The Displaced Nation

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


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

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following six have won high accolades:

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

Mawer has also written two nonfiction books:

* * *

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

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

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

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

the-glass-room-collage-w-quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Nik Morton draws from his nomadic expat life to author genre fiction

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her very first interview guest, the extraordinary Nik Morton. (Nik, thank you for giving the Displaced Nation a shout-out in one of your recent posts!)

Hello, readers. This month we have the delight of discovering how Nik Morton, a British-born resident of Spain who is also a prolific author, handles location, locution.

Although Nik has fifty years of writing experience, having sold hundreds of articles and more than a hundred short stories, he came late to being a published author. His first novel, a western, came out in 2007. This year he will publish his twenty-second book—Catacomb, the second in his Avenging Cat crime series. (The first was Catalyst and the third will be Cataclysm. All are named for the series’ protagonist, the Avenging Catherine Vibrissae.)

In addition to this contemporary crime series, which he publishes with Crooked Cat (there’s that feline theme again!), Nik has written:

  • westerns (Black Horse series, under the pseudonym Ross Morton, published by Robert Hale)
  • fantasy (co-written with Gordon Faulkner under the pseudonym Morton Faulkner, published by Knox Robinson)
  • Cold War thrillers (the Tana Standish series, which Crooked Cat will reissue).

Nik has run writing workshops and chaired writers’ circles, and has been a magazine editor, a publisher’s editor, and even an illustrator. His writing guide, Write a Western in 30 Days: With Plenty of Bullet-Points!, is said to be useful for all genre writers, not only writers of westerns.

Spain, where he currently lives, was the inspiration for the stories collected in Spanish Eye.

Spain is one of several inspiration sources for the well-travelled writer Nik Morton.

Nik was displaced, incidentally, long before he and his wife retired to Alicante. He spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit many exotic places—among them Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also travelled widely in his private life, giving him a wealth of places to draw on in his works in addition to his current home of Spain.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

This is a tough question, and the answer is ‘it depends’. For my seven western novels, the character and the story came first; the location for each required research for the period and the State, usually Dakota Territory.

Yet location definitely comes first for my Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish: The Prague Papers, The Tehran Text and the third, a work in progress, The Khyber Chronicle. Each adventure in the series is based around actual historic events, so the location is crucial.

I’ve always hankered after writing about exotic places, and as you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel widely, both privately and with the Royal Navy. My wife and I lived for 20 months in Malta and out of that location emerged a cross-genre novel, a modern-day vampire romantic thriller, now out of print.

We’ve visited Tenerife on five separate occasions and from that evolved my romantic thriller, Blood of the Dragon Trees.

Having lived in Spain for over 11 years, I’ve absorbed quite a bit about the politics and crime situation here and have had 22 short stories published set in Spain, collected in Spanish Eye—exploring the human condition as seen through the eyes of Leon Cazador, half-English, half-Spanish private eye, written ‘in his own words’.

For my latest crime series about ‘the avenging cat’, Catherine Vibrissae, the story definitely came first: but the exotic locations were a close second—Barcelona (Catalyst), Morocco (Catacomb) and Shanghai (Cataclysm).

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

Place is important in almost every scene; I want the reader to see the characters in the scene, so the place needs to be described in relation to them. Character point of view can provide an emotional appreciation of the scene too. The rugged, inhospitable High Atlas of Morocco, for example, can be strengthened by the character experiencing the intense heat and the almost preternatural silence of the place.

Technique: be there, in the scene. Of course you can’t overburden the story with too much description, but the weather, the flora and maybe even fauna, the landscape as character, all have their input at various times. If I can’t visualise the scene through my characters’ eyes, then there’s little chance that the reader will. I may not always succeed, but that’s what I strive towards—using all of the character’s senses.

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

All of the above, depending on the dramatic content of the scene. People have to eat to live, so it’s natural that my characters eat from time to time. I don’t want to labour the point for the reader, but if I simply wrote ‘Corbin ate a meal at the hotel and then went out,’ then we’re in the realms of ‘tell’ not ‘show’; which has its place from time to time, but perhaps mentioning some particular food can make it more ‘real’ and show more of the character, such as:

Stomach full with Chili de Sangre Anaranjada, Corbin read the local newspaper in the hotel lounge, allowing the beef and pork to digest. He had complimented the chef, a Swede by the moniker of Iwan Morelius. Apparently, Morelius had been on the staff of Baron Ernst Mattais Peter von Vegesack, who had been given leave to fight for the Union. While the baron returned to Sweden after the war, Morelius stayed and Mr Canaan, the hotel manager, was vociferously proud of his culinary acquisition.

—From The $300 Man, by Ross Morton (p. 84)

Culture is definitely relevant if the story takes place abroad—whether that’s Prague or Shanghai. And we’ve already touched upon landscape, which can become a character that tests individuals to the limit.

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

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton's imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak[https://www.flickr.com/photos/cruisebuzz/8158748971] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton’s imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Blood of the Dragon Trees, Laura has come to Tenerife to teach a couple of Spanish children. I wanted to create an ambiance while moving her through the story. She is waiting for Andrew Kirby, a mystery man who attracts her:

Clutching her Corte Inglés shopping bag, Laura arrived at the square about fifteen minutes early and, as usual, the adjoining roads were jammed with delivery trucks and a variety of taxis: Mercedes, Toyota, Seat, Peugeot. She was lucky and grabbed a café’s outdoor table with two vacant chairs. She sat and politely fended off the attentive waiter, explaining in Spanish that she would order when her friend joined her. Friend?

In the meantime, she waited, idly studying the antics of the men at the taxi rank in front of a series of phone booths. One of them was pushing his car along the rank, rather than switch on the engine, as the row moved forward. The taxis sported a colorful and distinctive coat of arms.

Sitting on the corner of the street was a blind man selling lottery tickets. She doubted if that would be possible in any town or city in England; the poor man would be mugged in seconds.
Most of the people at the other tables appeared to be businessmen and women, though there were some exceptions. An overdressed elderly woman sat with her Pekinese dog on her lap, feeding it biscuits while sipping her Tío Pepe. At the table next to her, a large bull of a man was glancing through the newspaper, El Día; he possessed a Neanderthal jaw and crewcut dark brown hair. For a second she thought she’d seen him before, but shook off the idea. Andrew Kirby was making her unreasonably suspicious!

—from Blood of the Dragon Trees, by Nik Morton (p. 116)

So, besides the observation of little details going on around her—and the suspenseful hint for the reader that we’ve seen the man with the Neanderthal jaw before—there’s the compelling influence that Andrew is exerting on her.

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

Ideally, travel to the place. But even then additional back-up research is necessary. Of course you can’t hope to travel to every exotic place you write about. I’ve been to many of the places in my novels and short stories, but not all—and I must then concentrate on research.

Sadly, non-fiction reference books can quickly become out-of-date—bus colours might change, customs may once have been quaint only to be replaced by adopted globalised traits. (Yes, it has happened to me!)

Any piece of fiction set in the past requires research; yes, you can travel the battlefields, visit the ancient cities; but you can’t experience that time, only imagine it.

Official map of the territory of Dakota[https://www.flickr.com/photos/normanbleventhalmapcenter/14009763855/], by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

Some places can’t be visited, only researched. Official map of the territory of Dakota, by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Fiction requires a writer to be bold, to do research and then re-imagine the place, with its sights, smells and sounds. The bottom line is, it’s fiction, which means an approximation of the real world. If a critic blithely dismisses writers who make a few errors in their research because they haven’t travelled there, then that critic is misguided.

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

Some books could be set anywhere; location is not significant to the story. Others, the location is vital to the story. The old practitioners Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Nevil Shute, and Alistair Maclean described the location their main characters found themselves in, and you believed every word. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels thrust you into a period and a place that seems real while you’re reading. Donna Leon’s Italy is real.

A few of the writers Nik Morton admires for their depiction of place in their novels.

A few of the novelists Nik Morton admires for their skill with depicting location.

Thanks so much, Nik!

* * *

Readers, any questions for my first guest? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Nik, why not pay a visit to his author site; his blog, called Writealot (no exaggeration in his case); and the archives of Auguries, a science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine Nik edited from 1983 to 1994. You can also follow Nik on twitter at @nik_morton.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Expat author and new columnist Lorraine Mace offers her own thoughts on writing about place

Location Locution
Please join us in welcoming Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, to the Displaced Nation for the first time. From this month, she’ll be taking over the Location, Locution column from JJ Marsh.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I am thrilled to be taking over this column from JJ Marsh, and I already have lots of interesting guests lined up to take part over the coming months. For this first post, however, I am going to follow in Jill’s footsteps and use my first column to answer the “location locution” questions as a means of introducing myself.

But before I do that, let me give you a few basics. I was born and raised in London, but moved to South Africa just before my 25th birthday. I first lived just outside Johannesburg, then moved to the Orange Free State before discovering, and falling in love with, “the fairest cape”. Since leaving Cape Town I’ve been a nomad for more years than I care to count, having moved continent and country nine times. I finally put down roots in Spain, but have an inclination to spend summers in British Columbia, Canada.

Like JJ, I write crime fiction. I also have a book series for children.

Lorraine May and books

The prolific Lorraine Mace has produced four books in her D.I. Paolo Storey crime thriller series, and one book in her Vlad the Inhaler series (vampires, werewolves and peaches, oh my!).

Oh, and one last item before I move to the questions: don’t forget to visit my predecessor’s farewell post and enter the book giveaway competition. So far there’s only two comments, which by my reckoning gives you a pretty good chance at winning seven great e-books!

* * *

Which came first, story or location?

This can vary from book to book and story to story. However, in my crime novels, written as Frances di Plino, story came first—but then location helps to formulate the plots. Although the series is set in a fictional town, the surrounding British countryside is very real. Bradchester is situated close to Rutland Water and the nearest city is Leicester, both of which feature in the novels on a regular basis. I know this area well. During my last (brief) sojourn in England I lived in a small village a stone’s throw from Rutland Water and frequently visited Leicester.

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

I put myself into the heads of my characters and experience the place through their senses. When I can smell the bread in the local bakery, or hear the cries of street vendors, weep over a beautiful sunset, taste an orange straight from the tree, or touch the moss-covered stones of a monastery, I know it’s time to start writing, using my character’s experiences of the place.

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

All three, but I must admit I find it easier to use food allied to culture when the story is set outside of the British Isles. Having lived in South Africa, on the Maltese island of Gozo, as well as in France and Spain, I know I can use regional dishes to bring areas of those countries to life. But in Britain I think we have lost the regional aspect of many of our foods. Fish and chips, roast beef and so on are now available throughout the country, where other nations seem to have guarded their regional food identities.

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

Bradchester is a town that has more than its fair share of rundown, seedy areas set side by side with gentrified neighbourhoods. This leads to a great deal of social unrest—the haves want the have-nots moved elsewhere and the have-nots resent the wealth and easy life of the haves. This short passage illustrates an area that has, as yet, remained untouched by either sector, but just a street away it is very different.

Station Road wasn’t exactly the best part of town, but the place looked respectable. Paolo was pleased to see that most of the businesses he remembered from his youth were thriving. This was one of the few communities that still had a drycleaners, newsagent, old-fashioned fruit and veg shop, alongside a mini-supermarket, hairdressers and a bank. He glanced up. Even the flats above the businesses looked lived in and cared for. Nice nets and curtains framed the windows and many of the street doors had been painted in recent history.

They walked a couple of hundred yards before turning into Zephyr Road. It was like moving into another country. Here, most of the shops they passed were boarded up and the few remaining open for business seemed to Paolo to concentrate on ways to transform goods into money. Pawnbrokers, gold for cash, payday cheque converters. It appeared as though all the dregs of the financial service industry had found their way into this street. This time when he glanced up, Paolo saw the flats above the shops were likewise either boarded up or had dirty nets hiding whatever was going on up there.

net curtains

The quality of the net curtains tells you where you are in Bradchester. Photo credit: Joss Smithson via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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

I prefer to use places I’ve lived in, or visited many times. I like to know the area and people so well I can conjure them up at will when I’m writing.

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

Barbara Kingsolver and Donna Tartt spring to mind. With both authors I feel as if I am living in the locations depicted. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch she manages to recreate both city and desert locations to the extent one can almost feel the weather. Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible brings the 1959 Belgian Congo to life so powerfully the reader is swept into the villages, fearful alike of jungle creatures and the inhospitable landscape.

Books that get "place" right: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt; and The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

Books that get “place” right: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt; and The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

* * *

Thanks so much, Lorraine! I’m impressed that you created your own place for your crime series novels, and that it’s in the UK, where you haven’t lived for quite some time. Readers, any words of welcome and/or questions for our new columnist? Please leave them in the comments below.

And don’t forget to leave a comment on her predecessor, JJ Marsh’s last post for a chance to win 7 e-books that should take you through the summer. All you have to do is answer the question, in 50 words or less: Where and when in the world would you like to go, and why?

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab 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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

For this displaced Irish writer and cultural chameleon, a picture says…

Aisha Ashraf Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Aisha Ashraf at Air Canada Centre, Toronto, for her very first live ice hockey game, 2013.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who likes to think of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

A happy new year to one and all at the Displaced Nation. My guest today is 38-year-old Irish expat, blogger, traveller and photographer Aisha Ashraf. She is currently based in Canada with her husband and three children. A freelance features writer, Aisha has published articles in newspapers, magazines and a range of expat and mental health websites. She says she has been a cultural chameleon since she first emigrated from Ireland to England at the age of eight. She is also a friend to the Displaced Nation and a recent recipient of one of its “Alice Awards” for a post on her Expatlog blog, provocatively entitled “My mother was a nun.”

Today I’ve asked Aisha to shares with us her experiences and view of the world via a selection of photos from her peripatetic life. I have followed Aisha on Expatlog for a short while and am so impressed by her pictures and the stories behind them.

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From the glamor of Europe (Paris, France)…

Hi, Aisha. It’s good to meet you here at the Displaced Nation. I understand you now live in Canada. But where were you born, and when did you spread your wings and start traveling?
I was born in the same Dublin hospital as Bono from U2 and spent my early childhood roaming the family farm on the broad plains and bogs of Co Kildare, Ireland. Following my father’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder (“manic depression” in those days), we emigrated to England so that my mother could be nearer her family, swapping the farm for suburban living. I was eight when we left and it was many years before the night-time tears of homesickness subsided.

I have seen U2 twice. A great experience and I wonder if Bono knows he was born in the same hospital as you!! I trust those difficult times are now a distant memory, and I know travel has featured quite a lot in your adult life.
Aside from travelling all over the British Isles (we moved house almost annually after leaving Ireland), I didn’t travel abroad again until I met my husband. Together we explored Europe—we drove all over Malta in a yellow convertible. We also loved Paris so much we kept returning. He proposed to me in the bar of the Metropole Hotel in Brussels—a gorgeous historical landmark in the centre of Belgium’s capital, the setting for numerous films and host to royalty, foreign dignitaries, presidents and film stars.

That gives us quite a lot in common. In 1995 I had a great holiday in Malta, and Paris is a favourite of mine, too. And now I would love to know how you and your husband finally ended up in Canada.
Just before our second child turned one, my husband took a post in Libya while I held the fort at home in the UK. He travelled around the country seeing the sights and even sleeping under the stars in the Sahara, but the long absences were tough on all of us. After six months we were certain we didn’t want to continue living apart and considered moving our family to Tripoli. Luckily for us a post in Canada was offered because in the following months expats were evacuated when the revolutionary spirit that had taken Tunisia by storm spread to Libya, and the Gaddafi regime crumbled. We began the Canadian chapter of our life in 2010 and have been here since.

…to the rugged beauty of North America (Paris, Ontario)

scenefromAishaslife

Paris, Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

Canada is a big country. Where exactly do you live, and what is life like in those parts?
We live in Ontario, just outside Toronto. Initially my husband was slotted for a Toronto office but when Canadian HR learned he had a family they felt we’d be happier in Whitby, a once-bustling port on the banks of Lake Ontario, now a haven for families. It’s a great base from which to explore natural wonders like Niagara Falls and Algonquin Provincial Park, along with historic settlements like Kingston, Stratford, Bracebridge and Paris—Ontario!—which you can see in this first photo. I took it from the bridge spanning the Grand River.

A moment

A moment in the Distillery District, Toronto. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

Boywithtincup

The local ribfest. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

Thank you for sharing some of the photos that capture a few of your favourite memories of Canada thus far. I’ve never been there, but I can see it is an amazing place. Can you tell us a bit more about these next two photos, which I believe are of your children?
This first one, of my son standing awestruck before a monstrous sculpture with an exploded head, brings to mind a bitterly cold winter’s day spent exploring Toronto’s Distillery District, where the kids got to meet Santa and the Victorian architecture and cobbled streets made us nostalgic for home. Back then we still felt like tourists. The second one is of my youngest child taking a deep draught from a tin mug at the local ribfest. I’m recalling a day of competitive rib-eating and blazing sunshine that melted into a night of flashing lights and fairground rides. Children are always such rewarding subjects—their innocence and unselfconsciousness makes them great fun to photograph—and the photos I take of my own children of course have special meaning.

hawkbyAisha

Soaring turkey vulture. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

And this next must be a New World bird of prey?
Yes, it’s called a turkey vulture. I got lucky after several attempts of zooming in and losing it to the vastness of a magnified sky. The photo always reminds me of an afternoon spent at the slipway, watching people get their boats in and out of the lake whilst navigating some particularly plentiful algae—it was more entertaining than TV.

The irresistible pull of the Great Outdoors

I think that is so interesting because, recently, I have been looking back over photos I took 35 years ago in many different countries and there isn’t a single one that doesn’t bring on a flood of memories. Photos are like that for me, a trigger, and they always have a story attached. Your two shots of the children are quite compelling—I love the girl picking her nose in the fairground photo—and the vulture is a great shot. Do you have any favorite places in Canada to take photographs?
Without a doubt, it has to be Lake Ontario—it’s where we head to chill, explore, reconnect and refocus. I actually get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t go regularly. The ever-changing light and character mean I snap lots of pictures that, once home, I usually find I have failed to capture whatever elusive quality it was I was trying for. We go for walks on trails and in conservation areas so I have countless photos of woods and water. Here are just a few that I really like:

Daughterwalkingoncliff

Cliff walk near Lake Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

boyinpumpkinfield

Pumpkin field near Zephyr, Uxbridge, Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

Wavesofthelake

Lake Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

The one of your daughter in the field full of pumpkins is so vital, and the naturalness of the colours brings your lovely composition to life. By complete contrast, your daughter on the rocks is positively Neolithic and, although it’s Canada, so Cornish! Nourishing stuff. And I understand that the black-and-white photo of the sea lapping the shore of the lake is a real favourite of yours. Can you explain why these places inspire you?
I love nature—perhaps it was growing up on a farm and spending most of my time outdoors. I have a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and getting outside is a big factor in alleviating its debilitating hold. I see incredible, uncomplicated beauty in the natural world that I find soothing and strengthening. I try to capture it with my camera in a way that may allow others to be moved/nourished by it, too.

Thank you for your honesty about your condition, Aisha. I feel exactly the same about photographing the natural world: it allows us to capture not just the picture but the way we feel at that particular moment. Unfortunately, unlike you I am only at a level where I am trying to move and nourish myself. If others are moved also, that’s a bonus. Now I know you enjoy photographing your kids, but do you ever go to the other extreme: ie, taking photos of people you don’t know in the places where you visit, and do you find that awkward?
Absolutely! I know my shyness has cost me many a great photo-op. I’m not sure if it’s my BPD or my peripatetic life, but I always feel like an observer, standing in the periphery looking in. This translates into a preference for my subjects to be oblivious to me and my camera. I like to capture the raw moment.

Yes, I know that feeling. You want to melt into the undergrowth and take the most natural shot possible. Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs and how do you get around any language barriers?
I have, on occasion, screwed up my courage and asked someone if they’d mind if I took their picture—come to think of it, no one’s ever said no. I think if language were a barrier, it might make things easier. Tourists get away with a lot!

I understand. Taking people photos can be a bit personal. It’s so much easier shooting a mountain as it’s too far away to argue! Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
Capturing memories and the perfect picture are my twin obsessions. I’m in love with light and the effect it has on everything: the study, the photographer, the viewer. Is there anything else so intangible, potent and unspoken, and whose experience is unique to each individual?

When did you come to realise the importance of light?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been transported by the tone of light or the way it falls—it triggers memories for me like nothing else can. Not so much of occasions, but of feeling and being. For a few brief seconds I’m caught in a flashback. Time slows so that even the dialogue in my head is distorted, becoming deep and stretched like treacle, a voice on a tape recorder played too slow.

Such powerful analogies. Now for the technical stuff which I am not very good at. What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
I have a Fuji FinePix f750EXR—it’s just a regular compact camera, no fancy lenses or anything. If I couldn’t fit it in my pocket, I wouldn’t be able to take it everywhere with me. Photography is as much about identifying a good picture as it is about capturing it, and many great photographers have started with a basic machine. A good eye is evident whatever tool you have at your disposal.

I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers (like me) who are traveling or living abroad?
Never leave home without your camera. Mine even comes grocery shopping with me—you just never know where that next great shot will be. Sometimes you find the sublime in the ordinary, and for me that’s the sign of a great photographer—that ability to show the beauty in the everyday.

Thank you so much, Aisha, for joining me in this interview. It really has been a pleasure talking to you.

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Readers, what do you make of Aisha’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos and/or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Aisha, don’t forget to visit her excellent blog, Expatlog. You are also welcome to contact her at aisha-a@hotmail.co.uk +/or follow her on social media:
Twitter: @AishaAshraf1
Facebook: Expatlog FB Page
Linkedin: Linkedin profile
Google+: Linkedin Profile

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when our fictional expat heroine, Libby, returns to the Displaced Nation to update us on her many adventures. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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