Writing The Soul Of Place With Linda Lappin

What is soul of place or genius loci and how can you write it in a more immersive way in your books? How can you discover it closer to home, as well as write real settings more authentically, and invent it for your fiction? Linda Lappin gives some tips in this interview.

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Linda Lappin is the award-winning author of historical fiction and mystery, as well as The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • What is soul of place or genius loci?
  • How to know when you feel the soul of place
  • Using soul of place across genres
  • Noticing your local environment in a different light
  • The importance of sensory detail
  • Experiencing sacred places
  • Writing characters’ homes to create more personal stories
  • Writing as an outsider

You can find Linda at LindaLappin.net.

Transcript of Interview with Linda Lappin

Joanna: Linda Lappin is the award-winning author of historical fiction and mystery, as well as The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci, which we’re talking about today. So welcome to the show, Linda.

Linda: Thank you.

Joanna: Oh, I’m excited to talk to you about this topic. But first up—

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.

Linda: I’m an American author based in Italy, and I’ve always written ever since I was a small child.

I did a creative writing minor with an English major at university. Then I went on to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop to do a graduate degree MFA in fiction, poetry, and also, literary translation. Thanks to the literary translation, I was able to get a Fulbright grant to Italy to participate in a translation workshop, and I managed to stay on here.

It was sort of an interesting thing because when I was in university, I was writing primarily poetry, but after I moved abroad to Italy, I kind of gave up writing for five years because I was really focusing on learning the language and translating.

When I started writing again, it was prose and short stories, which then got longer and longer and became novels. I’ve also been teaching. I taught 39 years in Italian universities as a teacher of English Language and Literature.

Joanna: So you said there, 39 years. So how long have you been in Italy?

Linda: 40 years.

Joanna: Oh, wow. That’s crazy. Do you consider yourself Italian now? Because you must have lived in Italy longer than the US.

Linda: No. I have lived here longer than I lived in the US because I was only about 25 when I left, but your roots sort of stay with you, which is also part of the soul of place. They do stay with you.

So I’m perfectly bilingual, my husband is Italian, we speak in a combination of English and Italian, but I still feel very American.

Joanna: That is interesting. I’m just fascinated with place, and I know people listening are too.

Where in the U.S. do you come from? And where are you living in Italy?

Linda: Well, I originally come from Kingsport, Tennessee. My parents were from the Chicago area. I was living in Iowa City before I moved to Italy. Now, I’m in Rome.

Actually, I have a second home in a small village near Rome, and so we go back and forth. Especially during the pandemic, we’ve been in our second home a lot. So back and forth, Rome and a small village called Vitorchiano.

Joanna: Wow. Okay, so this actually gives me much more of an insight into why you wrote this book in the first place.

Tennessee, Rome, Chicago, Iowa — I’ve been to Chicago—I’ve been to Rome many times, but these places all have a very specific sense of place, which is kind of what we’re talking about.

Why don’t we get into the book, and you pronounce this differently, but—

What do you mean by genius loci or soul of place?

Linda: Well, most people think of soul of place as being a synonym for sense of place, meaning the atmosphere of a place or a locale, but the term genius loci, or as I pronounce it with the Italian, genius loci, refers to something much more specific and harkens back to ancient Rome.

The ancient Romans, as well as Greeks, and also various other populations around the world in different eras, have always believed that everything that is created, person, place, thing, even a concept, has an indwelling spark of energy called the genius which gives its character and animates it.

So when you talk about soul of place in that context, we’re talking about a special characterizing energy that dwells in a place.

Joanna: Can you give us some specifics around where you live now? Rome, which to me has this—like, I mean, you talk about the ancient Romans, Rome has a mythic quality, but the reality of living there is quite different.

So how would you describe it around where you live?

Linda: Well, I live in a kind of proletarian area. So it’s a modern neighborhood outside the city centre, but still within what’s called the Ring Road of Rome.

So it’s very chaotic, full of people and traffic and cars, but they all manifest that real Roman way of life.

The Roman slang, the daily habits of gathering in the streets and having your coffee, and meeting for an aperitivo. I mean, all that I see in my very, very working class neighborhood every day.

Joanna: Does everywhere have this soul of place? I guess—

How do people know when they feel something in a place?

Linda: Well, there was the French anthropologist who recently passed away, Marc Augé, who wrote that book called Non-Places, do you know that?

Joanna: Oh, I don’t, but sounds interesting.

Linda: Well, he sort of analyzes all these places in our modern society which have no soul, which are like airports, and shopping malls, and highways, and so on, which are just anonymous spaces.

The soul of place is something that’s quite the opposite of that. So it’s where you feel something that’s been deposited in the territory itself, which can be through other people who’ve lived there for generations, or important events that have taken place there, or particular architectural style that developed there because of the climatic conditions or because of the materials that were available.

The soul of place is really a composite of factors that arise from the actual physical nature of the place itself.

Its climatic conditions, its orientation towards north or south, or even cosmic influences, if you like. This is something that DH Lawrence believed.

So in order to feel the soul of place, you really just have to rely on your instinct. We know that in earlier times, of course, we were nomadic creatures, and we wandered the earth looking for sources of food and sources of water, and we had an instinct for where to go and where we would thrive and where we wouldn’t. So I think all of us still have that latent in ourselves.

So one aspect of getting to know the soul of place is just to rely on your instinct to get to the place itself.

Then, of course, there are other factors as well, like when you’re in a place that’s extraordinarily beautiful, and it awakens your sense of the sublime, maybe you feel lifted out of yourself, lifted out of your daily cares.

Or maybe you just find a place that seems familiar to you, even though you’ve never been there before, and you just feel comfortable there, and you could imagine staying there for the rest of your life. These are all ways that you can feel the soul of place.

Joanna: I find this very interesting. I’m very sensitive to places, and so I write about it a lot in my books, but I know some people don’t find it so important.

Why do you think it’s important for writers to capture this soul of place in their books?

How can these places be used differently by genre?

So Rome, for example, often is in a romance, but it might also be in a historical thriller or a modern crime novel, for example.

Linda: Sure, yeah. I can think of many examples. Well, all as Lawrence Durrell says, “All great works of fiction are as much concerned with place as they are with character and incident.” I think that’s really true.

Then he goes on to make a point, if you take Moby Dick and you put it in another setting, it’s a completely different book

On another level, the idea that our environment, in literature anyway, the outer environment is somehow a manifestation or reflection of the inner one of the characters is a trope that’s existed in literature since the times of myth.

So also we find it in Dante, we find it in Shakespeare, we find it in the Bronte sisters, we find it in romantic poetry. Also a lot of contemporary modern writers have used this idea as well, that the outside environment is somehow a reflection of what’s inside.

A great example, of course, is the hotel in The Shining. It’s a real place in the real world, but it’s also like a projection of the protagonist, Jackson, crumbling into his disintegrating mind. The things are kind of mirrored back and forth from real place to projection until he has the final meltdown.

Place is another way of expressing character.

Even Henry James, who was a very psychologically realistic writer, we can say, believed that people are an expression of their landscape.

So, as far as using setting in different ways, different genres, well, if you look at the element of plot, say, plot can be really basic.

There are different critics who have analyzed plot variations and plot possibilities and have come up with a series of sequences and numbers and letters which represent all the different variations that you can have in any plot, which turns out to be a finite number, much more finite than you would have expected. The thing that makes allows fiction to multiply all of those possibilities is the setting. 

This is really evident if you look at romance novels because the plot of a romance novel is usually really formulaic. You have the female protagonist, usually who meets a wonderful man, or terrible man, depends, falls in love, and then there’s obstacle, obstacle, obstacle, obstacle, and then either reunion, or if it’s more proverse, death. I mean, that’s it.

If you take this basic formula, and you put it into a different setting, you come up with a completely different book.

A cruise ship, or Italy in the 1700s, or the same plot in the Arctic, or in Tibet, or whatever, you’ve got a completely different story. 

Another interesting element about the use of setting in romance novels, is that often the lover is somehow a manifestation of the setting himself. I mean, he’s something exotic, he’s different from the protagonist, he represents that exciting otherness that is also embodied in the setting itself. So those are ways that the soul of place can come out in a romance novel through the setting.

Joanna: It is really interesting because I do feel it’s kind of easier to feel something in a more famous setting.

Again, being in Rome, it’s like that just conjures up all of these images. So it’s like, yes, I feel the ancient history here. But you mentioned airports earlier, which I think is interesting, and I mean, most people, like you said, live in a suburban area.

How can people find this soul of place closer to home?

Maybe in their local neighborhood, or kind of practice tapping into it even more locally than having to fly somewhere exotic?

Linda: Well, I think that in our own neighborhoods, we don’t realize how much they are changing every day because we rush from one street to another, we’re running to get the bus or the metro or the underground or whatever.

Maybe we notice the main fixtures that seem to be the same ones that are unchanging, but a lot of things in our neighborhoods and on the streets themselves are changing constantly. So if we slow down and we start to take note, we can discover a lot of interesting things about the places where we live

There’s a technique, actually, that I suggest in the book, which is to make a deep map.

The deep map is something that really goes along with also being a flaneur, when you’re just an aimless wanderer in your town, but in this case, you’re going to take notes.

A deep map is a personalized map of your experience of a specific location, which could be your neighborhood, a street, a city, a rural area, or it could be an itinerary of a trip.

You start out by marking out the territory you mean to explore, which could be your neighborhood, the street that you live on, whatever.

Then with that in hand, you go out on different explorations at different times of day and just note everything that you come across. Whether it’s other people, sounds, smells, glimpses of things, events, animals, weather, your feelings, your remembrances about that place from the past, past collective events.

You gather all this information, and you put it on the map. This will give you a completely new way of looking at the place where you live.

You’ll discover all kinds of interesting things about it in this way. And that’s actually a really good tool that a writer can use, whether you’re writing a memoir and you’re revisiting in the past, maybe the street where you lived as a child, and this will help bring out all kinds of things that you have forgotten.

Or you can actually do it, you know, in live walking around with your phone or your notes or whatever, and use this also for articles, travel writing, and of course, in world building for your characters in work of fiction. It can be a very useful tool.

Joanna: I love that. It’s so interesting because during the pandemic—and I usually travel a lot—and during the pandemic I found myself, as we all did, walking the same routes over and over again.

And of course, over the, I guess almost two years was the main bit of the pandemic, we all got to know our areas a lot more. So I almost feel like people have been forced into doing that locally and may have noticed more. Like I definitely noticed more about my local area because I walked the same routes over and over again, which I hadn’t really done before. So it’s definitely worth doing.

Linda: Yes. It’s interesting that you mentioned the pandemic because that was my experience too. There would be, for example, maybe you’d noticed a sign up saying this building had been disinfected, or you saw these guys in hazmat suits getting out of an ambulance and going somewhere. I mean, that was part of my experience of the pandemic is that on these little outings you saw all of these very eerie examples of what was going on.

Joanna: Yes, and as you were talking now, I remember when we had to go to the supermarket, and it was only open at certain times, and then there were the stickers on the ground which kept everyone a certain number of meters apart.

I remember saying to my husband, because a friend of mine was trapped in Peru, couldn’t get back to the UK, and I was like, “Oh, my goodness, I wish Sarah could see this. This is so weird.”

Just that moment of, look, this is the supermarket, like where we go all the time, and then this thing changed the area. So I guess that would be a tip, right, is to watch out for things that are out of the usual and notice them more, and even they’re normal-type things, but to—

Notice things more, even if they’re local.

Linda: Oh, for sure. One thing I also noticed was the incredible silence of the streets. Our street, which is usually, as is Rome, it’s, you know—

Joanna: Noisy!

Linda: There’s traffic, garbage trucks, and the bus, and people shouting and yelling and all that. There was nothing. It was absolutely silent.

Joanna: Wow. It must have been amazing. In the book as well, you talk about reading a setting. So I wondered if you could talk about that and—

How can we bring depth to our books?

Linda: Okay. Another interesting thing that Durrell says in one of his books is to look at a landscape and to hear the landscape, because he sort of enters into kind of like this subconscious dialogue with the soul of the place, and the landscape says to him, “I am watching you, are you watching me? Are you watching yourself in me?” Which I think it’s like a haiku. It’s so beautiful. It’s so profound.

So to read a setting, you have to sort of step back from it, as if you were an artist who was going to maybe paint it or a sculpture who is going to turn it into some kind of a work of art.

And just try, if it’s a street or a square or a house or whatever, just to see its main outlines in a way that you don’t normally, because normally we see the bits and pieces of things, and unless we’ve been trained to look at something as a whole, we don’t.

Take a step back and see how the space is delimited and circumscribed.

Are there mountains? Are there other houses? Are there trees? What sort of makes the frame of this particular area that we’re looking at?

How are the different buildings? How do they relate to each other harmoniously or not? What is the quality of the light at different times of day?

What is the quality of the air? Does it channel the wind in a particular direction? Are there things that you notice in the landscape or in the architecture which open the door to stories? Like a road that leads somewhere interesting, or an interesting door that opens and who knows what’s behind it?

So first, to look at the general picture of it, and then all of the details and those that attract your attention the most.

Then patterns, are there patterns of movement that are made by leaves, people, cars, birds, water, reflections of water, shadows? As if you were a painter, wanting to paint this sort of like over a span of a time lapse.

Then you put yourself in the picture, and then you feel how this particular environment would affect you personally. If it is where you live, how it affects you personally. How it affects the people who live there, or who’ve lived there before you if it’s a historical place. How would they have felt the sun, and the air, and just the general atmosphere of the place? So that’s what I call reading the signs of a place.

Joanna: And when one is doing that, and if we’re writing about it, whatever the genre, it might be nonfiction, or it might be memoir, or fiction or whatever, the use of sensory detail is so important.

We often talk about this on the show and as writers, which is, it’s not a tree. You can’t say a tree, that’s not specific enough. So specific sensory detail brings a place alive. Give us some examples of how that might happen. For example, I know I’m good on what I see, but I’m terrible on what I smell. When I think of Rome, I do think quite smelly.

Tell us a bit about the importance of sensory detail.

Linda: Well, some of the writers that I really really love for their sensory detail are Lawrence Durrell, for example, in The Alexandria Quartet, which is just superb. Shirley has it in her descriptions of Naples in The Bay of Noon, and in her memoir, The Ancient Shore. Pico Iyer, the travel writer, just writes fabulous sense descriptions. Also Daphne du Maurier in her Gothic fiction.

But what these writers have in common is that they are able to pick up on all of the senses in a particular place, and not just the visual sense, but as you say, also the perfume, the scent, the taste of the air, the feel of something on your skin, and so on.

An interesting detail, for example, for Shirley Hazzard, which I think is interesting, in The Bay of Noon, it’s  a story of a friendship between two women, a British woman and an Italian woman who’s also a painter. The British woman is a friend of mutual friends, and so she goes to visit her, the Italian painter whose name I can’t remember, and carrying a letter of introduction.

And there’s a wonderful description as she walks through this street in the center of Naples, where there’s a market and all the things that are being sold at the market, and all of the liveliness of this very proletarian market that’s going on, and into this house, which is a bit decrepit because it’s postwar, so things are looking a bit dingy and rundown. 

She goes up the steps, and before she rings the bell, she notices the welcome mat, the doormat that’s outside the door to the apartment, and it’s got these dusty footprints imprinted on it. And it’s one of the few details that she gives of the building, but it’s so interesting because it gives us a sense of things being a bit rundown, but it also gives us a sense that there’s a lot of people going in and out of that apartment, and she’s going to be one of those people.

So it kind of introduces all of this fervent activity that’s going to be taking place as their relationship becomes intense and she becomes involved with the friends of this woman. So I think that that was a really interesting detail as to how even a small detail in a setting can then turn out to symbolically express other aspects of the story as it develops.

Joanna: And yes, choosing the specific details are so important because I feel like sometimes people go too far and everything is described ad infinitum.

We don’t need that. We don’t need every single thing about the setting and about the place.

We need those things that bring our story to life, specifically, and I guess we have to edit out the rest — even if it’s interesting.

If it doesn’t serve what we want to share with the reader, then it doesn’t need to be there.

Linda: Yes, exactly. That’s one minor fault of people writing historical fiction for the first time, they want to put in every single detail of everything they’ve turned up in their research, and it goes on and on and on.

And no, it must serve the story, it must help bring the story forward, or express something about the characters, or foreshadow a development. Otherwise, it’s superfluous, and it detracts from the story itself.

Joanna: Absolutely. So I love in the book that you have a chapter on place names. Again, I guess because you’re bilingual as well, place names must be really interesting when you speak different languages too. I was interested in finding interesting names if we’re writing in the real world, but also—

How can we make up place names that have a depth to them?

That maybe give a sense of what we want to talk about in terms of that soul of place?

Linda: Well, you know, place names are the poetry of place. They are messages from the past in which there may be information about the history of the place or that the people who live there deposited somehow in the name.

In England, you even have names for houses, which I think is fascinating. Like Howards End or whatever, homes, houses, buildings have names. I think it’s a terrible problem when you have to make out an Amazon address for the person who’s going to be receiving your package because you have to include the name of the house, but that’s really very fascinating to me.

Anyway, like small towns in the US sometimes have some very odd names, and I looked at some before our conversation. There’s Last Chance Iowa,  Why Arizona, Uncertain Texas, of course, Tombstone Arizona, everybody knows. Then in Canada we have a This, That, and The Other Street. They are three roads, This, That, and The Other. And then we have a Chicken Dinner Road in Idaho and then Error Place in Illinois.

So I mean, if you used these names, names like this in a work of fiction, nobody would believe you. They would feel that they are too contrived.

I was trying to think well, what can be a strategy? Well, I think maybe. for creating a name, well, maybe you could decide what it is that you want to emphasize, whether it’s an atmosphere, or something about the history, or the people who lived there, or native origins.

And then with this, you could add an unusual adjective, or a noun functioning as an adjective, or a local surname. Maybe you might have something like Moonlight Falls, or Possum Bluff, or Slaughter Beach. These are things that I made up here. Hangman’s Alley, depending on what you want to emphasize. But yes, I think that would be a way of pairing ideas to create a place name.

Joanna: I often use words in different languages. So I mean, we talked about genius loci in a sort of Latin sense, and you’re using the modern Italian, but I will often use sort of ancient Greek or Latin. I won’t necessarily know it, you can just look it up.

I’ll be like, “What is the Arabic word for shadows?” And then incorporate that some way. And even if the reader never realizes it, in my mind, that helps me write about a place.

I also use that for character names and that kind of thing, because almost every word— So my surname is Penn, and that’s an ancient English word for hill. And, I mean, totally not obvious at all, and not really relevant, but the point is, if you actually go looking for the meaning of modern names, then you can find some really interesting stuff there.

Also, like the history of a place, you know, a mining town or somewhere where a particular thing was mined, might have a different name. So I really love looking at those older words, like older English words or older language words that underpin place.

Linda: Yes, indeed. Well, in England, they have a great sense of that. I mean, all their interest in royal history and ley lines and all that. That’s all connected with those old place names.

Joanna: Lots to find there.

I’m also really interested, personally, I’m very interested in sacred places. And in terms of having walked a lot of places I’ve put in my memoir, Pilgrimage, and often sacred places, in terms of natural places, which are quite different to the sort of obvious holy places. So I wondered if you can — 

Talk more about the sacred places, because you write about those in the book.

Linda: Well, the thing about sacred places that are specific to a religion, part of the power that they have is that they have accumulated all of the aspirations and wishes and efforts of the people who’ve gone to see them.

I mean, they are kind of like generators of a collective energy, if you think about that. So the fact of belonging, when you go to visit a sacred site on a pilgrimage, or just going, not even calling it a pilgrimage, and just going to visit it, you are bombarded by this influence of all of the other people who have been there and who have gone there to worship or to be alone with themselves or in search of something sacred or spiritual. There’s a collective element in it.

There’s also a kind of a vertical sense of time because many, many people before you have been there.

When you go to a sacred place out in nature, which is more typical of, say, the Native American populations or Australian, it’s the landscape itself that emanates this incredible power. So maybe you feel you are just with the cosmic forces, you are with God, or just with yourself alone. It’s a much more kind of solitary experience.

So there are these two differences in the kind of sacred. They’re both sacred experiences, but they have a very different feeling, as far as you as being an individual or as you as being part of the chain of humanity.

I think in the questions, you asked, how can we find a sacred place or a place of pilgrimage that’s meaningful to us?

And what I thought about that was, well, it’s kind of instinctive that when you find a place that gives you a sense of peace, or recharges you, or in which you find that you are slowing down and noticing the environment more, or paying more attention to your feelings, or just somehow lifted out of your normal routine and looking into a greater depth inside you.

I think a lot of even small places that we encounter during the day could possibly give us this experience if we just learn how to open our eyes and experience them directly.

Joanna: Yes, and I mean, this is a bit of a metaphysical question, but you did talk there about these holy places where people’s emotions and their faith may have kind of been imprinted. That’s how I think about it is.

I’ve been to some places where I feel like I really am in the presence of millions of people who have imprinted this place with their faith, and that, to me, becomes part of the sense of place. I mean—

Is that a metaphysical question, or do you think there is something that happens there?

Linda: Oh, I definitely think that there’s something that happens there. I think that’s something that happens also in other spaces that we just love.

There was Violet Paget, who was a very interesting writer, who had this theory that when you go to visit a place, you leave a part of yourself there, and when you go back, you pick it up again.

That really really fits with the Roman idea of a soul of place, that there’s this energy that you can connect to. And then when you go back, it’s like a stream, you attach yourself to it again.

She really thought of it as sort of pieces of herself that were left in a house or on a bridge, and you go back and you connect to them. That’s sort of how I experience it. And when there are places when you do feel that there’s an accumulation of something, whether it’s yours or other people’s, I think that’s a very real experience.

Joanna: Yes, I write a lot about these types of places in my fiction and in my memoir.

You have this really interesting section about home, and I was thinking about characters’ homes, which I never, ever do. Like I’m thinking now, I had like one scene in one book once about a character’s home, which is quite telling that I would much prefer to set scenes in big cathedrals or out in nature than in a home. So could you talk about that?

What are your tips for writing about characters’ homes if people want to write more personal stories?

Linda: Well, everything that we keep in our house, and the way we arrange it, and the way we take care of it, it’s really a manifestation of our personality.

So in a way, when you’re writing about the home, you’re writing about the person. An interesting thought came to mind when I read your question, which was about the British food writer, Patience Gray.

She was a very popular writer in the 50s, very, very posh. But she married a sculptor who took her off to live in these really, really rough places in Italy and Spain, and Greece, near the quarries.

They lived in really rough homes, very rudimentary cooking facilities, like on an open hearth or a charcoal stove. I mean, really quite the opposite of London when she was writing these cookbooks and these columns for the newspapers, which were followed by very chic readers who wanted to learn how to cook French, and so on. 

She describes her kitchen in one of these settings, but the thing that she describes is a pan that she bought in London, which had actually been made in France, which was an oval-shaped pan for frying sole.

And she took this pan with her all over to these hobbles, basically, where they were living without any electricity, and maybe no glass in the windows, and it was like half camping, and maybe she went from one place to the other on a donkey. She also had a typewriter with her. So this pan is really like a very unique thing for this very rudimentary kitchen and this very chic French frying pan that she carried all over the place. 

It’s really like a talisman of her personality.

It’s a symbol of her identity as a chef, as a food writer, as a lover of great food. I really think that that all of us have something like that in our homes that really represents us somehow.

Maybe it’s just maybe a smaller object, but something that maybe is not even in keeping with the overall atmosphere of the place, but we somehow really manifest something important about ourselves. 

I think if you look at your characters and you look at their homes, you could probably see, well, maybe there’s something. Maybe there’s a chair, or there’s a box, or there’s something that really epitomizes in a way their identity. That would be a detail to start working with, I think, in describing a home.

Joanna: That is interesting. I was looking on my wall right in front of me, I’ve got a world map. That’s what I look at every day.

I don’t even think I’ve said that on the show before, I just like having a world map on the wall. I always did when I was growing up. I was also thinking that —

The first thing I do when I go into someone’s home is have a look at their bookshelves, and if they don’t have any books, I just can’t trust them.

Linda: For sure. I have to get rid of a lot of them because I have too many, and I keep having to get rid of them and give them away and so on because my house will fall down if I keep them all, unfortunately.

Joanna: But then we can buy more. Like I was telling you, I bought your book, and I will have to get rid of something else to put your book in my shelf.

Linda: Well, I’ll be reading your book on pilgrimage as well. I think that will be really interesting.

Joanna: Oh, thank you. Right, so we’re always out of time.

I do have a question going back to your dual citizenship and such, because one of the things that kind of obsesses me is about writing as the other and writing as an outsider, because part of me feels like we do have a much keener sense of what is unusual when we’re an outsider.

So I can come to Rome and I can see things that Romans can’t see. But in another way, obviously, it’s a completely different gaze than someone who lives in a place, and that there are problems with authenticity, there are problems with stereotypes, problems with a lot of different stuff from either side.

But as someone who is essentially a dual citizen of Italy and the USA—

What are your thoughts on writing as an outsider?

Linda: Well, that’s a really tough question because I think your gaze is something that’s so much a part of you and your experiences, and especially your formation as a young person. So your childhood and your family, I mean, it’s really hard to change that. So you take that with you wherever you go.

But you can educate it, you can make it more informed, more culturally aware, and so on. You can be aware of your prejudices, which is hard to do, and be aware of your shortcomings.

But I agree, yes, when you’re not of the place, you can see a lot of things that they don’t notice because they’re just so used to it.

On the other hand, to really know a place, you need to know the language, you need to understand the people, you need to understand where they come from.

The more you live in a place, the more you realize that a society really carries a baggage along of what it was before, of attitudes, and beliefs, and religion, and so on. Even if maybe they’re not all active anymore, but they’re still there, those influences are still there.

So if you’re going to be writing about a place as a traveler, then it’s quite different than if you’re writing from inside as somebody who really knows it well.

Joanna: So after 40 years, are you accepted as an Italian? Or are you still an outsider? Are you still an other?

Linda: Yeah, probably because of my accent. I don’t have a perfect Italian accent. So I mean, I speak Italian well, but they can tell that I’m not a native speaker from my accent, so it automatically clues into that.

Maybe they don’t understand that I’m American, but they realized that I am foreign. And I just look different, I don’t look Italian.

It’s also how you present yourself, how you walk, how you dress. You know, in Italy, we all, as far as women go, we all wear black and blue, navy and black most of the time, which is very different from women in the south of France. In fact, this British friend of mine went, all this black and brown, so depressing.

So it’s not just your physiognomy. It’s also how you walk, your manner when you speak to someone, how close you stand to them or how far away you stand, whether you look directly or you look aside.

I mean, there’s a lot of different signals that are picked up between people when you interact. And if you’re not of the same group or the same culture, I think that shows. It’s not just language or appearance, but through other things as well.

Joanna: It’s actually quite funny. I lived in Australia, and also New Zealand, I was away 11 years. And I remember really struggling in Australia because British people, we speak in subtext, we don’t often say what we think.

We say something, but what we mean is something else, but people who are British understand what we’re talking about or not talking about.

In Australia, people are much more direct. So I would have a conversation, and I would assume that they understood me, and then they didn’t because I hadn’t said it in a really direct way. So it’s even stuff like that, which is a sort of cultural background. I mean, in the US people are very direct, but I guess Italians are pretty direct too.

Linda: Well, not always. Not always. They’re more Arab than Anglo-Saxon in that way. People will give you a compliment, and they mean the opposite.

Joanna: So it’s been really interesting talking about The Soul of Place, but you have other books as well.

Tell us a bit about all the other things you have.

Linda: Well, I’ve published four novels, and all of my novels originate from a memorable encounter that I had with a place.

My first novel, The Etruscan, is about a woman, a photographer, who comes to Italy in 1920 and discovers the Etruscan ruins and has a very life changing relationship with a local man. That sort of was born from my exploration of the Etruscan area near my second home, this village where I am. 

Then my second novel is based on the life of Katherine Mansfield, after a visit to Fontainebleau, where she died at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. My third novel, Signatures in Stone, is based in the Monster Park of Bomarzo, and it’s a mystery, and it’s the one that I won an award from the Daphne du Maurier award for suspense writing in the US.

It’s based on these incredible Baroque sculptures of monsters, and a crime happens in this garden. This book is actually going to be released in the second edition this winter because this year was the 500th anniversary of the park. 

My latest novel is Loving Modigliani. It’s about the life of Jeanne Hébuterne, who was the companion of Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian painter who died in Paris in 1920.

This book got its start when I looked in the window of the building where his studio once was located, and there was a trick of light on the stairs, on these dusty stairs, and it looked like a ghost was descending the staircase. That was the beginning of what became my novel because it’s narrated by the ghost of his common-law wife.

Joanna: Brilliant.

Where can people find you and your books online?

Linda: Well, I have a website which is LindaLappin.net, but also LindaLappin.com will take you to the same place. My books are distributed by Ingram, but they’re also all on Amazon as eBooks. So you can find them on any eBook platform as well.

Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Linda. That was great.

Linda: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you, and I look forward to reading your book.

The post Writing The Soul Of Place With Linda Lappin first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • October 15, 2023