Tuesday 30 June 2009

Conversation With an Adventurous Woman

As readers here know, a regular haunt of mine in Agde has been the Maison de Savoir, the library down the hill from the house, where I go to connect with the internet and write these blogs and work on the novel.

This glamorous building was transformed in recent years from an historic Lycee (secondary school) to a library whose elegant atrium was once, I imagine, the school courtyard.Children in Library

Well, I’m in there one day and get into conversation with Ann Vaudreuil, who - seeing my computer screen - asks if I’m English. She is tall, has this big smile, an elegant silver-white haircut and sports a gleaming tan that I know now is only achieved on a boat. It turns out that she’s retired and had been living on a boat on the river here for some time.

‘Have you always sailed?’ I ask.

‘Oh no,’ she says, grinning and shaking her head.. ‘Just for two years, since I found this new bloke who has this boat. It’s junk rigged.’

I look blank.

‘You know. Like a Chinese junk. One big square sail.’

Now I know.

‘So, what did you retire from?’ I say, imagining her to be a retired doctor or accountant or PE teacher.’

She shrugs, ‘Oh I’ve done a few things. My last job was a bus driver.’


WP1010049e talk names and she spells hers out for me. V-a-u-d-r-e-u-i-l.

‘Sounds French,’ I say.

‘One branch of the family’s French Canadian,’ she says. ‘But I’m from Hampshire. That’s why I like the sea. Always lived by it.’

‘How interesting,’ I say. ‘So, how did your family get from Canada to Hampshire?’

She shrugs. ‘Long story. But my direct many-times-great- grandfather was the French Governor of Quebec,when it was defeated by the British under General Wolfe. He had the same name. Vaudreuil.'

I'm very impressed, but unsure of what to say. Perhaps I should apologise.

‘Fantastic!’ I say.

I change tack. ‘So – what would you like to do next in your adventurous life?’ I say.

‘Well,’ she says. ‘I’d like to be a professional gambler.’ She holds up her notebook computer. ‘That’s why I’m here. To check my racing results.’

We go on to talk briefly about an attempt to sail to Algeria with her partner, which aborted in a storm where they lost some of their gear. Then we settle down to our various tasks, she to checking the racing results, me to checking commercial shipping in Roman Gaul.

As she goes out of the library I check on the spelling of her name again and tell her – if it’s OK with her – that I will write about her here on my blog..

She nods. ‘Ann,' she says. 'Ann Vaudreuil. I used to be called Olga. But that’s a different story…’


Monday 22 June 2009

Borrowing Characters from History

It’s heating up down here. The municipal flower beds are blossoming in an entirely different configuration to those at home. Penstemon, lavender, gaura, marigolds, - all subtly planted in an apparently random fashion that mimics the natural wildness of the riverbanks that we saw here earlier this season. A far cry from much brighter, jolly bedding plants packing out the centre of roundabouts at home.

Outside the city in the numerous vineyards the plants in their lines are a hot bright green and the grapes are plumping up under the sheltering leaves. The corn is as high as an elephants knee – it’ll be a while before it reaches his eye… And we’ve actually witnessed the harvesting of a golden field of wheat months before such events back at home.

In the heat, one cool place - in more ways than one - to sit and talk or write is la Place 195de la Marine at the far end of the quayside, past the rather grand cafes bobbing about on their river pontoons. In years gone by this square was where the fishermen would land their catches and they (or their wives) would sell their wares.

But now la Place de la Marine is a dappled open space, lined with plane trees which shade blue tables belonging to a small, elegant cafe called Cafe Capitaine where charming people bring you coffee, wine, or fine food to fuel your thinking, talking and writing

Interestingly, inside the cafe is a very colourful, illuminated picture of a large boat. Before it is a small sailing boat where stand our own sailor adventurers, Nira and Allan and their black dog. (see Nira and Allan)

Even on the hottest day at this end of the quayside, you can rely on cooling offshore breezes, as well as catching the last rays of the sun at the end of the day. I’ve drafted chapters of the new novel here. I’ve watched children play independently in family groups, the big sisters and brothers taking care of the little ones. I’ve watched droves of visitors arriving on their bikes, or off the small ferry that works its way up and down the Herault and stops at this small landing.

The children play around the statue at the centre of the square - a creamy evocation of Aphrodite, spouse of Poseidon, the God of the Sea. She’s wielding a paddle and stands atop a globe of the world. This statue is dedicated to navigators who have set out from this place and sailed the world’s oceans.

My own current favourite navigator is a sailor called Jean-Victor CannAsrtolobeac, who made a voyage round the world in 1826 in a ship called l’Astrolobe. The Astrolobe story has royal connections: hoping to find the last traces of an expedition led by a Captain Lapèrouse, which had disappeared in 1788 in the Pacific, King Charles X entrusted the search to a Frigate, Captain Jules Dinant d’Urville. This Captain loaded up at Toulon on 7th February 1826 on the corvette L’Astrolobe with a crew of 80 men, one of whom was Jean-Victor Cannac.

Now then! This young man’s family owned the Maison d’Estella – the house at the centre of my new story! And the Cannac family lived in the house right to 1916.

We have direct information about nineteen year old Jean-Victor from his sailor’s ticket. He stands 1m60 tall, has black hair which covers his brow; the same colour eyes. He has an oval face, a large nose, a small mouth and a dimpled chin. These fine attributes, his qualities as a sailor, and his willing attitude on board, were much appreciated by the Captain who eventually named an unnamed Pacific island after him.

How can any writer resist all this? It is either another novel in itself … oh dear I might have to come back!… or perhaps I might just borrow Jean-Victor as a prime example of brave Agathoise manhood and plant him in the middle of my story - either in the present day or in 300AD .

As everything here, this is all very tempting for a poor writer….



Work in progress from At The Maison d’Estella

AD 396

As he and his hefty mate rowed their way between lush banks of the river, away from the city, the curly haired sailor talked rapidly to his passengers about how to make the frail craft work for them. ‘You put your weight so, messire,’ he said to Modeste, ‘then pull back hard. Then pause. Let the water do some of the work. The flow of the river towards the sea will pull you back a little, but you will make progress if you row, steadily, steadily.’

Then he nodded at Tib. ‘And you, young man, you know how I taught you to use the sail when you were small? Test the wind, then raise the sail. But we won’t raise it yet, The wind will be better for you up stream.’ He paused in his efforts and the boat drifted back downstream. ‘See? In this sweep of the river the offshore breezes could drive you back out to sea, And there you will both be lost, lost to us all.’


Monday 15 June 2009

Powering Your Way Through a Long Novel …

It’s been somewhat weird, after a lifetime of writing books under all kinds of challenging situations, to create this opportunity here in France to write my novel in a single sequence of uninterrupted time – two moChanging Draftnths, to be exact.

When my very first novel was published I was working full time at a very demanding job . I also had a house, a partner and two older teenage children to take care of. Now and then I even had a social life.

In fact that first novel LIZZA was a young adult novel – but I didn’t know that. I had no idea whether anyone in the distant publishing metropolis would be the least bit interested in it. I wrote it when my daughter was fifteen-ish and it is based on a story from my mother’s life when she was fifteen.

I wrote the whole of LIZZA one summer vacation. (Academic life did afford such professional space at that time…) In my naiveté I sent the novel to two major publishers, picked at random out of the Writers and Artists Year Book. I really didn’t know what I didn’t know! But neither did those (now delightful) metropolitan people. The first publisher said yes but would I make some changes? The second said yes please we love it. And I was away.

Changes, Changes

Today, the story I am writing here in France is about the nature of miracles. But LIZZA was my first personal miracle. In a remarkably short time it was in hardback then in paperback; it got some good good reviews, was in print for a good number of years and was in libraries being borrowed for at least ten years.

That was a good number of novels ago. Any writer will tell you that each and every novel has its own special story, but that first success, like a first real sweetheart, remains a very precious memory for me.

And now, this new novel, which I am writing here has its own extraordinary Sunday 13 105 story. It was inspired by a very special place, a dramatic time, and some extraordinary coincidences. I have researched it for two years, I have imagined it, thought about it, and dreamed it.

It was the need to write this novel that inspired me to organise my life to come here for two months, to rid myself of other (sometimes delightful) duties, obligations and responsibilities and try to write the whole of it here - just as I wrote LIZZA all those years ago in one summer vacation, in one great glorious blast. The rule here in France has been no domestic constraints, no newspapers, no radio, no TV, of any kind. Just explore, think, feel. dream. write and be!

Well, as you may note from my brief ‘work in progress’ abstracts in these posts, I have been getting on with it. The influence of being here and writing the novel has been inspirational and amazing, but hard to quantify. Important to the success of this process has been working alongside my writing friend Avril and (for part of the time) my writing daughter Debora – both working just as hard on their writing projects. Working alongside like souls definitely keeps you going – workshop of two or three it you like

Has it worked? It certainly has! Is there a novel here? There certainly is! Two weeks to go now, and I have a draft of the novel, having had just two scraps of writing when I came. This draft is a worked, not a rough draft - one hundred and forty pages of typescript and the rest in ink in my two big drafting books.

I get impatient with the typing; I find that transcription keeps me back, it dogs the inspiration. Onto the screen too quickly, the prose is too deceptively finished, inaccessible to change. I like my drafting books, written only on the right hand side, blank on the left so I can scribble comments corrections, suggestions, annotations and alterations to my heart’s delight. It looks quite a mess, but is much more an image of an imaginative thought process than a neat screen too full, too early, of text in 12 point Times New Roman.

So, you may say, you have this novel in a few typed pages and two big, scribbled-over drafting books. All those changes and that self questioning! Isn’t all the work to do? Transcription, editing, shaping, cutting and pasting. consistency, syntax…

Drafting Charoscuro

Well, yes and no. The hardest part - (nearly!) done – has been imagining this extraordinary story, reflecting the surprises and the true magic that so moved me on that original inspiration.

The easy part is to come - working on the novel at home under more ordinary and familiar conditions, to get these more workaday details right and the novel itself in really good heart for many readers to enjoy.

As with LIZZA, perhaps the miraculous best is yet to come…


PS What will it be called? Miracle At The Maison D'Estella. Probably

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Sounds Not of Silence


In my writing workshops I am perpetually advising writers that , without the  use of the senses, what they may see as clever, cunning, wild, or imaginative writing is dead in the water. I tell writers the simplest way to force your Darl 4senses to the front of your consciousness - instead of leaving them wallowing in the mud of instinct - is to make lists.

Here in Agde any list for sight – colour, shape, light and shade - is easy to generate would be a thousand words long. The sights – a brilliant sunset, pulsing light on the River Herault, a rare cat slinking along the pavement,  thDSCN0223e sight of medieval Friars of the Sunday of Pentecost – are many and varied. 013


The list for smell is not always as easy. My list includes honeysuckle, jasmine, cigarette smoke (more than at home), bread, and that tomato-garlicky smell if you are in certain streets. But surprisingly there are not many cooking smells when one considers how many good cafes there are here; almost no fish smells here in the town, although fish are caught and landed here and there are fish recipes on every menu.

Perhaps this strange fact is down to it being so warm. People often eat outside so perhaps the cooking smells are not so compressed and intensified by the cold air outside as they are in England. (This is mere speculation not science, but perhaps some scientist or food expert could enlighten me...)

But for me the strongest sensual memory of this place is sound. Perhaps because of the narrow streets or perhaps because of cultural style, it seems to me that these streets resound with voices – flirting, calling, bellowing, shouting, reprimanding, gossiping, laughing, crying, singing. At first, this may be a bit of an assault on prim ears from England, where emotion is sotto voce, swallowed, expressed behind closed doors, or otherwise under polite wraps.

I like the fact that in the streets loud voices ensure that families are within earshot, parents and children are aware of each others’ presence. The love, the relationship, the blame , the praise, the reprimand is a factor of mutual visibility. Children are most definitely not under wraps. Communication is everything. Here in the old city you sometimes hear it quite late at night. Young women keep their children with them when they have a drink, smoke and chat in the square then walk through the streets home, laughing and chatting and still calling their children to keep up, come here. It may not be our way, but far from being intimidated the children seem confident and secure, right at the heart of their family, right at the heart of their town.

But voice is only one item on my sound list. There is the sound of birds: nightingales by the river, the modest echo of the oreole, the chirping swoops  of the swifts around the houses,  the offended cry of the seagulls displaced by these dawn and dusk intruders.

We also have the driving noise of the street-cleaning machine – specially designed for narrow streets; the scrape and haul of the large wheelie bins where we all put our black bags. This sometimes generates further noise in terms of shouting,when people try - illegally, it seems to dump  - their building waste there (more voices!)

Inside the house there are the clicks and creaks of doors as metal latches close  and open again – not in response to ghosts as one might wish, but to the wonderful eccentricities of spaces which were once alleyways, but are now rooms.

But, but for me the most significant sound in this town is the sound of two Red Haired Boy 017 wheeled machines – bicycles, scooters and motor bikes making their way through the narrow roadways which are just the right scale for them. Girls in high heels and boys in flip flops ride them . I’ve seen  young men doing wheelies on a small motorbike in the square.  I had the thought that this modern day jousting has some echoes of medieval display, testing and daring as a kind of rite of passage.

Of course, normal sensible people would not particularly notice these sounds in this sunny, picturesque, historic town. But because I’m a writer and my ears are perpetually dialled to receive, for me the most evocative aural memory of this town could be a combination of the human voice on broadcast and the roar of 2cc engines.

These sounds are at the top of my list and both, I feel, will somehow make their way into present-day sequences of my novel.


 Work in progress    from                                   At The Maison  d’Estella

I get up and prowl around the house . I can’t settle. So I climb up the narrow wooden staircase to the roof and lower myself onto the lilo that lives up there. I can smell Mae’s sun lotion. The night it warm, the sky is dark. Outside a scooter roars its way through the alley. I ignore it as usual and  take a very deep breath. I am pleased to be here, along with the sky.

Then I feel a prickle of distaste as I hear someone else come up the wooden staircase. Philip will spoil this, spoil it, I know he will. But it’s not Philip. It’s Olga.

Silently she comes and lies alongside me. I take another very deep breath. Olga, imitating, takes a deep, noisy breath. ‘What are we doing, Auntie Stella?’

‘We’re looking for Virgo. See! Those nine stars? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and that one on the end. Nine.’

Her chuckle warms the air between us. ‘I see it, Auntie Stella! Like a little handbag in the sky. It’s really pretty.’

‘So it is.’

‘What does it mean, the little handbag?’

‘It means a lot of things to a lot of people.’

‘What does it mean to you?’

‘It means a person I once knew.’

‘Which person?’

I hesitate. ‘A girl.  A girl called Siri.’


Friday 5 June 2009

Are the Spin Offs Greater than the Awards?

I sometimes think that it is the spin-offs from prizes and awards that are theirFrom My Window (2) greatest justification.

Last year at this time I was still writer-in-residence at a women’s prison in the North of England and we ran our own Orange Prize sequence in parallel with the national competition. In this seriously conceived yet fantastically enjoyable project a group of interested women prisoners were joined by myself, librarian Charlie Darby Villas, the then Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, and another governor. We all read the final six novels, reviewed them, and discussed them round-table in democratic style. Everyone’s opinion had equal respect, no matter what their status. The discussions were great. We came up with our winner, which, we were pleased to note was the same as that chosen by the national panel.

This year I am delighted to see that the tradition is being continued single handedly by the wonderful Charlie DV. You will see a great interview with him in the guardian at (click below)http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/jun/03/prison-book-club

His view on the value of this project reflects everything we worked for in the Learning Shop in the years I was there. When I read the article here in France I clapped my hands so loudly you must have heard it across the Channel!

Well done, Charlie – this bodes well (I hope!) for your parallel Durham Book Festival in November. See you then!

Super-spin-off, that!


Talking of awards, I’ve got one! I’ve been given this SISTERHOOD AWARD by a very popular ‘life of a cook’ blog Love and a Licked Spoon

Sisterhood Award

Among other more deserving bloggers, Licked Spoon said

Wendy at A Life Twice Tasted which, despite it’s name, isn’t about food at all. It’s a fascinating insight into a writer’s daily life. Wendy Robertson’s written shelf-loads of great novels over the years and has taught creative writing to everyone from school children to prisoners. She also happens to be my wonderful, inspirational, brilliant mum.”

There you are - delightful and delicious nepotism.

On her site as you will see, I responded:

“Thank you! What a paradox it is for a non-cooking mother to be given an award on the best (excuse my pride) cooking blog in cyberspace.
And a
Sisterhood award is especially nice as it seems that licked spoon attracts a great bunch of witty sister-cooks who know oodles about cooking. It's an honour to find myself among them, even though the only thing I taste (twice!) is life.
I'll go and boil an egg to celebrate.
Debora, you're a peach!”

The spin off for me in this award is to reflect yet again how lucky I am in my children. For me, with them, it’s been spin-offs all the way.



I think I’ll inaugurate my own award,


for the blogger, writer, follower, or reader,

who bubbles over with positive thoughts about writing.

Watch this space.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Of Loves and Fishes

I  have experienced for myself the love of a mother for her child, of a woman for her beloved, but this area of the Mediterranean coast is where, perhaps, the enduring nature of these kinds of love is celebrated most of all.

If one listens to legend and story, some time after the death of Jesus, 401px-Michelangelo_Caravaggio MARY JACOBEa boat landed here on this coast with a precious cargo. This cargo is variously described as three Maries – Magdalene, Jacobé, Salomé - as well as their dark Egyptian maid Sarah (later adopted by the Gitan as their own Saint); possibly also a grail or container of some sort; possibly the bones of Jesus the Nazarene; possibly Jesus himself, in the flesh, ready to conquer Europe with love.

In that first century at least, this Gaullish coast might have seemed to be a place of greater safety for the Nazarene travellers. Gaul, like Britain - though still under the sway of pagan Rome - was not so enamoured of the growing official emperor cult as other parts of the empire.

After their long sea journey these Nazarene visitors might be comforted by some similarities of life here, with their lives by the sea of Galilee: shouting sailors, milling fishing boats, women sorting fish, men hauling nets or mending them as they watched the river and considered the wind and the conditions.

I see four cloaked women huddled together on a quayside like that of prosperous Roman Agde, wondering what to do next in their quest for protection and safety. They would have had men with them. Some say Lazarus. Some say Joseph of Aramathea, stricken that his garden was the setting for those last dramas in the life of the charismatic Nazarene.

Towns along this coast abound with stories of these women - from St Maries de la Mere, to Rennes le Chateau all share elements of these legends. Agde has its own Marie story – the little village close by here celebrates a vision of the Virgin Mary whose prayers saved the city from the flooding by the River Herault. Apparently the rock on which she kneeled show marks of her knees. This is an important generic story here in Agde , as the fear of flood – l’inondation - here at the mouth of the River Herault is no mere legend. The town has flooded here more than once in living memory. The fear is very real. That miraculous image of the flood receding must be in everyone’s dreams in this situation.

From My Window (2) I came here finally to write a novel which I have planned and thought about for more than two years. I wanted somehow to evoke the timeless and the time-full magic of the place that had first entranced me. But nothing was pre-ordained. And actually living here, digging deeper and deeper into what I feel about the place has made the original ideas evolve and blossom in ways I could not have foretold. This is the outcome of sequestering yourself in a strange place for longer than may seem reasonable.

I have done my reading and thinking. I have two or three people who I know will play some part in the story. I have fragments of truth, fragments of legend and fragments of story in my head. With my character Stella, I am interested in then and there; I am interested in here and now. And I am interested in the layers in between.

And I have discovered a story – not explored before - that connects all of the above. But that’s a secret.

And now today, I have just been exploring part of the old city to use for a scene in the novel. It comes down now to two streets: La rue de L’Amour. (The street of love) and La rue de la Poisononnierie. (The street of the fishermen). I return very excited. This makes a curiously appropriate location for a story which is becoming more magical at every turn.

And on…

Doorway green

At The Maison d’Estella Work in Progress Extract.

‘That end of the town is more dilapidated than the rue Haute of the Maison d’Estella. I remember what Madame Patrice said. ‘…the poor gather there, of whom I am one. Bad things are said of them but they are wonderful people.’ I pass a rather grand restored house and then I count the wonderful doors, now battered and broken, that were once portals to grand town houses. Some are patched with plywood. Some are daubed in graffiti. On one door is a white handprint on the faded green paint. I wonder now if this has occult meaning. Perhaps it’s just some playful gesture.                                                    

 I try to make my way down a side street but two boys playing football, immaculate in a Nike strip, bar my way. Madame had told me   ‘…they look after their children, you know. That’s a good sign.’ The boys stand aside politely, football in hand, as I pass them. Then they smile knowingly when I return, having discovered the dead end. And I have to work hard to push to the back of my mind the thought of those other two footballing boys, locked up now in a cold British prison in a town in the north of England.


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