Author Emylia Hall is my guest today as part of The Thousand Lights Hotel blog tour. As we’re both huge fans of Tim Winton, it’s little surprise that place is as important to her in books as it is to me. Which is why I’m thrilled to host Emylia’s post on writing place and the island of Elba, the setting for her latest novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel.
All four of my novels have begun with place. I settle on somewhere first – a place bright in my memory, or a longed for destination – and then I ask, who might live here? What’s their story? The setting is what draws me in; everything else follows. This isn’t something I’ve contrived; it’s just the way it happens.
I’ve always been captivated by location. They say that it’s the people who make a place, and maybe that’s true, but relationships are fluid; people can swap cities, move countries, and exist outside of earth-bound constraints. We can gather all our favourite people together in one room, but places must stay put – we can only ever be in one at a time, and to me there’s something melancholic and kind of beautiful about that. This human limitation is why I sometimes feel wistful bordering on sad that I’m here, not there; why, when I’m washing up in my kitchen in Bristol, I’m thinking of a French mountain town, or a Californian beach, or an Italian island, and feeling such longing. I can’t be everywhere, any more than I can stop time. So… I write about place. I travel from my desk. I take what I believe is the Genius Loci, the spirit of somewhere, and I put it on the page. Because as long as I’m writing, or thinking about writing, I’m cheating time and space: I’m both here and there.
When I started working on The Thousand Lights Hotel I poured all my memories of the island, from trips in 2003 and 2012, into my writing. I lived again among Elba’s verdant hills and rocky coves and gilded beaches. Once more I took in the extravagant bougainvillea, the terracotta pots exploding with hibiscus, the plump and spiky prickly pears. I followed the swooping descent and ascent of the island buses, the rattle of scooters, the languid drifting of a sailing boat. I tasted the bittersweet tang of Aperol, the creamy depths of Torta della nonna, the garlic-rich prawns. I felt sand between my toes, coconut sun-cream on my skin, a midge bite on my ankle. It’s a place I love, and I loved making a novel from it, sitting in my writing hut, writing with clarity.
I used the Internet too. When I wanted to jog a memory or see something new, I went online. I frequented Google Streetview, locating specific sites, seeing if the geography checked out. This was how I found the hospital in Portoferraio, and the nearest beach. I edged my way down the steep road, hairpin after switchback, that leads to Capo Sant’Andrea, clicking, zooming, and clicking again. While the hotel in my novel, the titular Thousand Lights, is perched on a cliff-top, surrounded by nature, I wanted it to be in the vicinity of a small town, and after much desk research, I decided on Marciana Marina. I already knew the Northwestern corner of the island, and on paper – in pixels – Marciana Marina looked the right kind of place. But I wasn’t comfortable with it, this reliance on technology, and two-dimensional images. Or, more precisely, I wasn’t inspired by it. I didn’t just want to see what sunset looked like in that horseshoe-shaped bay, I wanted to feel it too. Sure, I could guess at the sweet scent of oleanders, the salted air, the lingering heat of the day, the thrum of people going about their passeggiata, the scrape of cutlery and chink of glasses from the piazza behind – but I wanted to experience it for myself. I wanted to live in the landscape of my novel, then bring it home with me, and write it down, before the sounds faded, and the scents went, and the pictures lost their particular brightness. Maybe this is an affectation, a frivolity; but traveling while writing is part of my process, and I wouldn’t feel happy doing it any other way.
So I went to Elba, and had five nights in Marciana Marina, part research trip, part writing retreat. Without my husband and infant son, with no companions, I gave myself entirely to the world of my novel. I walked around talking to myself, marveling that after months of desk-travel, I was truly on the island. I worked late at night, and when I opened the shutters in the morning, Elba was waiting for me. Every day felt like Christmas. I’d sit on the beach, fingers sticky with peach juice, sunburn prickling my shoulders, hearing the drift of piano music from the flats behind me, scribbling in my notebook. I noticed everything, and it all seemed to matter. The quiet nobility of the hotel’s maître d’, the grace with which he moved about the dining room, our broken conversations in French. The young lovers I saw sitting on the rocks with a pizza box, watching the sun go down, looking like they’d found the best seat in the house. The slightly tatty elderly couple who sat on a bench outside their home, pouring their cups of coffee from an elegant china pot with exquisite ceremony. One day, in a tiny chapel in the hills, I found a snapshot photograph propped against a crucifix, somebody’s beloved in a floppy hat and hiking boots, the writing on the back faded to nothing. These fleeting moments, these images, they weren’t all destined for the novel, but it felt like my destiny to experience them, for them to fire my imagination, and be my inspiration. Little did I know at that point that in the next month I’d abandon the story I was mid-way through writing. That when I was trying to find my way afresh I’d return to these pictures – the couple on the rocks, the elderly coffee drinkers, the shrine – and that they’d help inspire the new direction. For here was an island where romance looked easy, and where memories lived on; here one could believe in the power of a thousand twinkling lights, and the hope of lost souls finding one another. Would I have written the same story if I hadn’t gone to Elba? Possibly. But I might have been slower to believe in it. It all might have felt less true.
The Thousand Lights Hotel by Emylia Hall is published by Headline Review and is out now as an ebook and in paperback. It is available from Amazon UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery.
My thanks to Millie Seaward at Headline for sending me a review copy and including me on the blog tour. You can find all the blog stops below: