Talking Location With .. Venetia Welby – OKINAWA
Talking Location With.. author Lorraine Wilson – BULGARIA
9th October 2021
#TalkingLocationWith… Lorraine Wilson, author of This Is Our Undoing.
My debut novel, This Is Our Undoing, is based in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria, in a near-future Europe fracturing under climate change and tribalist politics. The story is about powerlessness in the face of global crises, and is my attempt to say that the small choices we make still matter. It follows a woman scientist who has escaped a dangerous past to create a new life as a scientist at a remote research station in the mountains, and when an old enemy’s death puts her family in danger she must fight to protect them even at the risk of becoming a monster. The Rila Mountains are not an obvious choice of setting for a dystopian-ish novel. They are perhaps best known for mountaintop monasteries and skiing, not for resistance fighters, folkloric threats or strong-arm politics, so why did I choose it?
Well, precisely because it’s such a remote and relatively untouched wilderness! I love the contrast between the wonder and power of this vast wild place, and the claustrophobia of the research station or the controlling power of the police states. I love the way the forest carries its own threats but, unlike the outside world, is also a source of beauty and joy, and I’m lucky enough to know first-hand what it feels like to live in remote wildernesses like this which made writing it even more of a treat.
I’ve visited Bulgaria eight times over the last five years, but the forests that cover much of Bulgaria’s mountain ranges (the Boreal forest that Western Europe has largely destroyed) were already familiar to me from working as a research scientist in Poland’s Białowieża forest, and the Taiga forests of western Russia. I’ve radio-tracked (and been stalked by) wolves, I’ve done night surveys for owls and bats and small carnivores, I’ve been checked out by bears, wild boar and far too many biting flies, and come away with an abiding love for an ecosystem that feels so much more fiercely alive than you might be used to. As a writer, knowing those little details like what the forest smells like at night, how the receding summer snow is followed by carpets of alpine crocuses, which birds will be singing on a hot July morning etc is a wonderful resource to pull from. Not just for simple scene setting, but because the owl call, the distant thunder, the poppies, can all help create subtext and atmosphere.
For the intrepid wishing to explore the Rila Mountains, you don’t have to be a field ecologist or live in a dystopian future, there is a network of mountain hostels tucked into the high valleys where you can find hot food and a bed, meaning you can walk for days without having to venture down into civilisation. Look out for ibex on the peaks and the giant gouges dug into trees by black woodpeckers (big holes = woodpecker, scratches = bear). Bulgarians are rightfully proud of their natural spaces and the half-abandoned villages fill up with families at weekends, going for walks and picnics everywhere, which is joyous to see. If you want the more accessible wild areas to yourself though, go during the week.
One of the beauties of have a story based in the wilderness is that the setting comes with its own heritage of folklore and traditions. When you’re out walking, keep your eyes peeled for martenitsi – small red and white dolls and bracelets that the locals hang on flowering bushes in Spring to thank Baba Marta for allowing Winter to end. In my book these dolls became a symbol of resistance, the unbroken will of the locals, and their hostility to outsiders, but in real life we’ve been met with nothing but welcome! Few people, particularly outside the tourist spots, speak English (more speak Russian or German) so teach yourself a few basics, it will be much appreciated. And if you can, learn to pronounce the alphabet – it’ll help amazingly with navigating and shopping. For example this: ресторант says ‘restorant’ which is – ta da! – Bulgarian for ‘restaurant’. Cool, yes?
Bulgaria’s mountains are a nature-lover’s idyll, full of wildlife and dramatic scenery. To my book’s main character, they offer healing and a sanctuary from a darkening world; to her enemy’s son they are the daunting unknown; to me they are proof that the wilderness is still holding on. With all its history and biodiversity and beauty, it will hopefully outlive us all.
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