Nobody else will ever be able to write a book like my new novel Venomous Lumpsucker. I mean that in the very literal sense that one of the essential tools I used to write it no longer exists. loc.alize.us was a website that allowed you to zoom in anywhere on a world map and see all the photos taken in that location that had been geotagged and uploaded to Flickr. This meant that, for instance, when I wanted to site a migrant labour camp on a remote stretch of the Finnish coastline, I could immediately look up somebody’s holiday snaps of that exact spot.
Then, after I finished the book, I went back to loc.alize.us and saw that it wasn’t working any more. When I emailed Martin Kleppe, the site’s creator, he explained that this was because of Google switching off one of the ageing services it was built on. ’Unfortunately the code base is super old,’ he told me, ‘and would require a complete rewrite.’ Fair enough: you can’t really expect a free tool like this to be maintained in perpetuity as if it’s critical nuclear infrastructure. Nevertheless, it’s a shame, because there’s not really a substitute. Google Street View is limited to where Google have sent their owlish proprietary cameras. Google themselves had a tool just like loc.alize.us called Panoramio, but they shut it down in 2018 – I know that because the investigative journalism group Bellingcat used to use it to geolocate Russian war crimes. Bellingcat now use a service called EchoSec, but it’s aimed at private security companies and costs thousands of pounds a year, which is probably out of my reach until Venomous Lumpsucker gets adapted into an HBO show and/or novelty restaurant chain. And there are ways to search Instagram by location, but the problem is, people only put their coolest photos on Instagram, whereas they dump hundreds of their most banal photos on Flickr, which for a novelist is much preferable.
People sometimes ask me, well, why wouldn’t you just go to the places you’re writing about? But I’m not alone in this. The Scottish novelist Stef Penney famously wrote her Costa-award-winning novel The Tenderness of Wolves, set in the wilds of northern Canda, without ever leaving London, because she suffers from agoraphobia. On her website, she writes, ‘I do zero-carbon research. Unlike the protagonist of Under A Pole Star, I haven’t been to the North Pole. I have been to the Scandinavian Arctic – which is totally different – but am unconvinced that being there has made my writing about landscape any stronger.’
I do not suffer from agoraphobia; instead, I have a number of much more trivial excuses. One is superstition: I wrote my second novel The Teleportation Accident without having been to Berlin, where much of it takes place, and that got longlisted for the Booker Prize, so now I don’t dare change my methods. Another is flexibility: occasionally I may relocate part of a story while I’m in the middle of writing it, which I’d probably feel very reluctant to do if several months earlier I’d made a pilgrimage to the original coordinates. Another is cowardice: when I was writing my third novel Glow, I was able to find a YouTube video showing the drive from Sukkur Airport into the city of Khairpur in southern Pakistan, which was a lot easier than taking a mini-break in a region that the Foreign Office describes as having ‘a very high risk of kidnapping.’ But the biggest reason, I suppose, is arrogance: I just think I’m so good at using the internet that I don’t need to leave my flat.
This may sound far-fetched. OK, so maybe I can find a few photos of the place I’m writing about, but what about the full sensory experience, the sounds, the smells? Well, actually while I was writing Venomous Lumpsucker I also discovered a website called Radio Aporee, a ‘global soundmap’ that collects field recordings from all over the world. The description in Chapter Five of the creaking of the birches in a forest in Estonia is based on a recording a sound artist called John Grzinich made in 2013. Admittedly, there is not yet a Radio Aporee for smell. But I’m willing to go out on a birch limb here and say that a birch forest smells like birch.
There are, of course, plenty of novelists who diligently research all their books in situ, and I’m sure they would say to me, ‘My writing is full of unique little details that I never in a million years would have found just by scraping around online.’ And I don’t disagree! I can certainly conceive of an alternate version of Venomous Lumpsucker where every chapter contained a few extra sentences immortalising my observations from a six-week tour of Baltoscandia. But I think that’s all it would be: a few extra sentences. Because every writer has their own set of strengths, and my novels just aren’t really about documenting the texture of a place, even though I often love that sort of writing: for instance, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book evokes one of Venomous Lumpsucker’s Baltic Sea locations in a way that I wouldn’t be capable of even if I had spent a lifetime there.
This year Stef Penny was commissioned to write a book set in Nordland in Northern Norway as part of Bodø’s European Capital of Culture Celebrations. But as the press release explains: ‘The catch? She is not allowed to travel there. Instead, it is locals themselves who will provide Penney with inspiration for her book, sharing stories and tips remotely via mail and phone, and helping her with her research from Nordland.’ This is a lovely demonstration of the idea that writing about a place doesn’t necessarily have to mean physically setting foot in it. In fact, I’m very envious of the arrangement, not only because it would be an absolutely ironclad alibi for my laziness about travelling for research, but also because getting help from the residents would be a fine substitute for loc.alize.us. Failing that, I just have to hope another tool like loc.alize.us pops up before I write my next novel, which I expect to be set partly in Moldova. You’ll be able to tell if it hasn’t, because in that case the book will probably be full of sentences like ‘Everything looked really quite Moldovan’ or ‘She gazed out over the landscape, which had a sort of quintessentially Moldovan quality.’
Ned Beauman is the author of five novels, the most recent of which is Venomous Lumpsucker, winner of the Sunday Times Science Fiction Book of the Year. He has also won the National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction for his first novel, Boxer, Beetle, and the Somerset Maughan award for The Teleportation Accident, which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. He has contributed journalism and literary critique to many prestigious publications such as The Guardian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, London Review of Books and Northern Gravy.