Setting is often one of the most fascinating aspects of a crime novel. Sherlock Holmes would not have been the same without London, its hansom cabs, its street gangs, and its sharp division between the capital’s east and west ends. More recently, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels shoulder the history of Edinburgh, with its pubs, its narrow streets, and its seedy antiquity living on into the 21st century.
Anne Cleeves’s Jimmy Perez novels exemplify another kind of place-based crime fiction. Most of us in the English-speaking world have heard of Shetland, but very few people have set foot on the northern Scottish Isle. Placing a story in a location that is real yet quite remote has both advantages and challenges for the author.
This issue is the natural starting point for a Q & A with Canadian-born author Susan M. Toy, whose racy and compelling novel, Island in the Clouds, I’ve recently had the immense pleasure to read.
Island in the Clouds is part of Susan’s Bequia Perspectives series. A second novel, One Woman’s Island, is also set in the not-so-well-known Caribbean island where Susan has resided for much of her life.
Question: I find it intriguing the way that you set up Bequia in the prologue as an island where the ex-pat populations of various countries converge and create a society of mysterious characters with shady pasts, “bogus German barons” etc. Is this, the ability to create a landscape half fictional, half real, one of the advantages of writing about a place you know well but not so many others do?
Susan’s Answer. Interesting question. Structurally, that Prologue began life as Chapter 2 in the novel. An editor suggested that placement brought the story to a halt and I should cut it completely, but I felt readers needed some backstory and information about a place they likely would not have heard about before, and I didn’t think I could weave all that seamlessly into the story. My decision to make this the prologue went against the advice of a couple of other writers and editors I consulted, but my main editor agreed with this decision so I went ahead and beefed up the information even more. Only one reviewer has taken me to task so far for including what she considered to be too long a prologue. As for your question … since moving to Bequia in 1996 I’ve always been a big booster of the place, although my love for it is now more bitter-sweet with the passing of time, and as more of the reality of life in “paradise” reveals itself. There is a great deal that’s fictional in my writing, but so much has gone on here over the years and we’ve met so many real-life “characters” that it’s difficult, and often not necessary, to make up stories. (In fact, I often say when I hear about something unbelievable that’s happened, “I just can’t make that up!”) So I guess I walk a fine line between revealing too much that’s factual, thereby angering people involved, and making up too much, and having those who know Bequia claim, “That’s not how it is!” Aritha van Herk once said in a workshop that “the best writers are translators rather than inventors,” so while I do need to “imagine” a Bequia that in many ways doesn’t completely exist, I still feel it’s my duty to use the backdrop I have here, to “translate” Bequia, and make my story as realistic as possible, for the sake of my readers.
Question: I was impressed by many lines describing Bequia, particularly touches like, “The sky was already eye-piercing, clear blue”..You capture the beauty of the place and those things you find irresistible. You describe Bequia in your prologue as “late bloomer” in the competitive Caribbean tourist industry and this gives a retro feel to the place. But despite your explanation of the phrase, “Island in the Clouds,” you are careful not to romanticize. There is light and shade, good and bad. I think I read somewhere that you like the island to be a character in the novel, and this comes across. Can you expand on that?
Susan’s Answer. Before this first novel was published, I was working with an established author who mentored me while I wrote the third book in this series. At the time, I suggested my idea to him that the island itself was a character, and he said, “Impossible! The setting can never be a character.” I didn’t disagree with him at the time, but then thought of many books I had read in which setting WAS very important, to the point of becoming a character. I’ve taken this idea a little further by writing my series of “Bequia Perspectives novels” in a way that Bequia has become the thread, or character, if you will, that ties the series together. Each novel is told from a different perspective (and the third novel will be told from several different perspectives). While Bequia is the same island in each book, the place means something different to all the characters – as it does indeed in real life to the various people who live here and visit.
There are people we’ve met during our years on the island who still believe this is the most wonderful place in the world. There are others who, due to various experiences, have had their blinders lifted and see Bequia in a very different light. I’ve tried to represent the island with “warts and all” in an effort to be realistic rather than romantic. For the most part, readers and reviewers have responded positively about the way I’ve depicted the place and its people. Those who have complained I was inaccurate have actually had far different experiences with this place, so they can’t or won’t accept my depiction of Bequia. I heard from a friend that one ex-pat woman said she felt my treatment of the police in the book was all wrong and very unfair … until she was robbed and had to deal with those same police. Suddenly, she was claiming I was extremely accurate. What I write about the police in Island in the Clouds is all based on personal experience, right down to the constable, supposedly investigating a robbery at our house, asking whether I had any John Grisham novels on my shelves. As if! I wanted to say to him!
Question: Your plot grips the reader straightaway as your protagonist, Geoff, finds the dead body of Sarah, an acquaintance, in a swimming pool, and then becomes the chief suspect. Even while we’re propelled forward by the story, you manage to create a rich sense of place and a layered backstory. Did you find this difficult to achieve?
Susan’s Answer: Beginning to write this first novel was a total surprise to me. I’d had a run-in with someone on the island and was fuming, so to burn off that steam, I took a pad of paper and pen to our neighbour’s house, sat next to their pool and “saw” a body floating in the water. I began writing and the story flowed out of me. That first draft was easy to write, but I went through many more drafts after that first, and the MS was beta-read by friends on Bequia as well as others I still knew in the book business. The layering of details and story line development, even new characters added to the plot, were all slowly incorporated as part of the process of editing and rewriting the novel – this took me ten years to complete. In the meantime, I was also writing the next three novels in the quartet, so not only could I see how to best tell the story of this first novel, I had a good idea of where I was going with all four stories, and how to tie it together as a series.
Question: Geoff is very real, along with a shady past of his own and believable desires and feelings. How did you find writing from the point of view of a man?
Susan’s Answer: It was never intentional! When I began writing by the pool, a man’s voice was narrating the story in my head, and I went with that. My partner is a property manager in real life, so while he is NOT Geoff, many of Geoff’s experiences in the novel are stories Dennis has told me about his job and those crazy encounters and situations that happen all the time. We’ve come to call them ‘A Bequia Moment’. Dennis will now often come home from working around the island and say, “Wait until you hear what happened today! You could put this in your next book.” So I never lack material. My second novel, One Woman’s Island, is narrated by a woman; this novel is very much my own story and experience of living on Bequia. I don’t think I ever consciously decided though to write from a man’s POV in the first novel. It’s just what came out of my head and onto the paper that seemed most suitable for my purposes at the time.
For more information about Susan, her novels, and her blog, visit: