I think of the way my books are written like a love affair conducted from afar. Two souls who are physically separated but whose hands stretch in their imaginations across thousands of miles to touch. The reason for this is a simple one. I chose to write about Iraq, even though I’ve never been there.
I did not, at first, choose a place I barely knew. As a central theme in my novels, I like to take a famous story everyone is familiar with and give it a new twist. When framing ideas for my first book, The Witch of Babylon, I began with the familiar stories of the Book of Genesis and quickly discovered that many of them originated as much earlier Mesopotamian myths. So I began to research Mesopotamia and promptly became fascinated by what is one of the world’s greatest cultures. Mesopotamia means ‘the land between two rivers’ – the region we now call Iraq. Does it qualify as exotic? To a westerner who is untutored in the ways of the Near East – most definitely.
While the subject matter intrigued me, it also presented a major stumbling block: how could I write about a land I’d never seen? For I could not visit it. The country was at war and even now, sadly, because of ongoing sectarian conflict, it remains very dangerous. I did watch month’s worth of television war coverage and that gave me a vivid picture of the contemporary country. But above all, I bow down in gratitude to the scores of journalists and bloggers, many of them native Iraqis, who risked their lives to tell the story of what living in Iraq was like under the dark claws of war. I learned too that Iraq is also a beautiful country, a desert landscape that turns a heavenly green with the winter and spring rains, and is populated by people who, under the worst of circumstances, manage to keep a resilient spirit.
My second novel, The Book of Stolen Tales, is also situated in Iraq but includes a large section set in
Europe with much of the action taking place in Naples. Again, the choice of Naples was dictated by the subject matter. A story about the hunt for a stolen book, the first European anthology of fairy tales written in the 16th century by a renown Neapolitan poet and courtier. I spent a week in Naples and left wishing for much more time in that intriguing city. Having been ruled by the Spanish for hundreds of years, Naples boasts hundreds of fabulous Spanish colonial buildings, twisting cobblestone streets no bigger than laneways, fortresses and palaces, villas and archaeological ruins perched on the mountainside overlooking the sea. And food. Fabulous creations you could only find on the sun kissed slopes of southern Italy.
But above all else, Naples’ personality has been formed by that most historic of mountains we know as Vesuvius. After breakfast, I’d leave my hotel room and walk across the street to the waterfront promenade. The camel-backed mountain looms over the harbour, sitting innocently and sleepily in the morning sun. I found it a mesmerizing experience and could not take my eyes off it knowing that, benign though it may appear, it is capable of great destructive power. Vesuvius is everywhere in Naples: in pictures and tourist tokens, pavers and cobblestones made from its stone, the great archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum preserved by its ash, and perhaps even in the character of its citizens who, courageously, dare to live so close to a tyrant.
I owe a great deal to my novels for taking me to exotic places I have grown to love.