) Read other books for inspiration.

Another way to think up story ideas is to seek inspiration in other books. You shouldn’t copy another author’s ideas, but reading an engaging story can be a great way to get the juices flowing in your own mind. For example, you might be sitting by the fire enjoying the school antics of Harry Potter when—BAM!—you think to yourself: what would it be like if the whole thing took place at a boarding school in space? There’s your idea. Bonus points if you can bring an old idea into a new setting— think Firefly’s country western in space or iZombie’s murder mystery series with a zombie sleuth.

You can also get fiction ideas from reading non-fiction. You might be enjoying the latest expat memoir about your soon-to-be adopted home when it occurs to you things could get really interesting if someone got murdered or an EMP destroyed the electrical grid in the middle of the expat author’s adventures. Don’t be afraid to take someone else’s plot and add a new twist. Just run with it!

4) Live with a cold idea for a while, until it heats up.

I come up with my very best ideas while I’m working on other projects; but what happens when you have a general idea of what you want to write about, and you’re not sure how to move forward? How do you get more specific ideas on which to build a story? My favorite method is to walk around with the idea for a while. It helps if you can give yourself some parameters, such as “I want to write about a murder in the city where I live.” Don’t think too hard about it; just go about your daily life occasionally remembering that you’re looking for a particular story line. You may find that you see or overhear something that connects with the question in your head and hits you straight between the eyes with a great story idea!

This method works for problems within stories as well. Often the necessary solutions will come to you when you least expect them, but only after you give yourself an initial question to mull over. (This is why getting ideas in the shower is common among writers.) Don’t forget to keep a notebook handy so you can capture those ideas the moment they arrive.

Okay, your turn!

In closing, I’d like to pose a question to the readers of this diary entry. What are your tried-and-true methods of coming up with story ideas? Do you usually start out knowing what you’re going to write or discover it along the way?

Happy writing in either case!

And thank you, Displaced Diary, for your continuing encouragement!

Yours,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
www.jordanrivet.com

* * *

Shannon, it’s great to have you back at the Displaced Nation, and once again, I’m impressed by your ability to convey so many helpful ideas for the rest of us would-be book writers. You are what the Japanese side of myself would call a sensei, a compliment rarely bestowed on one so young! ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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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.”

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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?

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, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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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:

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

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

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

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

the-glass-room-collage-w-quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

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

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

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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).

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: From Hong Kong’s dreamy harbour to Dublin’s gritty streets—Displaced Reads for the end of autumn!

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! For this month’s column, Beth Green —perhaps understandably given the political turbulence in the United States (where she’s from) and Europe (where she lives)—is having an escapist moment.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

It’s the most beautiful time of year in Prague—the golden peak of autumn. The trees outside my window have turned various shades of yellow and red, and the air brings a nice crisp bite that has me reaching for gloves and a scarf while also relishing the thought of an afternoon or weekend morning spent reading!

Now, I’m one of those readers who picks a different book for every mood, meaning I usually have more than one book on the go at a time. Lately, I guess I’ve been feeling romantic—or perhaps escapist, as ML out it in her intro—because I kept coming back to, and finally finished, two books by fellow Displaced Nationers that focus not only on wanderlust but, ahem, other lusts.

Both are books I’ve had on my reading list for months, and shame on me for not getting to them sooner!

shannon-young-ferry-tale

Ferry Tale, published by our own columnist Shannon Young in February, invites the reader to a meet-cute in Hong Kong, one of my all-time favorite cities.

The story follows the fate of American singer Katrina. She has fled all the way to Hong Kong to get away from an embarrassing incident that unfortunately was videoed and went viral on YouTube. In her heart of hearts, she knows that she can’t run away from the Internet, but her desire to shed her past compels her to lie to the handsome Canadian-Hong Konger banker she meets on the city’s iconic Star Ferry. To throw him off her track, she gives him the name of a local Instagram star, whom she closely resembles. It’s a tale of mistaken identities and misplaced hurt that resolves itself in a satisfyingly sweet finish.

I loved how Ferry Tale lets us explore Hong Kong through the eyes of newcomer Katrina while also providing an insider’s perspective through the characters she encounters. Author Shannon lives in Hong Kong, and her love for her adopted home shines through in her writing.

And do I even have to say that I enjoyed the romance, which was tender, funny and charming? Three cheers for true love found on a ferry! (Shannon, I know you have a dashing half-Chinese husband. How much of this was based on your own experience?!)

alli-sinclair-midnight-serenade

Meanwhile, Alli Sinclair‘s Midnight Serenade, which I mentioned in a previous column under its Australian title Luna Tango, was released worldwide this summer. Part of Alli’s Dance Card series (another title, Under the Spanish Stars, launches in December), Midnight Serenade whisks the reader off to the late-night dance halls of Argentina in a story line that alternates between the present and post-WWII.

Australian journalist Dani is getting over her recent heartbreak by immersing herself in research about Argentine tango—the dance that stole her mother, Iris, away from her when she was small. Iris ran away to Argentina, leaving Dani in the care of her grandmother, and subsequently became one of the country’s most famous professional dancers. Once in Argentina—and with the help of smoldering Carlos— Dani learns to love the dance she has always hated—and in the process uncovers a deadly family history.

Before reading this book, I didn’t know much about tango or about Argentina, but Alli provides enough context to give the reader both a sense of the most passionate of ballroom dances and what is like to live in this part of the world—not only in Buenos Aires but also in the country’s rural areas. Alli has the travel creds to pull this off: now living back home in Australia, she used to work in South America as a mountain and tour guide.

shamini-flint-inspector-singh

But, readers, by now you should know that, although I enjoy reading the occasional romance, in fiction I generally turn to mysteries and detective novels for slightly darker escapes. One of my recent reads has some of both: Singapore-based author Shamini Flint‘s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution, which came out in April. This is the seventh of Flint’s books featuring the dour Sikh Singaporean detective, Singh. As I mentioned in a previous post, our hero Singh travels in almost every book (each book takes place in another international locale), and this time he is being sent to dreary old London (his very first visit) as part of an international officer exchange. Oh, and one more new twist: his wife is determined to accompany him! She says she wants to come along to shop for souvenirs and visit previously unknown relatives, but she also decides to serve as his sidekick!

Inspector and Mrs. Singh, we learn, are not the most romantic of couples. Like most South Asians, they had an arranged marriage and fell into their traditional roles, with each spouse inhabiting completely separate spheres.

Inspector Singh’s assignment is to provide a cultural bridge for the Metropolitan Police to better investigate a cold case involving the murder of a young Asian woman. While he works the case, he thinks his wife is out shopping at Harrod’s and meeting her cousins for tea. And she is—but she’s also determined to help him in the investigation, whether he wants her to (or knows she’s doing it) or not. Their adventures infuriate each other—while also drawing them closer together.

Mrs. Singh’s antics, along with the inspector’s Poirot-esque point-of-view chapters, provide a comical overlay to the rest of the well-planned plot, which is comfortably dark, touching as it does not just on murder but also on home-grown terrorism and stalking. Another feature of the book I very much enjoyed was the portrayal of London through the eyes of the sardonic Singaporean inspector.

tana-french-the-trespasser

And, seeing as we’ve just passed Halloween season, which never fails to put me in the mood for a psychological thriller or two, I’d like to share one more book that I was able to tick off my to-be-read list recently—by my favorite Irish author (and fellow ATCK) Tana French (I wrote my very first column about her!). As mentioned earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to get ahold of the sixth book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser, which came out this month.

All of the books in French’s series follow the squad of murder detectives serving the Irish capital, but each book picks a different protagonist, with a similar but slightly rotating cast of secondary characters. The Trespasser is told from the point of view of Antoinette Conway, now the squad’s only female detective. She and her partner (we’ve met them both in other books as minor characters), Stephen Moran, are called out to investigate a domestic violence case, but then it turns into such a tangled mess, they’re not sure they’ll be able to stay on the squad when it’s finished.

The book plays with different variations on the theme of trespass. Conway feels like an outsider at work, and Conway’s own family history involves boundaries she isn’t sure how to—or if she wants to—trespass herself. Likewise, the victim and the culprit both trespassed on each other’s lives in different ways before the murder.

Like French’s other books, this one is deeply atmospheric. Dublin in January is one of the best places I can think of to set a mystery. I tried something different with this novel—I listened to the audiobook version instead of reading a paper or e-book. I don’t think I’ll continue getting audiobooks, but for this title in particular it was a nice experience. The narration was done by an Irish voice actor, and the accents did bring the setting to life.

* * *

Before I bow out, a quick peek at some of the displaced reads on my Kindle now:

A Lover’s Portrait, by Jennifer S. Alderson: Gripping so far—and when can I plan my next trip to Amsterdam?!)
Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul, by Lisa Morrow: I’m excited to get this deep look into Istanbul, a city I’ve visited only briefly. And I enjoyed the two interviews with Lisa that appeared on this site recently.
Coins in the Fountain: A Midlife Escape to Rome, by Judith Works: It just got a great review from Kirkus—“Armchair-travel books are rarely as good as this one”.
Murder in G Major, by Alexia Gordon: After The Trespasser I craved another mystery set in Ireland—I can’t get enough!

How about you, Displaced Nationers? What’s on your Kindles for late fall? And do you have an opinion to add to the Kindle/old-fashioned print debate that ML raised in the last Displaced Dispatch? Plus let’s add audio books to the mix! We’d love to hear from you in the comments…

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!

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

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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.
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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!

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

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