Monday musings on Australian literature: Angela Savage and setting in fiction
I have several ideas for my next few Monday Musings, but another one popped up on the weekend as I was perusing my Twitter feed. I don’t check Twitter regularly enough – it’s impossible to keep up with all the social media sites don’t you think? – but when I do I regularly find a treasure or two. Anyhow, this tweet was from Angela Savage promoting the short piece “Take me to a different land” that she wrote for the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference being held next month at the Virginia G Piper Centre for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. This is an annual conference for “writers, readers, and lovers of literature”, though it seems to me that the main focus is on writers, as it describes itself as devoted to “the science and art of creative writing, including world building, plot/narrative structure, and character development to more specialized topics like writing about climate change, working with different cultures, and pulling material from fairy tales and myth”.
I was inspired to delve further for a few reasons: I’m interested in anything to do with the process of writing fiction; I wanted to know what Angela Savage had to say having enjoyed her crime novel The dying beach (my review); and, less relevant to this post, I love Arizona!
Now, setting is one of those aspects of fiction that readers often discuss. And, in fact, Savage starts her piece by quoting a reader from a rejection letter she received for her first Thailand-set novel, Behind the night bazaar:
I didn’t really feel that I had been taken to Thailand… I think there needs to be more of a sense of the sights and smells of Thailand, of being taken to a different land.
Savage says that at the time she was writing the novel she’d been living in SE Asia for six years, including 18 months in Thailand. She realised that it had become too familiar to her. She needed, she said, to step back and remember what it was like when she first arrived, and “try to conjure the little things that made the place unique”. She describes the process she went through to give that first novel the feeling of Thailand, and then says that for her later Thailand-set novels she’s returned to the country “with the express purpose of conducting fieldwork to inform my fiction”.
She goes on to say that as well as working on conveying “the sensory texture of different locations—the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch”, she “walks the streets in the shoes” of her characters, “imagining the landscape as they would see it, based on their state of mind.” Her aim in doing this is to closely relate the setting to the character. She recognises that a “strong sense of place” can transport readers, “adding to the pleasure and excitement of reading” but that the writer’s challenge is to ensure place enhances the story, rather than be a distraction.
I’ve written about setting and place a few times on this blog. In one post, I talked of this sensory aspect, saying that “my favourite descriptions are sensory, enabling me to feel and see the place and its impact on the characters”. This is largely what Savage is talking about here, isn’t it?
In another post I reported on a panel with the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award winners. The chair, Caroline Baum, asked fiction winner Stephen Daisley about writing on place. She said that roughly 50% of authors writing about foreign places say they must visit a place to write about it, while the other half argue that this isn’t necessary. Daisley admitted that he’d not visited all the places he’d written about in Traitor, resulting in Baum asking how one can write about a place without visiting it. Daisley’s answer was Google!
Author Nigel Featherstone, was asked, in an interview he offered to my blog, about his writing on landscape in his novel, Remnants. He said
Even today, as I drive around the Southern Tablelands, I’m struck by the character of the landscape, its moods, its reticence, but always the amplification of self. As a writer, I’m interested in place as character as much as I am in human beings as character.
So, that’s what some authors say. What do readers say?
But if an author chooses to set a story in a real place, and they name it, then I think they should get it right. I want the details to be right, and if they aren’t (and I notice that they’re not, that’s another big step) then it spoils my enjoyment of the rest of the story. I don’t necessarily mean it to, but it just does.
Regular commenter on my blog, Meg, agrees, commenting on my recent Spotlight on Georgia Blain post that:
I do prefer factual detail about people and places. When I read fiction I want to believe what the author is telling me. I don’t want to have to question something I know to be different.
And then just a few days ago, John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) commented on Lisa (ANZlitLovers) post on Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, Woman on the stairs. He agreed with Lisa’s criticism of the book, saying:
Thank God – I’m not alone! I found this dull too, and very poorly edited. For example: when the narrator says he loves the botanical garden in Sydney, he says it is bordered by a cathedral to the north and by the Opera House to the south. Wrong! It’s the Opera House to the *north*, the cathedral to the *south*…
And finally, Cally73 (a GoodReads reviewer) commented on the abovementioned Stephen Daisley’s Traitor that:
A little more explanation of the New Zealand setting would have been beneficial – as a New Zealander, I was able to work out where it was set, but those unfamiliar with the geography of NZ may find it difficult.
Oh dear, and that’s a place he has been to!
What I sense here – based on both the few examples here and more conversations over the years – is that readers can be very critical if they think authors have got the “facts” about place wrong, whilst for authors, the focus is more on the “sense” of the place and whether it serves their purposes. Many know they will be picked up if they get the “facts” wrong, but that’s not their focus. For authors who like doing research, it’s not a big issue, but for those who don’t it’s probably safer, as Louise above implies, to create a fictional setting, even if it’s based on a real place. Call Canberra by another name, and readers can go with the flow – but that doesn’t help of course if the issues the author wants to explore are place-centric (such as the shrimp-farming industry in Angela Savage’s The dying beach.)
I’d love to be a fly on the wall when setting is discussed at the conference. What issues will concern the authors most?