Objective Estrangement

From Women, Writers, Women’s Books:

As an American author living in Geneva, I am often asked whether I am working on a novel set in Switzerland. White-peaked mountains, banking intrigue, anything chocolate. The potential is massive. Usually I say no. My latest novel manuscript contains one brief passage relating to the country where I’ve lived for the past decade. 

But who’s to say I am not gathering material for the Swiss novel I’ll eventually publish? Used purposefully, time and/or distance can be a powerful tool for the fiction writer.

I wrote my first novel, An Unexpected Guest, which is set in Paris, Boston, and Dublin, while living in eastern France and in Brooklyn. I wrote my second, Shining Sea, which is set in Southern California, Arizona, the Scottish Hebrides, Manhattan, and western Massachusetts, after moving to Switzerland. I’d been to (nearly) all of the places that appeared in each of the novels and had lived in several of them. But I wasn’t living in them while I wrote these books.

There’s a unique clarity that comes through having distance from something, someone, or someplace with which or whom the writer is familiar. I call it “objective estrangement.” It means being able to see the forest for the trees, while still knowing the sound of the wind through their branches in deep winter, the color of their leaves in autumn, their smell in early spring. It means being able to recognize the universal that will make a story meaningful to others, while retaining the details that will make it feel rich and believable. 

Look at it this way.  

In journalism, immediacy is a valuable commodity. The journalist doesn’t want facts to become clouded by reflection. But literary fiction, the genre I write in, is about reflection. The intrusion of practical, real-life, and personal concerns that have nothing to do with the story’s narrative and characters–this is the street with a pharmacy where I should pick up a prescription; this is the neighborhood where the friend who hasn’t returned my call lives—into the writer’s mindspace is not going to be helpful. 

As Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose fiction often takes the reader to the East Africa he left to live in Great Britain more than a half-century ago, says, “Traveling away from home provides distance and perspective, and a degree of amplitude and liberation. It intensifies recollection, which is the writer’s hinterland. Distance allows the writer uncluttered communion with this inner self, and the result is a freer play of the imagination.” 

That freedom is one reason why, for example, I placed the family at the heart of Shining Sea in Southern California, where I lived for two years in my twenties but is clear across the continent from where I grew up in New York City. The emotionality of my young California years has long worn off, but I can still remember how it felt weaving through bikini-clad rollerbladers on Venice Boulevard or racing out of my stucco condo during an earthquake. At the same time, Southern California couldn’t be further removed and still be in the continental U.S from where (and how) I grew up. Keeping the story and characters in Shining Sea purely creations of my mind was easy, but so also was imagining and understanding the world they would inhabit.

Link to the rest at Women, Writers, Women’s Books