Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Authors and a Sense of Place by J J Marsh
15th June 2017
Authors and a Sense of Place by J J Marsh
After interviewing hundreds of authors on a range of topics, writer J J Marsh gleaned some insights as to authors’ relationships to place. Here, she selects some of her favourites.
How important is a sense of place to your work?
Wyl Menmuir, author of The Many (long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016)
“I knew the landscape would feature heavily in the novel from the beginning, from all the villages along the coast that I visited as part of my research, through to my own writing practice, which is very much rooted in and part of that landscape. For me, Perran’s house, the village and the sea are as much characters as the fishermen or the woman in grey.”
“A sense of place has always been of paramount importance to me; it informs and defines not only the character of a locality but the behaviour and mindset of those who belong there, which in turn influences me, and everyone with any sensitivity who merely visits an iconic locality. Deia has a particularly powerful sense of place because it’s a microcosm of so much that is beautiful, harsh, benign, and actually downright dangerous.”
Which came first, story or location?
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis
“I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.”
“In my case, it’s usually a collision between the two. I have a story in my mind, I look for a location, and when I find the right one, some sort of explosive reaction happens that produces something I never anticipated.”
“So often, story and location are intertwined. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is the true story of a disastrous backpacking trip I made through China in 1986. To separate the story from the place is simply impossible; so much of what made the trip horrific was the poverty and totalitarianism of China itself; I can’t imagine my travel companion and I would have disintegrated in the same way at the Canyon Ranch Spa or a luxury resort in the Maldives.”
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
“All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.”
“For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.”
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
“With skill, only moderately well, though it’s probably wise to minimise the difference between your characters’ supposed knowledge of a setting and your own. This aside, the best fiction implies more than it states (Hemingway’s iceberg principle), and a few vivid details can be enough to evoke an entire city or region.”
“You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.”
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
“I love walking around cities, looking around at the architecture and the shops and the restaurants, at the people and their pet. My characters do the same, using all their senses to inhabit the world around them. Of course walking around, in and of itself, isn’t the type of action that does much to drive a plot forward, so characters should also be doing something else while walking around. Such as spying.”
“With great difficulty. The Overlord books are based in 3rd century Syria. I didn’t grow up with the atmosphere ingrained in me. I haven’t spent years of my childhood visiting the remains, the palaces and the fortifications. I rely on films a lot. Being a designer I’m an incredibly visual person, and seeing it played out, filmed in the locations I’m trying to conjure on the written page, helps immensely.”
“What you see, what you smell, what you hear, just being there. The truth is sometimes in the smallest things.”
Thanks to author J J Marsh for bringing together such an interesting insight into how authors tackle location in their writing. You can find all her books on this link and follow her on Twitter and check out her Beatrice Stubbs series here
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