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October 12, 2009

Karen Maitland on Where were you when you read…

On Saturday I had the privilege of giving author talks at Wordplay, a “Library Readers Day with a difference,” arranged by Derbyshire County Council. The difference was that instead of seperate sessions for children and adults, all ages joined in all the sessions from author talks to song writing, and creating manga to writing poetry. Between sessions everyone got the chance to leave their mark on the graffiti wall, play fantasy board games and word games, and even get a henna tattoo of their favourite word. One of the competitions running through the day was - guess how many words are in the classic novel War and Peace. And someone asked me if I could remember where I was when I read it.

I read it when I was in my teens, on a dismally wet summer holiday in Wales with my family, in a caravan the size of shoe box. It was impossible to find anywhere to be alone, something that is desperately important for teenagers, but I discovered that by immersing myself in the longest book I could find, I could escape into another world and even better, that the characters in the novel were having a worse time of it than I was. That question about War and Peace got me thinking about how much where and when we read a novel can affect our enjoyment of it.

Would I have loved Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children so much if I had not had the luxury of being able to read such wonderful concentrated prose uninterrupted for hours at a time whilst on a gloriously hot beach in Crete? (The pages are still crinkled from salt water and stained with watermelon juice.) Would I have been so frightened or had so much empathy with the heroine in Sarah Rayne spine-chilling Spiderlight had I not been reading it alone in an isolated cottage on a dark winter’s night?

I always set my novels, or at least base them, on real locations, so that I can visit the places, watch them, listen to them, touch them and smell them. In COMPANY OF LIARS key chapters are set in a chantry chapel built on a bridge over a river. I spent time alone in just such a medieval chapel, lying on the cold flag stones, listening to the water thundering below me and imagining what it would have been like to sleep in the dark in that chamber, where the ancient stones seemed to suck very marrow from your bones.

One reader was kind enough to comment that the village of Ulewic (the place of the owl) in THE OWL KILLERS feels like a character in the novel. I was delighted by that, because I think certain places do having a living soul or spirit. In some locations it is a gentle green magic, in others a far more sinister presence broods over a village, a church or a hill. I believe our ancestors felt it too and you can see that reflected in the kinds of folk stories and legends that are associated with a particular lake or rock.

Location is vital to me as a writer, but this weekend I’ve been asking myself whether where I read a novel influences what I get out of it. Do I love a book more when it lets me escape from a miserable time I’m having, or when I associate it with a really happy time in my life? I’m still thinking about that one. What about you?

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