On being exotic while remaining everyday

When we set a novel in New York, London or Sydney, most readers have a picture in their mind, even if they’ve not been to the city. New York, Paris, London and Sydney are so important to global culture that we carry round a sense of what the cities are. Writers often have to address that when we write realistic fiction set in one of them. We have to counter the vision that already exists in someone’s mind.

The Time of the Ghosts is set in Canberra. Very few people have cultural images for Canberra. Even Australians often dismiss our national capital. US friends sometimes ask me what it’s like to live on the Pacific: Canberra is in the mountains, two hours from the Pacific. A European once told me about a Swiss map where Sydney was marked as the national capital. This says it all.

Something I’ve discovered through writing about the less-famous is that there is a furphy* floating round editing circles about how much localness readers can deal with. Readers love local colour. They love Australian slang. They love all kinds of things as long as those all kinds of things make sense in the story. I’ve talked about this before, so I  won’t go into the writing side here and now. The new book has a different cover, and the new cover (by the very clever Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff) pinpoints precisely how local colour works in a novel. Maya has caused the cover to sing “This story is about people. Come in and meet them”

It’s all about story. And it’s all about the people in the story. The place has to feel real for this kind of novel. I didn’t need an epic London or a charming Paris or a sharp New York. I needed a place I could make come alive. I don’t always set my work so close to home, but I do when it’s perfect.

This time it was particularly perfect, for Canberra’s peculiarity is that it’s what I like to call a palimpsest city. There’s a glossy tourist exterior that’s rather dull and then there’s the reality. There are so many complexities hidden beneath the public monument surface that I’ve used it for other novels without repeating themes. For The Wizardry of Jewish Women I used its appalling bushfire summer and I used its odd political substrate. For The Time of the Ghosts I used the considerable amount of cultural baggage so many of us bring when we settle. All I had to do was open a suitcase and bring what was inside it to life.

With a fantasy novel, the magic has to come from somewhere. My historian self has always wanted to build a Ptolemaic world on top of Canberra. Why? Because Walter Burley Griffin used his own philosophies to shape the early design and you can read it in the lines and in the hills. And before him and after him and still now, the Ngunawal and Wiradjuri explain the landscape.

I wondered what would happen if I put that Ptolemaic map literally on those others. I took a street directory and created a cosmos that centred on a particular place and then I deduced the rest. My Canberra magic is very well connected with the land, but in a very old-fashioned European way. My Canberra has an old European fairy – why would she come to die in a place that didn’t hold a world she understood at a profound level.

Doing this helped with conflict and plotting in the story, but it also helped me find out which aspects of the Canberra palimpsest could leap off the page. It helped me find the right ghosts and the right dangers. More than that, it helped me link the landscape to the people and to the plot. Which sounds painfully intellectual and not a very good thing…except…

The wonderful thing about a new edition, is I get to look back and find out whether my approach works for readers. This is the bottom line for me. If it reaches across the miles and talks to people who saw Canberra as a dot on a map, then local colour works. It’s my local colour – it doesn’t have to match the tourist brochures. All the reviews and all the readers tell me that this story works. I haven’t merely played with theories. I’ve used ideas to create a novel and bring people and story to life.


*translations of Aussie words provided on request. ‘Furphy’ is a good one and totally worth looking up.



On being exotic while remaining everyday — 4 Comments

    • It was the name of a water supplier in the Outback (it was a brand name) but since everyone gossiped when they gathered around ‘a furphy’ (one of the tanks) it’s become a word that means ‘colourful story that’s probably not at all true.’ ‘The dragon stole my homework’ is my current example. (I used to use political examples, but they’re no fun anymore.)