By Sarah Bower
Yes, I am writing this from east of Whitby, from very far east of Whitby. I am writing this in my new office at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, where I am writer in residence for the next six months. Why Whitby, you may ask, especially those of you who know my home university is the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
Well, as writer in residence I have some teaching responsibilities but my main purpose is to reside, and write, and the novel I shall be working on while I’m here, entitled Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? is set in Whitby (and Palestine, but that will be for another article). You may find this perverse. Surely the lore relating to novel writing dictates that the writer immerse herself in the setting of her novel in order to render this with the kind of authenticity that helps to bring the fictional world to life. Certainly, if you are writing realist fiction, or speculative fiction which nevertheless has identifiable ‘real’ settings, you need as much first hand knowledge and experience of these as you can glean in order to transport readers to a concrete and credible world.
But ‘raw’ research is unlikely to achieve this goal. If you try to write from the midst of the impressions and sensations which crowd in upon you when you are in a place and observing with intensity and acuity you are more likely to produce unprocessed muddle than coherent scene-setting. Research must be processed, refined, and edited in a way which ensures you use only what shores up your imaginative process and supports the aims of your novel. An excess of meticulous description merely gets in the way of the story telling and frustrates the reader, as I know to my cost. I well remember, shortly after returning from a research trip to Italy for Sins of the House of Borgia, the way my writing group’s eyes glazed over as I read out pages on the topography of the Este castle in Ferrara.
It seems to me, therefore, that there is some sense after all in writing about Whitby from the vantage point of Hong Kong. Both places have things in common which help me to focus on what is important. They are both sea ports, for example, and from this common base I can build up in my mind the ways in which they vary and see how this helps me to give a true picture of Whitby. Hong Kong is one of the busiest ports in the world. The sea lanes between its 258 islands are more like aquatic motorways than the paradise of azure water, white sands and palm trees conjured in the western imagination by the words ‘South China Sea’. There is an endless coming and going of barges, container ships, sampans and gin palaces. The seas around Whitby, by contrast, offer wind farms and oil rigs and little else, other than the very occasional pleasure boat, because the fishing industry that put Whitby on the map in the 19th century is now virtually dead.
Hong Kong and Whitby are steep places, where flights of steps frequently take the place of pavements. In Hong Kong, steps lead to shops and bars and banks and packed apartment blocks, and people rush up and down them in pursuit of busy daily lives. In Whitby, the most famous flight of steps leads to the ruined abbey made famous by Bram Stoker and is thronged with slow moving tourists whose main aim is to fill the gap between pub lunch and cream tea.
These contrasts help me to highlight a sense I am looking for in my novel, of Whitby as a place where people wash up rather than somewhere they arrive or move through with purpose, of a place looking more towards the past than the future. By thinking outwards from what the two places have in common to the different ways in which these commonalities manifest themselves I can arrive at the mood I am trying to achieve, of a location which is in the world but not of it, passed by, overlooked, isolated, a destination to which the characters in my novel come to find time and space to deal with the blows life has dealt them. Travel is always, on some level, a running away as well as towards and so, the part of me that has run away to Hong Kong resonates with and reflects back on to the running away enacted by these characters and helps me to develop them as well as the world they live in.
The central figure in Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? is a woman in her mid-fifties, recently widowed in traumatic circumstances, who embarks on a love affair with a younger man. This is something which still attracts comment in the west, but is no longer greeted with the derision it used to be. The further we move from validating sexual relations in terms of their procreative power and, perhaps, return to classical notions of erotic love, the less we prejudice romantic pairings which have no procreative possibility. Middle aged women are no longer, as Germaine Greer lamented in the 1990s, invisible. Here, however, and on a trip to Bangkok last year, I observe that middle aged western women are most certainly invisible. It surprises me that in Hong Kong, as well as in Thailand, where it didn’t surprise me at all, you see a great many middle aged western men with Asian wives and partners and very few middle aged western women.
I will express no personal view on this because what view can I possibly hold about something as private, mysterious and downright ineffable as other people’s relationships? My observation has, however, given me a lot to think about where my heroine is concerned. It has reminded me that she cannot roar, cougar like, into her seduction of her young lover. She is no Mrs. Robinson but a woman whose entire life has contributed to her conviction that she is one of the invisible. In this way – pace those readers who are always convinced the novelist is writing about herself – she is very different from me! Walking around the gated community where I am living, however, and where there seem to be quite a number of western men with Asian partners, I wonder about the almost complete absence of western women of my own age, and feel more able to tap into my heroine’s mindset, and thus chart the journey she has to go on, than I have ever done before.
So yes, it may seem bizarre to go to the far east to write about the north east coast of England, and to live in a young, go-getting Asian society in order to examine the psyche of England in middle class and middle age, but the perspective it gives is exciting, unforeseen, and invaluable.
There will be more from Sarah Bower East of Whitby in future editions. Her third novel, Erosion, which is set in East Anglia and was written in East Anglia and includes a spot of murder but not much in the way of love affairs, will be published soon.