Sunday, 27 August 2017

Unfamiliar Territory - Guest Post Sonja Price


Most of the guests I invite onto my blog are people who I know but, a few weeks ago, I received an email request from someone whose name was new to me. It was an email that was so lovely and engaging that that I just had to say yes. That someone is Sonja Price and she's going to tell us about her novel, the Giants Look Down, and about what it's like setting a novel in a place you've never been to.

Over to you, Sonja. 


At an Arvon Creative Writing workshop Jim Crace, Booker Prize shortlist candidate, gave me some invaluable advice about depicting places I’d never been. You see, I decided to set my novel THE GIANTS LOOK DOWN in Kashmir, which was unfamilar territory for me. He told me not to write it like a travel report, but instead to take some aspect of the landscape and show its familiarity. So I described the image of the old women’s face playing on the rocks created by the moonlight:


We lived in one of the finest houses in the foothills, built of stone with a sweeping view of the valley from the veranda. From my bed I could see the Gilgul pass and the rock face that looked like a woman’s face with snow white hair. She used to smile at me when the moonlight fell on the stone. In early spring the scent of mulberry blossoms filled my room so that in summer I would climb and harvest basketfuls of berries from the tree outside my window for Sabri our cook, who made delicious chutney from them. With plenty of food in store winter never posed a problem. We always had a taste of summer in the house even when we were snowed in for days. I loved those days, when even Pa couldn’t get away. A blizzard would be raging outside as we gathered around the fire to listen to stories of what Pa got up to as a boy.

Writers go where their imaginations take them, and mine was ignited by a report on the car radio of the Great Earthquake in Kashmir of 2005. I discovered that the region, specifically the Vale of Kashmir, is breathtakingly beautiful. Majestic snow-covered mountain ranges, among the highest on this planet, cradle a valley lush in sycamore woods and fields of saffron interspersed with a pearl necklace of lakes. Wular Lake is all of 100 square miles and full of carp and trout; houseboats moor amongst the reeds, and on Dal Lake gondola-like boats called shikara laden with fruit and vegetables meet to form a floating market. As if the scenery were not spectacular enough, the vale boasts a rich history of maharajas, princes and princesses. But this paradise has been the centre of political strife over the past 70 years since Kashmir lost its independence with the Partition of India. Although its population is overwhelmingly Muslim, the Vale of Kashmir chose to become part of its Hindu neighbour, India. Two wars have been fought between Indian and Pakistani over it and both armies still stand their ground on the highest battlefield of the world, where avalanches claim more lives than armed conflict.
There must be a story in there somewhere for me, I thought to myself. What would happen if a 10-year-old Hindu girl called Jaya decided to become a doctor much to the chagrin of her mother and the patriarchal society of 1960s Kashmir? And how would she react to being transplanted to Scotland? I had my doubts about evoking Kashmir on paper but bolstered myself with the fact that Elizabeth George got away with basing her first published book in England before ever crossing the Great Pond and Andy Weir didn’t need to go to Mars to write THE MARTIAN. Well, publication brought relief when the reviews, including some from Indians, praised the authenticity of my portrayal of Kashmir. One reader even thought that I must have lived there for years! Well I did conduct some intensive interviews with Indians, but it’s amazing how helpful books, especially picture books, travel blogs and endless online resources such as google maps can be.


One Kashmiri journalist understandably questioned my intentions and asked me how I could deal with the conflict so superficially. Given the complexity of the situation, it was a reasonable question. But I countered that I was simply endeavouring to tell a story: nothing more, nothing less. My aim was solely to entertain and amuse the reader; I did not want to take sides nor deliver a message, yet at the same time I still tried to depict the situation as sensitively and genuinely as possible. Drawing attention to the plight of Kashmiris could surely not be a bad thing in itself, I added. Well, he seemed to agree and printed my interview in full together with a picture of yours truly with her book:

Going to Kashmir, if only in my mind has been a wonderful journey that started in my car!
You can find Sonja on Facebook
You can find out more about Sonja on her website here
Twitter: @PriceSonja
The Giants Look Down can be bought here



17 comments:

  1. Interesting blog! I've always wondered how 'abroad' writers did it if they haven't visited the places...mind Steff Penney manages to create the frozen wastes of N America ...for us historical writers, there is both a bonus (you can't go there and say we got it wrong) but also a problem (how do you convey the past?). Thanks for this!

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  2. This post brought back memories of my 20th birthday spent in Kashmir on a houseboat on Lake Dal - it is indeed a majestic landscape. My birthday present was luxurious - a bar of (rather old) Cadbury's Fruit & Nut bought from a passing shikara.

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    1. What a wonderful place to spend a birthday, Lindsay... and I can relate to the chocolate!

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    2. Our 'houseboy' also made some splendid and rather scary homemade fireworks which he let off on another unoccupied and very much superior houseboat!

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  3. Great post! I love Sonja's observation that Andy Weir didn't need to go to Mars to write "The Martian." Wonderfully said! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. It's a really good example isn't it. Congratulations on becoming my 100th follower!

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  4. Lovely post. Kashmir sounds wonderful. I've always tried to visit places I write about but I am probably going to break my rule with current book as I don't feel up to a trip to eastern Canada in winter! One other tip to add to Sonja' excellent ones - Google Earth rather than Maps. Very useful to get sense of topography etc. I've found a place to base my imaginary farm on - and if that Indian boy in the recent movie managed to track down his home village using Google Earth and trace his mum then anything should be possible!

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  5. Beautiful post, Wendy. The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas is one of my favourite novels, simply because I loved the descriptions of landscape. The Giants Look Down sounds a wonderful read. : )

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    1. I love all Rosie Thomas's novels, Rae.

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  6. What an interesting post, thank you Wendy and Sonja. Kashmir sounds such a beautiful place.

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  7. Thanks for this! I'm thinking of writing a book set in the US, and although I have visited twelve states, that was on a flying visit as a teenager, so my memory of it is pretty hazy. Good to know it won't be impossible. :)

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    1. Sonja is proof that it won't be, Jane.

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  8. I suppose writing about a place we haven't been to is much the same as writing about a time we've not lived in, or an unfamiliar culture, or crimes we haven't committed, jobs we've not done ...

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