Place and the novelist

What has place to do with the novelist?

There was a discussion at this year’s Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival about writers and a sense of place. I wasn’t able to listen to it, because I was engaged in something to do with historical fiction in another part of the festival and I’m sorry to have missed it because I understand the importance of place to the novelist.
What triggered this post today was that I read a review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly on Amazon USA by someone whose nom de plume is “Professor.” It isn’t a new review – he wrote it last year – and I’m commenting on it now because of the thinking I’ve been doing about place. What the professor says is:

“a significant element of the story is set in France. a country that I love and holiday in every year. Lynch clearly knows France well. His descriptions are accurate and appealing and I truly enjoyed the enviable canal trip from Auxerre experienced by three of the characters.”

I was pleased to read that, because I know that canal well; I’ve cycled along it and I’ve made the journey River Yonne route de halageby boat in the same way as the characters do. I fell off my bike at one time on a particularly rough part of the route de halage (it was my fault – I was thinking about something else) and when someone asked how I was I remember being ridiculously proud that, despite the mess I was in, I remembered that the past tense of tomber takes être and not avoir.
Be that as it may – I know Accolay, where they pause for Carver to make his arrangements with Monsieur Arbot. In fact, here’s the very inn where that meeting takes place. I know the closed-in nature of the place, how it Hostellerie de Fontaine in Accolaybelongs to “La France profonde,” and the way it led me to say, “In the Nivernais, no-one watches you – but everyone sees what you do.” And after I’d thought about that it occurred to me that I also know the cafe where Carver sits as he watches Stacey, and where Stacey goes when it’s almost all over, and what it’s like on Eurostar, and…
The thing is that, when I write, I’m writing just as much about place as I am about people. When, in A Just and Upright Man, I wrote about “the wild whinscapes of County Durham,” I was writing from memory. (I don’t think whinscapes was even a word before I used it). I’ve had people who have read Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper say to me, “I was surprised that you managed to get it right when you wrote about sink estates in Newcastle.” Well, you shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not. And when, in that same book, Billy finds himself in Coeur d’Alene and says this:

It’s a strange place, Coeur d’Alene. Americans will tell you it didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, which rather rudely ignores the Indians. Now it’s a resort and you get lots of normal people, or people who can pass for normal in the northwest USA, and they have malls and restaurants and stuff to amuse themselves in. There’s sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter and golf most of the time when it isn’t actually snowing. Good old friendly USA.
But it started as a frontier trading post and went into mining and logging and gambling, and the people who did those things weren’t clubbable. Coeur d’Alene was where you got off the steamboat to try your luck at prospecting for silver, and where you got back on the boat to go home, or more likely to drift on somewhere else, when you realised this was not the place you were going to make your strike. There was no welfare state and no safety net and if you didn’t look after yourself in whatever way you could, you starved. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in that environment and beneath the tourist polish all that independence and egoism is still there.

I’m writing about what I saw. What I experienced. As I am when he describes an hotel bar in these terms:

Take Dan and Vern in Buffalo, Wyoming. We met in the Occidental Saloon. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane all stayed at the Occidental and when you stand in the bar you can see twenty-three bullet holes in the ceiling. It brings back every Western you ever watched.

I know it’s possible to do a great deal of research on the Internet, and the Internet will certainly tell you (with pictures, thanks – among others – to Google Earth) what a place looks like. But how it feels? There’s only one way if you want to write about that. You have to have been there.
For many writers, that means visiting a place to research the book they’re writing at the time. It doesn’t seem to work that way for me. Somehow, when I write about a place, it’s a place that I already know, and I put my characters into it. It’s like all those places have settled into a sort of mental sediment inside my head, to be drawn on when needed.
I said, for example, that I know that cafe from which Carver watches Stacey, but what I should have said is that I knew it, because the cafe was on the road out of Kingston on Thames and it must be nearly thirty years since I was last there. The cafe may well be gone by now.
All of these thoughts were originally triggered by “Professor’s” review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. The mind, though, does not stand still and my present work in progress is about growing older. I put these two pictures side-by-side:

Haynes Oval and Ellis Park

The one on the left was taken behind the stand at Haynes Oval in Nassau either in 1964 or 1965. The one on the right was taken in 2010 on the pitch at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. On the left, I’m dressed to play cricket. On the right, I’m dressed to watch rugby (I’m leaning against the goal post because the match – Lions v Western Province – was over. Lions won). The fact that in 1964 I played and in 2010 I only watched is not the only change wrought by 46 years of living. Look at the hair. Look at the face. Look at the waist line.
What’s this got to do with place? Haynes Oval. I’ve never written about the time I spent in Nassau, but I remember the place so well. It’s time I brought it back to life. Now… What characters am I going to set down there?

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