Charlotte Otter’s novel, Balthasars Vermächtnis has just been published in German by Argument Verlag. Jill Marsh asks her about writing ‘place’.
Which comes first, story or location?
The two are intertwined. When the first images for Balthasars Vermächtnis began to flash in my head more than eight years ago, the setting was immediately clear: my home town in South Africa, Pietermaritzburg. BV is a post-apartheid novel and PMB is struggling to become an effective post-apartheid city. It was the natural setting for the story that was starting to unspool before me.
How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I wrote a blog post a few years ago called ‘I am From’ [you can also read this text below] and someone said to me they would love to read a novel with those elements in. I realised that my childhood memories of monkeys in the garden, chameleons on a bush and eating granadillas off the vine were not everyone’s memories and that some of them could be put to good use in landscaping a novel.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above. However, as I’m sure all writers say, they have to serve the story. The elements of location have to be sprinkled through the story with a light hand, serving to shine a light on the narrative and not distracting from it. Huge chunks of location, just like huge chunks of ill-disguised research, serve to pull the reader out of the story and that’s the last thing a writer wants. I try to be sparing and frugal with my detail, but at the same time apt. Location details are highlighters or amplifiers of the core narrative, never the story itself.
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
In my case, I knew it very well. I would never be brave enough to set a novel in a place I didn’t know, because I would be nervous about making mistakes and looking like an idiot. For me authenticity is everything.
Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
“The city centre hummed with Saturday shoppers carrying glistening bags full of summer bargains from the fashion palaces on Church Street, gangs of teenagers flirting with each other, pavement hairdressers giving people their weekend dos. Radios blared, taxis hooted and added to the chaos by swerving across lanes, risking the lives of their passengers and all pedestrians. She dodged one self-styled ‘Road Warrior’ and swore. The driver leant out of his window and winked at her. ‘Calm down.’ Was this a message from the universe? Or had all the town’s taxi drivers ganged up to irritate her with their insistence on her remaining serene and tranquil?”
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I think Barbara Kingsolver is a master of location. She is the best nature writer I know and she mostly sets her novels in rural surroundings. She does an incredible job of evoking a sense of place through her deep, abiding love of nature.
I Am From
I am from Africa. I am from blue skies, tropical breezes, and sunshine on my back. I am from tall trees that throw great shadows. I am from monkeys in the garden and a chameleon on a bush. I am from mountains that rarely see snow, beaches with huge waves, sharks behind the shoreline. I am from banana plants, sugar-cane and mealies. I am from huge moths and flying ants. I am from humidity, from thunderstorms that build up as black towers in the sky, and rain so hard it hurts my skin.
I am from eating outside. I am from the intense smell of a slightly under-ripe naartjie that I pick from its tree, dig open with dirty fingernails, and devour despite the sourness. I am from plucking granadillas off the vine and greedily sucking the juice. I am from braai meat, salad and crunchy white rolls. I am from mussels gathered from the sea.
I am from lucky beans. I am from a hoary old magnolia tree that bursts forth luscious, vanilla-scented blooms that decorate the Christmas table. I am from a red-brick house that looks out over trees and a hot town. I am from black and white tiles that cool hot summer feet. I am from the smell of dogs being washed. I am from the sound of Zulu hymns as I fall asleep.
I am from Marmite sandwiches. I am from a schoolbag digging into my shoulder as I walk home. I am from the smell of an over-chlorinated swimming-pool in my wet hair. I am from giggling. I am from eating all the cookie mixture. I am from marathon card games. I am from the thwack of tennis balls. I am from kissing boys.
I am from little brothers playing cricket on the lawn. I am from long car journeys. I am from beach holidays. I am from sand in my hair, from fairy gardens and dreaming I can fly. I am from blonde people. I am from children go to bed early. I am from fragrant grandmothers and laughing aunts. I am from a funny dad. I am from a little brother who shared my nightmares. I am from a mother who said, “You can do anything.”
Where are you from?