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Talking Location With… author Joanna Glen: TROMSØ

19th April 2024

#TalkingLocationWith… Joanna Glen, author of Maybe, Perhaps, Possibly, novel mainly set off the coast of NORTHUMBERLAND (and Tromsø)

The first thing I know of a new novel is a feeling inside me. The second thing I know is a setting. The feeling and the setting create the main character, who gives me the plot. That sounds much tidier than it is. But births are always messy.

For my third novel – Maybe, Perhaps, Possibly – the feeling was wonder, and the setting was somewhere wild: waves and snowstorms, sea eagles and fjords, sunrises and starry skies. This was to be an unorthodox love story between two people who’d largely given up on humans and decided to love nature instead. Repressed by parental attitudes, by rejection, by character, by grief, I knew they’d need to go somewhere new physically in order to go somewhere new emotionally.

Joanna Glen

Typically, the place of disinhibition is the holiday, quite often the hot summer holiday, where, as we take off our clothes, we take off our inhibitions and fears. But Addie and Sol were definitely not beach holiday types. No, they needed to be disrobed by wonder. They needed to be taken out of themselves by a setting so marvellous and so magical that all their energy would be drawn outwards, away from their customary introspection. And I knew, from the very beginning, where this would be.

It would be Tromso – a city I dreamt of for forty years, icily sparkling between fjords, dark for twenty-four hours at the height of winter, light for twenty-four hours at the peak of summer.

I first became acquainted with the northern lights, probably (though I can’t be sure) through World About Us, on Sunday evenings circa 1979, watching while my father dried my hair. I was transfixed.  As I grew older, I would occasionally snip adverts out of Sunday supplements for boat trips with Hurtigruten, working ships that transported passengers and mail (dreamily) between ports along Norway’s long jagged coastline. When our children were small, I would occasionally toy with a day trip to the ‘real’ Father Christmas, but there was something about it that didn’t sit well with me, and anyhow, I spent so long vacillating that they turned into teenagers who had other things on their minds.

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But I never stopped thinking of those northern lights. The internet exploded into our lives, and I went virtually to Tromso: husky-dogs pulled sleds across the snow; people rode Skidoos through forests to iced-over lakes; orcas and hump-backed whales splashed their tails in the fjords. It was all I wanted for my very significant birthday.

If you’re working to a budget, then I advise spending all your money on getting out into nature with the huskies and the Joanna GlenSkidoos and the whales. Your hotel is a bed, a shower and a quick breakfast. Of course, it would be dreamy to stay in a glass igloo, but you’ll mainly not be in it.

We researched the activities hard, aiming to avoid the naff and pointless. In particular, it was worth spending money hunting the northern lights. Anything static, however beautiful or bougie, is risky. If the northern lights aren’t exactly where you are, you’re not seeing them. You need to be on the move. We went, a small group, with a wildly passionate and knowledgeable astronomer, in a minibus, so that we could seek the lights across national borders. In fact, as we climbed through the fjords, the magic began at once.

It was minus 25 degrees and, on the snowy beach, we put hand-warmers in our gloves and foot-warmers in our boots. We looked up, and swirling over the sky, in great sweeps of emerald green, were the northern lights, transmogrifying into radiant pinks and purples, and curling into and over themselves, a huge glimmering impossibly beautiful miracle, which left our group speechless, language-less, repeating in various accents an approximation of: ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’.

Around two o’clock in the morning, we got back into the minibus, the electric green lights still iridescent, above us. And my son said to me, ‘Even if I live to be a very old man. I’ll never forget tonight.’

That’s what I wanted for Sol and Addie. The unforgettable that would make them forget themselves for a moment. I put them in a glass igloo the two of them, alone together, because you can do in novels what you can’t do in real life. I wanted luminous greens and pinks dancing over their heads through winter skies, reminding them that, despite their fears and their pain and their past, anything at all might be possible.

Joanna Glen

Catch the author on Twitter @JoannaGlenBooks  and Instagram @JoannaGlenWriter 

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