It’s Publication Day today for SHADOWS ON THE NILE, so as I’m too excited to work this morning, I thought I’d tell you a bit about why I write about faraway places.
I didn’t start out exotic. I started out very English. So what was it that made me take that leap into exotic settings when it came to writing? Well – as for a lot of things in life – I blame my mother! It just so happens that she was the daughter of a White Russian who escaped from St Petersburg during the Russian Revolution in 1917 and fled in a hair-raising journey across Siberia to China. So my mother lived her early years in a magical city called Tientsin in northern China and later, when I grew up in drizzly Wales hearing exotic tales of black snakes in bathrooms, acrobats in the streets and songbirds by the thousand in bamboo cages, I was entranced.
So how could I resist? Lured by this family connection to both China and Russia, I set about researching these two proud and powerful countries. And out of my hundreds of pages of notes emerged my first book, The Russian Concubine, which is set in China 1928.
But my Russian heritage had taken a grip on me and it wasn’t ready to let go. I became obsessed. And I mean obsessed! I ate, slept and dreamt all things Russian. It was as though I had to excavate the part of me that was caught up in my ancestry and find out what it means to be Russian. The result was that over the next three years I wrote three books set in Russia between 1910 and 1933 – taking place in Moscow, in St Petersburg and in a village in the Ural Mountains.
Only then, finally, was I ready to move on.
But I had learnt from experience and I knew that for a book to work for me, I had to fall wildly in love with whatever country my story was set in. I had to feel passionate about it. And I was lucky because it happened again. While researching China, I had on numerous occasions brushed up against Malaya with its gentle people and its elegant colonial past. Every time I thought what a spellbindingly beautiful country it is. So I chose to set my next book there – The White Pearl – in 1941, at the moment of the Japanese invasion.
In each of my books I am eager to explore what happens when the usual inner scaffolding of a person or of a society is stripped away at a time of stress, and when I came to write my next book, I was tempted far away from the humid tropics to the searing heat of Egypt.
This time it was the country’s ancient history that drew me to it. Its mysteries set up vibrations inside my head and I wanted to show how they could envelop and enchant my characters – just as Russia had done to me. 1932 was a time of political unrest that was causing schisms to open up in the structure of Egyptian life, a crucial and stressful moment that I felt would add depth and complexity to the powerful story that I wanted my characters to tell in SHADOWS ON THE NILE. It is a country marked by the burning scars of the desert, the breathtaking tombs of its pharaohs, the sweep of the Nile and the enigma of its people in 1932. Irresistible!!
Where next? Well, a research trip to the Bahamas felt good to me ….