The Glass Diplomat
In 1973 Chile, as General Augusto Pinochet seizes power, thirteen-year-old English schoolboy Charlie Norton watches his father walk into the night and never return. Taken in by diplomat, Tomas Abrego, his life becomes intricately linked to the family.
Despite his love for the Abrego sisters, he’s unable to prevent Maria falling under the spell of a left-wing revolutionary, or Sophia from marrying the right-wing Minister of Justice.
His connection to the family is complicated by the growing impression that Tomas Abrego was somehow involved in his father’s disappearance.
As the conflict of a family divided by politics comes to a head on the night of the 1989 student riots, Charlie has to act to save the sisters from an enemy they cannot see.
It didn’t occur to me to write until I was twenty-two, prompted by reading a disappointing book by an author I’d previously liked. I wrote thirty pages of a story I abandoned because it didn’t work on any level. I moved on to a thriller about lost treasure in Central America; which I finished, but never showed to anyone. Two more went the way of the first, and I forgave the author.
After that I became more interested in people-centric stories. I also decided I needed to get some help with my writing, and studied for a degree with the OU. I chose Psychology partly because it was an easier sell to my family than Creative Writing. But mainly because it suited the changing tastes of my writing. When I look back, so many of my choices have been about my writing.
I’ve been writing all my adult life, but nine years ago I had a kidney transplant which interrupted my career, to everyone’s relief. It did mean my output increased, and I developed a work plan that sees me with two projects on the go at any one time. Although that has taken a hit in recent months as I’m currently renovating a house and getting to know my very new granddaughter.
I write for no other reason than I enjoy it deeply. I like the challenge of making a story work. I get a thrill from tinkering with the structure, of creating characters that I care about, and of manipulating a plot that unravels unpredictably, yet logically. I like to write myself into a corner and then see how I can escape. To me, writing is a puzzle I like to spend my time trying to solve.
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The setting of Chile
I’ve travelled the world in my books and, when I consider a new story, it becomes as much about an excuse to visit as anything. This story became about Chile because I’ve long wanted to see Valparaiso from the sea.
When I decided my next place of visit would be South America, I started thinking about what I knew about that continent. I considered Argentina as a setting initially because of the way The Falklands War lives in our consciousness, and the tension between the two countries. But I dismissed that as too obvious, and instead switched my attention to Chile.
The striking B&W images of the student riots in Chile have lived in my mind for many years – the reason I made one of the main characters a photographer. Those memories of Pinochet’s government, and its connection to our own, coupled with the stories of the ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, gave me a starting point for a saga/love story that I’ve long wanted to tackle. However, the intention rarely matches the finished result, and it has turned out to be more love story drama than saga.
Pinochet came to power in the early seventies, which chimed with the time period I wanted to start the story, and gave me the character of The Glass Diplomat. I like writing about pre digital days, when arrangements to meet couldn’t be undone instantly via mobile phone, when the pang of waiting for a phone call could last for days, and when a letter took weeks to arrive. The structure of a contemporary story with instant communication is so different. As is the effects on relationships, when being apart from someone meant not knowing what was happening in their lives. And, of course, a saga takes time.
There is often a personal reason for a setting. The poverty I saw in Africa sitting so incongruously beside the wealth made me start to consider why people wouldn’t want to make a change. Even if it’s only to replace one corruption for their own. And the time in my life when we were due to move to Belize as a family until my mother called a halt was why I set Madness of the Turtle in Guatemala. That time can also be seen in the tension between Charlie’s parents about their split life. The Collection of Heng Souk was about an event in the Korean War. But because that didn’t fit with the ages of the characters, it became about the Vietnam War.
I don’t know Chile very well. I’ve never lived there. But I don’t believe there’s a need to know a location intimately to write about it convincingly. A few hours or few days in a place is enough to understand how it feels. The detail can be researched. Too much knowledge of a place can become a hindrance if it becomes a self-indulgent need to share that overpowers the narrative. There’s no need to overwrite a description of a jungle, because the moment the word jungle crops up, the reader will imagine an amalgam of every one they’ve ever read about or seen. Instead, it becomes important to highlight what can’t be seen.
Previous settings I’ve used have included London, my home town, and Africa, places I can write about from personal experience, but I don’t think it’s vital to know a place intimately to write about it. Madrid and Paris appear in the story but having been there makes little difference to the scenes.
And now there’s Google Earth! One scene that didn’t make the cut for The Glass Diplomat involved a dash for the border between Chile and Argentina, and I was able to complete the trip virtually, right up to sight of the border.
It’s often said that writers should write about what they know. I think that might be ok as a basis, but if we all stuck rigidly to that, the only crime books would be coming out of prisons, and the rest of us would be writing about the weather.