The Soapmaker is a magical feminism novel with the theme of experiencing place.
This is the reflective essay (a mix of person reflection and academic research) that I submitted with my portfolio for module two of my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing in 2020 (University of Cumbria). The topic of the module was: Experiencing Place. © Veronika Robinson
I have explored this module through extensive reading, podcasts, interviews, weekly writing exercises, and culminating in my creative project: a novel, The Soapmaker. My reflections about the novel cover three main points: creating place, being out of place, and point of view in relation to place.
The idea for The Soapmaker came from breathing in the exquisite scent of handmade lavender and geranium soap; my sense of smell was keenly activated before I wrote a single word and it took me to a place I wanted to write about, and one my target readership would enjoy. Amanda Curtin, Five Things: Creating a Sense of Place, writes “Most writers fall very naturally into visual description, but the other senses have as much, perhaps more, potential to engage a reader’s sense of being there.”
My first decision was where to set the story. It would have been easy to set it in my native Australia, so I challenged myself to place it here in Cumbria. Although I appreciate the beauty of this county, it still isn’t home to me after twenty-one years. I decided to make my character, Grace, an immigrant like me. It would also mean, due to her use of plants in the soap, we’d both have to learn about Cumbrian flora. As a result, I have connection to this place in a new way.
Grace moves from an easy going way of life in warm Australia to cold and conservative (meteorologically, culturally and politically) Cumbria. This is an excellent example of my relationship between place and the written word. Cumbria has been a difficult place for me to settle in for the above reasons.
For the first five drafts, Grace was from Alaska. Although I felt that I’d researched the location well, upon discussion with my tutor about the intended learning outcomes, I changed it to Australia. The storyline didn’t change too much but her experience (and my writing) of place most certainly did. Naturally, readers will have a completely different experience of place when reading about the heat of Australia compared to the frigidity of the Alaskan climate.
Milford A. Jeremiah, The Use of Place in Writing and Literature, quotes William Zinsser: “Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that ‘somewhere’ is like.” The opening page starts with the soap’s place in the vat, and in the soapmaking studio where they are made, and place in the world.
As part of my research into soapmaking, I followed two botanical soapmakers on Instagram , to learn more about their work through beautiful photos. I found the imagery seductive, and I felt at home in their studios. This was something I wished to recreate through my written word. I had lengthy discussions with Lynda Cook Sawyer from Nevada Moon about the soapmaking method and process, the procuring of plants, and relevant terminology. This, and the images, shaped the sense of place I created for Grace’s soapmaking studio.
Other people’s philosophies and ideas influenced my writing, such as the podcast from week one of this module. This had a huge influence on me, and shaped the storyline. The topic, Out of the Garden, was an exploration of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and our desire to have paradise on Earth. Although scholars argue that the fruit Eve offered Adam wasn’t an apple, it remains so in the cultural psyche. My response to this was to include references to apples in the novel. The element of the forbidden fruit is also shown in the emerging relationship between Grace and Caleb. The Fall, as expulsion from Paradise, inspired my choice for the character’s name, Grace. Biblically, eating the forbidden fruit meant falling from grace. The novel is about falling for Grace. Caleb has to choose between everything he’s ever known for a new land: an unknown place.
Introducing a Jehovah’s Witness allowed me to explore both place and being out of place. Many people think of Jehovah’s Witnesses as simply another Christian religion when it is, by definition, a cult. , I engaged in extensive research about the organisation through reading books, online forums, and conversations with a number of friends who were all once active Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Curtin writes, “Before you can create a sense of place on the page, you need to immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about so that it comes alive for you.” The places I’ve written about were augmented through further reading, research and imagination. “If you have direct experience of a place, or somewhere similar, you have a well of impressions to draw on.” I have long enjoyed the feeling of being in natural light, so a large conservatory was an appropriate setting in which to make Grace’s Cumbrian soapmaking studio. I knew, from my experience of place, that she would be missing the light from Australia enormously. As I wrote, I could feel the light coming in, and the view into the garden. I could hear the woodpecker in her garden as readily as I hear the one in my own.
When illustrating ways to create place, Curtin writes: “I’m strongly influenced by skyscapes, and there are many ways the sky can be used metaphorically or imagistically in fiction—as messenger, mirror, portent, signal…” An example of this, from my novel, is found in the opening chapter: Without warning, the unbridled sunshine which had filtered in through the windows and glass roof all morning, was eclipsed by sombre clouds. Grace shivered. Something in the air had shifted. “You’re safe,” she whispered, looking around the room in case she’d missed something. Or someone. “You’re safe.”
Curtin continues: “Skies are often associated with place—for example, through colour or atmospheric elements, constellations or position of the sun.” When describing Grace’s childhood, I wrote: “As an only child, she learnt to make her own fun under the canopy of the ‘mac trees’, as she called them. They offered magical shadows on days when the clouds hung low, and glorious streams of light between leaves when the Sun was beaming bright.”
Madge’s disregard for the real place of environment is due to her belief in an imagined place: The New World, when Jehovah restores Paradise to Earth. Although Grace is incensed and finds this selfish and irresponsible, they both have the same end goal: a Utopia. On our residential for this module, I was fascinated by the differences and similarities my cohort shared about ‘what makes Utopia’. We all agreed that having shelter (a sense of place and security) was a priority.
The use of different time frames appears throughout the novel: A glimpse into Grace’s childhood; living in Australia; and Cumbria. Curtin writes “A strong sense of place helps readers to make the imaginative leap into another world, whether that world is in the past, present or future.”
Modern versions of The Fall include ‘enclosures’ and ‘gun powder’. Having been kicked out of paradise, Grace creates a new world. Milford writes “Another feature of place in literature is that it serves to activate the reader’s senses and to evoke an emotional response on the part of the readers.” As I wrote a traumatic scene for Grace, I could feel the terror of being in an enclosed space with no ability to escape, and the fear each time the gun fired.
Due to Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, Grace is also somewhat out of place in her body and constantly vigilant for intruders or anything that’s out of place. Examples include brushing off the soap flakes off the curing rack, and dropping the compost bucket, or her response to Caleb’s reaction when he refuses the gift of soap for Madge. Again, I know that if I am out of sorts emotionally then everything in my place (home) irritates me if it is not in order.
Caleb, too, is out of place. He’s wrestling with doubts, not only as a Jehovah’s Witness, but also his marriage. If he openly questions his religion, he’ll be labelled apostate and, if disfellowshipped, will be shunned by everyone in his community. He’s been brainwashed since birth, and realising that there is no Armageddon or New World means that he will grow older and die. He straddles a fine line between the psychological places of breakdown and breakthrough. Grace becomes his place to rest. This sanctuary (emotionally, but also in her lovely, welcoming home and garden) is an imitation of Paradise. We see ‘place within place’.
Dystopia is feared due to the belief in the place of Armageddon. At the time of writing, many Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world believe Covid-19 is the start of the much-awaited and prophesied Armageddon, the precursor to the perfect New World.
Grace fears living in climate-change dystopia if we don’t act urgently.
I have also written about the natural habitat of dragonflies, and the connection Grace makes to her inner landscape; as well as their first beachcombing experience on a Cumbrian beach.
Through flashback, another indicator of time and place, we are at The Channon markets; the Macadamia Nut Grove; the seaside town of Byron Bay; inside the police car and police station.
Through Caleb’s view, we’re in his bedroom, and shower. As he’s driving to the Kingdom Hall, the radio announcer says “BBC Radio Cumbria”. Milford states that “In the literary world, place is usually combined with time and events to establish what is known as the social setting or the social context of a literary work.”
Madge has several experiences of place: home, the garden shed, car, and Carlisle city centre. I had planned to write about the Extinction Rebellion rally from Grace’s point of view, and it certainly would have given me more freedom but I chose it from Madge’s point of view to illustrate being out of place.
There are the imagined places of Armageddon and the New World; as well as the place of one in their own skin; and the emotional and psychological realities of one’s place in relationship.
Curtin writes “Before you can create a sense of place on the page, you need to immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about so that it comes alive for you.” My writerly self has felt alive in each of the (real) places I’ve explored.
Philip Hensher, writing on The Importance of Place in Fiction, “A novel has to place the psychologies of individuals in a delicate relationship with the world that formed them.“ For my purposes as a writer, this included the soap. By nature of the novel’s genre: magical feminism (a sub genre of magical realism), the soap, too, has a voice. The Seaweed, Spice Orange and Cedar soap is explored through three different points of view, and therefore, place: the soap itself; memory flashbacks of when and where the ingredients were gathered (oranges hanging from trees in sunny Spain; cedar from high in the mountains; and seaweed from the ocean); and when Caleb’s showering. Right from the start, the soap’s place in this world is noted.
Based on feedback, I have made significant changes in the writing of drafts so that the descriptive text was broken up in various ways through flashback, dialogue, changes of point of view. I can see the value of this now that I’m at draft seven.
Having lived in six countries within the span of six years, and as a new mother (with daughters born just 22 months apart) living in three countries within just seven months, my experience of place, and being out of place, readily forms my writing practice. This module helped me make sense of my conflicting needs: to settle, and to move on. I am an Australian born to German immigrants. My New Zealand-born daughters have immigrant parents, and my Welsh granddaughter has immigrant parents. This theme of being uprooted and transplanted continues down the family line and, indeed, in my writing.
The Soapmaker serves as contemporary nature writing as it highlights the urgency of climate change through references to ecology, environmental issues, fair-trade products, composting and recycling, the ‘Make it, Bake it, Grow it’ movement, and the Extinction Rebellion.
These weeks of lockdown due to Covid-19 have highlighted that the experience of place is the foundation for all aspects of my life and writing, and I remain grateful to live rurally with a lovely garden and mini orchard; my own paradise.
Amanda Curtin, Five Things: Creating a Sense of Place
[Accessed 10th April 2020]
Jeremiah A Milford, The Use of Place in Writing and Literature; Language Arts Journal of Michigan, Volume 16, Issue 2, Article 7 (2000) <https://doi.org/10.9707/2168-149X.1352> [accessed 9th April 2020]
Nurturing Soul (@nurturing_soul) <https://www.instagram.com/nurturing_soul> [multiple access dates]
Nevada Moon Soap Company (@nevadamoonsoap) <http://www.instagram.com/nevadamoonsoap> [multiple access dates]
Bonnie Zieman, Exiting the JW Cult: A Healing Handbook For Current and Former Jehovah’s Witnesses (North Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015)
Steven Hassan, Combating Cult Mind Control, Fourth Edition (Newton, MA: Freedom of Mind Press, 2018)
Curtin, Five Things
Philip Hensher, The Importance of Place in Fiction
<https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/17/philip-hensher-importance-place-fiction> [accessed 10th April 2020]