Welcome again, to Carol Maginn – it’s a long time since Ruin, and her last visit to my blog! I know you will enjoy her meanderings round the settings of her new book, Daniel Taylor.
Firstly, I would like to thank Jane very much indeed for inviting me onto her blog, to think a little about the settings of novels. It’s particularly relevant when Kenya is such a large and magnificent character in her Breath of Africa.
Daniel Taylor began life when I was living over in Rome. I spotted a gaunt, preoccupied man striding across the Piazza del Popolo one evening, and decided on no evidence at all that he was probably a private investigator.
All my impressions of Rome were those of a stranger. I had much more in common with my second character, the hapless Dan Taylor, who is in Rome on holiday and gets caught up in events he doesn’t understand, which mostly take place in a language he also doesn’t understand. Daniel Taylor, on the other hand, is what I aspired to be – fluent in Italian, and at home in his surroundings.
I wanted to note all the small and fabulous things as well as the grandeur. Rome is human-sized, complicated, and endlessly interesting. I never stopped being impressed by the unerring speed of service in the bars, where morning espresso and cappuccino were delivered to a never-ending stream of morning commuters. The city copes with sweeping rain and thunder storms, heat, traffic, pollution, bureaucracy and visitors, and generally copes well. It’s almost (but not quite) impossible to find bad food, and absolutely impossible to find bad coffee. I became dangerously addicted to the dark, thick hot chocolate and the simple, thin pizza rossa.
Rome is a walking city, and my characters get to walk quite a lot. I can see the pleasure that writers get in mentally – or actually – tracing the routes of their protagonists through real streets. I also remember idly noting how on the Metro there’s no partition between the carriages, and thinking how alarming that would be if one were trying to evade pursuers.
This novel also took a few diversions. There’s a visit to Levenshulme in Manchester – a slightly ramshackle suburb in a rainy city where I lived for a long time. I’m very fond of it still. Where better for an older brother who hasn’t quite made his fortune?
And then there are trips to the USA – to Aberdeen in Washington State, and Cambridge Massachusetts. Again, these are places that I’ve visited. One of the attractions for me of Cambridge MA was the River Charles, and its bridges. I’d vaguely thought that the low, broad parapets would be pretty good for jumping off and living to tell the tale….and so they prove.
I enjoy the sense that a writer is sharing a world they know well with me – from Dickens’s London to Sefi Atta’s Lagos. But I also enjoy settings that exist only in the author’s imagination – the world of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for example, is at least as vivid as anywhere that really exists, as are the dual realities in China Mieville’s The City and the City.
I’m not terribly literal. I’ve never been tempted to do a tour of Rebus’s Edinburgh or Ferrante’s Naples. Or even Leopold Bloom’s Dublin. I’m happy with what the writer feels is relevant and important, or, rather, what is relevant and important to their characters. I’m stunned by the vivid pictures which Barbara Kingsolver paints of Congo, and the intense beauty of Thomas Hardy’s bygone Wessex.
And maybe, just maybe one day, I’ll conjure a world as half as real as theirs….!