EQMM’s September/October issue (on sale August 11) contains a Department of First Stories debut that readers won’t want to miss, Elle Wild’s “Playing Dead.” Though it is the author’s first paid fiction publication, she is not a newcomer to the world of storytelling: She’s a filmmaker whose documentary about being a foreigner in Japan won several awards internationally. Japan is also the setting for her debut story, and in this post she talks about how setting shapes all of her writing, including her debut novel, Strange Things Done, which won the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel and will be published by Thomas Allen Publishers in Canada in 2016. —Janet Hutchings
As someone who has lived in five countries to date and is currently on the brink of the next international relocation, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years thinking about the importance of place in fiction, and observing just how much a change in location can influence a writer’s work.
In fact, I would argue that the location of my childhood influenced the development of my imagination as a young person, and my obsession with the noir genre. I grew up on a farm in Southern Ontario in Canada, where there was little to do but read Edgar Allan Poe and watch PBS Mystery. The fact that we lived on eleven acres, outside of any town, contributed to a series of dark thoughts I had as a child. . . . The “what might happen if . . .” kind of thoughts that are triggered by isolation. What if bad people came for us and the phone lines didn’t work? What if I woke up in the night and I could just tell that something was wrong, that no one was home who was supposed to be home? Which neighbor would I run to? What would happen if I escaped to a neighbor’s, only to find their house dark and empty? What if no one heard me scream?
I still have recurring nightmares about the house I grew up in, even though I had a childhood filled with golden memories of summer days on the farm: the sweet scent of freshly cut hay, the mewing of newborn barn kittens, the throaty sound of bull frogs at the pond (where countless hours were spent terrorizing fish and tadpoles), and the magical glint of fireflies on warm nights. I find it interesting that the mind discards all of these fond memories during sleep and goes right for the darkest fears. It goes for noir.
In 2007, I was invited to be the Artist in Residence in Dawson City, Canada, in the Yukon. My residency began just before freeze-up. “Freeze-up” in Dawson is when the Yukon River freezes, the ferry is dry-docked, and the Top of the World Highway to Alaska closes, making it increasingly difficult to leave. The population of Dawson plummets at this point, as highways drift over and snow blows through the historic western town like tumbleweed. During my time in Dawson, I remember thinking, “What if something terrible happened and no one could escape?” This eventually became the premise of my debut novel, set in Dawson City. The story and the characters are infused with the landscape, as much as they are trapped by it.
“Neo-noir” is defined as a film or story “set in contemporary modern times, but showing characteristics of a film noir, in plot or style” (Collins English Dictionary). There is something appealing to me about the way neo-noir approaches location and subverts reader (or viewer, in the case of film) expectations. Rather than the shadowy streets of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, then, the reader might encounter the spooky halls of a Danish university, for example, in The Dinosaur Feather (Sissel-Jo Gazan). I especially enjoy this kind of international twist on a classic noir.
Lately I find myself writing about other countries that I have lived in. Japan features prominently. In 1998, I lived in a small fishing and surfing village called Iioka-machi, about an hour outside of Tokyo or forty-five minutes from Narita airport. To me, Japan is a place rich in contradiction, from the flashy neon colors of Tokyo at night to the bland grey towers of its daytime world. I have come away with the idea that in Japan (and this is, of course, a generalization and only my own opinion), appearances and presentation matter very much. For example, a person might spend more on wrapping paper than on an actual gift. (But I have to say, I have never seen such artful wrapping jobs. They were indeed a joy to behold, which I think is the whole idea. Perhaps the Japanese know that the idea of getting a gift is often better than the actual gift itself.) There is an emphasis on “calmness” that is evident in every Zen garden, koi pond, or tea ceremony. This makes the writer in me want to poke beneath all the soothing surfaces in search of chaos. I guess this is why I’ve returned to Tokyo as a location in my recent short story, “Playing Dead,” where a seemingly jovial urban tea party becomes a landscape with deadly undercurrents.
I’ve just finished a short story set in Santa Cruz, California, where I lived for three years. I love the way that Santa Cruz as a location presents natural tensions between California’s fun-loving, 1950s “Gidget” past, (that kind of teenage innocence captured in the bright pastel colors of its infamous boardwalk) and its modern predicaments of gun violence, budget shortages, state-park closures, and drought. I find that my characters become a part of their surroundings, intricately linked with their sense of “place.” In this particular story, the arid, barren landscapes of strip malls and the cracked, concrete parking lots of big-box stores reflect the characters themselves, their chapped lips and dry voices hinting at an inner, spiritual brittleness. What would happen, I wonder, if I took these characters out of Santa Cruz, and dropped them in, say, Portland? (A place made lush with rain.) Would the characters have the same fears and dreams? Could the story be the same? Personally, I don’t think a writer can change the location without changing everything. Change the location; change the character.
I’m trying to imagine relocating the characters from Gazan’s The Dinosaur Feather (a story about narcissistic graduate students competing for funding and the attention of their advisor, until he is found dead in his office). Would it work if the characters were students and staff at the University of Miami, for example? Of course not. The Copenhagen setting lends the story a moodiness that wouldn’t work in the sun-washed world of Florida—or at least, not as well. The fact that the characters are in Copenhagen helps makes it more believable that they are completely obsessed with their work and relentlessly competitive. It’s harder to imagine characters like this (at least, in academia) in Florida, as there are so many distractions, the weather being one of them.
At the moment, I’m living in the English countryside, about an hour and a half by train to London. The South West of England is a rich, fertile area, trailing ivy and wisteria. A genteel, traditional place still haunted by its wartime past and demonstrating nostalgia for its Victorian golden age. I can hardly wait to start my next novel, which will be set here. Will I be tempted to pull back the lace curtains and peer behind the shrubberies to see what black secrets I can find? Most likely.
What are you working on? How does the landscape influence the characters? Could you move your characters into a different space without changing your story? What setting do you think would work well for a modern noir?
As you read this and contemplate your answers—if everything goes according to plan—I will already be packing my life up into cardboard boxes, throwing things away (something I always seem to find liberating rather than distressing, which explains a lot about the number of address changes I go through), and shipping things abroad. I can’t wait to occupy my new space and meet my new characters in their corresponding fictional landscapes. I wonder what they’ll be like?
Congratulations on placing your story with the venerable EQMM, Elle.
My parents moved fast and frequently in my youth. One town in particular left its mark, Painesville, Ohio. It’s central to my story of the same name in the new edition of The Digest Enthusiast. What happens under its humid skies is entirely fictitious, but the place is real. Memories of its creaky victorian homes, cracked sidewalks, train yards and Grand River are unforgettable and a ready-made background for a mystery.
I also like to subvert expectations. I have several stories set in Hawaii, but it’s not the Hawaii of white sand and blue water. It’s the rainforest of the Big Island, which is home to marijuana farmers, fugitives, survivalists, and 60s burnouts. The setting is a natural for noir.
And let me add my congratulations!