More Stories from A Dangerous Place
Here's an amusing little story about Gibraltar. As you may know, one of my dear friends lives there, and a few years ago I wanted to mail him a gift, a little something for helping me out with some background research for my series of novels featuring psychologist and investigator, Maisie Dobbs. I stood waiting in the line at the post office, and finally it was my turn. I placed the package on the counter, only to be met with a quizzical look from the clerk. Here's how the conversation unfolded:
The clerk looked up at me. "Gibraltar?" he said.
"Yes," I replied.
"Where's that?" he asked.
"To the south of Spain, north of Morocco," I said.
He nodded, tapped his keyboard a few times, and shook his head. "No such place," he said.
"Oh yes there is," I replied. "I've been there."
He started to laugh. "You can't have—it doesn't exist."
"I assure you it does, sir," I said.
"Well, it's not in our system—do you mean Spain?"
"No, I don't mean Spain—Gibraltar is not Spain. It's a British territory."
"Then send it to Britain!" he said.
"It looks like I might have to do that!" was my final word.
So, I had to send the package to the UK and have a friend send it on from there. I even called the USPS hotline and asked why I couldn't have a package sent to Gibraltar, and was told that there is no code for Gibraltar, so nothing could be sent there from the USA. Mind you, this was the same post office where the counter clerk once had to address the entire line with the following question: "Anyone know where Helsinki is?" A couple of people answered that it was in Korea, another said Italy, and everyone looked at me in a very strange way when I said, "Finland." Oh well—at least my package finally arrived in Gibraltar, albeit a bit late!
When I told my husband that with A Dangerous Place I was delving into the Spanish Civil War, he said, "Oh, good luck with that!" It seems historians and journalists, along with political and social commentators, have been struggling for years with the task of unraveling the different factions and political intrigue involved in the conflict. But as always, my interest was in the people and immersing myself in the time and place, more than the dates and names. As I turned to personal stories, maps, photographs and specific memoirs, I trusted that the odd invaluable book would come along, almost out of nowhere—I just knew my time machine would turn up on schedule. It has always happened when I'm working on a new novel—I will come across or receive from a friend or family member, a book or album that was perhaps published right at the time and place I am writing about, and it is always possibly the only copy left on the planet. It's as if Fate intervenes in my process.
My husband returned from a meander around the (amazing!) Bart's Books in Ojai, CA, with a small battered and bruised book, originally published privately in 1938. It comprised a collection of letters and essays from people who had traveled to Spain to either fight, to report, to observe as political commentators or to volunteer with the medical services. Both men and women had contributed to the collection, and at as soon as I opened the book, I knew I had the immediate experience under my microscope.
As I went about my background research, other books yielded little-known information—about Britain's complicity in the war, about the route of German and Italian aircraft entering Spain to attack Madrid, Barcelona and—notoriously—Guernica, on behalf of Franco's Nationalist Party (their journey was often more circuitous than one might imagine, for various political reasons). And again, I searched for the experiences of ordinary people caught up in the conflict. But remember, for the novelist, the research is always a bit like an iceberg—only a small percentage is visible above the surface—the bulk of her research is there, unseen below the surface, yet informing every word.
With warmest wishes to one and all,
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