Tom Savage: Venice, Via the V. I.

What is the role of place in a story? Tom Savage’s “Jumbie Tea” offers a strong sense of place, but as he explains in this post, that’s only one ingredient in the creative stew. “Jumbie Tea” appears in our June issue, on newsstands now.

You can also hear Tom read his Barry-nominated “The Method in Her Madness,”  from our June 2005 issue, as part of our podcast series. You can also find the stories on iTunes.

Writers are human sponges; there’s no denying it. From childhood’s earliest hour, we soak up every detail of the world around us and store it somewhere close to our brains. Then, at any given moment, the sponge will squeeze information and images into our conscious minds. The result is a story, and we don’t always know which part of our past experience inspired it. This explains our blank expressions when people ask us that timeworn question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

But sometimes we know. In the case of “Jumbie Tea,” my new story in AHMM, I remember exactly what happened. Three things:

  1. Rereading a favorite story by a favorite author
  2. Memories of my childhood in the Virgin Islands
  3. An invitation from one of my mystery writing organizations (I belong to several) to submit a story for a proposed anthology called MURDER AROUND THE WORLD

Actually, it was #3 above that activated #1 and #2. The assignment was to write a short mystery set in a specific part of the world, using elements of that place in the plot. When the request arrived, I was rereading one of my favorites, “Don’t Look Now,” the creepy 1971 novella by Daphne du Maurier. A British couple, grieving the recent death of their child, take a business trip to Venice, where all sorts of weird, supernatural things begin to happen. It’s a chilling tale with a famous shock ending, but what most impresses the reader is the description of the setting–the sights, sounds, smells, and moods of that ancient city. I’ve been in Venice, and I’ve experienced its strange allure firsthand. Reading her story, you get the distinct impression that these bizarre events could only occur there. This aspect of her work spilled onto the invitation on my desk, and they were both lapped up by the sponge in my head.

I needed an exotic locale for my story, and I happen to have grown up in one: St. Thomas, V. I. My hometown would do quite nicely, and I certainly knew the geography, landmarks, and folklore of the region. I would use as many details of the West Indies as my plot would bear. But, what would the story be? Well, I’d just been reading a masterpiece wherein beautiful Venice is the symbol of all that is evil and corrupt, practically a doorway to Hell. So…

Unable to shake the supernatural angle of du Maurier’s tale, I immediately recalled the superstitions and religions of the Islands. And–again inspired by Dame Daphne–I created a pair of American tourists in the Caribbean who would somehow be confronted by these things. Instant Culture Clash. Voodoo and Obeah are alien to most of us; we don’t understand them, so we fear them. As a child in St. Thomas, I was fascinated by the otherworldly elements of those beliefs, and I never forgot them. The fierce heat, the sudden rain, the winding mountain roads, the lovely old buildings and lush palms and white beaches of my youth would all play their parts as well. I added everything I could remember to the mix. I took all these beautiful things and rendered them sinister, recasting them as my own, personal version of Hell’s Waiting Room.

The sponge was squeezed, as it were, and out came “Jumbie Tea.” To top it all off, I borrowed one final element from Daphne du Maurier–or, rather, from Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant 1973 film version of “Don’t Look Now.” The terrified couple in the story, John and Laura Baxter, were played in the film by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, so my tourists became “Donald” and “Julie,” and Julie’s last name is “Baxter.” The French have a word for this: hommage. In America, we simply call it theft. Anyway, that’s how this particular story came to be. Where did I get the idea? My answer is the title of this essay.

The proposed anthology never materialized, so I submitted “Jumbie Tea” to AHMM and hoped for the best, which is what happened, and here it is. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed revisiting my past–and squeezing my sponge–to create it.

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1 Comment

Filed under How'd That Happen

One response to “Tom Savage: Venice, Via the V. I.

  1. TS Eliot said famously “The immature artist borrows; the mature artist steals.” Fun to read about the “thievery” that this talented writer brings off. Hommage is so important because we are what we read; everything we think has been at least influenced by the works of others–architects and cooks as well as poets and writers. The essential sociability of humans informs us very efficiently. Keep squeezing that sponge,Tom!

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