Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Writing and Place: Guest Blog Post by Nik Perring

"Place" is something that is preoccupying me now, as I deal with the fact of having moved countries a month ago. Since I am still processing, I thought I would ask my friend, author, writing colleague and blogger Nik Perring, how where he is affects him and his writing. If anyone else would like to do a guest blog post on this topic, please drop me a line!

Where are you?
In my office, which is an a house, which is in a village, which is about a half hour’s drive from Manchester and a twenty minute drive from the Peak District. In the UK.

How long have you been there?
I say this with a bit of regret and considerable frustration: pretty much all of my life.

I didn’t go to university, I chose to work instead, so I missed out on that experience which is something now, that I kind of regret. That said, I don’t think I’d have ended up being a writer if I had gone, so really I should be grateful to fate for that.

The other reason for regret and frustration is that I shouldn’t really be here, but that’s another story.

Were you there when you wrote I met a Roman Last Night, What Did You Do? If not, where were you?

Yes. I wrote it here, where I’m sitting. At this desk, from this very chair.

How do you think your location affected that book?

I’m not sure that it did. Not in any conscious or, more accurately, intentional way. Though I think there’s a possibility that being here for so long has made me interested in other things and places and people, made me actively Find Stuff Out, looking outward – and also made me look inside for inspiration and stories.

How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?

Again, I’m not sure that it does in any conscious way – speaking for myself. While at the same time I’ll contradict myself and say: an awful lot. I think, in answering this, I’m also trying to find out what I think.

I like to think that I write about what interests me, about characters I make up who interest me. Now that could be a young lad who ends up meeting various and exciting historical peoples who feature on the National Curriculum, as easily as it could be about a nosey librarian who might be getting the wrong end of a stick about the intentions of one of her borrowers. I like to think that the people I write about are as universal as they can be and not restricted by place, as much as that’s possible; I think that a hugely important factor in good story telling is having characters that people can recognise – where they’re from or where they are, in my opinion, is something that comes second to that – although, clearly where they are will, to some degree, make them who they are and/or make them act the way they do. Complicated, huh?

Now for the contradictory part. All that said, I think it’s impossible to have been somewhere with it not having affected you in some way, good or bad. As writers, we soak things up, quite naturally – and it’s what has been absorbed that provides us with the stuff that our characters and settings come from. And books. Reading books does that too.

I think it comes down to this: a fiction writer’s biggest tool is his/her imagination. It’s the mind. The ability to make stuff up. The ability to make characters believable. The ability to show us their world (not the writer’s). How those characters are formed, where the ideas for them come from, aren’t that important to a reader because they, normally, won’t have anything to do with the story. So where a writer’s been and who they’ve met and the experiences they’ve had will all have fuelled his or her subconscious understanding or observation of people and places and the interactions between them, it’s what goes on top, what adds colour and character to their work that’s the difference, and that’s something that has to come from the imagination.

For me - and again I can only speak for myself here and I appreciate lots of people will disagree (I’m also speaking as someone whose work doesn’t often have a particularly strong lean towards realism) – a story is about a character or characters. It’s the story of what a character does, how she or he reacts to something, what they do to cope with something, how they feel about something - whatever that something may be. So a story is about people. And people are everywhere. And those somethings they have to deal with are pretty similar from place to place. If we’re talking about a character dealing with, say, ‘loss’ for instance: what places in the world don’t have people dealing with, or having dealt with, loss? The kind of loss may be shaped by their location, but that fundamental emotion is something that can be understood, recognised and empathised with, wherever you’re from. I also think that as emotions are something that are easily translated it’s often not essential to identify where a story’s set.

What I find I’m discovering, as I contradict myself and circle the point for an answer, is that a lot of this is down to a writer’s perception of themselves. It’s about ego. At the moment, for a hundred different reasons, I’m frustrated with where I am so I think I’m trying to find as many ways as I can to say that I don’t take inspiration from this place, when clearly I do, whether I want to or not. (I’m also discovering how much contradiction is part of my life.)

And how does location affect how a writer writes?

Tough one. I’d guess that writers have a compulsion to write. So if we’re talking about routine: they’ll fit it in somehow regardless of where they are. I’d also guess that where they are could either inspire them to write about their location or go completely the opposite way and cause them to write about somewhere else as a means of escape. Or a mixture of the two. You’re probably best asking them!

Complex creatures, writers. And they don’t have as much control over what they write as they may like to think, it would seem.

So that’s what I think about that, I’d be curious to hear what others’ opinions are.

Thanks so much, Nik, for expressing all the contradictions involved in thinking about how where we are affects what we do as writers. Anyone else?


Kate said...

I just wanted to say thanks for posting I found the interview really interesting. I do find a lot of the books I enjoy reading are based on how much I like or dislike the characters.

Anyway enough rambling from me!

Katie x

Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating post, guys. I find that place is a huge part of my writing, to the point that the setting often becomes a "character" in itself. Makes for great "research" travel, though. Something in your future, Nik?

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Tania, for kicks-tarting this discussion. And thanks, Nik, for your very interesting self-examination and answers. I totally agree that, as writers, we inhabit a place called Imagination, which means we're not restricted by our physical environment even though it may, and does, affect how and what we write. This is why I don't like the "Write what you know" rule - because imagination takes us in directions we might never try if we stayed simply within the confines of "what we know".

As someone who has recently changed location and is trying to fit writing into a new regime, I was particularly interested in hearing how you approach "place" in writing.

Tania, I'd love to do a guest blog here, once the dust has settled a bit more (but not too much, as the state of flux is an interesting one to try and capture for the purposes of this discussion).

Sarah Hilary said...

"Kicks-tarting" was a typo, honest! It sounds so Freudian, I thought I'd better apologise. Sorry, everyone. :(

Lauri said...

I like kicks tarting- as if you're finally managing to give up being a tart. And I would think that's a good thing. (sorry)

I sometimes feel my place (Botswana) opressing me. People always want me to write everything set in Bots but my mind and even my life has not always been set here. Also, Africa as a whole is often far too serious for my liking in literature- and that is another drag. In protest, I often find myself flitting over setting as if it is almost irrelvant.

But, of course, Nik is absolutely correct as writers, even in a cement room, we can travel everywhere along with our characters.

Interesting post- thanks.

Nik Perring said...

Thanks for reading, folks.

Kate, that's not rambling, I think it's right!

I like the sound of that 'research' Sue! And yes, often where a place is set is a huge part of the story - I agree with what you say about it often becoming a character - but, for me I prefer to make it up! Definitely a case of each to their own, and I'm glad there's someone out there who operates differently to me!

Sarah - exactly! Love to read your thoughts on this...

And thanks, Lauri. I think I'd always say: write what you want. Not much worse than being limited. Botswana does sound interesting though - is that part of the problem!?

Thanks again. And thanks to Tania for having me. It's been a pleasure.


Group 8 said...

Hi Nik and T, sorry, I'm rather late to the party. Busy, busy.
V interesting topic.
Place is hugely important to me in writing, I'd have to say. Apart from my home/birthplace which turns up in so much of my work, especially the river liffey which I grew up beside, I also find travel hugely influential on my work. I like nothing better than setting a piece somewhere that I've been - all that magical colour and texture! I love making settings important.
(The word ver is 'wayin' - spooky!)

Debi said...

'Complex creatures, writers. And they don’t have as much control over what they write as they may like to think, it would seem.' So true!

Tania Hershman said...

Thank you all for stopping by and commenting, and thank you Nik for the thought-provoking post!

Kate, I think that is probably how many of us judge books, it's all about character for me.

Sue, since your latest book is about Cambodia, and you live in London, maybe you'd like to do a guest post about writing and place?

Sarah - kicks-tarting is totally wonderful! And I'll get back to you about the guest blog when you are ready.

Lauri, very interesting, the pressure you feel. And I agree with you about setting - for me, recently, I tend to not set my stories anywhere in particular, it just feels right to do that.

N - your stories most definitely use place in a wonderful way, you do make them characters in their own right. (wayin - weird!)

Debi, ah yes!