Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

London and the voodoo of location

with 5 comments

Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.

At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”

Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)

For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.

What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.

5 Responses

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  1. Hmm… two areas with deep Jewish connections, albeit of perhaps slightly differing cultures and traditions; one with a Hugenot history (and also the site of one of the earliest London theatres); one wealthy area that includes the Commonwealth Institute and some embassies, yet within 5 mins walk of one of the main countercultural areas of the 60s. Interesting mix. I remember Holland Park appearing in one of Michael Moorcocks’s novels as a blitzed-out ghetto, which of course it never was in reality.

    Jon Vagg

    February 14, 2011 at 10:45 am

  2. Forgot to say – hope you had a good time in London!

    Jon Vagg

    February 14, 2011 at 11:48 am

  3. @Jon: Thanks! And some of your thoughts on the neighborhoods I visited are right on the money, at least as far as why I went there is concerned. (One more hint: I went to Holland Park to see the area where Blow Up was shot.)


    February 14, 2011 at 8:52 pm

  4. Ah – I remember seeing the film but can’t remember any of the detail or locations at all! Never mind… I’ll await the novel.

    I admit to not knowing Stoke Newington that well, though I did note the last time was travelling through there that it seemed to have acquired some Kurdish shops and cultural undercurrents. I used to shop in Golders Green occasionally in the days before certain Jewish foods were widely available in supermarkets – I’m not Jewish, just eclectic in my cooking habits. My main destination in Holland Park used to be the Commonwealth Institute exhibitions but more recently going to meet a friend of mine who works near there. I don’t really know Shoreditch – or at least I know the surrounding areas (Barbican, Bethnal Green, Spitalfields, Hoxton) much better for various reasons. I spent most of my formative years in South London.

    From where I live now, though, London is almost 2 hours and over a hundred pounds by train, or about the same time though a lot less cost by car – I basically go there about three times a year now, usually for business reasons.

    Jon Vagg

    February 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm

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