The Displaced Nation

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A valentine to kindred creative spirits encountered in far-away lands

Expat life has a transient quality that is not always conducive to making close friends. Thus when two people reach out and find a connection, it feels very special, as we learn from this guest post by Philippa Ramsden, a Scottish writer who until recently was living in Burma/Myanmar. Philippa has been on our site before. Her story about discovering she had breast cancer shortly after her arrival in Rangoon/Yangon was one of the dragonfruit “morsels” that Shannon Young, who contributes our Diary of an Expat Writer column, chose to share with the release of an anthology she edited in 2014, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. I must say, it is a pleasure to have Philippa back in our midst. Not only is she doing much better health-wise, but her story of friendship makes a perfect read for Valentine’s Day! —ML Awanohara

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating.

That’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew in South America*.

It was a striking coincidence given the special place dragonfruit holds in my creative heart. The first time I had my writing published in a proper book was when it appeared in the How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? anthology, which came out in 2014. What’s more, something unexpected emerged from the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, which ultimately led to my present surroundings.

* * *

We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our editor, Shannon Young, towards producing a collection of stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in countries where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. From a dozen different countries, we varied enormously in our situations but were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates.

It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead-up to publication.

Just after my writer’s copy of the anthology arrived, I received an email from one of the other writers, Sharon Brown. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. I, meanwhile, had read her story, “Our Little Piece of Vietnam,” in which she recounted hurtling through the streets of Hanoi on the back of a motorbike while being in the throes of labor, reaching the hospital just in time for the (safe) arrival of her daughter.

Sharon had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon!

“Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day,” her email said.

And indeed we did. Just think, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club.

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.

cuppas-and-chats

Fast forward two years, to May 2016. As it turned out, Sharon and I were both preparing to leave Myanmar. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America: Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco-lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure.

Sharon said:

“You should come to the lodge. It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come.”

What a fascinating thought—but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long-distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning that this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than five continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than two continents in any year in the past.) How many grandmothers are able to do that?

* * *

So here I am, in the beautiful La Casa Verde Eco Guest House, nestling in the hills of Ecuador. I am sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing the year to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

Had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I might never have made it to this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

Editor’s note: In fact, dragonfruit, or pitaya, is native to the Americas.

serendipity-and-friendship

* * *

And thank YOU, Philippa, for such an uplifting story! Displaced Nationers, do you have any stories of friendships that blossomed because of creative pursuits, and if so, did they lead you to new parts of the world? Do tell in the comments.

And if this excerpt has made you curious to about Philippa Ramsden, her blog is Feisty Blue Gecko, where a version of this post first appeared. You can also find her on Facebook and twitter. She has written several meditations on the challenges and joys of life in a foreign environment—and they are all fascinating. She is currently working on a memoir.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits:
Opening visual: (clockwise, from top left) Dragonfruit anthology cover art; the photos of schoolgirls in Baños, Ecuador (where the eco-lodge is), of the two young women in a field in Myanmar, and the two kinds of dragonfruit are all from Pixabay.
Second visual: The photos of the cups of tea and of the two women making a heart with their hands are both from Pixabay. Image on the left: Inside The Strand Hotel & some of their gift shops – Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma), by Kathy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); image on right: downtown Rangoon with Sule Pagoda in distance, supplied by Philippa Ramsden.
Last visual: The photos of the green hills of Ecuador and the eco-lodge balcony view were supplied by Philippa; the photo of the blue grey tanagers is from Pixabay; and the rainbow image should be attributed as: Ecuador, over the rainbow, Baños, by Rinaldo Wurglitsch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: In trio of memoirs, Marjory McGinn celebrates life inside the heart of Greece at height of economic crisis

Location Locution Marjory McGinn
Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.

Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:

“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”

Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.

At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.

“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”

Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.

MM Trilogy

Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.

* * *

Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?

When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
Foteini quote

You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?

For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.

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

I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.

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

For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:

The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.

On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.

It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
Seduced by the ease of life

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

With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.

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

My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.

MM fave authors

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

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

Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below.  And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address traceykwarr@gmail.com with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds fascinating! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

THE PERIPATETIC EXPAT: Can I go “home” again?

Displaced creative Sally Rose: Is she coming…or going?!

Once upon a time, Sally Rose was happily settled in Santiago, Chile (as described in her wonderlanded interview for this site). But then five years passed, and she got itchy feet. She took a half-year sojourn in Europe trying to figure it out. So, is Santiago still “home”? Let’s see how Sally feels upon her return to Chile. —ML Awanohara

From my spacious flat in Edinburgh to my 16th-floor dollhouse of an apartment in Santiago, I have culture shock all over again.

I arrived back in Santiago last Friday. It’s now Monday and my suitcase is still not unpacked. After living out of it for six months, I haven’t had the energy to face it yet, so I dug out my toiletries and some underwear and have let the rest slide.

The laundry pile is reaching critical mass now. A visit to the 19th-floor laundry room will be in my near future because, unlike in Edinburgh, my little aerie in Santiago doesn’t have a washing machine. My view of the Andes mountains mostly makes up for that.

APARTMENTS WITH A VIEW—of the River of Leith (Edinburgh, top) and the Andes (Santiago). Photos supplied.

APARTMENTS WITH A VIEW—of the Water of Leith (Edinburgh, top) and the Andes (Santiago). Photos supplied.

My swansong, so to speak

From my apartment in Edinburgh, my view was the Water of Leith. I used to watch the birds swimming there. In particular, there was a pair of swans that I saw every day last fall.

When I returned from my holiday trip to Barcelona, one of them was gone. Since swans mate for life, I wondered what had happened to the second one.

Did it die? Did it fly away for the winter? Would it fly alone, leaving its mate behind?

I don’t know anything about bird behaviors, so all I could do was watch as he swam alone, or with the ducks, all winter.

I became nostalgic, seeing that lone swan and thinking of his mate that might have been thousands of miles away. It reminded me of far-flung friends in various places that I’ve lived.

The 1970s Seals and Crofts’ song “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” popped into my head and stayed there. As it repeated itself, like the proverbial broken record, I kept reflecting that a hazard of being a “proper traveler” is that I will always be leaving someone behind.

THE LONE SWAN: A metaphor for the peripatetic expat? Photos supplied.

THE LONE SWAN: A metaphor for the peripatetic expat? Photos supplied.

Am I happy to be back? Yes and no.

Am I happy to be back in Chile? I’m happy to connect with my Chilean friends again, but sad to have left the friends I’d made in Scotland.

I will miss my writing groups. I will miss the dreich weather, the gloom that is actually conducive to my creativity. I will miss my guilty pleasures—salt-and-vinegar potato chips and sticky sweet French cakes.

Of course, in Chile I have other guilty pleasures—cheap, delicious wines and tart, ice cold Pisco Sours, among others; but it’s going to take a bit of adjustment to jump back into Living in Spanish.

For example, everything here gets dialed forward by an hour or more. Dinner will be at 8:00 or 9:00, instead of at 6:00 or 7:00.

No more visits to the pub on Sunday evenings to hear the Jammy Devils at 7 o’clock. Here, in Chile, the music starts by 10:00 or 10:30. Maybe. In Scotland, I was home by 10:00, after the Jammies had finished their second set.

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS: Yet each city has its guilty pleasures... Photos supplied except bottom left: Santiago-196[https://www.flickr.com/photos/33200530@N04/], by CucombreLibre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS: Yet each city has its guilty pleasures… Photos supplied except bottom left: Santiago-196, by CucombreLibre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Tip of the cultural iceberg

Life here starts and ends later. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Living in Spanish not only means living in a country where Spanish is spoken, it means living with different cultural norms.

The Scottish culture is far more similar to my US background than is the Chilean culture. In a given situation, I can tell you what a Chilean might do, but even after five years of living here, I still have no idea why they’d do it.

THE CULTURAL ICEBERG: Hidden depths of misunderstanding are more rife in Chile than in Scotland. Photos from Pixabay or supplied.

THE CULTURAL ICEBERG: Hidden depths of misunderstanding are more rife in Chile than in Scotland. Photos from Pixabay or supplied.

It doesn’t all have to make sense, though, does it? That’s part of the adventure. Time for me to join Answer Seekers Anonymous, giving up on the “why’s,” and working on accepting that it is what it is. Acceptance is not my strong suit, but travel is a persistent teacher.

She’s also an excellent matchmaker. I’m talking about making new friends wherever I go. During my UK odyssey, I made many new friends and I was lucky enough to meet several author friends in person whom I had previously only met “virtually” in Internet writing groups.

I consider having international friendships a confirmation of being a “global nomad.” I didn’t don that mantle lightly, nor willingly, but I’m wearing it more and more comfortably these days.

Yesterday, I met up with my American friend, Cheryl, whom I’d met here in Santiago, when she and her husband lived here. They moved back to the US two years ago, but had returned for a brief visit.

Though great to see her, it felt odd to be meeting a friend from the US, back in Chile, when I’d just returned from Scotland.

Global nomad reunions

Maybe I’d better get used to that “down the rabbit hole” feeling because, in Edinburgh, I had a visit from Anna, a friend from the US, who was my neighbor in Chile. She happened to be bouncing around the UK at the same time that I was.

Then, my BFF from Brooklyn, whom I met at work when I lived in New York, joined me in Barcelona for her vacation.

The reunions didn’t end there. In Ireland, I visited with John, an Irish friend, whom I’d met when he vacationed in Chile two years ago.

Last but not least, in London, I met up with Bob, whom I met in Chile last year. He’s from the UK and lives in New York.

SMALL WORLD: Friends made in one place pop up in another...

SMALL WORLD: Friends made in one place pop up in another… Photos supplied, except for bottom right: It’s a Small World, by HarshLight via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The Chileans have a saying, “El mundo es un pañuelo.” Literally translated, it means, “The world is a handkerchief.”

Disney was right. It’s a small world after all.

Signed~
Perpetually Perplexed

* * *

Thank you, Sally, for sharing those reflections. Readers, will Sally settle back down in Santiago? How long will she stay? Like me, I’m sure you look forward to the next installment! —ML Awanohara

Born and raised in the piney woods of East Texas, Sally Rose has lived in the Cajun Country of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, the “enchanted” land of New Mexico, and the Big Apple, New York City. Then she fell in love with Santiago de Chile and has been “telling tall tales” from that long, skinny country since 2009, and living in that city for the past five years. But where will her next act take her? The author of a memoir and a children’s book, Sally has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Scottish expat writer Clare Kane’s novel immerses readers in 1930s Shanghai—plus we’re giving away her book and Donna Leon’s latest!

New columnist Tracey Warr arrives with her first interview guest, the displaced Scottish writer, Clare Kane. **NOTE: Help celebrate her opening column by becoming one of the lucky readers to win Clare’s book and Donna Leon’s latest. Details below.**

My guest this month is novelist Clare Kane. She was born in Scotland but has lived most of her life elsewhere. After studying Chinese at Oxford and working as a Reuters journalist in Madrid, she is currently living in Shanghai, where she works in marketing for TNS (she has a fellowship with WPP, the world’s largest communications services group). She spends her free time exploring the city’s past which she vividly evokes in her debut novel, Electric Shadows of Shanghai.

(And when she’s not writing about the past or researching markets, she’s writing about fashion and why we wear what we wear.)

Electric Shadows of Shanghai creates a fascinating world populated by British diplomats and wives, American journalists, glamorous stars of the Chinese silent film and Russian taxi-dancers turned ballerinas. It poignantly captures how the dreams and desires of these expat and Chinese inhabitants of the city lead them to interact and clash.

Electric-Shadows-high-res-cover-400x

Clare and I share a publisher, Impress Books, but have never met.

Let’s meet her now and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Clare, to Location, Locution, and thank you for agreeing to be my very first guest. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

Location without a doubt. I’ve always been fascinated by China, and most of my short fiction writing is set there. But time also plays a part. As you pointed out in your introduction, my novel Electric Shadows of Shanghai is set in the 1930s, a particularly rich era in Shanghai’s history when as a free port it attracted people from all over the world: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, White Russians escaping the Bolsheviks and plenty of adventurers looking to make their fortune.

The story couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Shanghai in the 1930s. Plots are built on conflict and the tensions that existed then helped shaped the story. China was pushing towards modernity, women were bobbing their hair and young men were returning from overseas educations to promote foreign ideas of democracy but these advances were overshadowed by political tensions, the constant threat of Japan and inequalities between rich and poor.

I knew I wanted to write about Shanghai, which has long been my favourite place in the world. Prior to living here each visit was a jolt to the senses, a reminder I was alive. The novel was also driven by my interest in Ruan Lingyu, a silent film actress from the time popular for her modern fashions, progressive ideas and films tackling tough social realities. I also wanted to write about the Russians who came to Shanghai, aristocrats who found themselves working as bodyguards and nightclub dancers (and those were the lucky ones). And I’d long had an idea in my head about a British couple coming to the city and it tearing their marriage apart (as it still does to this day). I pulled these various threads together into one plot and that is Electric Shadows of Shanghai

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

First, I have to get a hold on the atmosphere myself. With Shanghai it’s easy: I live here. Evoking the past is harder, but not impossible. The city is full of Art Deco haunts almost unchanged from their glory days in the 1930s, where for a moment you can feel like you’ve travelled in time. I also think that despite all the changes that have taken place over the last century, Shanghai probably feels very much as it did in the 1930s. A place of possibility, drawing eclectic characters from around the world. The seedy underbelly that existed then is still here now. And the clash of high and low living—cocktail bars next to noodle stalls—is still very much present.

But I don’t think you should bore the reader with lengthy descriptions of place. It’s about building on any impressions they may already have of a place by weaving in details to the narrative and letting their imaginations do the rest. No reader is a blank slate and I’ve found that even people who have never been to Shanghai nor given the place much thought have an impression of exoticism and glamour when they hear “Shanghai”. It’s my job to build on that, encouraging certain ideas and tearing down others.

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

Tapping into senses other than sight is vital. Descriptions of buildings and landscapes get dull very quickly. I find it’s the snippets of sound, the wafts of smell, that really build a place in the mind. But the people are perhaps most indicative of a place. Not in terms of what it looks like on a map but in how it shapes people. When I look at the characters in my novel many of them are striving, determined to build something in the city, while others are more dissolute, giving in to the sleaze and losing themselves to the night. Each type—and no character is completely clear-cut—reflects their surroundings in their actions.

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

These are the opening lines of Electric Shadows of Shanghai:

Over a million women in Shanghai and one in thirteen a prostitute. Another myth of the Orient, Will thought, when Rollo told him a couple of hours earlier. But he recalled it now on the threshold of the Paradise, its neon promise reflected on the cobbles of the alleyway darkening in milky dusk. They were right on the edge of the International Settlement now, where the sombre society of the Bund gave way to the sweet tang of the night that made the two syllables of Shanghai so thrilling to the foreign ear.

I wanted to plunge the reader into Old Shanghai right away, and I tried to do this both through literal description and by inviting the reader to recall their own impressions of Shanghai (“so thrilling to the foreign ear”).

You live in Shanghai and describe yourself as a Chinese history geek. IN general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I have written about places I’ve never visited and I don’t think writers should rule somewhere out just because they aren’t personally familiar with it. Writing is about imagination, after all. It depends on how key place is to the story, how much knowing where this street meets that one impacts on the plot. You run the risk of offending people if you misrepresent a place and doubly so if you’ve never even been there. But if it’s the mood of the place that matters—the bustle of New York in the 1980s, the bleakness of the North Korean countryside—rather than the reality of it, I don’t think we should be precious about places. But research is always key. If you’re not going to research a place, why use it? Just invent a place instead.

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

One of my favourite authors is Janice Y K Lee, who has written two novels about Hong Kong. Both are incredibly evocative. She captures the place on every level: the physical look and feel of it and the society that populates the islands. She very gently unravels all the tensions of the place and I love that in her latest book, The Expatriates, she does that through the stories of various women living there.

I’m also a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know absolutely nothing about Nigeria but she brings it to life with every word. She makes the reader feel totally comfortable, unveiling place and history as part of an engaging story. I love that she weaves the stories of everyday people into huge historical events. She humanises history. And like Lee, place is key to her novels. They couldn’t take place anywhere else.

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

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

Thanks so much, Clare.

* * *

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

And if you would like to discover more about Clare, you can visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

*******************************BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
To celebrate the launch of this new series of interviews, I am giving away:

1) A copy of Donna Leon’s new Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, the 25th in this excellent series, available for the first two readers (US addresses only for this one I’m afraid!) to email Tracey with the names of Brunetti’s wife and children. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com

2) A free ebook (via Apple iBooks store) of Clare Kane’s Electric Shadows of Shanghai for the first two readers (anywhere) to email Tracey with the name of the main river that flows through Shanghai. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com
****************************************************************************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be an English novelist living part-time in France and writing about Portugal in her new novel.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! Shanghai in the 1930s was its own kind of displaced nation, so what a great choice of author/book to kick off the series. And that giveaway—it’s fabulous! —ML Awanohara

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

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Photo credits: Top of page: (LOCATION ROW) Author photo and book cover (supplied); The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). (LOCUTION ROW) “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); 24 Shanghai street scene, by mksfca via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Shanghai street scenes 1, by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

THE PERIPATETIC EXPAT: Where to next? The $64,000 question

Displaced creative Sally Rose: Is she coming…or going?!

Sally Rose was once happily settled in Santiago, Chile, as she described in her wonderlanded interview with us last year. But then five years went by, and she got itchy feet. Let’s hear some more about her attempt to answer the question: where to next? —ML Awanohara

Where to next? That’s the $64,000 question. If I decide to leave Chile, I can’t just throw a dart at a map and see where it lands. To some, it might seem as if that’s how I’ve decided my previous moves, but I’m no good at darts.

Contrary to popular opinion, my “big” moves, to New York and overseas to Chile, were things I’d considered for years. They could have been called “bucket list” items, not whims nor spur-of-the-moment decisions.

I’ve never actually written a bucket list, but if I had, most things on it would already be crossed off. Much as I love exploring other cultures, my burning desire to experience life from a different perspective has been sated, so do I go back to the US now, hunker down, and wait for Armageddon? (Which may come sooner rather than later, if you know what I mean.)

No, I’m not ready for that.

Last year I set out on a six-month journey to explore alternatives.

In September 2015, I left Chile and flew to Great Britain, with the idea of bouncing around the British Isles and sniffing the air.

That’s my term for trying my luck, checking the vibe, however you’d like to phrase it. When I sniff the air, I’m not a tourist. I’m a visitor, or as one man complimented me, “You’re a proper traveler.”

Being a traveler once again brings up the image of “gypsy,” which might not be far off the mark.

Here’s what the past six months have looked like for me: Santiago-London-Manchester-Windermere-Edinburgh-Portree-Oban-Glasgow-Wigtown-Edinburgh-Barcelona-ship at sea-Barcelona-Edinburgh-Dublin-Belfast-Edinburgh.

Are you dizzy yet

Are you dizzy yet? I am, but it’s been worth it because a distinct pattern has emerged. I keep returning to Edinburgh because life here is comfortable and effortless for me.

“Expat lite” compared to Chile

In Edinburgh there’s plenty to do; it’s simple to navigate the city; I’m meeting people and making friends, including with some lovely dogs. With no language barrier and familiar customs, being in Scotland feels like “Expat Lite” in comparison with Chile.

Even the dreich winter weather works in my favor, since it’s a great incentive to stay indoors and be creative.

I came here with no expectations. Just following my nose, I made plans as I went along. Of all the places I’ve been since September, Edinburgh ticks the most boxes. It’s just too darned easy to be here.

Edinburgh ticks boxes

But for visa problems…

Except that it’s not. There’s no residency visa for me in the UK. I’m not here for work; I’m not a student; I don’t have a UK spouse or kids. I’m not from an EU-member country. Though my ancestry is mainly British and Irish, my grandparents didn’t have the foresight to be born in the Old Country, thus denying me the possibility of automatic citizenship privileges.

“What about a retirement visa?” I asked.

They did away with it in 2008. I guess they didn’t want us old farts coming over and using their National Health Service.

The best I can figure is that I would have to come and go on a tourist visa, granting me 180 days a year in the UK. The question then would be, “What do I do the other 185 days a year?”

In Chile, a tourist visa is for 90 days. To renew it, you only have to leave the country for one day. When you reenter, you get a new visa stamp for another 90 days.

Not so with the UK. A US citizen is not allowed to spend six months here, then hop over to the continent for the weekend and return to get another six-month stamp. The tourist visa is good for up to six months, out of a year.

In the Republic of Ireland, tourist visas for US citizens are only for 90 days…but it counts against your 180 days in the UK, even though the Republic is not a part of the UK.

UK tourist visa

The continent is no more promising. They have this little thing called the Schengen Agreement. It’s great if you’re an EU citizen. You can travel around freely between countries as you please, but if you’re a US citizen, you’re limited to 90 days total within the Schengen area, which encompasses most of Europe, Iceland, and some Scandinavian countries.

Can I coin a new term: “sunbird”?

Could I be like the “snowbirds,” the Yankees that flit south for the winter in the US to spend a few months in Arizona or Florida, until their state thaws out again?

Since I hate being hot and try to avoid the summer, I would have to be a “sunbird,” flocking to wherever it was autumn or winter. But is that really viable?

I know a couple who’s been married for over 30 years. He is a US citizen and she’s a Brit. Neither of them has ever bothered with residency in the other’s country. They spend six months a year in New York and the other six months in London, being careful not to overstay the 180-day tourist visas. It works for them, so why shouldn’t it work for me?

I could be a tourist for six months in the UK, then head back to Chile or the US or Outer Mongolia or a combination of those for the other six months.

As long as I don’t mind floating around the globe like a bohemian, it might work. Maybe it’s mind over matter. If I don’t mind, it won’t matter.

Signed~
Perpetually Perplexed

* * *

Thank you, Sally, for sharing your quest to find your “little piece of the world.” Readers, where will Sally try (or not try) next, and how long will she stay? Is she a gypsy or a settler at heart? I hope you’ll join me in saying we look forward to the next installment! —ML Awanohara

Born and raised in the piney woods of East Texas, Sally Rose has lived in the Cajun Country of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, the “enchanted” land of New Mexico, and the Big Apple, New York City. Then she fell in love with Santiago de Chile and has been “telling tall tales” from that long, skinny country since 2009, and living in that city for the past five years. But where will her next act take her? The author of a memoir and a children’s book, Sally has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credits: Photos of Edinburgh are from Sally Rose’s collection; all other photos from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Trish Nicholson, a writer whose talents have blossomed in unusual places

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Trish Nicholson, is something of an exotic plant—the kind one discovers flowering profusely in a far-flung part of the world.

Trish’s birthplace, the Isle of Man, sounds remote to many of us—but not so for Trish, who, despite being half Manx (a mix of Celtic and Nordic), wasn’t able to bloom where she was planted. Following in the footsteps of some of her intrepid ancestors, she left her birthplace and hasn’t looked back.

Her first destination was the UK, in pursuit of higher education and a career. Trish is also half-Scottish, but, though she lived in Scotland for 12 years, her roots did not prove deep enough and she moved on to Europe and much further afield…transplanting herself to Papua New Guinea!

Yes, Trish was stationed in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province of Papua New Guinea for five years working on aid and development projects while also serving as Honorary Consul for the British High Commission. Rest assured, conditions here were exotic enough for Trish not only to put down roots but to blossom and thrive. As she attests in the travel memoir she published last month, PNG contains the wildest places in the tropics. Among other challenges, she had to contend with crocodiles (the book is titled Inside the Crocodile), sorcery and near-fatal malaria.

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

The so-called Land of Surprises must have been a hard act to follow, but Asia Pacific being Trish’s most nurturant habitat, she soon found other challenges—the next one being to direct the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) operations in the Philippines while completing her doctorate in social anthropology. After the Philippines, she obtained a research grant to study indigenous tourism in Vietnam and Australia.

And I mustn’t forget to mention that along the way there have also been frequent trips to South America and Africa, along with treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal.

Trish did return to England eventually—only to decide the time had come to try transplanting herself to the “winterless” far north of New Zealand, where, as she says in her blog:

native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture.

Hmmm… sounds a little like Trish?

And now let’s talk about Trish’s body of works. A compulsive scribbler, she has produced plenty of what she calls “creative nonfiction”—from articles for mainstream media to a book on responsible travel tourism—as well as short stories during her twenty years of wandering the globe.

More recently, since moving to New Zealand, she has published a series of e-books on her travels—one of the most popular of which is the illustrated travelogue Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. And now there is the aforementioned Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals.

Trish’s nonfiction output also includes a volume on creative reading/writing as well as a guide to becoming a non-fiction author. And let’s not forget the historical anthology of storytelling, which she intends to sit down and write now that she’s settled on a quiet New Zealand hillside. That’s when she’s not hiding in her tree house or blogging. Her blog is called, appropriately enough, “Words in the Treehouse.”

* * *

Welcome, Trish, to Location, Locution. I know that your travels have led to much of your writing, but which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

It depends on what kind of writing I’m doing, of course. For short stories it’s usually character that comes first for me, but it’s close because characters are an integral part of their setting. In building up the story, character and setting feed upon each other. Location can affect a character’s mood, sometimes their whole outlook on life, and a change of location can be a turning point. But, as I said, it’s a two-way influence; people can also have an impact on their surroundings.

For my travelogues, experience of location came first, but the same principle applies: people feed off setting and vice versa. In this case, of course, the “characters” are actual people I met along the way.

Notably, you were right in saying that my travels led to my writing. I did not set out to write a book at the beginning of either of the two travelogues I have produced. I was inspired to visit Bhutan by an article in a 1914 National Geographic magazine my aunt had left me in a box of dusty old books. It was full of the most amazing photographs of mist threaded mountains, exotic architecture, and distinguished looking men wearing what appeared to be navy blue dressing gowns with broad white cuffs… Papua New Guinea, as you explained in your introduction, was a five-year work assignment, fulfilling a teenage dream to work overseas. Only afterwards did these locations compel me to write about them.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place? After all, you’ve faced the challenge of describing places very few of the rest of us have visited.

I’m not sure if it’s a technique because it’s not something I do consciously as I write, but your question made me think about it. It’s not so easy to explain, but I seem to identify a feature that is characteristic of a particular place and use my senses to link to it emotionally—trying to recreate in words what I felt when I was there. It’s not simply “place” though, but more a series of “moments-in-place.” The atmosphere of a place changes depending on time of day, seasons and events. It’s possible to keep track of these changes if you maintain a detailed journal as I always do—scraps of information about everything I see, hear, smell and feel. With buildings and landscapes, for example, I record how light and weather affect them. A grey stone wall, for instance, may look hard and forbidding in Scotland, but under a tropical sun it feels surprisingly soft and warm. I note sounds and snippets of overheard conversation, clothes, colours, rhythms of people’s movements—all of which suggest place. Scribbling is a bit of an obsession with me, perhaps a way of hanging on to something I don’t want to end. My other obsession is photography, probably for the same reason. In my early travelling days I used Kodachrome but film was expensive; now you can take large memory cards and click away without a thought. When I’m writing, I scroll through my images and they recall whole scenes for me. The jottings and photographs aid my memory for those sensuous details that I believe evoke atmosphere.

Two of Trish's tools for capturing the details of places. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Two of Trish’s tools for capturing the details of place. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by
Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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

They all can, of course, depending on the story and a writer’s personal interests. I’m certainly no foodie, but even I can feel the tropical heat of Papua New Guinea when recalling drinking kulau (Tok Pisin for “juice from a young green coconut”) straight from a young coconut—the rough, dry shell on my lips, the smooth sweet coolness dribbling down my chin. Language, too, has always been a significant feature for me. Many writers avoid using dialect or foreign words in dialogue so as not to stress the reader, but there are ways of making it easier, and readers enjoy a little challenge. I write dialect or local language in short stories and in travelogues because it draws readers closer to people. And if I want to create the sense of a very specific location, I focus on whatever features are found only in that one place—for example, in Bhutan, the painted red bands around a building that tells you there are sacred relics inside, or in Australia, the surreal landforms of the Bungle Bungles that seem to stride across the landscape enacting their own primordial drama.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

From Inside the Crocodile, a jungle moment on the hair-raising trek from Oksapmin to Lake Kopiago:

The heavy shower was reduced to drizzle under the canopy and it invigorated the forest; every shade of green was intensified, glistening and vivid. Lazy drops of water glided along leaves, dripping silently onto moss beneath. Fine hairs on the ribs of fern fronds, usually invisible, were lit-up by tiny twinkling water droplets like miniature fairy lights. And the air was filled with the fecund mustiness of moist earth seasoned with the tang of wet foliage … the forest stood in strange, expectant silence, muffled by the press of growing, spreading vegetation all around us. Yet every surface, especially the dark underside, was teeming with life we could not see, or would not recognise if we did, and we couldn’t see beyond the next tree trunk or veil of hanging moss. The sense of being enclosed, entrapped within an unknowable multitude, was overpowering.

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

And if I’m allowed another little one, from Journey in Bhutan, my journal entry the evening after we visited the ancient temple of Kyichu Lhakhang:

… I want to remember how it felt when I first entered the lhakhang – the dark wooden floor, polished and worn into grooves by centuries of calloused feet; distant chanting heard through a haze of incense; Buddhas lustrous in the flickering light of butter lamps – thirteen centuries of reverence are distilled in that room creating an almost palpable sanctity. I feel the balm of its atmosphere as I write – it’s almost like a presence.

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (all photos supplied by Trish Nicholson).

Photo credits: (top) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

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

This is a particularly interesting question because I believe one can be in a location too long. The point is not how much time is spent in a place, but how well we “see” it. In an urban setting, I can spend an hour leaning against a wall on a street corner, or a day walking the streets at random, and gather a huge number of impressions and factual details. In remote areas it takes longer because the changing elements have a greater affect on atmosphere. But this may be enough for the setting of a single story. Obviously, for a travelogue, longer immersion is necessary to reach a depth of understanding across time and seasons. But it depends also on how one writes about a place, the scope of the account. I was in Bhutan for a month, much of that time trekking, so although I included monasteries and temples, and carried out a lot of research on cultural and historical background, Journey in Bhutan focuses on the trek rather than trying to cover the whole country superficially. So, how long is too long? After a few years in Papua New Guinea I noted in my journal:

I’m losing all sense of “normal”.

I began taking for granted what seemed extraordinary to a visitor. Fortunately, I had recorded early events that revealed my astonishment and joy and alienation as a greenhorn during those first months. Without the journals, Inside the Crocodile would have lacked that perspective on the location because, after a while, we cease to “see” so clearly.

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

Hard to pick a few from so many: Vikram Seth for his depiction of India—but his first book, From Heaven Lake, was a vivid travelogue of Sinkiang and Tibet; he was still a student but the novelist is already burgeoning in those pages. Khaled Hosseini, who so cleverly weaves his characters into the texture of place in The Kite Runner, and Nikolai Gogol, especially in Dead Souls, where his detailing of personal possessions in a room reveals not only a distinctly Russian steppes atmosphere, but also a character’s past and present. And one more: Ruth Rendell appears to break all the “rules” in The Keys to the Street by opening with almost two pages describing London’s ornamental iron railings—but in such a way that with the first paragraph we are already anxious about those spikes.

Trish's picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Trish’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Thanks so much, Trish! I can easily see why one reviewer described you as “full of humour, adventure, and iron determination…”

* * *

Readers, any questions for Trish Nicholson? Please leave them in the comments below before she disappears back into her treehouse.

And if you’d like to discover more about Trish, why not visit her author site. She also chirps on twitter at @TrishaNicholson.

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.

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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: The Way of expat author Joan Fallon lies in writing about the Camino and other Spain-related themes

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

The theologian Richard Niebuhr once wrote:

Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.

In that sense, today’s author, Joan Fallon, can be considered a modern-day pilgrim, of the kind often encountered within the Displaced Nation. She may not have walked the Camino de Santiago—but the path she took in her life led her to a place where she could write a novel about someone who did.

Joan was born with a foot in two cultural camps: her father was Irish and her mother, Scottish. Her first journey into a brand new culture was made as a child, when her family moved from Dumfries, Scotland, to the south of England, which many Celts consider to be a foreign country.

Joan went on to spend her formative years in England. She married, had a family (a son and a daughter), and worked as a teacher while also earning a BA from the Open University in History and Literature.

But in England, Joan was still a pilgrim; she hadn’t yet found the Way. In fact, she lost her way for some time after her son dropped dead unexpectedly when he was only 17. She abandoned her career in teaching (she couldn’t bear being around kids his age) to become a management trainer.

Soon, though, it was time to don her pilgrim’s boots again, this time for a journey into southern Spain. When her husband took early retirement, the couple set off just before the start of the new millennium for their new home in Benajarafe, a coastal village that is a few miles east of Málaga, in Andalusia.

This journey, which brings us to where we find Joan now, led her to the goal she was seeking all along: an opportunity to try out the life of full-time writer. As she put it in a recent interview:

It is something that I had been waiting all my life to do.

Joan completed an Open University course in creative writing, but it wasn’t until she’d spent six years taking journeys within Spain, learning the language and talking to people, that she would embrace her destiny fully. (She was also settling in, finding out how to cope with Spanish bureaucracy and generally dealing with the numerous everyday things that we take for granted in our home country or don’t need: obtaining an identity card, a social security card, becoming a tax resident, registering at the town hall, changing to Spanish number plates, making friends, finding a hairdresser that you like, a new dentist, a new doctor, a vet, a plumber…)

Eventually, her immersion in the Spanish language and local culture paid off. Always interested in social history, Joan decided to interview a number of older Spanish women about how their lives had changed since Franco had died in 1975. She translated the interviews into English, which led to her first published book, Daughters of Spain.

The research for this book also produced two novels:

Joan Fallon's writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era

Joan Fallon’s writing career has flowered in Benajarafe, initially with books set in the Franco era. Photo credits: Joan Fallon’s author photo and book covers (supplied); Benajarafe, by Tony Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0).

One of Joan’s subsequent novels grew out of her experiences of mixing with both Spanish and foreign nationals: Loving Harry, a story about two women in love with the same man, set in expat Spain.

Joan’s frequent visits to other parts of Spain have also inspired books. It was a trip to Galicia that gave her the idea of writing Santiago Talesabout a woman whose life is in tatters and who decides to walk the Camino de Santiago seeking solutions.

Likewise a visit to the Moorish ruins at Madinat al Zahra near Córdoba inspired her to research and write The Shining City, a novel set in Moorish Spain during 10th century.

All of Joan’s novels feature strong women as their heroineswomen who face some kind of difficulty and have to overcome it.

* * *

Welcome, Joan, to Location, Locution. Spain clearly has had a powerful effect on your writing, but which comes first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. It depends on the book I am writing whether location or story is the most important. Santiago Tales, as you’ve explained, was set on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain—location was essential to the story. Spanish Lavender is a love story set in the Spanish Civil War, but it takes place specifically in Málaga, a city I know very well—and therefore I started with the location. In another of my books, The Only Blue Door, which you didn’t mention, I wrote about three children sent to Australia during wartime. Never having been to Australia, I found it hard to write about a place I did not know personally so had to rely on my research. In this case, it was the story that was predominant, not the location.

It sounds as though you like to know the place very well before using it as a setting?

Yes, I prefer to write about places I know. If I don’t know the location well, then I will visit it a number of times noting the layout, the atmosphere and anything else I can put into my writing. Sometimes I will interview someone about a place when I know that they have a greater knowledge of the location than I do. This is what I did with Santiago Tales. I knew the area well but not from the point of view of a pilgrim, so I interviewed a woman who had walked the 800 km of the Camino and was delighted to tell me of her exploits. This gave me the little details that I needed to make my story credible.

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits: Puente rústico, by José Antonio Gil Martínez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); book cover art (supplied).

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

I try to remember as many details as I can, imagining that I am there again and then imagining the character in the location as I knew it. If my story is set somewhere that I have only visited on a few occasions, then it needs more effort to conjure up the required atmosphere, and I will read about the location and look at photographs. Sometimes it is something as simple as knowing if there are hills in the area that the character has to climb or rivers that he has to cross or when he sits down what he can see. All this helps to transport the reader to the location that you have chosen. For me it is a mixture of combining what I know the place is like with the atmosphere I am trying to convey for the story.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

Place is an especially important factor in The Shining City, which I wrote after visiting the ruins of a city near Córdoba called Madinat al Zahra. I was fascinated by the place and the fact that, although it was once a very prosperous and cultured city, it was abandoned and fell into complete disrepair after only 70 years. It seemed the ideal place to set a historical novel about the Moors in Spain.

Here is a passage from my book, depicting a character from England’s West Country who is following the French Way of the Way of St. James:

The Galician countryside is distinctive. It reminds her a little of her own West Country, with its small fields and dry-stone walls. The change was obvious as soon as she reached O’Cebreiro, set in the green, rolling hills across the border from León, and saw the round stone houses of the area, with their straw roofs and Iron Age design. She has even passed Celtic crosses at the roadside, so like the ones in Cornwall, and fields of fat, contented brown and white cattle. Just like the west coast of Britain and Ireland, Galicia receives its fair share of Atlantic wind and rain and this is evident in the verdure of its countryside. No, she is no longer walking through the dry Meseta; this part of Spain is very different and, to her, feels more like home.

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara - Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Photo credits: Book cover art (supplied); Medina Azahara – Cordoba, by Roberto Venturini via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?

All of those and more, depending on the location. Returning to the example of The Shining City, about a place that I had visited when it was a ruin, I had to do a lot of research into what it would have been like when it was a thriving city. I needed to know what food was available at the time, what they grew and what they imported, what type of housing people lived in, how they dressed and what the climate was like. Although this is a historical novel, set in 10th-century Spain, the fact that I live in Spain and know the area well made it so much easier to create the right atmosphere; I knew from experience what the weather was like at different times of the year, which flowers were in bloom and when; and I could imagine easily what the roads to the city were like then from what I could see today.

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

I read a book by John Lanchester called Capital, which was the story of a street in London told through the lives of the people who lived there. He used location very well and made it the central pivot for his novel. Donna Tartt also uses location very well and creates a rich and detailed background to her novels. Another writer that gives great importance to location in her novels is Barbara Kingsolver, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about two girls growing up in Naples recreate the atmosphere of that wild-child city beautifully.

Fallon Faves

Joan’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Joan!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Spain-obsessed Joan Fallon? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Joan, why not visit her author site +/or her site dedicated to her books that are set in Spain, A Spanish Notebook. You can also follow her on twitter at @joan_fallon and @notesonspain +/or like her Facebook page.

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.

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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: For Stephanie Patterson, the role of expat historical novelist seems to have been predestined

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

Hello again, readers. Last month I introduced you to expat writer Oliver Tidy, who found his calling in writing crime novels set in the UK once he became an expat in Turkey. For my guest this month, Stephanie Patterson, it was the other way around. Stephanie developed an early passion for places other than her home country of Germany, and for the English and Scottish medieval periods. In other words, it seemed almost predestined that she would move to the UK and write historical novels set in these places and times.

Although Stephanie first lived in Kent when she arrived in the UK 18 years ago, she relocated to Aberdeen and then, after a stint in Wales (Cardiff), where she met her British husband, Laurence, has lived in Edinburgh for the past 10 years.

Stephanie Patteson destiny

Photo credits (left): Stephanie Patterson in her beloved Scottish Highlands (supplied); Map of Germany, by Central Intelligence Agency; The main geographical divisions of Scotland, by SFC9394—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Not surprising, given her proclivities, Stephanie believes the key to settling into a new country is total immersion. In her case this technique greatly improved her grasp of the language (she is a certified translator of English to German). It has also enabled her to write romantic suspense and adventure set in Scotland, England and Normandy under the pen name of Cathie Dunn.

In 2011, Stephanie and Laurence set up Crooked Cat Publishing on the model of an independent US publisher. To date, Crooked Cat has published over eighty paperbacks and e-books with authors across the world, several of which have won (or been shortlisted for) prizes. It has quickly developed a reputation for producing quality fiction.

As Cathie Dunn, Stephanie has two historical novels published with Crooked Cat:

  • Highland Arms, a romantic Scottish adventure (originally released through Wild Rose Press), set in Stephanie’s favourite area of the Scottish Highands: Lochaber. It’s the first in her Highland Chronicles series.
  • Dark Deceit, the action of which takes place in 1140s England and Normandy, when a brutal civil war is taking place. It’s the first in her Anarchy Trilogy, set mainly in medieval Normandy.

She has also self-published Silent Deception, a romantic paranormal novella set in Victorian Cornwall.

When she isn’t writing, editing or publishing, Stephanie is visiting castles, towns and cathedrals throughout the UK. A hobby historian, she has taken university modules in Tudor Studies and Scottish Studies. While in Wales, she took part in medieval re-enactment (the medieval and Jacobite eras being her favorites).

Stephanie’s love for medieval Norman history saw her back in Normandy for a holiday in July. Ultimately, she (and her husband) would not rule out moving to France one day, and, yes, she is currently studying French to improve her knowledge of language and culture.

* * *

Welcome, Stephanie, to the Displaced Nation. I think I can guess the answer but I’ll ask you anyway: which comes first, story or location?

Yes, as you probably guessed, I’m usually inspired by location and/or architecture first, which I then combine with potential plot ideas. My Scottish romance, Highland Arms, was born when I travelled through Glencoe and along the dramatic Loch Linnhe in the Scottish Highlands. The forbidding scenery (helped by the adverse weather of sleet, rain and fog) was the perfect setting for an adventure set in the 1720, featuring a smuggler. I always carry a notepad, and on that occasion I found it very useful for jotting down ideas.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Highland Arms cover art; A view of Glencoe, by Ronhjones via Wikimedia Commons[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gleann_comhainn.jpg] (CC BY-SA 3.0) [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/]. Loch Linnhe, by Moralist via Wikimedia Commons[https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vy_i_skottland.JPG](CC BY-SA 3.0) [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/].

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Highland Arms cover art; A view of Glencoe, by Ronhjones; Loch Linnhe, by Moralist. Both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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

For Highland Arms, I was fortunate enough to find booklets by local historians about the era, which allowed me to paint a more realistic picture. This, in combination with a number of visits during different seasons, allowed me to set the scene quite realistically. I did the same for Dark Deceit, which is partly set in Gloucestershire and partly in Normandy. I took hundreds of photos during a holiday in Normandy and kept going back to my travel diary for pointers. I prefer to write about areas I’ve visited. If I can convey my own feelings and impressions, it helps create the atmosphere.

Is landscape the only feature you look at to create a sense of location? What about culture, or even food?

As I write historical adventures, I tend to focus on history and landscape. I found Normandy hugely inspiring for its medieval history and the buildings that have survived from that era. The castles and cathedrals paint a vivid picture of 12th-century life, and I try my best to capture it and convey it into my stories. As you mentioned, I consider myself a hobby historian and have bookshelves full of history tomes, in English and French. It helps that I love the culture.

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

Here is a passage from Highland Arms:

Catriona nodded. “Thank you, Mr MacKinnon. I wasn’t looking forward to scaling those peaks.” Her gaze scanned the shimmering surface high up, so glaringly white against the deep blue morning sky. Hidden under layers of cloud the day before, the steep hillsides now presented themselves in all their dangerous glory. Stunned by the beauty yet relieved she did not have to cross them, Catriona smiled as she gazed across crags as sharp as a dagger’s edge.

Relaxing in the stillness of her surroundings, she was surprised at her own reaction. Instead of the misery that held her in its grasp for the last few weeks, a new sense flowed through her.

A feeling of…belonging?

She shook her head in disbelief. What brought this on? The eerie stillness should unnerve her, but instead it calmed and steadied her. Taking a deep breath, she gave her mare a nudge with her heel. Perhaps this journey was going to be good for her after all. No longer banishment, but rather an escape. Perhaps even a fortunate escape.

By the time they reached a small settlement by the shore of Loch Linnhe, the sun had crossed its zenith. Melted snow, and the footfalls of men and horses, turned the ground into a muddy slush. A handful of cottages stood scattered along the path, their walls covered in a thick layer of mud to repel the winds. Smoke swirled through holes in the roofs, filling the air with the smell of peat.

Catriona took a deep breath, enjoying the dusky scent. While she waited for MacKinnon to return from a cottage he’d entered on their arrival, she nudged her mare to the water’s edge to let her drink. Her gaze roamed over the large loch, to the far shore and back to where a narrow arm of water branched off into Loch Leven, disappearing from sight between high peaks behind her. The rugged beauty pulled her in.

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

Though not always possible, I find it easier to describe a setting once I’ve visited it for long enough to develop a “feel” for the location. For Dark Deceit, I developed an impression of what life was like in that region during medieval times by exploring the abbeys in Caen and Falaise Castle, among other monuments from that era. The book’s hero is originally from a town called Mortagne, in today’s southern Normandy. During our holiday, we drove down to the town and had a wander through it. I took in the surrounding forests (which haven’t changed too much since the 1100s) and ignored the more modern aspects. I try my best to picture the landscapes as they might have been.

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

One of my favourite novels is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The way she describes the desolate landscape, the remoteness of the location, is compelling. You have a real sense of being there. I also enjoy reading MM Kaye’s novels, mostly set in India and Africa. A Third Culture Kid (she was born in Simla and lived all over the world as an adult), Kaye evoked a sense of place that many other authors writing about those areas don’t manage in quite the same way.

Patterson faves

Photo credits: Cover art; insets: Young Daphne du Maurier (about 1930), by The Chichester Partnership via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); M.M. Kaye via goodreads.

Thanks so much, Stephanie!

* * *

Readers, any questions for the intrepid Stephanie Patterson? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Stephanie, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter at @cathiedunn.

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).

 

 

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, if success in another country is what you’re after, throw the tools away and go for total immersion

Fiona Citkin for Culture Shock Toolbox
For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol interviews displaced creative Fiona Citkin about her culture shock memories and coping strategies.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! Today I’m excited to introduce you to Fiona Citkin, who is a professional “diversiculturalist.” She runs her own consultancy on intercultural business competence and has written a major work on the link between intercultural competency and diversity in business, for which she was named Champion of Diversity in 2012.

Lately she has turned her attention to women leaders in the United States who are immigrants. These women came from other countries and “made” it in the world’s most competitive society, despite facing what Fiona calls “quadruple jeopardy”: 1) being women; 2) being mothers; 3) being ambitious; and 4) being foreign born. Fiona’s book is called Cracking the Code: How American Immigrant Women Leaders Achieve Success under Stress. If you’re curious to find out more, I urge you to follow her Huffington Post column, where she provides monthly reports on her research findings.

Fiona has experienced no small measure of that immigrant stress, and success, herself. She grew up and was educated in the Ukraine but has now made the leap to New Jersey.

Though Fiona is constantly on the go, I was able to catch up with her and ask her a few questions about her own culture shock experiences and tools for dealing with them. Here’s what she had to say…

* * *

Hi, Fiona, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell us a little about your background?

I was born in Ukraine and lived there most of my life. I started a family; defended two doctorates; wrote an academic book on terminology and translation science; and became head of the English Department at Uzhgorod State University in Transcarpathia (Western Ukraine). I was a visiting professor at the Universities of Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; Bern, Switzerland, etc.—and have attended many linguistic conferences all over Europe. The longest time I stayed abroad while living in Ukraine was for a teacher-study semester at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In short, I knew the taste of success in my homeland. And then I became a Fulbright Scholar to the United States, which gave me the experience of what it means to have one’s old life burn down and try to be a phoenix in a foreign land. As a newcomer in America, I have reinvented myself more than once.

In the context of transitioning from Europe to the United States, did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Can you share any memorable stories?

Here’s a story: I’ve been taught British English, like everybody in Europe. Learning the differences between the British and the American English seems funny now—but wasn’t then. For example, my co-worker Hugh, a friendly guy, suddenly started paying compliments to me, like “Oh, your pants are beautiful” – “Another pair of pretty pants, Fiona” – “I wish my fiancé had such nice pants as yours.” I felt confused and didn’t respond, because in Britain “pants” typically denotes ladies’ underwear…what does he want, I thought? Finally, a girlfriend explained to me that Hugh meant to praise my choice of what in Britain is referred to as “trousers.”

He likes my pants

Photo credit: Pixabay.

What does one do in a situation like that?

When I am not sure what to say, I say nothing and just smile.

Looking back on your transition from the Ukraine to the East Coast of the U.S., can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

I hate to brag about “finesse” in cultural matters. No amount of time you live in your new/adopted country can guarantee your 100% integration and “finesse”—because deep down you’ll always be yourself, have a soft spot for your native land, and retain some inborn traits of your original culture. For my upcoming book I have interviewed 50 outstanding American women achievers who happen to be first-generation immigrants, so I have not only my own experience but also their accumulated know-how of how to handle cultural transition. The main fact is: cultural integration is a must for those who want to succeed in a new country.

If you had to give advice to someone who just moved to a new country, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

First, focus on strategies rather than tools, or tactics, because first things should come first, right? After twenty years of living and working in the United States, I have some worthy advice to share—and my books’ subjects have even more. To put it in a nutshell:

  1. Get the best education you can, hopefully in the field that’s most desirable in the host country (high-tech is the best for the USA).
  2. Learn the language BEFORE you come as an immigrant—but remember that culture trumps language, e.g., cultural integration is more important.
  3. Learn to be outgoing, friendly, and helpful to others; participate in the work of your local community.
  4. Be entrepreneurial—as this is the best way to sustain yourself: immigrants experience difficulties in getting jobs, everywhere.
  5. Last but not the least, use whatever your cultural heritage equipped you with to your best advantage.
American Flag and immigrant women successes

Photo credits: Ivana Trump, by Lloyd Klein via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Firma de Isabel Allende, by Pedro Cambra via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Gloria Estefan, by Louise Palanker via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). American flag by Pixabay.

Finally, before my book comes out, you can pick up ideas and pieces of advice from my monthly blogs at the Huffington Post.

Thank you so much, Fiona, for taking the time to share your culture shock stories. Developing an outgoing personality—but also knowing when to smile and say nothing—sounds to me like the kind of gauge or caliper we could all use in our cultural transitions. And if you’re in it to win it, so to speak, then it’s time to throw the toolbox away and immerse yourself, hook, line and sinker!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Fiona’s advice? It would be particularly interesting to hear from those who meet her quadruple stress test (woman, mother, ambitious, foreign) but still have managed to achieve some success: do you have anything to add to Fiona’s prescriptions?

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Beach bound? Check out summer reading recommendations from featured authors (1/2)

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), has arrived with a treasure chest full of recommended reads to take you through the summer. NOTE: Check out Part Two here.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Summer is upon us—well, for readers in the northern hemisphere, that is! And for those in the United States, Fourth of July weekend is coming shortly. Even if you’re not beach bound, perhaps you are at least picturing yourself sitting in a beach chair feeling the sand through your toes, the waves pounding towards you, the fresh, bracing sea air filling your lungs…

And what’s that you have in your hand—a book or a Kindle?

I find the sound of the waves and the ocean breeze the perfect conditions for escaping into other worlds that writers conjure up for us in their books. This summer, I’ve already been to a few local parks with my e-reader, and I’ll soon be topping it up with some of the books from our best-of-2014 list for an overseas trip. But I’m always on the look-out for fresh new material, and as there are miles to go before I can flop down on the beach of my dreams, I fear I’ll run out of prime reading matter by then. With this eventuality in mind, I decided to reach out to a few of the authors whose books I’ve recently read or reviewed, along with a few of my bookish friends, to see what books they recommend taking on vacation. I asked them to tell me:

Summer Reading 2015

Photo credits: Amazon Kindle PDF, by goXunuReviews via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); beach chair and sandy feet via Pixabay.

They responded with recommendations that seem tailor made for an audience of international creatives. Enjoy! Part 2 will be posted on Friday.

* * *

ALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler, Australian romance author and former co-blogger at Novel Adventurers: I recommend that you bring one travel book, one classic, and one novel. The following make a good combination:

ChasingtheMonsoon_cover_x300Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India, by Alexander Frater (Henry Holt & Co, May 1992)
There are some books that touch something in your soul that stays with you forever. For me, Chasing the Monsoon falls into that category. Originally published in the early nineties (and thankfully, still available!), Alexander Frater follows the monsoonal rains from the Kerala backwaters in southern India to Cherrapunji, in northern India—known as the wettest place on earth. Frater connects beautifully with the people he meets and he writes for all senses, giving the reader a full immersion into one of the most captivating countries on Earth.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle_cover_x300The Ascent of Rum Doodle, by W.E. Bowman (Vintage Classics, 2010)
Originally published in 1956 but still in print, this book is one of the most celebrated mountaineering stories of all time. The 1950s saw some of the world’s highest mountains successfully climbed (including Everest), and this book is a parody of mountaineering at it’s finest…er, worst. There’s a route finder who is constantly lost, a diplomat who continually argues, and a doctor who is always ill. Rum Doodle will most definitely appeal to fans of Bill Bryson, who wrote the introduction to the book’s international edition (published in 2010).

HellofromtheGillespies_cover_x300Hello From The Gillespies, by Monica McInerney (Penguin, 2014)
I’m a long time fan of Monica McInerney’s books, maybe because Monica is a “displaced” person: having grown up in Australia, she has split her time between Australia and Ireland for the past 20 years. This book is mostly set in outback Australia but with ties to England. Angela Gillespie, a mother of four adult children, has sent out a regular Christmas letter to friends and family for thirty years. The notes are always cheery and full of good news but this year, her note details the unsettling truth of how her family has fallen apart. If you enjoy family sagas with humour and heart, you can’t go wrong with this book. (True, some people recommend it for the holidays, but it’s summer in Australia at Christmas time, remember?)


BRITTANI SONNENBERG, adult TCK, current expat and author of Home Leave (which we reviewed in November): I would pack the following books (assuming I’d be packing it for someone else, who hadn’t read them yet).
Sonnenberg_collage

The Dog, by Joseph O’Neill (Vintage, September 2014)
It’s a devilish, compelling take on cosmopolitan and expat life by the TCK author of Netherland. (Joseph O’Neill was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1964 and grew up in Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, Turkey, and Holland. He now lives in New York City.)

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi (Penguin, 2014)
This is an intimate examination of a splintered family, set in Accra, Lagos, London, and New York.

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, 2014)
One of the saddest and funniest books I’ve ever read; an honest, moving portrayal of sisters and mental illness.


CHRISTINE KLING, author of travel- and sailing-related thrillers: I’ve just finished up the edits on a the third novel in my Shipwreck Adventure series, and I’m looking forward to taking a bit of time off from writing and working at reading my way through some of the long list of books I’ve been wanting to read. The three books I’d take in my beach bag include two novels and a combination cookbook/memoir/travelogue.

The-Janissary-Tree_cover_x300The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Book, 2006)
My husband and I are contemplating building a new boat in Turkey, and after our recent visit, I’ve fallen in love with the country. Jason Goodwin has written travel books, histories, and thrillers, and I’ve been waiting for the chance to begin reading his work. The Janissary Tree, winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Novel, is the first in what is now his five-book series set in in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire’s Istanbul. The series features a very unique protagonist Yashim Togalu, a eunuch guardian. In this book, Yashim is called upon to investigate a series of crimes including murder and theft of jewels.

Marina_cover_x300Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2014)
The first book I read by this author was The Shadow of the Wind, which I often cite as one of my favorite books of all time. I knew Zafón had written a young adult novel that was published in 1999 and became a “cult classic” in Spanish, and since I enjoy good YA novels like the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games, I was happy to see this book finally released in English in 2014. Marina is set in Barcelona around 1980 at the end of Franco’s regime. This gothic tale is touted as containing elements of mystery, romance and horror as a young boarding school boy meets the exotic, dark Marina. Together they embark on a series of adventures where they meet the kind of grotesque Barcelona characters Zafón does so well.

Sea-Fare_cover_x300Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean, by Victoria Allman (Norlightspress Com, 2013)
Years ago I worked as a chef on our owner-operated charter sailboat, and I know what it is like to have to create meals for demanding guests. Victoria Allman is in an entirely different category as she trained as a chef and has worked your years on multi-million dollar yachts. In Sea Fare, Allman has combined the tales from her beginning as a green Canadian chef looking for a job in the charter yacht industry to the joys of shopping in exotic markets from Italy to Vietnam. From the descriptions of her experiences on board the yacht, dealing with crew problems and falling in love with the captain, the stories are grand, but the recipes and the outstanding color photos of the food, will probably cut my trip to the beach short as I head home to try some new dish.


HEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author of multicultural fiction: I just returned from a research trip to Germany, and my choices seem to reflect that! (I went there because I’m writing a novel about an East German detective, Johannes Christian Alexander Freiherr von Maibeck—I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful—I created for a short story I once wrote. The setting is Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, 1981.)

The-Leipzic-Affair_cover_x300The Leipzig Affair, by Fiona Rintoul (Aurora Metro Press, May 2015)
Set in 1985, this novel tells the story of a Scottish student at Leipzig University who falls in love with an East German girl and stumbles into a world of shifting half-truths. Well written and fast paced, the story captures the atmosphere of its setting very well, a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. As one reviewer writes: “The book is expertly written and seems to me to be a very comprehensive picture of what it was like to live in the East German state.” (Rintoul, a Scot who lives in Glasgow, gathered her material for the book by visiting East Germany and meeting a woman who had been imprisoned. She also looking at extracts of STASI files on people she met.)

Zoo-Station_cover_x300Zoo Station: Adventures in East and West Berlin, by Ian Walker (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988)
British journalist Ian Walker, who once covered Central America for the Observer (and never managed to write his promised volume on Nicaragua), produced this travelogue on the two Berlins back in 1988. It depicts bohemian life in the once-divided city, where everyone seemed to be from somewhere else: West Berlin was full of Brits, Asians, Danes, Turks and East German exiles; East Berlin, of Anglo-Austrian expats. Walker’s descriptive narrative and reflections on the broader social issues of the day are what make this book stand out. As one of Amazon reviewer puts it:

Having read “Zoo Station”, I was able to understand why some people regarded East Germany as a pinnacle of socialist achievement, much more preferable to its capitalist twin in the West. It is good travel writing, and is both politically and culturally astute.

The-One-That-Got_Away_cover_300xThe One That Got Away, by Simon Wood (Thomas & Mercer, 2015)
Okay, this one isn’t about Germany, and I haven’t read it yet—but it’s at the top of my summer book bag. Tag line: “She escaped with her life, but the killer’s obsessed with the one that got away.” The story of two grad students in California who decide to take a road trip to to Las Vegas, this suspense novel deals with survivor’s guilt and is bound to be a thrilling ride. (Originally from England, Simon Wood lives in California with his wife.)

* * *

Readers, that’s it for this round; we’ll have another round on Friday (update: check it out here). Meanwhile, have you read any of the above and/or do you have summer reading recommendations to add? Please leave in the comments!

And if you need more frequent fixes, I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post on July 3rd!

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

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