LOCATION, LOCUTION: Living in France, English writer Harriet Springbett isn’t afraid to go out on a limb and produce first novel

The Displaced Nation is a website that explores how it feels to live away from your country of birth – and I’d almost forgotten that I was interviewed by one of its columnists earlier this year.
The interview, which focuses on the importance of setting, has just been published.
Many thanks to Tracey Warr for the beautiful page design.

The Displaced Nation

Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, Harriet Springbett, an Englishwoman who is now rooted in south-western France and has seen her creative life blossom as a result.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is Harriet Springbett, an English writer who lives in the Poitou-Charentes region of France with her French husband and their dual-nationality teenage daughters.

Harriet grew up in West Dorset. She qualified as a manufacturing engineer before discovering she preferred people to machines and words to numbers. It was the mid-1990s, and she thought about applying for an MA in creative writing, a degree that was rare at the time, but her boyfriend was French and she ended up moving to France to study French for a year at the Université de Pau. As she writes in one of her blog posts: “I finally opted for love in an exotic setting.”…

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Joining the Dots

(A wrap-up of the 2017 Charroux Literary Festival):

Have you ever been to a series of unrelated performances and found that a common theme emerges?

This is exactly what happened at this year’s Charroux Literary Festival, and I wasn’t the only one to notice an intangible thread weaving through the author talks. See if you can spot it from my summary below.

So, for this second edition of the Charroux festival I was a speaking author, which meant I was invited to the pre-festival dinner (ah, the joys of fame!).

I was so excited about meeting everyone that I arrived a few hours early and had plenty of time to walk around the medieval village. This included discovering the fascinating abbey ruins where I dawdled among the spirits of times past.

I also came across the house where French writer Robert Charroux lived, and learnt that he was a pioneer in Ancient Astronaut theories: the pseudoscientific theories that suggest aliens visited Earth in antiquity and prehistoric times.

I knew I wouldn’t have a spare minute for contemplation once the festival began – and I was right. Even without the festival, Charroux is a superb destination for a day’s exploration (and I’m not just referring to the pub that has Guinness on tap).

During the 3 days, I went to 4 talks involving historical authors Barbara Erskine, Tracey Warr, Alison Morton (Roma Nova) and James Vance (World War II). I’ve never been tempted to write historical fiction because I know nothing about history and would be afraid of getting everything wrong. But the discussions I heard helped me understand why writing historical fiction can be so alluring.

For Tracey and Barbara, who write about the medieval period, there is very little documentation. We know what the historical figures did but we don’t know why they did it and how they felt about it.

This means that joining the dots to create a picture of events leaves plenty of room for imagination – which is exactly what novelists like to explore: in other words, the ‘unknowability’ of the past, as Tracey quoted.

Even the facts themselves can be dubious: there isn’t just one story about what happened, there are many stories – and bards and pilgrims played a role in this as they passed on news orally. The difference between Welsh and English records for the same events are a good example of this.

All four authors talked about being conscious of the past when they visit historical places, as well as the importance of imagining their characters going about their daily life in those places. Barbara added that it’s as if the past is trying to get through to the present, an idea she explores fully in the ghostly elements of her fiction.

Nick Inman, author of Mystical France, talked about the idea of science being able to explain how mystical symbols and sculptures were created, but not being able to explain why it was done. He suggested using your intuition when you visit ancient places to try to find your own answers.

He has done this over the last five years, and he captivated his audience with the slideshow of mystical symbols and sculptures he has collected during his travels around France. No wonder so many people surged forward to buy his book after his talk.

Not quite so many people rushed to buy Tree Magic after my session about the road to publication, even though a major theme is how science can’t explain certain spiritual aspects of life. I guess I have some lessons to learn from Nick Inman there. But I did sign plenty of copies and get some great feedback – and nobody actually fell asleep.

The talk that created the most discussion was Mike Welham’s presentation about mixing fact and fiction. His novels are based on events that have never been satisfactorily explained; for his chosen themes, he has researched and summed up all the mysterious inconsistencies to suggest huge cover-up operations, which he has published as fiction.

He presented his conspiracy theories about frogman Buster Crabb, The World Trade Center Building 7 and David Kelly’s death. We were lucky to have Andrew Lownie, an author who has spent decades researching Guy Burgess, in the audience, as well as TV and Foreign Office specialist Jane Lythell. Their points of view as experienced researchers added to the charged atmosphere during the session.

The common thread (have you spotted it yet?) didn’t reach all the creaky-floored rooms of the Maison Charlois during the festival, as the sessions on the craft of writing had nothing mystical about them (although you could argue that the whole writing process is rather mysterious).

photo by Jacqui from French Village Diaries

This category of talks included a useful analysis of humour with Chuck Grieve; a detailed session on playwriting with Gordon & Jocelyn Simms; an exploration of character and an insight into psychological thrillers with Jane Lythell (what a lovely lady); and workshops with Vanessa Couchman.

I talked about writing for Young Adults and persuaded my audience to wield their pens – which produced some promising beginnings.

There was also a New Writers Workshop, chaired by Susie Kelly and including Jane Lythell, myself, Alison Morton and Blackbird publisher and author Stephanie Zia. This was an interactive event in which we all gave our advice for new writers and then circulated among groups to answer questions.

The author talks are, of course, central to the festival and I wish I’d been able to find a Harry Potter time turner so I could attend them all – both French and English. But they were far from being the only element to the three magical days in Charroux. The other elements came from the festival supporters.

There’s nothing like having a drink or a meal with other festival-goers; or having a laugh with the lovely ladies of the Hope Association tea tent, who delivered a constant supply of drinks, English food and good humour. Cheerful volunteers were everywhere, from the helpful people at the reception desk, in the bookshop and at the Enfants de la Rue charity stand, to the behind-the-scenes drivers and hosts. It was great to see so many familiar faces and make new friends.

But my biggest thanks have to go to Kate and Chris, the festival organisers, who made this all possible. Did they create the mystical thread on purpose, or is it just in my head?

photo by Tracey Warr

Charroux 2019 seems a long way away. Luckily, we have the 2017 edition of another intimate literary festival full of interesting people in October: Parisot. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Teen Time at YALC

If your teenager likes reading, he/she may surprise you with a request to go to the YALC at the London Olympia one July.

When this happens, say ‘Yes’. And if you like reading or writing, make sure you go along with him/her, because the Young Adult Literature Convention (yes, that’s what YALC stands for) is the highlight of the bookish YA year.

Put a booky teenager in a group of other teens and they’ll generally be shy and feel nerdy. But leave your teen at YALC and they’ll be in heaven.

Imagine a giant library with carpeted floors and cushions. Instead of library books, you have brightly decorated YA publisher stands giving away free samples of forthcoming novels, free proofs of yet-to-be-published books, postcards, bookmarks, badges, tote bags and lots more goodies. And as well as librarians, you have 100 authors, all mingling with their teenage readers and chatting to them during hours of book signings.

If you happen to be a budding writer, you can go to writing workshops, publishing talks and agent 1-2-1s, which are all included in the ticket price. Best of all, there are nonstop panels of authors talking about their work and discussing common themes.

I was lucky enough to be one of the authors invited to speak at this year’s YALC. As a newbie author, I was on a New Voices panel, which gave me free, 3-day access to the book bonanza – as well as a pass to see Benedict Cumberbatch, John Cleese, Pamela Anderson and Christopher Lloyd and lots of other film stars featuring in the Film and Comic part of the convention on the lower floors.

But I didn’t bother with famous filmstars in the crush of Cosplay fans. I was far too busy upstairs in the comfort of the bookish world.

To begin with I felt a little lonely as I watched the joyful reunions of authors from the UK, US and Ireland. But that all changed when my publicist arrived and took me to meet the wonderful YA book bloggers I’ve been chatting with on #SundayYA for the last 6 months.

photo Kelly

The most inspiring event for me was a panel with Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, the co-writers of one of my favourite YA books, ‘We Come Apart‘. Did you know they co-wrote this verse novel while living in different countries? Listening to them talk about their approach to writing made me want to pull out my notebook there and then.

I instantly warmed to Patrick Ness, interviewed by Juno Dawson, because of the way he cares for teenagers. And I was encouraged to learn that Laini Taylor works in much the same way as me.

But the most amazing person there was without doubt Katherine (Katie) Webber, author of ‘Wing Jones‘ and chair of many panels. Her fun, efficient and friendly chairing largely set the tone for the whole event.

I didn’t actually do any work until my panel on Sunday morning – actually, that’s a lie: the hardest job of the weekend was helping out at the bookselling stand.

The brave Waterstones booksellers let me press buttons on the cashtill, scan books, swipe loyalty cards and stamp points cards for an hour.

It was really difficult! Don’t underestimate the concentration your booksellers need when they sell you a book. Luckily the YALC clients were patient, and the best moment was when I took payment for a copy of my very own ‘Tree Magic’.

Many of the non-teen audience were YA writers, and I joined them in several workshops – including a useful talk by literary agent Ben Illis and a meeting with Chloe Seager, both of whom were interested in my work.

photo by Steph

At last, Sunday morning arrived and, with a thudding heart, I joined the other 10 debut authors on stage. This was a huge number to manage, but Katherine Webber was more than equal to the task. I had read most of their books before YALC, so it was fascinating to listen to their experience of getting published.

The 2-hour slot for signing was hardly long enough to sign the, um, handful of copies put into my hands.

This is not really surprising, as I believe it’s as difficult for small publishers to get books placed in WHSmith and Waterstones as it is for writers to find an agent.

Anyway, I had lots of interest following my talk, and the signing quickly became a highlight of the weekend when the lovely Kelly from Kelly’s Ramblings gave me a packet of my favourite chocolates (Cadbury’s Boost, since you ask).

After 3 days of fangirling and being fangirled (well, a nice young lady did say, ‘Are you Harriet?’ when I sat in the empty chair beside her. That counts, doesn’t it?) it was time to leave the friendly faces.

Many thanks to the YALC team, to my friend Hester for hosting me and my publicist for organising the tickets.

Find out more about YALC from bloggers Kelly, Steph, Ellie, Bex and Cora.

Going Public

Sometimes I wonder whether writing a blog is a waste of time. An enjoyable waste of time, but still time that I could spend doing useful things like, um, writing proper stuff? Or testing my kids on their irregular verbs. Or making fab meals for my partner. Or maybe cleaning the greasy grime from my bath (actually, no; not that).

And then something like this happens, and my effort is rewarded.

Like what? I hear you ask.

Click, click, click… like this:

I was in the Pyrenees mountains on my writing residency in June and, to avoid being lonely in the evening, I wrote silly things on my blog about what I’d been doing each writerly day.

On my last day, I received an email via my blog contact page from Clare, a Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook website editor.

If you’re a writer and you’re thinking about publication, you’ll know that this red writers’ bible is published annually and contains listings of agents, publishers, magazines, awards and associations. It also has practical articles from writers talking about their craft.

Well, Clare had been reading my blog and wanted me to write an article for the Writers & Artists  website.

So I did. I wrote ‘Going Public’.

And from this surprise request, I have learnt that having a bit of fun and being yourself seems to be more effective than spending hours drafting queries and proposals.

(Hmm… talking of drafting queries: if you happen to be a literary agent and like my blog, feel free to contact me and offer me representation.)

Anyway, here‘s the article on the Writers & Artists website.

I hope you find it useful. Or interesting. Or something like that.

While you’re there, take the time to browse the website because it has loads of useful information on it. You can register for free and sign up for the newsletter too.

You might even find an article about how to catch the media’s attention via your blog…

Extraordinary Ellia:

Harriet thought she’d died in the accident. She was standing in a French library full of English books, and French libraries normally have just one English shelf. A heaven full of books seemed fitting to Harriet, though misfortune had placed the library in Angers, a four-hour drive from Harriet’s home.

I pinched myself and realised I hadn’t died. I wasn’t dreaming. This wasn’t heaven – and in any case I hadn’t had an accident (unless you count what happened in Angers’ English sweetshop, but that’s another story).

If you’re confused here, just read the beginning of Tree Magic, which is free to ‘look inside’ on the Amazon ebook page, and everything will become clear. Ish. Well, it may sound vaguely familiar.

Anyway, back to the library: when I met Phoebe at the St.Clémentin literary festival last year and she told me she worked in an English-Language library in Angers, I imagined a cosy little nook squeezed between two houses in a back street.

So when she invited me to talk to the library coffee morning group about my novel Tree Magic, I presumed the audience would be a handful of people huddled between bookcases.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Let me begin by telling you about this amazing library, which is a non-profit organisation called Ellia (an acronym for ‘English Language Library In Angers’, since you were about to ask).

It has 30 000 English books, 4 staff, 1600 members and 100 volunteers – making it the biggest English language library in the west of France. There’s a catalogue on the website so you can check if the book you want is there before you drive to Angers, and you can even borrow ebooks to download onto your e-reader.

But the library is far more than a series of numbers and a list of services. If you’ve read my blog posts about Le Kairn, the brand new bookshop in the Val d’Azun, you’ll know that I talked about how I believed it would soon become a hub for cultural activities.

Well, the 23-year-old Ellia library is exactly that: a community hub. It’s a meeting place for English speakers who love books, of course, but also a base for a diverse range of activities ranging from French conversation groups and English creative writing circles to gardening, knitting and film clubs.

Phoebe

What has made it so popular, in my opinion, is the warmth of the welcome that visitors receive. While I was having coffee with Phoebe (you get a bottomless cup of tea or coffee for a euro), she greeted the people who wandered in and chatted with each of them.

It’s hardly surprising there are so many volunteers – some of whom I met as they sat around a table covering books with plastic. The other staff and interns – including Mandy, Sandrine, Oksana and Dominique – are just as friendly. There’s absolutely no reason to feel lonely if you live in or near Angers and like books.

Half of Ellia’s funding comes from a combination of City Hall, the two Angers universities (students receive free membership) and Maine-et-Loire county council. The rest is made up from membership fees and fundraising events.

An example of an event is the food stand they’ll be manning at the street theatre festival Les Accroche-coeurs on 8-10 September. The festival’s 2017 theme is ‘So British’, which means discussions at Ellia are currently underway to decide on the most suitable British dish to serve.

If you have any ideas (please, no Marmite or jelly), let me know and I’ll pass them on.

Now you know a little about Ellia, you can appreciate how it was that over 30 people came to listen to my Tree Magic talk. (I stopped counting at 30, as they were looking expectantly at me and I thought I’d better begin).

It’s always scary to stand up in front of people and talk, so I was relieved when it was over. My relief, however, was short-lived.

‘Do you mind if Isma interviews you?’ Phoebe asked me.

‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘It won’t be filmed or anything, will it?’

There was a silence.

Silly me… This was the point at which I discovered that the computery stuff on the shelf was actually filming me for the whole talk. Which means that those scandalous secrets I accidentally revealed…

I sat in the armchair beside Isma and did my best to answer questions that were only difficult because I had to answer them on the spot.

It was decidedly worse that the radio interviews I did when Tree Magic was first published.

Am I the only person whose mind goes maddeningly blank when I’m asked questions in front of a recording device?

The best part of doing author talks is that you meet so many interesting people afterwards. I had a great chat with William, one Anne Woodford’s writing group members.

Anne is a talented writer whom I also met at St. Clémentin. Her short story was placed 2nd in the 2016 Segora International Writing Competition, run by the St.Clémentin festival organisers, and you can read it here (you’ll have to scroll down a little).

I had some lovely feedback about how people felt inspired to go off and write after my talk. Some people even bought a copy of Tree Magic!

If you have a chance to visit the lovely city of Angers, pop into the library. You’ll see exactly what I mean about Ellia being extraordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

Hide and Seek with Bears and Boys

Writing Residency Day 9 (last day *sobs*):

I understand now why mountainy people get up early:

1st photo: from my room at 7:30 am.

2nd photo: from the office window 7:35 am.

3rd photo: from my room again at 7:45 am.

So what does a writer do on the last day of a writing residency at Arras-en-Lavedan?

Easy: instead of doing one research trek, the keen writer does two. Especially when it’s so misty that there is zero visibility at the top of the mountain.

The first trek took me to the Col d’Arras, where I was sure I’d be able to find a path onto what looked like summer pastures under the Pic d’Arragnat. I wanted to know whether Eole, my protagonist, was hanging around up there.

Perhaps he was. But with heavy bracken vegetation and little grass, I didn’t think it was likely. OK, I admit I wasn’t very persistent. Nor would you be if you heard a kind of growly-barky roar in the bushes and you were very much alone on the mountain.

I hot-footed it back down the non-path, got lost, panicked, struggled over a barbed wire fence and landed on my butt in the mud. I felt much better on the other side of the fence, despite the ripped trousers, and even a bit silly. After all, I could easily have defended myself with my swiss army knife. Couldn’t I? That’s what the bloke in the shop said, anyway.

(Don’t tell my sisters about this: they already split their sides laughing the time, aged 10, I was chased by a herd of cows and ended up clinging to a pole in the middle of a field).

As I write this, I’m listening to brown bear noises on Youtube, and I must admit that the noise is exactly what I heard. Though I guess that’s like looking up illnesses on the Internet to check your symptoms.

On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, the original race of Pyrenean brown bear died out and Slovenian brown bears were introduced in the 1990s. In 2016 there were 39 bears, of which 2 in – omigod – this area… perhaps its just as well I’m leaving tomorrow! And, reading on through my informative source, if you come face-to-face with a bear you should retreat progressively. Not panic and run. Oh dear.

My Col d’Arras mission had aborted but, happily unaware of the real possibility of meeting a bear, I decided to attack the mountain from further along. There was definitely a path from Arcizans-Dessus up to the Col de Liar, and it passed straight through the said pastures.

Arcizans-Dessus is a tiny village that hugs the flank of a mountain – and boasts 22 watermills. Here are a few of them, lining the Anisaous stream and looking like a Pyrenean version of a housing estate. Some of the cute mills have been restored as cottages, while one serves as a demonstration mill.

The photo below resumes my morning’s research.

It took me an hour and a half of walking up steep z-bends to reach the silent, deserted Col de Liar. I did hear the eerie ring of bells through the mist on my way up, and there was a cold bonfire spot in the flat land at the top – but there was no sign of Eole and his sheep.

At least I determined that what looked like lush green pastureland from a distance was actually bracken (animals don’t eat bracken), so I guess that’s why this land isn’t grazed.

Coming back down, I was struck by a change in the mist. High up, its cold fingers creep down your back, soak your hair and drip dewdrops onto your eyelashes. But lower down it feels warm and steamy, like a Turkish bath, and the sappy, green tang of bracken gives way to the sweet aroma of elderflower. I’ve never experienced this with mist before – so my morning wasn’t a total waste of time, after all.

Back in the village I visited the church (Eole’s mum is dead religious) and found this guy sitting outside looking at MY mountain. He was made by Pedro Frémy, who also made the village carousel I mentioned in Day 6’s post as well as the other metal beasties around the Maison des Arts. Cute, eh?

Finally, I went to Le Kairn for my 5pm talk about my novel Tree Magic. Once again, I had to struggle through the crowd to get inside (actually, there was a crowd, but they weren’t interested in me).

It was lovely to catch up with my Lumineuse writing group friend Min, and I was delighted to see Bob from Laguépie, who I met at the Parisot Festilitt last year, and who had driven for 5 hours to see me.

Maybe they’d heard I’d be serving Pineau after the talk?

Pineau is the traditional aperitif in the Cognac area, and I’d brought a bottle for a farewell drink with all the lovely people who have hosted and befriended me this week: Françoise Gourvès, stained-glass artist extraordinaire and also my host at the Maison des Arts; multi-talented Karine from Le Kairn; Dominique Gainza with the strong, cheese-stirring arm muscles from the Val d’Azun sheep&goat farm; and Véronique the costume queen.

Many thanks to you all, and also to those who couldn’t make it: Alex from the mairie & Maison des Arts, Pascal Gainza, Valentine from Le Kairn, Caroline the costume-maker, Charles the Mayor and all the individuals who answered my (sometimes strange) questions.

And thanks to you who have followed these writing residency blog posts and those of you who came to my talks.

I’ll calm down now, and go back to my monthly posting habit.

Bye-bye, Arras-en-Lavedan. I’ll be back to say hello (with more bottles of Pineau) before too long.

Twilight in the Pyrenees

Writing Residency Day 7:

What have Transylvania and the Pyrenees got in common?

It’s easy to find an answer, but can you find my answer? Admit it, you’re struggling, aren’t you?

The answer is Dracula: vampires (hence this post title), although unfortunately not of the Robert Pattinson variety.

Of course, Dracula is no more indigenous to the Pyrenees than marmots and granite, but this summer, from 25th July to 6th August, you will find the Prince of Shadows at Gavarnie.

The theatre company Fébus have been producing outdoor plays with the Gavarnie cirque as a backdrop for 10 years, including Le Cid and Beauty & the Beast.

This year, they’re preparing their own version of Bram Stoker’s novel with their 12 actors, and I was lucky enough to be party to one of their preparation meetings. This involved the costumes, which Véronique Strub has been in charge of for the last 5 years.

If you’ve followed my writing residency posts, you’ll know that Véronique and her assistant Caroline are on a residency here at the Maison des Arts with me. This means that instead of writing in my room in the company of my mountain, I can be distracted and learn all about costume making instead. For a future story, of course. Everything counts as work when you’re a writer.

I was astonished by the rail of clothes already installed, particularly by the flowery frock. I expressed my surprise to Caroline.

“That’s Dracula’s summer dress,” she said.

And I knew we would get on well together. (I was later told that the dresses had just been stocked there in transit for some sale).

Today’s meeting was with Fébus production & admin boss, Anne-Lise. On the table were the sketches Véronique and Caroline had produced so far, and they proceeded to explain their ideas to Anne-Lise.

Caroline has costume-making qualifications, and told me, as she modified her sketches in line with the discussion, that drawing was an important part of her course.

Véronique has done a huge amount of research, including collecting Balkan costumes on Pinterest and visiting the scene of the play so she knows how close the audience will be. This is vital for dimension decisions.

She has, of course, read Bram Stoker’s novel, concentrating on descriptions of the characters and their clothing. She even pulled out a Dracula picture book at one point during the meeting.

I was surprised to see to what extent the costumes were designed according to the physical build and the personalities of the actors. One character is new, added by scriptwriter and director Bruno Spiesser, and it was obvious that this made it more difficult to create a costume for her.

Bruno’s script was to hand, as was a summary of each act, showing who was on stage for each scene. As I listened, I realised that not only the physique but also the physical actions of each actor must be taken into consideration for the design.

For example, the vampires, who have to crawl on the ground at one point, have knee protections incorporated in their leggings. And the material covering their arms must be solid enough to take the weight of the wing supports.

Even the colour of Dracula’s climbing rope posed a problem, as its fluorescent colours didn’t match the décor.

Other parameters to be taken into account include the lighting, since a spotlight on a distinctive part of a costume can help the audience understand what’s happening.

Most surprising of all – yet completely logical, having heard the discussion – was how the style of costume has to correspond to the style of any music the actors play.

All in all, I realised how important it is for the costume makers to be involved with all parts of a play, from music to décor to the stage movements. With a fabric budget of 3000€ and three experienced costume makers working from now until 25th July, the visual side of the show, at least, looks promising.

If you fancy seeing the show, contact www.festival-gavarnie.com. There’s even a shuttle bus from Pau laid on for those who reserve in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

It was all very well sitting indoors with sewing machines and mannequins, but outside it was 30°C and the air smelt of newly-cut hay. I left the seamstresses and went to walk and think of writerly things in the shade of the forest above the little village of Sireix.

Since Eole and his sheep weren’t around, I took the opportunity to admire some beautiful trees, some curious insects, an interesting man-made feature – and some rare flowers, thanks to a botanical group I bumped into.

 

See you tomorrow for the final day of my writing residency.