As my novel set in Thailand is currently out with publishers, I wait. It is, in short, excruciating. In the meantime I am working on a new novel, which is the best antidote, and of course continuing with my usual editing work on other writers’ books. But still I can’t help my thoughts returning to my debut novel, taking fledgling steps out into the world, hoping that it finds a good home. There are many joys and challenges in writing a novel set overseas, and so I asked three fellow writers — Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky — to share their experiences. I could relate to so many aspects of each of their stories. I hope you enjoy them too.
I don’t have any personal connection to Scotland. My ancestors are Dutch and Norwegian. But when I first stepped off the train in Edinburgh I fell in love. I’ve been to Scotland four times now, and for extended periods of time. I’ve been all over the Highlands and islands. And when I am there something just feels right — I feel at home, while also feeling the excitement and stimulation of difference. After all, it is the exact opposite environment of the temperate beach town I grew up in. When I am not there, I do long for the place, the way you might long for a person. I don’t have any explanation for it. I also love Scottish people. My partner is half-Scottish. My ex-boyfriend was half-Scottish. This just seems to happen! My partner’s grandmother told me that she can tell, from my temperament, how I would fit in well in Scotland.
When I first realised I wanted to set a book there I was of course nervous about getting everything wrong. And I questioned my desire to do so, when there are so many great Scottish writers writing about Scotland. But the desire would not go away, and I knew that the lens I was applying would be Australian — my character, Jeff. Once I knew I was going to at least have a go of it I did a ton of research — both in Scotland and via books and online. After I’d drafted the manuscript I went back to Scotland and put myself in the same conditions as my characters (isolated, no electricity, in nature) so I could even get the feel of it right. I was in correspondence with the museum in the area my character Leonora is from, and I bothered them often, as well as going back over all the photos I took in the museum.
One of the hardest decisions was whether or not to have Scots dialect. When I am in Scotland, I do not have any trouble understanding the accent. I can easily think in a Scottish accent, and so when I was writing the draft, I let some of the dialogue come out how I heard it. I also used a Scots dictionary online to add some words in dialect (particularly for the nineteenth-century dialogue). Recently I have been going over this with my UK publisher, who is Scottish, and I have been greatly relieved that I haven’t made any major stuff ups. The fact a Scottish publisher wants to publish it in fact has been a dream come true. I can’t wait to go back!
Angela Meyer’s writing has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. She has worked in bookstores, as a reviewer, in a whisky bar, and for the past few years has published a range of Australian authors for Echo Publishing. A Superior Spectre is her debut novel. literaryminded.com.au/
My relationship with Asia started more than 30 years ago when, after working in France for a year as an au pair, I flew home to Melbourne via Bangkok. I thought I’d reached peak awe after Europe, but Bangkok blew me away. By the time I left France, I could pass for a local; however, that was never going to be the case in Thailand. Then as now, I was intrigued by the question of how to get by in a place where blending in isn’t an option.
I ended up living in South-East Asia for most of the 1990s. When I returned to Australia, intent on becoming a published author, I turned to Asia for creative inspiration. Writing fiction set in Thailand provided both a means to process my experiences and an outlet for the travel stories nobody would listen to.
Ironically, an early rejection of what later became my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, suggested there weren’t enough ‘sights, smells and sounds of Thailand’ in the manuscript. I realised I was too close to the experience, writing so soon after returning to Australia. I had to take a step back and reconnect with the sense of curiosity and wonder I first had — and still have — on visiting Thailand. To remember the details that make the place unique.
One of the great joys of setting novels outside Australia is doing fieldwork in order to gather those details. As part of the research for my forthcoming novel Mother of Pearl, I visited Thailand in December 2015 in search of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and texture that give a setting what James Bradley calls, ‘the imaginative thickness it needs’. Some examples that found their way into the novel include the flayed frogs, legs still kicking, in metal dishes at the morning market in Sisaket; the blast of cold air at the entrances to Bangkok’s plazas; and the smell of brine and barbeque at Bang Saen Beach. The landscape seemed to offer up ways of ‘showing, not telling’ — signs on Bangkok’s Skytrain asking passengers to Please offer this seat to monks, for example — while physically moving through the settings that I imagined my characters to inhabit also helped bring them to life.
The greatest challenge in setting novels outside Australia, and specifically in Asia, is to avoid Orientalism and stereotyping. As a non-Asian Australian writer, I am acutely aware that Western writing about Thailand still trades largely in erotic and exotic stereotypes — and when I look at ‘bestsellers’ set in Thailand, I wonder if that’s what readers want.
I also wonder if there’s a market for books set in Asia written by non-Asian Australians, or if readers prefer Own Voices writing — in this case, stories set in Asia by writers with an Asian background. For my own part, I enjoy perspectives that both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ bring to fiction.
Being transported by reading is one of life’s great pleasures for me. I hope that my own writing brings readers some of this same pleasure.
Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria. angelasavage.wordpress.com/ @angsavage
‘To travel far, there is no better ship than a book.’ Emily Dickinson
In my debut novel, The Waiting Room, the coastal town of Haifa plays the role of character. More than just a particular place, it is evocative of an era in time where a palpable sense of dread accompanies the protagonist, Dina, as she walks through the market or drops her child at school. Set in 2001, during a turbulent spate of terror attacks in the Middle East, the setting explores the dichotomy of living in a war-torn country which is a vibrant and pulsing locale populated with a colourful community of people as they go about their ordinary, daily lives. I worked as a doctor in this region during that time, so the images, smells and sounds of street life were embedded in memory, waiting in the wings for me to conjure them up on the page.
Landscapes shape people. A strong sense of place in a novel can demand a huge amount of research so that every detail resonates with the reader. In my second novel, The Hollow Bones, I pinned the narrative around true but distant events. My protagonist, Ernst Schäfer, was born in 1910 and grew up in a small village in Germany, spending afternoons playing in the forests of Thuringia. By 1930 he had become a zoologist and adventurer, travelling to Philadelphia to partake in a joint American–German team on two expeditions to China and Tibet. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler ordered his return to Germany, to lead a group of German scientists into the foothills of the Himalayas, on a hare-brained mission in search of the ‘true’ origins of the Aryan race. Questions of landscape moved to the forefront of my novel as my characters negotiated the changing mood on the streets of 1930s Berlin. Later, Schäfer treks through the ‘mystical’ terrain of Tibet. The demands of the narrative insisted the need to capture these places as they changed over time, framed against the backdrop of turbulent world events.
Setting can be the bedrock of atmosphere in a novel. When I first came across the story of Ernst Schäfer and the German Tibet Expedition of 1938 I tried to find a way to fund a huge research trip, but finances and time were against me. At that stage I almost gave up on writing the book, but then the words of my wonderful friend and mentor, the late painter Yosl Bergner, came back to haunt me. ‘I never want to visit any place that I have painted through my imagination. It ruins the magic for me.’ I suddenly realised that the settings I had started writing about no longer existed — they were impossible to travel to physically. Berlin and Lhasa of the 1930s had completely vanished.
This was strangely liberating, and I started reading widely. I did visit the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia while I was on book tour in the US for my previous novel. There, in the archives, I came across a wealth of information for my research — field diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, photos and film footage from the expedition — including a taxidermied panda encased in a diorama that Schäfer had brought back from Tibet in 1931. Eventually, the museum ended up becoming an unusual part of the setting the book as well.
Books are the fastest and cheapest way of travelling; imagination has always been the terrain of a writer, and as a novelist I feel I act as a trusty tour guide for my readers, sharing magical and reinvented geographies.
Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician–writers, which starred on Booklist and is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. leahkaminsky.com
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