Deborah Lawrenson has a knack for truly transporting readers to the time and place she is writing about. Her latest novel, 300 Days of Sun, is no exception and takes place in Faro, a beautiful town on the southern coast of Portugal. Here, Lawrenson also introduces the reader to the darker side of town and takes them to World War II Portugal. As our author of the day, Lawrenson reveals how she managed to describe Faro with so much detail, her research into the history she incorporated in the book and much more.
Please give us a short introduction to what 300 Days of Sun is about.
On the southern coast of Portugal, journalist Joanna Millard hopes to escape an unsatisfying relationship and a stalled career. At language school in Faro, she meets Nathan Emberlin, a charismatic younger man. But nothing is quite what it seems. Behind the atmospheric Moorish buildings, Faro has a seedy underbelly, and Nathan admits he has an ulterior motive for seeking her company: he is determined to discover the truth involving a child’s kidnapping that may have taken place on this dramatic coastline over two decades ago.
Joanna’s search leads her to The Alliance, a novel that recounts an American couple’s experience in Portugal during World War II and their entanglements both personal and professional with their German enemies. At first it seems unlikely this book could have any bearing on the present, but soon she and Nathan find the past not only casts a long shadow but still exerts a very present danger.
Selected for National Reading Group Month Great Group Reads in the USA, this multi-layered novel combines a present day mystery with romantic suspense and wartime historical fiction.
What inspired you to write a book about child abduction?
I didn’t start out to write about child abduction. The subject insinuated itself into the setting, and the themes of identity, and power shifts and transformation that I wanted to explore. I started by writing about southern Portugal, trying to capture something recognisable, and I found I kept coming back to a real-life high-profile case of child abduction on the Algarve coast. Other disappearances and crimes involving children surfaced during my researches and the subject became impossible to ignore.
You spent your childhood moving around with your diplomatic service parents. How has that influenced your worldview and your writing?
When I was growing up I was always asked ‘Where do you come from?’ and there was no simple answer. I was always the new girl. As a diplomatic service family, we moved around the world every few years. I also realized that it often meant, who are you? That is the key to this novel. Changes in circumstances are hard enough, but sometimes they also bring a change of identity, in various ways. I like to think that being brought up this way has made me more open-minded and adaptable, but it also undermined my confidence in some ways. I like to be sure of my ground, and part of that is my need to observe closely. I’m delighted that readers and critics have responded so positively to the “intriguing escapes to foreign settings with an atmospheric sense of place” in my novels.
You also worked as a journalist. How different is that from writing novels?
Very different, in that novels allow you the freedom to invent and misrepresent! But what I learned as a journalist has been invaluable. Writing accurate quotes as dialogue – knowing where to cut for maximum effect - is a journalistic skill. Accurate description is another. But perhaps the best lesson from my days on a newspaper is learning how to write fast, even when inspiration is lacking – because you have to. No self-indulgence or writer’s block. Start writing, and the story will take shape. With a novel, the joy is having the time to polish until it comes out right.
How, would you say, have you evolved creatively since you published your very first book?
My very first novels were written only with the aim of getting published – they were light-hearted satires set on a newspaper in London, so had a ready-made marketing angle. They were fun to write and promote but ultimately I wanted to write more multi-layered novels that combined my love of history, mystery and romantic suspense, all in a vibrant and interesting setting.
What has the reception of 300 Days of Sun been like so far?
I was thrilled that it was selected for National Reading Group Month Great Group Reads in the USA, last October. That was a lovely boost. It has also been published in translation in Portugal, where readers and reviewers really seem to have enjoyed the view of their country through foreign eyes, and found it authentic and life-affirming.
How did you manage to describe the town of Faro with so much detail?
I went to Faro with my daughter, who now studies languages at university. She was only seventeen when she signed herself up for a Portuguese language course lasting two weeks and I didn’t want her go to Portugal on her own. While she went to class every morning, I wandered around with my camera, through the gateway to the Old Town and up the narrow cobbled streets to the cathedral square, once the site of a Roman forum. Out the other side, the streets lead back to the sea and the green marshlands beyond.
Left: View over the public garden to the marina and the green sea marshes beyond
Right: The Chapel of Bones at the Igreja do Carmo
Back in the streets behind the marina, I began to look more closely at the once-grand buildings that were now shut up, businesses closed. The most prominent of these was the Café Alianҫa and the mustard-yellow shops that adjoined it, in a prime position facing the lively marina. The sense of gentle decay was compelling, and I longed to know more. What was life really like here, behind the pretty houses covered in cracked tiles - azulejos - and crumbling stucco? In the afternoons, we went exploring by sea: to the beaches on the ferries, and the islands across the sea marshes.
Left: Balcony facing the marina in Faro
Right: Faro Old Town, the "fortress" over the water, seen from a ferry boat
Can you give an excerpt to show how you build a sense of place?
Here is Joanna, noticing the Café Alianҫa during her first days in Faro. The café is an important link between the present and the past.
“The town was full of strangers and constant movement: planes overhead, roaring in and out of the airport across the shore; boats puttering in and out of the harbour; trains sliding between the road and the sea; buses and cars; pedestrians bobbing up and down over the undulating cobblestones.
The café, at least, was still. On the way to the language school, it had the presence and quiet grace of an ancient oak, rooted to its spot in the Rua Dr. Francisco Gomes. The columns and balustrades of its once-grand fin-de-siècle façade had an air of forgotten romance that was hard to resist. I pushed against its old-style revolving door that first morning simply because I was curious to see inside”
Façade of the Café Alianca
How much research did it require from you to make the history ring true?
Almost everything I wrote about in the sections of the book set in the past actually happened in some form, though I have invented characters and situations. The years between 1940-45 in Portugal were an extraordinary time, when no one was sure what was true and what was an elaborate hoax, though behind all the fog of misinformation and espionage were many noble causes. I read widely to understand and visualize the peculiar clash of wartime enemies in the civilised peace of Lisbon and beyond. I did a great deal of research, but it was so fascinating it didn’t feel like work at all.
300 Days of Sun also features a novel-within-a-novel. Why did you take this approach?
I enjoy the writing within a past-present structure, and as a reader I have always loved the echoes between the two, especially when both provide clues to solve a puzzle. The novel-within-a-novel was just another way of achieving that – and seemed very natural, given that I had been building a picture of an era by reading books written at the time, as well as historical accounts.
It hasn’t appealed to everyone, because some people like a linear story and don’t like being thrown into another with new characters. But if you think about one of the themes of this novel being “new life, new identity”, the change reflects this and the way it can be unsettling. And the novel within is a crucial part of the story, even if it doesn’t seem so at the start.
Where can readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
You can find out more about the book on my website here: http://www.deborah-lawrenson.co.uk
I have a blog with lots of background photos to all my recent novels, including The Lantern and The Sea Garden at http://deborah-lawrenson.blogspot.co.uk/
Find me on:
Goodreads page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/591375.Deborah_Lawrenson