Some of my favourite writers are closely associated with particular landscapes. The two Williams (Trevor and Maxwell) are linked respectively with small towns in Ireland, and Lincoln, Illinois. Roddy Doyle belongs heart and soul to Dublin, while Alice Munro has swept us along as strangers to Huron County, Ontario and gradually, over decades of reading her stories, made it feel familiar.
When I first started writing it was the dusty landscape of my childhood that surfaced. As soon as I picked up a pen, it just poured out. Obscure details came back as clearly as if I had observed them yesterday, and I can remember thinking that I would never know anywhere on earth as intimately as I knew those early houses with their scorched backyards, and the towns, so slow they seemed half etherised.
In If You Were Mine I set a scene in the Adelaide seaside suburb of Semaphore. Although technically part of the city, to me it has always felt more like a country town and one that is slightly set back in time (the picture above shows its beautiful old Palais Hotel and the one below is of its jetty during a kite festival). When local literary critic, Katherine England, reviewed my novel she singled out my loving portrait of Semaphore for special praise. Bu not long afterwards, at a meeting of local writers, I overheard someone complaining that they hated reading fiction set in places they knew. To my astonishment (and horror) there was general agreement.
The novel I’m working on now is again set in my home city. The beach and its surrounding streets all appear with their real names, and the cafe where the main character lives is so closely described that when the manuscript was shortlisted for a literary fellowship one of the judges told me afterwards that he remembered how, when he was a kid, his dad would drive him there to buy ice cream.
If one of the functions of fiction is to document, then the landscapes we are deeply familiar with are obvious candidates for a preservation order. Yet some locations are seen as more sexy than others, and perhaps by writing a city that, despite its many beauties, is less extroverted than its Eastern cousins, one is doomed to be pigeonholed as a parochial writer, of little interest in a flashy, celebrity fuelled world.
But the settings that have become so familiar to us through the best-loved fiction would never have become so universally embedded if the writers had not set out to capture what they knew. Is a murder in Iceland or the theft of a child in Sweden intrinsically more interesting than murder and child-theft in Australia or New Zealand? Perhaps some of you out there can answer this, or at least share your own philosophy about reading and writing fiction set in familiar territory.