Felicity Castagna Talks Writing a Sense of Place

We spoke with Felicity Castagna ahead of her workshop with us on June 16.

Your last book Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia and your upcoming release The Incredible Here and Now are both concerned with the idea of place, but seem like very different works. Did you face different challenges in writing these books?

Both works are ultimately about exploring ideas about place and its effects on people but they are  definitely very different. Small Indiscretions is a collection of short stories in which each story explores a different traveller in a different city in Asia. In this book the challenge was to capture the landscapes and cultures of Asia from the perspective of transient and ex-patriot Westerners who can’t really capture the landscapes and cultures themselves. So, in many ways, that’s what the book ended up being about: an exploration of the impact of being foreign in foreign places you can never really understand. This yielded some really interesting results though: One traveller becomes a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in the casinos of Macau; An obsessive son of Australians living in Jakarta confronts his strange rituals; A young woman is trapped in the boredom of her father’s ministry in exotic Borneo.

The Incredible Here and Now, in contrast, is about being an absolute insider in a place you know as well as the back of your own hand. It’s a young adult’s novel told through the eyes of Michael whose life changes dramatically in the summer he turns 15. Michael knows everything about the community he lives in and through his stories, he lets the reader in; to the unsettled lives of his family members, the friends he meets in the McDonalds parking lot at night, the swimming pool where he meets the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive and the classmates who spend their mornings drooling at the Coke Factory on their walk to school. I think the challenge for me with this book was that Michael is so close to his Parramatta neighbourhood that the place sometimes took over the book and became its largest character. In the redrafting process I actually had to take the sense of place back a bit so that the characters and the plot could have their moments as well.

What is it that fascinates you about space and place and how people relate to or describe it?

I spent most of my life growing up in different countries and travelling all over the place until I settled in Parramatta about ten years ago. I think that kind of experience teaches you to always have this heightened sense of where you are. It forces you to constantly observe the spaces around you. I’m constantly thinking about those small, intimate details that distinguish places and the way that people behave differently within them.

On your website you include some vignettes from the The Incredible Here and Now. In a small space you manage to create a vivid sense of  how ‘place’ can figure in a character’s consciousness. What were some of the techniques you used to build this sense of place?

I think that firstly, The Incredible Here and Now is written in a series of vignettes, which is pretty unusual for a young adult’s book. The vignette form is a kind of really short, short story which uses a lot of the same techniques as poetry and tends to focus on one specific image in each vignette. It works really well for writing about place because it forces you to stick really closely to an image of one thing and to throw every technique you have at it, like, in the case of my book, the local pool, or the McDonald’s parking lot or Church Street Mall.

I’ve also made sure that I strip all the details back to the ones that are really important. A lot of writers associate writing a sense of place with using millions of adjectives and making sure that you’ve included descriptions of all five senses but I don’t think that kind of over-writing is nearly as powerful or evocative.

Can you share with us some of your favourite works concerning place and what makes them so evocative?

I love the domestic landscapes of Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham. I think they’re all masters at showing their characters’ emotional states through the way they behave in their homes. John Cheever and Helen Garner’s short stories take their readers so deeply into suburban landscapes that we can’t help but feel that we are trapped there as well. I don’t think you can go past Annie Proulx or Judith Wright if you want to look at how the wide-open spaces of nature can be captured through the small details of landscape. I just finished reading Zadie Smith’s NW for the second time and I feel like I need to read it again just to get my head around all the techniques she uses to establish such a remarkably complex sense of place. The entire book is about the relationship of four different characters to the North West area of London they were born in and how this relationship shapes the rest of their lives.

Felicity Castagna will teach her popular Writing a Sense of Place workshop on Sunday 16 June.

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