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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Janet Skeslien Charles, bringing Odessa to life through writing

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Images, clockwise from top: Moonlight in Odessa cover art; Janet Skeslien Charles author photo; JJ Marsh author photo

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa.

Janet, welcome! Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up on the plains of Montana, in a town of two thousand people. I have always been a writer, with a journal for observations, prose, and poetry, though for me, writing is a very private activity.

At the University of Montana, I studied English, French, and Russian. I also spent a year on a university exchange at the University of Maryland. After graduation, I went to Odessa, Ukraine, for two years as a Soros Fellow.

I found a job in France and intended to stay for a year. On my first day in France, I met the man who became my husband, and I’ve been in Paris for over ten years.

Moonlight in Odessa is truly an international effort. The novel is set in Odessa, Ukraine. My agent is English. My editor’s assistant is Japanese-Danish, my copy editor is from New Zealand. I’m American. The book was written in France and typeset in Scotland. My first fan letter came from a Swede. Rights have been sold in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil, Sweden, Iceland, Serbia, Romania, Taiwan, and Denmark.

When you’re writing, which comes first, story or location?
My novel was an ode to Odessa, a city I love. The story grew from the place.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
The way my characters speak, what they eat, how they dress, who they believe, how they love, and where they go are all very particular to the city of Odessa.

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

Also, trying to understand what is important to characters is important. My character Daria is defined by her ambitions, which exist because of her experiences in Odessa, a comsmopolitan sea port.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I was immersed in Odessa for two years and am still in touch with friends there, so it was easy for me to write about the city, but I love that Jeanette Winterson wrote The Passion without visiting Venice. It is one of my favorite books and so evocative of time and place. I don’t think you need to know a place, though it helps. I think imagination and observation are the most important tools when creative a setting.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
Daria, my main character, is at a job interview and must decide whether she is able to do the job and stay ahead of the lecherous boss:

Chess. There’s a reason the former Soviet Union has more world champion players than any other country. Chess is strategy, persistence, cunning, and the ability to look farther into the future than an opponent. The bloodlust of killing off others, one at a time. Chess is every man for himself. Building traps and avoiding them. It is mental toughness. And sacrifice. In Odessa, life is chess. Moves. Countermoves. Feigns. Knowing your adversary and staying one step ahead of him.

I took the job.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I absolutely love Venice in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Michael Perry’s Population: 485 and Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents are also great examples of how place shapes the narrative. I have also read two unpublished novels by friends — one evokes North London, the other life in small-town France — and six months later, I am still savoring these two places I have never been.

The authors are Marie Houzelle, a French woman who writes in English, and Katya Jezzard-Puyraud, who wrote about North London so convincingly, I finished her novel feeling as if I had grown up there.

Next month’s Location, Locution guest  will be Jeet Thayil, the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013.

 * * *

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 tomorrow’s 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: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalise cities

2010-26In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh talks with Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian best-selling author of The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, and The Witch of Portobello, among many others.

*  *  *

When I asked Paulo Coelho to take part in the “Location, Locution” concept, he was happy to oblige.

But he wanted to do it his way. So in a change to our usual format, here’s Paulo Coelho on place.

The moving monument

I have visited many monuments in this world that try to immortalize the cities that erect them in prominent places. Imposing men whose names have already been forgotten but who still pose mounted on their beautiful horses. Women who hold crowns or swords to the sky, symbols of victories that no longer even appear in school books. Solitary, nameless children engraved in stone, their innocence for ever lost during the hours and days they were obliged to pose for some sculptor that history has also forgotten.

And when all is said and done, with very rare exceptions (Rio de Janeiro is one of them with its statue of Christ the Redeemer), it is not the statues that mark the city, but the least expected things. When Eiffel built a steel tower for an exposition, he could not have dreamed that this would end up being the symbol of Paris, despite the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the impressive gardens. An apple represents New York. A not much visited bridge is the symbol of San Francisco. A bridge over the Tagus is also on the postcards of Lisbon. Barcelona, a city full of unresolved things, has an unfinished cathedral (The Holy Family) as its most emblematic monument. In Moscow, a square surrounded by buildings and a name that no longer represents the present (Red Square, in memory of communism) is the main reference. And so on and so forth.

Perhaps thinking about this, a city decided to create a monument that would never remain the same, one that could disappear every night and re-appear the next morning and would change at each and every moment of the day, depending on the strength of the wind and the rays of the sun. Legend has it that a child had the idea just as he was … taking a pee. When he finished his business, he told his father that the place where they lived would be protected from invaders if it had a sculpture capable of vanishing before they drew near. His father went to talk to the town councilors, who, even though they had adopted Protestantism as the official religion and considered everything that escaped logic as superstition, decided to follow the advice.

Another story tells us that, because a river pouring into a lake produced a very strong current, a hydroelectric dam was built there, but when the workers returned home and closed the valves, the pressure was very strong and the turbines eventually burst. Until an engineer had the idea of putting a fountain on the spot where the excess water could escape.

With the passing of time, engineering solved the problem and the fountain became unnecessary. But perhaps reminded of the legend of the little boy, the inhabitants decided to keep it. The city already had many fountains, and this one would be in the middle of a lake, so what could be done to make it visible?

And that is how the moving monument came to be. Powerful pumps were installed, and today a very strong jet of water spouts 500 liters per second vertically at 200 km per hour. They say, and I have confirmed it, that it can even be seen from a plane flying at 10,000 meters. It has no special name, just “Water Fountain” (Jet d’Eau), the symbol of the city of Geneva (where there is no lack of statues of men on horses, heroic women and solitary children).

Once I asked Denise, a Swiss scientist, what she thought of the Water Fountain.

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric discharges 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.”

I don’t know how the little boy in the legend would feel about it, but I think that Denise is absolutely right.

© Translated by James Mulholland

www.paulocoelhoblog.com

Read JJ Marsh’s 2011 interview with Paulo Coelho for Words with JAM magazine

Next on Location, Locution: Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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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Image: Paulo Coelho, 2010 – PauloCoelho.com, used with permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Liza!

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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: Booker Prize-nominated author AD Miller, on bringing a location to life through writing

ADMillerIn the second of our series “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews AD Miller, the British author and journalist.

About AD Miller

AD Miller was born in London in 1974. He studied literature at Cambridge and Princeton, where he began his journalistic career writing travel pieces about America. Returning to London, he worked as a television producer before joining The Economist to write about British politics and culture. In 2004 he became The Economist’s correspondent in Moscow, travelling widely across Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is currently the magazine’s Writer at Large; he lives in London with his wife Emma, daughter Milly and son Jacob. He wrote a critically acclaimed non-fiction book, The Earl of Petticoat Lane, in 2006. His second novel, Snowdrops, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.

About his novel, Snowdrops

A fast-paced drama that unfolds during a beautiful but lethally cold Russian winter. Ostensibly a story of naive foreigners and cynical natives, the novel becomes something richer and darker: a tale of erotic obsession, self-deception and moral freefall. It is set in a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical hideaways and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets, and corpses, come to light when the snows thaw.

Q&A on Location, Locution

JJ Marsh: Which comes first, story or location?  
AD Miller: Story. But locations can be suggestive of certain kinds of story. For example, Russia lends itself to tales of moral challenge and to philosophical inquiry.

JJM: How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
ADM: Take notes. Write down what people wear on the Metro and what the vendors on commuter trains are selling. You will recollect less than you think you will. For historical settings, read old newspapers and unpublished memoirs. Remember it is the inconsequential detail that is most important.

JJM: Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
ADM: Smell. Sounds. Language (especially slang and proverbs). Clothes. And weather: in Snowdrops, the Russian winter functions as a sort of ancillary sub-plot.

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

JJM: Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
ADM: There’s a passage in Snowdrops in which Nick, the narrator, is taxiing at night alongside “the soupy Moscow River, not yet frozen and curling mysteriously through the wild city”, which is OK.

JJM: Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
ADM: Isaac Babel and Giorgio Bassani (Odessa and Ferrara respectively).

* * *

Thanks, JJ, for that fabulous interview! Readers, any comments on what AD Miller had to say? Up next month in Location, Locution: Steven Conte, Australian author of The Zookeeper’s War.

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

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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Expats in Moscow satisfy a hunger to learn

Special announcement from TDN: ML Awanohara and Kate Allison will be live-tweeting the Royal Wedding from a displaced perspective. Join us from 5:00 a.m. EST, using the hash tag: #DNRW

I well remember my first foray into an American supermarket. Dozens of brands of orange juice, offset by a dearth of blackcurrant Ribena.  Cheese in aerosol cans, breakfast pizza bagels…  As for the meat — well, thank goodness everything came shrink-wrapped so I could smuggle it home and investigate its cooking requirements in privacy. Anything was better than revealing my ignorance of American cuts of beef to Stop & Shop’s rather intimidating butcher. It made me want to attend cooking classes – not because I couldn’t cook,  but because unfamiliar ingredients and lack of vital ones limited my usual repertoire. I had to eat what Americans did.

All this confusion took place in a country where the language was approximately the same as at home. How much more difficult must this experience be, then, in a country whose language is strange to you?

Borsch and blini

Victoria Agabalyan understands this problem well. She is the founder and chief executive of Taste of Russia, the first English-language culinary school in Moscow, whose students are primarily foreign tourists and expats.

In order to understand what Europeans expected of cooking classes, she, like American TV chef and one-time expat Julia Child before her, attended culinary school in France.  Consequently, Taste of Russia focuses on teaching traditional cuisine from Russia and the former Soviet Union in a cozy atmosphere. Student Bonnie van der Velde says:

“I cooked borshch and drankini with mushrooms for my mom and her colleagues in the Netherlands, and they liked it very much.”

Although Agabalyan teaches some of the classes herself, she also invites chefs to conduct culinary workshops while she or the school’s administrator translates. She plans to open more schools in other cities in Russia.

Hidden bonus for expats

Similar to my own dealings with strange supermarkets,  expats in Moscow have problems finding their way round the grocery shelves, and attendance at Taste of Russia helps them get over this difficulty. Another student, Angeline Sandmann, says that on her first shopping trip in Moscow she bought sour cream instead of the intended yogurt.

But it could have been worse. Try spraying cheese on top of your ice cream sundae.

Source:  The Moscow Times

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