Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Guest Post: Trish Doller Talks Book Settings and Tarpon Springs!

Where the Stars Still Shine is one of my favourite books of 2013, and you can read all about why I love it so much here. It's one of those books that sticks in your mind for weeks after finishing it, and one that makes you feel ridiculously upbeat at the end. The writing is fantastic, the story is one I'd read over and over, and the cover practically makes me sigh with happiness.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the book was the location of Tarpon Springs, Florida. I asked Trish if she'd write more about it for this post, and she very nicely said yes (cheers Trish). So here it is: Tarpon Springs, sponge diving and more Greek food than you can eat!


Did you know Jenny is awesome? She is. And very patient with me while I was up to my eyeballs in vacation and book festivals and release parties. But I’m finally here today––thank you, Jenny––to talk about setting. I think it’s always an important element of any story I’m trying to tell. I want to transport readers into the pages. I want them to be able to close their eyes and see what the characters are seeing. But for Where the Stars Still Shine, setting was even more important, because the book is set in a very distinctive and real place: Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Tarpon Springs sits on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, just a little north of Tampa. The town itself isn’t terribly large, but their claim to fame is that it has a very visible Greek-American population. While it’s a matter of some debate as to whether the town has the largest population in the United States, the population of Tarpon Springs is significant. Take a walk down Dodecanese Boulevard––the main tourist destination––and you’ll find yourself surrounded by Greek restaurants, bakeries, gift shops, and boat tours, all centered around the sponge diving industry. You’ll see white-haired old gentlemen wearing fishermen’s caps and hear people speaking Greek in the shops with a fluency that makes you wonder if they’ve just arrived from Greece.

They haven’t.

Greeks have been settling in Tarpon Springs since the late 1800’s, when sponges were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. Men came from Kalymnos, Symi, and Halki to work in the sponge diving industry––another thing that’s pretty specific to Tarpon Springs. In the early days, the boats would go out for weeks at a time and the divers wore heavy suits with bell helmets––like the bubbly guys you see in fish tanks––and then come home with their decks piled high with sponges. Here’s how it works: Wearing heavy boots to keep them submerged, divers walk along the bottom of the gulf, cutting sponges the way you might cut flowers from a garden. Except sponges aren’t plants. They’re a multicellular organism. An animal. Sort of. They don’t have nervous, digestive, or circulatory systems, so mostly they just hang out on the bottom of the ocean, letting the water do the work of bringing in food and removing waste. Which is probably more than you ever wanted to know about sponges, so we’ll move on.

Once the sponges are cut, the basically have to die in order to become what we think of when we think of sponges. The divers rinse and squeeze out the decay, which runs off the sponges in a smelly liquid called gurry. It takes a few days to do that, so each boat will have sponges piled on deck by how far they are along in the decaying process. And when the boats return home loaded with cargo, they usually sell them at auction, sometimes at the dock and sometimes via cell phone on the way back to the dock.

They’ve been doing it this way in Tarpon Springs for generations. While the boats have changed––they’ve got bigger, faster engines that get divers to the beds and back faster––and they no longer wear the big heavy suits, the technique hasn’t changed too much. What has changed, sadly, is the invention of synthetic sponges. Sponge diving is no longer as viable or vibrant as it used to be, and many of the younger generations aren’t taking up the trade anymore.

Still, when I visited Tarpon Springs for the first time, I found the idea sponge diving fascinating. Maybe not so much because it’s a fascinating job––it actually sounds like kind of a terrible job––but because it’s uncommon. I loved the idea of dropping a character into this little pocket of Greek life. Into a world where sponge diving is a thing and the people around her speak an actual foreign language on top of the foreign-ness of family and stability. I loved watching Callie become a part of Tarpon Springs––and Tarpon Springs become a part of her. And I don’t know that the book would be as special set anywhere else.

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