I grew up in a very small town in Sweden and when I was a child, my grandfather had a set of beautifully illustrated books - a Swedish version of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. I used to spend hours looking at the drawings of exotic ladies, powerful rulers, magicians and genis (genii?), wishing I could travel to faraway places like that and imagining myself in their world.
When I was fifteen, my wishes sort of came true, although not quite the way I’d imagined. My father came home one day and said “how would you like to move to Japan?” My mother, brother and I all laughed. He might just as well have asked if we wanted to live on the moon, it was so far out of our orbit. But to our amazement, he was serious. He’d been offered a job with a Swedish firm in Tokyo, the kind you just can’t turn down, and the following summer we moved there.
I had travelled a little bit by then, but only within Europe. And although Spain might seem exotic to someone who is used to cold Scandinavia, it was as nothing compared to Japan. This was a culture shock extraordinaire for me. And Tokyo is, of course, one of the largest cities in the world. I went from living in a town of 30,000 inhabitants to one of about 10 million (if you include Yokohama)! That took some getting used to.
Once I did adapt, however, I fell in love. With the country itself, the culture, the food and the people. In fact, everything about it. This was all Exotic with a capital ‘E’, just the sort of thing I’d been dreaming of. At the time, I was too busy enjoying myself to do more than just absorb it, but the whole experience had a profound effect on me. Later on, when I came to write historical novels and was casting around for story ideas, this all bubbled to the surface. It seemed obvious that I had to use the Far East as a background, at least partly, and I wanted to make others fall in love with it as much as I had myself. My debut novel, Trade Winds, is therefore set in both Sweden and Canton in China.
So what was it about Japan and the Orient that caught my imagination to such an extent? I’m not sure, but their sense of harmony and the way they present even the smallest thing in the best possible light really appealed to me for a start. Food is always served on beautiful porcelain or lacquer-ware, arranged in patterns in order to tempt the eye as well as the palate. Art and design is understated, yet elegant, and this includes the patterns on kimonos, folding screens, fans and china. Even their writing is beautiful to look at! In everyday items too, there is always something aesthetically pleasing. I took the opportunity to buy as many things as I could, including kimonos like the one which inspired the title of my second novel, The Scarlet Kimono, and a whole collection of painted fans.
Then there are the buildings – with my love of history, I prefer the traditional ones, although modern ones are built with flair as well. To me, the temples and castles from ages gone by are the real beauties, however, with their tip-tilted roof corners and embellishments in the form of wood carvings or hammered bronze decorations. (I used the castle of Himeji as the template for the one my hero lives in as it was just perfect!) When you walk around in Tokyo, you often stumble upon tiny shrines or older houses, wedged in among the more modern apartment-blocks. And wherever you go, you may catch a glimpse of women dressed in kimonos as they head off for special occasions – some colourful, some plain, but always elegant and serene.
It is a society very much like ours, and yet enormously different in many ways, and I just had to try and capture this somehow. I’m not sure I succeeded, but I have been told my love of the Far East comes through loud and clear in my novels. I hope that’s a good thing because I love writing about it!
Here's some information about Trade Winds
Marriage of convenience – or a love for life?
It’s 1732 in Gothenburg, Sweden, and strong-willed Jess van Sandt knows only too well that it’s a man’s world. She believes she’s being swindled out of her inheritance by her stepfather – and she’s determined to stop it.
When help appears in the unlikely form of handsome Scotsman Killian Kinross, himself disinherited by his grandfather, Jess finds herself both intrigued and infuriated by him. In an attempt to recover her fortune, she proposes a marriage of convenience. Then Killian is offered the chance of a lifetime with the Swedish East India Company’s Expedition and he’s determined that nothing will stand in his way, not even his new bride.
He sets sail on a daring voyage to the Far East, believing he’s put his feelings and past behind him. But the journey doesn’t quite work out as he expects ...
Trade Winds, published by Choc Lit, ISBN 978-1-906931-23-0 (www.choc-lit.co.uk)
Christina Courtenay – short bio
Christina is half English/half Swedish and grew up in Sweden. She is a committee member of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, currently responsible for organizing one of their awards and for library liaison. She has won two of the RNA’s prizes - the Elizabeth Goudge Trophy in 2001 and the Katie Fforde Bursary in 2006.
Christina has had several Regency novellas published by DC Thomson (two of which are now available in Large Print). Her first full-length novel Trade Winds was published by Choc Lit in September 2010 and was subsequently shortlisted for the RNA’s award for Best Historical. Christina’s second novel, The Scarlet Kimono, was published in March 2011.