Tuesday, 19 November 2013

A sense of place: writing the environment

A Sense of Place
Snowy Mountains Readers Writers Festival
Jindabyne, 31 March 2013

I have a friend in New Zealand who told me that the things she was most excited about seeing on her first ever trip to England were a meadow and a badger. She had read about them in childhood stories by Enid Blyton and others, yet she had never experienced these concepts. I wondered at the time whether authors knew that certain things were particular to their shores and people living in other places might not recognise them, and if they felt the need to explain certain physical details such as flora and fauna?

Everyone knows that kangaroos are endemic to Australia but Rose Tremain suffered howls of outrage and accusations of insufficient research when she put a vole in the Arrow in The Colour. She assumed that the little round rodent was everywhere, but it doesn’t live in New Zealand, and the veracity of her novel was ruined. By including such specifics of setting – the books’ equivalent of stage directions – an author may instantly expand or limit their readership. I loved exploring new worlds through novels when I was a child, but several education authorities now claim that children need stories set in places to which they can relate.

At A Sense of Palce, chaired by Lisa Sweeney, previously a manager of radio and television programmes across the country for the ABC network, four authors gather in a hotel in Jindabyne to discuss the effect of the environment on their work before a (predominantly female, as these things always are) audience of about thirty. It seems appropriate that we are in Silver Brumby territory; some of the most descriptive scenery I ever read about as a child.

Writing in a variety of genres – chick-lit, travel, crime and investigative journalism – all said that the setting is crucial to their work, contributing essential elements to what makes a narrative believable. One of the panellists, Barry Maitland suggests that profession may have as much of an influence as setting (he has studied, practiced and taught as an architect) but that is possibly a debate for another time.

Lisa Walker grew up in Fiji and Brisbane, and has worked as a guide in National Parks and taken people to build and stay in snow caves. She now writes and surfs near Byron Bay and says her books are firmly situated in a place. She admits that she is almost cheating with her latest work in progress, which she has set in her own house so she knows the site very well. Sex, Lies and Bonsai is set in a small beachside town and this suits her exploration of outsider themes and the difficulty of returning to a childhood home.

With her interest in zoology, the wildlife that lives in each area is essential to her stories. One of her characters asks, “Do you ever worry that all the wildlife will gang up and drive us out?” Walker also says that in one of her descriptive passages she writes of a person eyeballing a magpie with black eyes. She received a letter pointing out that magpies have brown eyes and that she should have known that as a National Park employee. She agrees that this is true but juveniles have black eyes so she wrote back with a ‘so there’ letter.

Details of the scene are immensely important to Barry Maitland in his crime fiction. He has written six books (with the same two detectives) and sets them in different parts of London. He describes the city as being a series of little villages, and each has its idiosyncrasies. He grew up in London and moved to Australia to head the school of architecture at Newcastle University.

His 2011 novel, Chelsea Mansions, is set among the golden postcodes of the extremely wealthy, as he says wryly, “There hadn’t been a murder in Chelsea for a long time.” The Raven's Eye, his newest novel, concerns the nature of surveillance in modern times and is set among the narrow boats on the Regent’s Canal. He writes from his memories of the capital but also returns to refresh details and he sees it through the critical eyes of a stranger. He says that people will always correct minor details or assert that they know the exact street about which he’s writing, even when he has made it up.

Matthew Condon agrees with the ability of the readership to identify unintended parallels. He claims that no matter what he writes, even if he were to portray an alien from an undiscovered galaxy, “My mother will phone and say, ‘will you stop writing about your father’.” Later, AJ ‘Sandy’ Mackinnon added that when he was writing his first book he couldn’t type so he handwrote the pages and his mother typed them up, editing and deleting as she saw fit, expressing that Great Aunt Mary wouldn’t like it, even though “Great Aunt Mary had been dead for twelve years”. On the other hand, some people don’t recognise themselves, which might be just as well when Condon fears they might take offence at his descriptions.

As a journalist and fiction writer, he has learnt the necessity of attention to detail in a short space of time and words. In the industry they call this a ‘colour writer’. He used to work on the Gold CoastBulletin but hates the landscape of the Gold Coast – there are murmurs of support from the audience for this dislike. Obviously the specifics have to be correct for his latest book, Three Crooked Kings, which is a true crime/ political exposé of police corruption in Queensland. He is working on its follow-up but says he can’t wait to finish with non-fiction as he has many more fiction projects in mind, with which he can be freer with details.

For AJ ‘Sandy’ Mackinnon place or landscape is not just a pretty backdrop but a challenge. He writes of adventures taken in new places, so this setting provides physical as well as literary obstructions. He also sees difficulties in writing originally about a place that others have already covered. Whenever he sees a new place he relates it to somewhere he has read about, from Narnia to the Victorian England of Dickens or the Dr Doolittle stories, and he refers to the “thrill of recognising a place that an author has explained”.

Having grown up in Wollongong, Mackinnon moved to England when he was eight. The family travelled by ship and when he returned to Australia two years ago, he chose the same mode of transport. The outward journey in 1971 (visiting locations such as Cape Town, the Canary Islands and Lisbon) fitted the storybook elements of travel in books he had read as a child. The return leg made him feel like an adventurer.

His travel books began as a correspondence with a friend. He wrote letters of 150 pages, illustrated around the edges because you have time to do such things on a sea voyage. Self-depreciatingly he says, “While everyone else was out playing sport, we were getting pale and writing letters.” Such letters are the forerunners of books because they are instinctively written to amuse an audience, so events are heightened and people turned into characters. He sees no necessity to keep a diary.

The elements of sea, islands and shipwrecks are clearly important to him as they are reflected in his latest work, a retelling The Tempest set on Iona, where the headmasters of posh private schools are at a conference in 70s/80s Britain. He says that “even in fiction landscapes are obstacles to be overcome”.

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