THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE
In the advance reviews for All Our Squandered Beauty, many readers and bloggers have commented that the book feels like a love letter written to the sea. Although this wasn’t intentional, it was probably inevitable! I was brought up on the Yorkshire coast and I have a deep affinity with both the sea and the nearby moors. Consequently, much of my work has the ocean at its heart: the way it gives and takes, its strength and cruelty, its transformative power, its untameable beauty, the myths and folklore that surround it. Although I live inland at the moment, I return to the east coast often and find it the most inspirational place to write. In fact, the final two drafts of All Our Squandered Beauty were both written by the sea while I was there on my annual writing retreats.
Location is important to me both as a reader and as a writer. When I open a new book I want to be transported to another country, to a different landscape. Whether beautiful or bleak, I want to hear it, touch it, taste it, to feel as though I’m actually there – and over the last year this fictional travel has felt more important than ever.
When remembering a favourite story or novel, it is not necessarily the plot or the characters that come to my mind first, it could just as easily be the location. The stories that stay with me are always those with evocative and immersive settings; places which live and breathe – such as the desolate moors in Jane Eyre, Leningrad as depicted in The Siege by Helen Dunmore, Muriel Spark’s London, or the American South in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. More recently I’ve loved the unsettling depiction of Kiev in Judith Heneghan’s Snegurochka and the cold loneliness of a South Koran seaside town in Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.
As a keen travel writer, I have always tried to convey a strong sense of place in my own fiction too. The stories in my collections, Separated From the Sea and Scratched Enamel Heart, are set in locations as diverse as Russia, Japan and India, Paris and Brooklyn, mid-west America and the north-east coast of England. These different landscapes often dictate the way language is used in the story, whether it reflects the lush, sensory overload of India, the vast, dusty plains of mid-west America or the drab monotony of an out of season English seaside resort.
We are all formed and moulded by the landscape or cityscape that surrounds us, and it will inevitably affect our lives and decisions in a myriad of ways. As a writer, I am aware that my fictional characters will be shaped by theirs in the same manner. Believable characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and I know that I need to do more than give a passing nod to the idea or spirit of the places which have influenced their personality and their past, or which are informing their present actions.
My writing has always explored the vagaries of the human heart – the conflict between the struggle to connect and the need to escape, themes of love and loss, of not quite belonging. I always aim to link characters’ feelings of exclusion and isolation to places as well as people; often examining their lives in the context of a slightly alien environment, reinforcing loss or disconnection. Many of my characters find themselves pinned down, stifled or imprisoned by their surroundings. They are often searching for something intangible, seeking beauty in their lives, trying to understand the importance of food for the spirit.
However, locations don’t always simply have an effect on their decisions, emotions or actions during the course of a story, they can also be used symbolically to convey personality, and can symbolise and reinforce the main themes in a novel. If you think about Charlotte Bronte’s writing for example – would Jane Eyre have been the same story if she’d become a governess in a bright sunny house in a genteel seaside town? The depiction of the vast, bleak moorland, the total isolation, the unforgiving weather, all reflect and deepen the story, the characters, the themes of loneliness and desolation.
My next novella, Crossing the Lines, also has a strong sense of place. Yet although it takes us on a journey across America – a completely different landscape to the one in to All Our Squandered Beauty – the protagonist is trying to return to her home on the New Jersey shore. It would appear that I can’t leave the sea behind for long, either in my life or in my writing!