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Talking Location with author Abi Curtis – Istanbul
12th December 2017
#TalkingLocationWith … author Abi Curtis, whose dystopian novel Water & Glass is set in Istanbul. Here she shares her inspiration for setting…
In 2013 I was fortunate enough to be one of the winners of a Society of Author’s Somerset Maugham Award for my second poetry collection. These awards are given to young writers to encourage foreign travel and the spirit of adventure. I had begun to work on an early draft of my novel Water & Glass. I decided to travel to Istanbul, a city which seemed fascinating for its fusion of cultures. Its skyline is packed with mosques and minarets, banks and bars. You can take a boat and move from Europe to Asia.
I was stunned by the beauty of Istanbul. I woke on the first morning to the sound of the call to prayer, a musical cry that went out over the city as part of normal life. I had never thought of how the human voice can ‘call’ in that way, asking everyone to stop and contemplate. At first, the clash of architectures was overwhelming – the domes of mosques, concrete high-rises with rooms built precariously on top of rooms. The traffic was chaotic, there were boats moving in and out of the harbour, and trams sliding by with their bells ringing. But I became absorbed by the bustle and chaos. The first place we visited was the Grand Bazaar.
You can never be finished with such a place and its labyrinth of streets – the world’s oldest shopping mall. Copper pans hung shining in corners. There were bright silks piled onto our arms. We took in the scent of fig and saffron. Everyone wanted us to taste their spices, feel their fabrics. We ducked away and met some of the traditional artisans, still working in the less-visited courtyards. We watched a goldsmith at his kiln. He offered the gold he has cooled in steaming water to our touch. I begin to have an idea about the Bazaar in relation to my novel. Water & Glass is set in a post-flood world, and I imagine what Istanbul would be like if partially submerged, and what the Grand Bazaar would be like if it were a floating market, with the vendors gliding by in boats and the stalls bobbing on the water. I even have my main character take the thick, strong coffee served in the cafes here, along with her friend Angus, only their café is moored and floating.
Our next stop was the underground Cistern, dating from the sixth century AD. It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian as a place to store fresh water. I was so beguiled by this place that I insisted on visiting it again a couple of days later. This underwater palace felt perfect as a setting for a watery novel. You can hear the sound of dripping water and see huge gold carp moving about in the rippling light, coins glittering among them. The big stone pillars recede into the shadows. The light and the echoing space are like something from a dream. Two huge stone Medusa heads are features of the Cistern. One is upside down, the other positioned sideways. Nobody knows quite why this is. My own theory is that it might reverse Medusa’s power to turn people in to stone, and so celebrate her safely. Sometimes classical concerts are staged here, and I can only fantasise about how wonderful it would be to hear the acoustics in the Cistern. It turned out that the Cistern would be an important feature in my novel; its strange atmosphere had to be captured and it would play an important and dramatic part in the story. It seemed only fitting to eat in the quirky courtyard of the House of Medusa that evening.
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the Hagia Sofia, built 537AD. a church and then a mosque. Its ‘graven’ images were covered during the iconoclast age and the giant angels on the domes still have masks on their faces so that they become an acceptable mass of feather. Masks would also come to play a part in the novel. The great domes support other domes as if clouds could become architecture. I also found the working mosques, both the Rüstem Pasha mosque (tucked away and sometimes missed by tourists) and Blue mosque to be peaceful and contemplative spaces.
Once I was home, I knew that my imagination had been fuelled by my visit, and the novel developed a lot more over the coming months, with a central section set in an imagined, flooded Istanbul. It would become a transformative place for my main character, Nerissa Crane, as it was for me as a writer.
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