I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited award-winning author Zena Shapter to share her thoughts on a touchstone that lies at the heart of many of her stories. And I’m really glad I did, because – Wow! Like many writers and consumers of fiction, I’m a big fan of living vicariously through other people’s experiences, and Zena has provided some amazing pictures below to keep me going for quite a while.
Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with me, Zena! What is your touchstone?
Thanks for inviting me to your blog series, Leife! My touchstone is actually an intangible thing – travel. Whenever I visit somewhere new, my senses come alive – aromas become more vibrant, sounds are stronger and I hear more of them, I absorb atmospheres, caress textures, breath more slowly and find myself analysing and recording every detail about the people and place until my notebooks are crammed full. I search for what’s different to ‘back home’, and celebrate the commonality of humankind across the world. These experiences never fade (and if they do I have my notebooks!) and they constantly inspire my writing, especially my longer fiction. They help me build worlds that are out-of-this-world! …yet grounded in reality.
When did travel first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?
The first time travel inspired me was when I was twenty-one, working in a Birmingham publishing company after reading English at University. I hadn’t travelled much at that point, and a friend asked me to go away with her for the weekend. It was January, miserably cold, we were both newly single and needed to get away. We went to a travel agency and asked about last minute deals. In England you can make rock-bottom bargain travel plans if you wait until the day before you want to go and aren’t fussed about where. We ended up with tickets to Tenerife, in the Canaries Islands off the west coast of Africa, and a few days later landed in a completely different climate and culture. It was a transformative experience, changing my mindset, career choices, and life view – it felt like magic!
Why do you think this experience affected you so strongly?
I couldn’t believe how much the act of stepping away from what was familiar enabled me to assess that familiarity objectively. It gave me the space and opportunity to really think, assess and see where I needed to make changes in my life. I also loved the experience of discovering and exploring, walking down streets and over landscapes new to me. I wanted to travel more. After that trip I went back to Birmingham, applied for sponsorship that would enable me to return to University and re-train as a solicitor so I could afford to travel more often. In hindsight that decision may itself have been a mistake, because I’m an artist at heart, though it did enable me to travel more. The first of my working-class family to go to university, my parents were also chuffed I went twice!
How have your travels inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about these experiences, or do they lurk in the background of your stories?
Travel for me is a transformative experience. There are countless challenges, especially when you’re backpacking, and each one enables you to grow as a person. The characters in my stories do the same. Challenges touch their lives and they have to adapt to survive. In this way my stories, like travel, are about transformation, and sometimes this is reflected in a physical journey my characters undertake from one place to another. I also love giving readers the thrill of discovering a new place!
How does your travel touchstone embody or reflect other things that interest you as a writer?
I was talking about this with my agent just the other day! Looking at some of my recent works I realised that ‘control’ was a common theme. What is control and when do we have it? I enjoy questioning our ability and inability to be in control, pitting my characters against both mind control techniques and self-control issues. When I travel I look at cultural approaches to these questions too, examining how people in other countries use mass media, advertising and political spin to gain control, as well as how individuals strive to take control of their own lives. The history of a place, the events that made it what it is today, also interests me as a writer, and I gain a fuller sense of that when I physically travel there.
How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?
Travel takes time and costs money. So yes, the responsibilities of raising a family have over time meant a decline in my ability to travel. Every few years or so I try to fly from Sydney back to England to visit family, and stopover along the way – never in the same place of course. Those stopovers are all too brief, yet enough to assure me that travel is still my inspirational touchstone. I always come home with another notebook and countless photos of the people I’ve met along the way – they’re bound to turn up in a story soon enough.
Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. She is the winner of twelve national writing competitions, including a Ditmar Award, the Glen Miles Short Story Prize and the Australian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in numerous online and print venues including the Hugo-nominated Sci Phi Journal, Midnight Echo, Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice), and Antipodean SF. Reviewer for Tangent Online Lillian Csernica has referred to her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. In 2016 her co-authored science fiction middle grade novel Into Tordon was published by MidnightSun under the pseudonym Z.F. Kingbolt. Her solo novel Towards White will be published in 2017 by the International Fantasy Writers’ Guild (inspired by a trip to Iceland, see photo above!). She is the founder and leader of Sydney’s award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, a book creator and mentor, creative writing tutor, editor, social media consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with her online via ZenaShapter.com