Where I Write: JM Gulvin
It’s 22 years since my first novel was published and I’ve written in many different places both before and since. Half-Scottish, I lived part of my life in Edinburgh before being shipped south so my dad could take a fulltime lectureship at an English university. I started writing at the age of ten and I never used to think it mattered where I was - my bedroom, the kitchen table, outside in the garden, or later, when I was older, a hotel room in some city I’d never been before.
I can only get that sense of space and place on the page if I’m not there
Now, I think it does matter. I live in the town of Crickhowell in the middle of the Brecon Beacons national park, in Wales. My house is tucked away round the back of somebody else’s with some of the best mountain views in the UK. It’s about as far from the flatlands that comprise the Texas pan handle as you can get. That’s John Q country (my Texas Ranger). Up there it’s yellow grass that burns to nothing but dust in the summer, the only saviour a few sporadic wetlands and barely a hill, let alone a decent-sized mountain, in sight.
I can only get that sense of space and place on the page if I’m not there. More often than not one reads of writers being on top of their location (Boston and Dennis LeHane for example) but that doesn’t work for me. I need space, distance between what I’m writing about and the place where I’m doing the writing.
For years, I divided my time between the western United States and wherever I was living in the UK. I had a cabin by a man-made reservoir in Idaho. A few miles south of a town called Hailey, it was where the flotsam and jetsam of life on the fringes of American society made their home. I loved it, my home away from home; every Easter I’d decamp with my laptop, Marlboro and coffee and not return till the fall.
The only place I can’t write about America is America, so I do that in Wales
In those days, the books weren’t wholly set in America, indeed if America at all. By that lake in Idaho I’d write about the grimmer aspects of London or the Scottish Highlands, Fiordland in the south-western corner of New Zealand. The only place I can’t write about America is America, so I do that in Wales at home.
Novelist Anne Cleeves wrote of the subtle sense of place in the first John Q novel The Long Count. A Texas of the 1960’s that no longer exists, the sentiment was echoed by John Boorman, the director of Deliverance. At that time, all I’d done was drive through Texas once, en route to Santa Fe from New Orleans. I was on the road picking up the sense of space I would need later when my imagination kicked in with what I call a sepia tint, that gives the western crime narrative I’m writing its authenticity, atmosphere and feel. The second book in the series is set in a shadowy New Orleans of the 1960’s, a city I know very well. I couldn’t write it there though, I had to do that watching the River Usk from my window in Wales.