The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Talking Location with author Deborah Lawrenson – Portugal
15th December 2016
#TalkingLocationWith… author Deborah Lawrenson. She has set her novel 300 Days of Sun in Portugal on the Algarve Coast, and Lisbon.
I fell under Faro’s unexpected spell in the heat of August three summers ago. I was only there because my daughter Maddy was enrolled on a Portuguese language course – she was seventeen at the time and I couldn’t let her go to a strange town on her own for two weeks. So, while she spent the mornings at the language school, I wandered around with my notebook and camera.
The narrow streets of the town around the marina, the pretty tiled facades of the low-rise buildings, the public gardens and the churches, one with a chapel lined with human bones, all drew me in – above all, I loved the laid-back atmosphere and the sense of gentle decay. Faro is a working town, overshot by the tourist planes that flew in constantly over the sea to the airport on its western fringe, but well worth discovering.
My first intimation that it would prove an intriguing location was the view from the plane of the salt marshes of the Ria Formosa hanging like green lace from the coast. By sea, the outer islands are reached through a maze of channels. The ferry boats leave from a jetty outside the Old Town that sits fortress-like above the water.
I already knew about Portugal’s history during the Second World War and Faro inspired me to find out how I could bring both this setting and the history together in one story. Lisbon, as the capital of a neutral country, was a crucial wartime espionage hub where the Allies and the Nazis lived side by side while their opposing armies fought ferociously elsewhere in Europe. But a little research revealed it was possible for these foreign visitors to travel south during wartime, and many took the chance to see more of this “hidden gem” of a peaceful country.
The sea marshes became the metaphor for one of the main themes of the novel: the process of change. All the characters in the story experience life-altering change – and the world around them is unstable, too. War and economic and political power-shifts undermine the individual. Violent storms re-draw coastal geography. Nature cannot be contained even with modern sea-barrier engineering that is supposed to keep the islands and marshes stable where the forces of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet.
This novel has several different genre elements: part historical fiction, part romantic suspense, part literary thriller. I wanted to use the contrast between the sunny, holiday side of the Algarve – with its three hundred days of sun a year – and a darker past that could still impact on the present. I always try to write in a way that transports the reader to a setting, capturing a vivid sense of place and I research carefully to make the imaginary experience as accurate as possible, evoking the smells as well as the sights, or the soft shushing sounds of the Portuguese language.
In Faro, the famous Café Alianҫa, visited by Simone de Beauvoir in 1945, became the focus of my imagination. At the time I was there, it had been closed for several years, still elegant, but sad and neglected. As in the book, the ground floor was being used for public discussions as part of a local election campaign. The great news is that a few months ago, this wonderful old café reopened after a fabulous refurbishment in keeping with its cosmopolitan fin-de-siècle origins. I can’t wait to see it again, this time in all its glory.
Thank you so much to Deborah for sharing ‘her’ Portugal and including such wonderful photos.
For more books set in Portugal, just click here.