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LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh looks back on a year with TDN

jill 3One year ago, Displaced Nation asked me to conduct a series of regular interviews with writers on their use of location. Place is vitally important to my writing and that of my colleagues at  Triskele Books . It’s our USP. After a year of interviews with authors from Brazil, America, South Africa, Ireland, France, India, Hungary/China, I’m looking back.

First, I’ve selected ten of favourite answers, on how these writers approach weaving literary magic carpets to transport readers to Bombay or Berlin, Syria or Odessa.
Secondly, I’ve added five of the most books that held me spellbound; works which make place a character in its own right.

Happy Anniversary!

Which came first, story or location?

 Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis:
“I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.”

Charlotte Otter, author of Balthasar’s Gift:
“The two are intertwined. When the first images began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.”

 

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Chris Pavone, author of The Expats and The Accident:
“I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pet. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Something such as spying.”

JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult, and The Rise of Zenobia:
“With great difficulty. In writing Tristan and Iseult I evoked the wet and wind the British know only too well. I’ve always lived on the coast, though in the north, not Cornwall (Kernow), but those salt winds and perpetually grey skies are the same. The Rise of Zenobia is based in 3rd century Syria, and I’m finding that much harder. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.”

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

Amanda Hodgkinson, author of Spilt Milk:
“All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.”

Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa:
“For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.”

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

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

AD Miller, author of Snowdrops:
“You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.”

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

James Ferron Anderson, author of The River and the Sea:
“Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch. ‘The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.”

Share an extract from your work which illustrates place.

Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, on Geneva’s Water Fountain:

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric charges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

Books I’d recommend for use of location:

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In next month’s Location, Locution, our guest will be Jessica Bell, an Australian expat living in Greece, who writes fiction, advice for authors, and makes music too.

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

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Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Charlotte Otter – South African expat and crime writer living in Germany

charlotte otter

Author photo: Charlotte Otter

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Charlotte Otter, a South African crime writer who lives in Germany.

Charlotte has worked as a writer since leaving university. Balthasar’s Gift is her first novel. It was published in Germany in 2013 as as Balthasars Vermaechtnis, by Argument Verlag mit Ariadne, a Hamburg publisher that focuses on crime fiction by women. It is also available as an e-book, published by Culturbooks. The English version will be published in June 2014 by South Africa’s Modjaji Books.

Charlotte blogs at Charlotte’s Web and takes coffee breaks on Twitter (@charlwrites). She is presently working on her second novel – an eco-conspiracy called Karkloof Blue.

When she is not thinking up ways to kill people, Charlotte is a corporate hack, mother of three, reader, traveller, feminist and optimist. She is happily married to the love of her life.

Check out her author site.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?
The two are intertwined. When the first images for Balthasars Vermaechtnis began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg, often informally abbreviated as PMB. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I wrote a blog post a few years ago called I am from, and someone said to me they would love to read a novel with those elements in. I realised that my childhood memories of monkeys in the garden, chameleons on a bush and eating granadillas off the vine were not everyone’s memories and that some of them could be put to good use in landscaping a novel.

Which particular features create a sense of location? You’ve mentioned animals and fruits. Is it landscape, culture, food, all of the above?
All of the above. However, as I’m sure all writers say, they have to serve the story. The elements of location have to be sprinkled through the story with a light hand, serving to shine a light on the narrative and not distracting from it. Huge chunks of location, just like huge chunks of ill-disguised research, serve to pull the reader out of the story and that’s the last thing a writer wants. I try to be sparing and frugal with my detail, but at the same time apt. Location details are highlighters or amplifiers of the core narrative, never the story itself.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
In my case, I knew it very well. I would never be brave enough to set a novel in a place I didn’t know, because I would be nervous about making mistakes and looking like an idiot. For me authenticity is everything.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?

The city centre hummed with Saturday shoppers carrying glistening bags full of summer bargains from the fashion palaces on Church Street, gangs of teenagers flirting with each other, pavement hairdressers giving people their weekend dos. Radios blared, taxis hooted and added to the chaos by swerving across lanes, risking the lives of their passengers and all pedestrians. She dodged one self-styled ‘Road Warrior’ and swore. The driver leant out of his window and winked at her. ‘Calm down.’ Was this a message from the universe? Or had all the town’s taxi drivers ganged up to irritate her with their insistence on her remaining serene and tranquil?”

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I think Barbara Kingsolver is a master of location. She is the best nature writer I know and she mostly sets her novels in rural surroundings. She does an incredible job of evoking a sense of place through her deep, abiding love of nature.

I Am From
I am from Africa. I am from blue skies, tropical breezes, and sunshine on my back. I am from tall trees that throw great shadows. I am from monkeys in the garden and a chameleon on a bush. I am from mountains that rarely see snow, beaches with huge waves, sharks behind the shoreline. I am from banana plants, sugar-cane and mealies. I am from huge moths and flying ants. I am from humidity, from thunderstorms that build up as black towers in the sky, and rain so hard it hurts my skin.

I am from eating outside. I am from the intense smell of a slightly under-ripe naartjie that I pick from its tree, dig open with dirty fingernails, and devour despite the sourness. I am from plucking granadillas off the vine and greedily sucking the juice. I am from braai meat, salad and crunchy white rolls. I am from mussels gathered from the sea.

I am from lucky beans. I am from a hoary old magnolia tree that bursts forth luscious, vanilla-scented blooms that decorate the Christmas table. I am from a red-brick house that looks out over trees and a hot town. I am from black and white tiles that cool hot summer feet. I am from the smell of dogs being washed. I am from the sound of Zulu hymns as I fall asleep.

I am from Marmite sandwiches. I am from a schoolbag digging into my shoulder as I walk home. I am from the smell of an over-chlorinated swimming-pool in my wet hair. I am from giggling. I am from eating all the cookie mixture. I am from marathon card games. I am from the thwack of tennis balls. I am from kissing boys.

I am from little brothers playing cricket on the lawn. I am from long car journeys. I am from beach holidays. I am from sand in my hair, from fairy gardens and dreaming I can fly. I am from blonde people. I am from children go to bed early. I am from fragrant grandmothers and laughing aunts. I am from a funny dad. I am from a little brother who shared my nightmares. I am from a mother who said, “You can do anything.”

Where are you from?

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Next month’s Location, Locution:  Incredibly, it is now a year since Jill wrote her first “Location, Locution” column! In next month’s post, Jill will pick some of her favorite responses from her interviewees.

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

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Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: James Ferron Anderson, weaver, glassblower, soldier – and award-winning novelist

Author photo – James Ferron Anderson

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews James Ferron Anderson, author of  The River and The Sea.

James was born in Northern Ireland, and worked there as a weaver, glassblower and soldier. He eventually had children, moved to Norwich, UK, studied at UEA, and began to write in different forms, including poetry, short stories, plays and, more recently, novels. One of his first short stories, The Bog Menagerie, won the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. He won an Escalator Award winner for I Still Miss Someone, and a Writers’ Centre Free Reads Award winner. The River and The Sea won the Rethink Press New Novels Award in 2012, and was published in November 2012.

The River and The Sea is set in British Columbia. James is currently working on Terminal City, set in Vancouver. While he’s visited British Columbia and Vancouver many times (his once estranged brother lives there, but that’s another story) he has never lived there.

Visit his website at jamesferronanderson.com.

Which came first, story or location?
Location, and more so as I continue to write. I’ll stick with Terminal City, the novel I am currently working on, but it applies equally to The River and The Sea. I was already studying the history of British Columbia, and focusing on Vancouver, when I read that Errol Flynn had died there. It was the human touch that caught my attention: once flamboyant athletic actor reduced, much against his will, to selling his last possession of any worth, his yacht. Shattered, riddled with diseases, looking like seventy instead of the fifty he actually was, he dies. But if my head had not already been filled with images of Vancouver from its lumber town days in the early 1900s to its evolution into the city of glass it is today I may not have found myself, I would say unintentionally, making up stories based around a Flynn-type character.

Politics and mores are as an integral part of a location as are its streets or hills. It was what I knew of the political aspects of this West Coast city in the 30s and 40s that determined that Terminal City would be a crime story. I wanted that mixture of danger and timidity that noir provides: the lure of the forbidden and the pulling back from it. I’d say location determined the form, feel and nature of the book. The rest was my regular desire to tell stories of how people need each other, hate each other, love each other and dispense with each other.

Simply put, it begins with location, finding an interesting event and/or person in that location when I’m not knowingly looking, and getting hooked.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I think finding myself writing a story set in Vancouver (and it felt like finding more than choosing) was a just a wonderful gift. For a start, almost no one in the book was born in the city. They have a past at variance with their present, having come there from across the world for their own purposes. They are testing it, examining it, seeing what they can get from it. Will they be satisfied with what they’ve found? With the people they become over the twenty years of living there from 1939 to 1959? It makes the city, like the Thompson River in The River and The Sea, a protagonist in the book.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Vancouver is a mild-weather city with plenty of rain. For noir it knocks LA into a cocked hat. It’s a city on a great bay so there are beaches, ships pass in and out visibly and constantly, there are well-forested and, for large parts of the year, snowy mountains rearing up just across Burrard Inlet. The wild and magnificent outdoors is no more than half an hour away, even in 1959.

Vancouver is a port, and more culturally mixed than an interior city. It’s in the far west of the continent: the final destination, like it or not, for the drifter or seeker after a better life. A large Asian presence leant, certainly in the period of which I am writing, a feeling of tension to nightlife, whether justified or not. My desire to use all that shaped the story.

Buildings matter. I have old all-wood housing from when Vancouver first laid down its streets side by side with the rise of its first multi-storey offices: a city in flux, home to people from elsewhere, also in flux, looking for roots and stability, looking for meaning too in the aftermath of a war.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I couldn’t imagine locating a story in a place I didn’t know well. I was relishing knowing Vancouver more and more anyway. To set a novel there was an excuse to know it better again, from visiting, diving into the City Archives on-line, to examining Google Earth Street View for hours. Plenty, then. I want to make what I write correct as well as relevant to the story. That doesn’t mean that very much of what I know has to go on the page. I read a comment that Colm Toibin in writing his novel on Henry James, The Master, wore his learning lightly. I want to know everything that’s relevant, and more, and use it lightly. The tip of the iceberg theory.

There are tricks also. Why would a local person wonder or remark on anything like the view or the tram tracks in the streets? I feel description has to grow out of incident and dialogue in the narrative. The first person narrator of Terminal City has, in the 1939 scenes, only lived in Vancouver for a year and is still coming to terms with it. He can wonder and notice and remark a little more freely and yet, hopefully, realistically. In 1959 he can reflect on changes, good and bad.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?

The River and The SeaFrom The River and The Sea:

‘Snow was falling and visibility down to a few feet. We stopped in the afternoon and managed to light a fire and had tea and sugar. In a break in the snow Harry saw a raven. That meant there were caribou, and on the move.’

‘It did, did it?’

‘For a certainty, Harry said. We crossed a frozen lake, for easier walking, and came back onto the river. The wind was unrelenting. Even on the lake it took us four hours to make a couple of miles.’ Edward drank his tea. This was the most talking any of us had done for a long time. ‘We found a little clump of spruce. We ate some of the hide matting for the first time, but neither of us slept from the cold and the need to keep the fire going.’

It’s a narrative told to inform someone else and, almost incidentally, informs the reader. The intention was to convey their location as a site of cold, hunger and desperation, but it had to be an integral part of the story, not a piece of description standing to one side.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Charles Dickens in Chapter Three of Great Expectations uses the weather to bring alive his location when Pip runs in the morning to meet Magwitch.The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me.’ Wonderful stuff that took me to that location so effectively I still picture it. Anton Chekhov is marvellous for both countryside and city. Yalta is so alive, so liveable-in, in Lady With a Lapdog. W.G. Sebald, not a favourite writer of mine, is nevertheless someone whose ability to put me in his location I much admire.

 

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews Charlotte Otter, South African author – now living in Germany, whose homeland provides fertile fictional soil.

 * * *

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

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Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Andrea Cheng, award-winning children’s author

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Andrea Cheng, award-winning author of  books for children and young adults.  

Cheng’s first novel, Marika, was selected by the city of Cincinnati for “On the Same page,” a citywide reading program.  Honeysuckle House, Anna the Bookbinder, and Shanghai Messenger received Parent’s Choice Awards.  Grandfather Counts was featured on Reading Rainbow. Where the Steps Were, the first book that Cheng has both written and illustrated, received starred reviews in both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. The Year of the Book, a Junior Library Guild selection, was reviewed in the NY Times and was followed by The Year of the Baby (2013 May). Cheng’s most recent title is Etched in Clay.

Some of Cheng’s books draw on her background as the child of Hungarian immigrants as well as the background of her husband, the son of immigrants from China. Others draw on the lives of her children growing up in inner city Cincinnati where she and her husband now live.  Andrea studied Chinese at Cornell University where she received a Masters degree in linguistics.  She and her family have traveled to both Budapest and Shanghai to get to know their extended families.

Which came first, story or location?
I think character comes first in my writing, followed by location, atmosphere, etc.  Plot or ‘story” come later.  I usually start with a character at a particularly salient moment in a specific place, and go from there.

Year of the Book

Cover art: The Year of the Book, by Andrea Cheng

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I have to have spent a fair amount of time in a place before I can evoke the atmosphere.  I have to know how it smells and tastes and looks and feels.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Everything!  I think I focus a lot on language, the way people talk. I think it would be very hard for me to write a story that takes place in a location in which I cannot speak the native language of the people who live there.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This is from my chapter book called THE YEAR OF THE FORTUNE COOKIE, coming out with Houghton Mifflin in May 2014.  It is for grades 3-6.  The main character, Ana Wang, is in Beijing:

It starts to rain.  The sky is almost dark, and the air smells like gasoline and charcoal.  We turn down an ally and wind our way behind some buildings.  “This is my home,” Fan says finally, opening a door with her key.

Inside the light is dim.  Her brother is watching television and her mother is cooking on a hot plate.  “This is my friend from America,” Fan says.  

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I have to have spent time in the place and I have to understand the language of the people there.  The more time the better.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, Lowland.  Although I think the book has some problems, I love her sense of place.

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews James Ferron Anderson – weaver, glassblower, soldier, and now writer.

 * * *

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

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Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Amanda Hodgkinson, author of “22 Britannia Road” and “Spilt Milk”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Author photo – Amanda Hodgkinson

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Amanda Hodgkinson, author of 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk.

Born in Somerset but raised in a village on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, Amanda has childhood memories of  shingle beaches and mudflats, grey-green heather, salt marshes, messing about in boats, gangs of rowdy kids playing all day along the sea-walls, and the ever-present cries of seagulls.

As an adult, she moved inland to Suffolk. She took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and after the MA, she and her husband, with two young daughters, upped sticks and bought a property in south west France. She intended to write a novel but spent the first few years of their new life mixing concrete to fix their house. She also had to learn French, settle her daughters into school and deal with the ups and downs of living in a country miles away from friends and family. Finally though, the family made a home in France. And she finished the novel…

22 Britannia Road became an international bestseller. Spilt Milk came out in February 2014 (Penguin Books) and a novella Tin Town (Grand Central Penguin US) will be published this summer. Meanwhile Amanda has begun work on a third novel. You can find out more about Amanda at her website, www.amandahodgkinson.com

Which came first, story or location?

With Spilt Milk, I was inspired by a location. I was visiting friends in rural Suffolk. It was late October, that lovely, damp time of year when the smell of leafmould is everywhere in the country. We went walking and ended up on the banks of a small river. I knew there and then that I wanted it to be the location for my next novel. I was amazed by the stillness of the place. The river had a timelessness to it. I suppose the slow moving waters suited the themes I was interested in writing about – the passing of time in families, the stories we keep and the ones we allow to slip away from us. By the time we’d walked back home, I had the beginnings of the novel in my head.

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

When I am writing about a time and a place I find evoking colour, smell and the sounds of that place help create mood. I know it’s considered old-fashioned to use landscape to create mood and emotional intensity but I not only love writing which evokes emotion in that way, I also believe there is a strong connection between our identities and the geographic landscapes we inhabit.

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

All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.

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

In the following passage set in 1970, Nellie, who is a very old lady, watches her family as they picnic together by the river that she has known since she was a small child.

SpiltMilkNellie sat in the shade of summer-green willows, watching the procession of men, women and children making their way down to the riverbank, one after the other, their hands drifting through the day’s fragile bloom of field poppies, all the new-born crimson petals falling at their touch.

Slowly, the murmur of voices, the greetings and talk turned to seasons remembered, harvests and ploughing, days long gone. They discussed winters whose legendary harshness were in retrospect to be marvelled at and even doubted a little, particularly this deep in the year when the barley fields were pale gold and in the distance beyond the farm, the village with its church spire shimmered into the vagueness of a heat haze.

Black and white farm dogs lay low, eyeing Tupperware boxes of sandwiches and sausage rolls. The transistor radio announced cricket scores. A tartan rug was spread out by the bulrushes, and a baby in its frilly white knickers and matching bonnet wriggled and laughed while the women cooed over her. Sunburnt men sprawled in the grass with bottled beers, straw hats tipped low across their brows. Oh, heavens, Nellie thought, eyeing the new baby. And how did I get to be so old?

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

A place can inspire a novel but I don’t think it is necessary (at least not for me as a writer) to know a place intimately before I begin a story. It is a starting point and as both my books have been set in the past, my research has also been looking at photographs, old films and reference books.

It feels liberating to be able to know a landscape physically and than allow it to become a place of the imagination. I recently wrote a historical novella for an anthology and spent a day exploring an old World War Two airfield which I then used as the basis for the story. While I stuck very closely to the layout of the airfield in the story, I still had to imagine how it must have been back in the 1940s. As in my novels, the landscape was a starting point for my fiction.

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

Lots! Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Paul Harding, Marilynne Robinson, John Steinbeck, Robert Macfarlene, Tracy Chevalier, Jane Smiley, to name a few.

Author bio and photograph from Amanda’s website

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews Andrea Cheung, whose Hungarian/Chinese heritage informs her multicultural prize-winning children’s stories.

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_(75_of_75)JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Chris Pavone, author of “The Expats”, on why story and location are inseparable

Cover art "The Accident; Author photo Chris Pavone; Author photo JJ Marsh

Cover art “The Accident; Author photo Chris Pavone; Author photo JJ Marsh

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews author Chris Pavone, whose  first novel, The Expats, was published in 2012, and was a New York Times and international bestseller, with nearly twenty foreign editions and a major film deal.

The Expats was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Macavity, and awards from the Strand Magazine Critics Circle, the Mystery Booksellers Association, and the International Thriller Writers. It received the 2013 Edgar Award and the 2013 Anthony Award for Best First Novel.

Pavone’s new book, The Accident, will be published in March 2014.


Which comes first, story or location?
For some books I think the story and location are inextricably intertwined: the story is about the location. My thriller The Expats is one of those, defined by taking place in a country that’s not the protagonist’s home. The plot is driven by this situation, by her sense of disassociation and isolation, by the necessity of her reinvention.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pets. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Something such as spying…

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
On the written page, I think the clearest evocation is via the physical landscape, especially when it echoes the culture. New York is the big brashness of skyscrapers and noise; London is the polite order of elegant uniformity; Rome is cheerful dilapidated chaos.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
As much as my characters. If they’re only in a city for a day, they don’t know that much about the place, and I don’t need to either. Both The Expats and my next book, The Accident, use a variety of locations, and the amount of time the characters spend in placesLuxembourg, Paris, the Alps, Amsterdam, London, Zurich, Los Angeles, etc.is roughly proportionate to the amount of time I’ve spent there.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
This is the final sentence of The Expats . . .

Kate watches them merge into the flow of the dense crowd, all the streetlights and lamplights ignited in the Carrefour de l’Odeon, a little red Fiat beeping at a bright green Vespa that’s weaving in the traffic, the policeman oblivious while he continues to flirt with the pretty girl, cigarette smoke wafting from the tables filled with wineglasses and tumblers and carafes and bottles, plates of ham and slabs of foie-gras terrine and napkin-lined baskets of crusty sliced baguette, women wearing scarves knotted at the neck and men in plaid sport jackets, peals of laughter and playful smirks, hand-shaking and cheek-kissing, saying hello and waving good-bye, in the thick lively humanity of early night in the City of Light, where a pair of expats is quickly but quietly disappearing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Hemingway was not only a master of evoking location, but also of using physical atmosphere as emotional metaphor. Empty barges on the Seine can represent a lot more than just boats.

Next month on Location, Locution:  award-winning author Amanda Hodgkinson.

 * * *

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

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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RANDOM NOMAD: Liv Gaunt, Accidental Serial Expat and Feeder of Sharks

Place of birth: Luxembourg
Passport: UK
Overseas history: England (Sevenoaks, Kent): 1981–98); Turkey (Fethiye, Ölüdeniz, Fethiye again): 1998–99, 2001–02, 2004; Kenya (Watamu): 1999–2000; Egypt (Dahab): 2000-01, Bahamas (Nassau and Family Islands): 2002–03; Barbados (Bridgetown): 2004–05; England (London): 2006–10; Australia (Cairns, Brisbane, Esperance): 2011 – present. (Gosh, I feel like a serial expat listing so many places!)
Occupation: Journalist and scuba instructor
Cyberspace coordinates: The World is Waiting — Expat humour, travel tips, handy hints, photos and inspiration for travellers (site); @worldswaiting (Twitter handle); The World is Waiting (Facebook); WorldsWaiting (Pinterest); and Liv G (foursquare).

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
Though I am fond of Britain, I left because I was seeking work as a scuba diving instructor and underwater photographer. The jobs available overseas offered a better diving experience and a better lifestyle. Photographing sharks, filming turtles, and teaching people to dive in an island paradise conditions are not things you can do in Britain.

Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
My parents were expats in Luxembourg, which is where I was born. For a few years my father was based in Barbados for work, so I guess it runs in the family — but nobody other than me is displaced at this moment.

Your chosen profession of diving and underwater photography has led you to settling, at least for a time, in quite a few different countries. Tell me about the moment when you felt the most displaced.
I believe it is the people who make the place. I feel most displaced when I am surrounded by people who do not treat others with what I consider to be the most basic level of respect — basically, as they would wish to be treated. Discovering cultural differences can be fascinating; but living with discrimination day in day out is frustrating and awful. Living in Egypt I found it really frustrating that men would not take me seriously simply because I am female. They completely disregarded the fact that I had more experience and was more qualified than they were. Of course I understand there are significant differences between Arab and Western culture. But being in a male-dominated industry (scuba diving) in a paternal society (Egypt) was simply not for me.

Was there one specific moment during your time in Egypt that catalyzed this feeling for you?
No, I think it was more the growing realization that I would never be taken seriously.

Describe the moment when you felt your least displaced — i.e., when you felt more or less at home in one of your adopted countries.
The first time I lived somewhere other than with my parents, was in Turkey in my late teens. I took on the responsibility of earning enough to pay rent, bills and to feed myself — and it was all in Turkish. It was a classic example of me diving in at the deep end, so to speak. As a result, I quickly gained a working knowledge of the Turkish language as well as an understanding of the country, culture and its people. Initially I thought that my Turkish friends would be horrified by my near constant butchering of their language. But they only ever encouraged me — and even nicknamed me “the Turkish-English girl.” Nowadays, whenever I visit Turkey I feel very at home there. I don’t have the normal visitor’s questioning of things. I still have quite a few Turkish habits like always removing my shoes indoors, being quick to hit the horn whilst driving, and showing hospitality to visitors.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Turkey: An evil eye. Evil eyes are so-called, rather misleadingly, as they are believed to ward off evil. They are usually made from glass or ceramics and are often seen hanging over entrances to offices and people’s homes.
From Kenya: Some beaded sandals made from leather and old car tyres. They are the most comfortable sandals I ever had.
From Egypt: Egyptian hibiscus tea. They serve it warm with a classy piece of foil over the top of the glass!
From the Bahamas: Pink sand from Harbour Island. All Bahamian sand is silky soft and impressive frankly but on Harbour Island it is even more beautiful for being a dusky pink.
From Barbados: An amazing reggae soundtrack.
From Australia: Can I bring a quokka? They are small marsupials, a bit like a large-bottomed mini-kangaroo. I find them endlessly amusing.

And now you are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Starters: A huge plate of Turkish meze including filled filo pastries, various dips, Turkish bread, olives, cheese and some köfte.
Main: Bahamian conch fritters — the conch will be fresh from the sea and delicately fried — served with lime coconut dip and salad.
Dessert: An Australian pavlova, covered in fresh fruit.
Drinks: To include Caribbean piña coladas and mojitos, and Turkish cherry juice.

It would be a strange meal perhaps, but very tasty!

I wonder if you could also add a word or expression from one of the countries you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation argot.
Ubuntu, which is an African ethical philosophy. Nelson Mandela explained it thus:

A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?

Your life thus far has been quite an odyssey. You’ve traveled to 42 countries and lived in six. Do you think of yourself as a travel pro?
I don’t consider myself a professional traveler. To me, that term implies that I am paid to travel, which is certainly not the case. I am inspired to continue traveling to new places because I enjoy learning about people’s lives and cultures, and seeing the world through their eyes. I find the different foods interesting as well. Travel also allows you to see where you have come from in a whole new light.

What’s still on your bucket list?
Oh, it’s endlessly growing! Top of the list currently are the Philippines and the Galápagos.

But you are a professional scuba diver. Did you watch the diving events in the London Olympics?
I wasn’t able to watch most of the Olympics because of the time difference between Australia and Britain and a recent spate of overtime at my job. However, to answer your question, no, I have little interest in competition diving. I am not a competitive person generally and rather believe that at the end of the day the only person you ever truly compete with is yourself.

What made you so certain you wanted to be a scuba diver?
I enjoy interacting with the creatures of the deep. Watching as a shark cruises out of the blue towards you, having a curious manta ray investigate you, or sharing a moment with a cheeky turtle is far more fun to me than being faster or more coordinated than someone else. I also enjoy the challenge of capturing the underwater critters on camera.

As it happens, this week marks the 25th anniversary of Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s longest-running programming event. The purpose is to draw the attention to the shark species, one third of which is at risk for extinction. (We must all stop eating shark fin soup — up to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins!) I understand that you love to video and photograph sharks. Is that the riskiest thing you’ve done under water?
Most people would say the riskiest thing I have done underwater is feed sharks. It’s not about thrill-seeking, though, but about providing divers with an up-close encounter, which I think is the best way to educate people about and ultimately protect the sharks.

But while you are a shark lover, you have an aversion for sea urchins. Why is that?
If you ask me that question, I have to assume you have never accidentally brushed past one and received an ankle full of their bloody painful spines?!

But have you ever eaten uni in a Japanese restaurant?
No. I love sushi but haven’t managed any sea urchin yet. Have you, is it good?!

Readers — yay or nay for letting Liv Gaunt into The Displaced Nation? Is she above water or is there something fishy about her application? (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Liv — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s compendium of books on travel to Tuscany.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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img: Liv Gaunt videoing a shark feed in the Bahamas.

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