Penelope Grey is an indie author whose books I absolutely adore. I’m one of her biggest fans, and will read anything that she writes. Her writing is sweet, organic and genuine. I highly recommend her two novels, Infinity’s Song and Caught and Kept. They are both in her Siren’s Song Book series. With both books, I felt as though Penelope had taken me on a journey to the Pacific North West. It was as if the Pacific North West was a character in the books. Because I appreciate that so much about her writing, I asked her to join me to talk about how “place” factors into her novels and becomes a character in and of itself. To learn more about Penelope Grey, please check out the link to her blog. For more information on her books, I’ve included a link to her author page at Amazon. Our chat is below. Our respective initials mark our questions and responses to each other.
BP: One of the things that I love about your writing is the sense of place that you bring to your stories. For example, in your novels “Infinity’s Song” and “Caught and Kept,” Whidbey Island in Puget Sound felt like a distinct character with its own part to play. Did you intend for it to take on such a prominent role? Or, did your love of the island simply color the story with its presence?
PG: That was intentional. I do, indeed, love Whidbey the Puget Sound. They are the only places outside of Southern England that my heart feels at peace and I wanted the reader to feel that. Where we stand each day is part of our own daily lives and to exclude it, I think, leaves part of the story untold.
For instance, in your “My Soldier Too” Boston was so vivid. I could see the streets and the neighborhoods which had defined Isabella’s world as much as the people. I felt as if in “Step Into the Wind” Alex was shaped not just by circumstance and emotional history, but by the place she grew up. Maine, the town and the camp drove part of your story line, but it also wrapped around the reader and whispered in their ear. So same question for you. Intentional or just effusive love?
We are both women who found wild corners of the world but we came from vastly different places. What was it about Maine that seduced you away from your Midwestern roots? How is the culture and life in Maine different or the same? Can you ever see going back?
BP: It was definitely intentional. The setting for those stories was as deliberate and important as the drafting of the characters. Like your love of Whidbey, mine for New England runs deep. I know that this “wild corner of the world” is where I’m meant to be. I think place also drives the culture of the people who live there. By having place take a prominent role in our stories, I think we help shape our characters more fully as well.
I ended up in New England by chance. When I joined the military after high school, I was stationed at a base in upstate New York. My pals and I used to spend a lot of time hiking in the Adirondacks and taking the ferry over to Burlington, VT. I absolutely fell head over heels in love with the Northeast, New England in particular. It’s almost as if all the cells in my body aligned with the rhythm of the place. I also met my spouse in Burlington, VT. Our first date was to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. She’s a New Englander through and through. As for Maine, it’s my favorite of all the New England states. I love the independence of Mainers, the rocky shoreline, the food, the North Woods, the rugged culture etc. I could go on and on.
The culture in Maine is very different from where I grew up in the Midwest. It would be tough to explain fully in a short blog. I don’t ever see myself going back to the Midwest. In fact, I’ve said before that the only reason that I would no longer live in New England is if New England ceased to exist. This is my home, and I hope that circumstance will always let that be the case.
I loved your questions and want to know your answers with respect to Whidbey and the Pacific Northwest. Do you envision writing any stories in a different setting? If so, how would you go about capturing the essence of that place like you’ve done so beautifully with the Pacific Northwest? Also, please tell us more about your connection to Southern England.
PG: Your connection to New England and Maine are very similar to mine with the Pacific Northwest and Whidbey. I grew up in Southern California with freeways, subdivisions, pavement and shopping malls. The most “natural” memories I have are of the beach. When I was a student in the U.K. I had friends in Southern England I visited often. Between the rugged coastline of the north where I was in school and the gentle moors of the south, Britain captured my heart immediately. I had never seen so much green. I learned to smell and sense the weather shifts (something I do still) and see life in all things around me. It’s as if my feet had finally touched earth. In Caught and Kept Dani tells Kai about arriving to the island and knowing instantly Whidbey was where she was meant to be. That story is true and it’s mine. Twelve years after leaving England I stepped off a ferry boat and felt that connection again. It was immediate, unexpected and profound. Being on an island is unique and special. We joke that we have to be especially nice because we all, literally, depend on one another. My new adventure to Portland is teaching me that the Pacific Northwest lifestyle is alive and well off the island too. It is one of nicest cities (in every way) I’ve ever experienced.
I want to write about London and England but need to let my recent trips settle inside of me. Bill Bryson’s, Notes From A Small Island chronicled his experience in England through a distinctly American lens. I would like to bring a bit of that to a few of my stories but with more of the feminine voice. The Midwest is also in my background. My dad was a farm boy from Southern Illinois and I have a few fleeting memories of a couple of summers on my Aunt’s farm. I visited again recently and it touched me deeply. There is a rural cultural from which we are becoming disconnected in this country and that is sad. Place is more than setting to me. Like you, it shapes, informs and drives our characters, as it has the both of us.
Having said all of this, my current work in progress intentionally has very little sense of a specific place. I wanted and needed this story to be all about the connections and journeys of this group of women. It has been extremely challenging to write from this perspective and root characters in only relationships and emotion without engaging too much in the external world in which they live. Can you ever imagine writing a story that is “internal” and not dependent on place? Do you think characters can become “place” in lieu of environment? If so, how do you think you would approach or tell that kind of tale?
BP: That’s a tough question, and my hat is off to you for trying. I’m not sure I could write a story that is internal and not dependent on place. I think of place like the roots of tree. The roots ground the story and give it context. That said, my next novel will take place in a dystopian future that has been dramatically altered because of climate change. So, that place will be something I’ll have to create from scratch based on the predictions by scientists of how our planet will change. But, the story will still be grounded in “place” in that it will be about how things look now versus in a very different future. I’m excited for the challenge. I’ve been reading lots about climate change. Things like how it occurs naturally, how humans are changing the equation and scientific predictions for the future. Taking a step back and thinking about my writing, I suspect “place” will always be a character.
Your next story sounds really interesting. Would you mind giving us a few more details? I’m a big fan of your writing and look forward to your next book. I’m one of those readers who will read everything that you write.
PG: I am so looking forward to reading your next book and seeing how you create place out of a dystopian future. How fun to create completely from imagination (and good research too)! My next book is an ode to the unique world of women. From menses to childbirth, weight gain and weight loss, our shapes and sizes, disease and trauma, our bodies are the vessels that carry us through this life. No woman I know is untouched by her relationship with her body. With that as my “place”, along with a group of women I hope everyone will enjoy, I am exploring new love, rekindling love, and the unique love that female friendships bring to our lives.