It’s hot today. Bloody hot. Although summer’s not here yet it’s one of those days when the temperature gets up into the high thirties and remains there until a powerful southerly arrives in the evening to make it all better. It took me years to understand what to do with days like this: close the windows, pull down the blinds, retreat; put extra ice packs in lunch-boxes, drink gallons of water and stay in the shade, move slowly. I went to the shopping centre briefly, mostly for the air conditioning and, as always happens in November, was irritated by the Christmas decorations and the resident Father Christmas who was in position and ready for his close up. Christmas in the heat will never feel normal or right to me and while prawns and beaches are wonderful, like any whinging homesick Pom, I miss mulled wine and cosy pubs almost as much as I miss old friends at this time of the year.
I wanted to snap my fingers and be in London on a cold winter’s morning, wrapped up in a woollen coat, a pair of tights under my jeans, gloves on my hands and a scarf covering half my face. I imagined sitting with the woman I miss the most in a Soho cafe as we drank from steaming mugs and discussed our plans for December and New Year’s Eve. Like always, the pain was almost physical, hitting me right in the pit of my stomach. On the way home, I began thinking about the new book I’m planning and how I’d like to set it in London. But finding a comfortable sense of place is difficult for a homesick writer. Should I should remain faithful to my adopted home or let my imagination take me back across the seas? Or, would it be better to keep the setting amorphous and write about an unnamed western city that could be anywhere in the world?
In the back of my mind is another question: is location important when it comes to getting interest from overseas agents and selling a book? More novels are sold in the northern hemisphere, so do northern hemisphere agents, publishers and readers prefer novels to mirror their experience and lives; do they want to remain comfortable in a world they recognise? Would they rather a character walk across the sand in Cornwall, California or Sydney?
And another question: isn’t it a writer’s job to evoke a sense of place so tantalising the reader can immediately imagine the sticky yellow sand of a northern Sydney beach just as easily as the rolling dunes of Newquay or the wide open expanse of Santa Monica, despite not having visited any of them?
My solution has been to attempt to find the sweet spot in between. To write stories that move from England to Australia and perhaps back again; to have characters who are outsiders, ex-pats or strangers in a strange land. After all, being removed from all that is familiar and comforting is universal, while throwing characters into unsettling situations or places can prompt inner and outer conflict which is always good for a plot.
But, still I wonder: is it important to wear your nationality on the pages of your writing? Will being a British writer, an American writer or an Australian writer help or hinder in the global marketplace? Do readers mind if your accent is different from theirs?