Category Archives: Life in France

Will it Get my Goat?

Oh no, here I am, back with more puns in my blog post titles. Today I’d like to share some exciting news that doesn’t get my goat at all – though I’m hoping it will allow me to get to know goats better.

I have been invited to be the writer-in-residence for a week at an arts centre in the heart of the Pyrenees.

In case your French geography is rusty, the Pyrenees are the pointy mountains in the south west of France, between France and Spain. They are also my favourite part of the country, which may be one reason why my novel-in-progress is partly set there.

Back in the 1990s, when I was studying French at Pau university, I used to walk along the Boulevard des Pyrénées every day and gaze at the mysterious peaks. Nowadays, I spend some time there every year (and cry when I have to leave).

Houses in the Val d’Azun

One misty day last summer, while my intrepid family were out potholing, I went to the Val d’Azun to research my novel setting. I stopped at the village of Arras-en-Lavedan, a few kilometres from Argelès-Gazost (and 25km from Lourdes), which is renowned as being a village of artists.

There, I discovered the Maison des Arts and met the curator, Françoise Gourvès, who is also a stained glass artist. She told me all about the association Abbadiale, which organises the cultural events and art exhibitions in the centre.

There was a wonderful display of paintings, ceramics and sculptures, as well as a permanent outdoor circuit around the village’s works of art. I was blown away by a video of a contemporary dance group who spent a week in residence there and created a dance on a peak above Arras-en-Lavedan.

I stayed in contact with friendly Françoise and, when she heard I needed to come back to the Pyrenees to research goats and ewes, she invited me to be their writer-in-residence for a week. This corresponded with the opening of the village’s new bistro-bookshop: Le Kairn.

Of course, I accepted!

So I’ll be staying in Arras-en-Lavedan from Saturday 3rd to Friday 9th June. During the week I’ll be researching and writing my novel (which is not only about goats). I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘transhumance’ event on Saturday 3rd June at Estaing. This is when the local shepherds, accompanied by the public, move their flocks from the valley to the mountain tops for the summer ‘estivales’ period.

I’ll also be reading from my novel Tree Magic and giving a talk about the journey to publication. This will be held on Sunday 4th June at 3pm at Le Kairn. As I’m there for a week, I can also make myself available one evening for readings and writerly discussions – so let me know if you’re interested.

Why not come and meet me and get your copy of Tree Magic signed? I’ll have some copies to sell, and we can share our experiences of writing, reading (and goats).

While you’re in the Val d’Azun, why not make a day of it (or even a weekend if you fancy the transhumance festival on the Saturday)?

Yes, I know they’re not goats – but they are Pyrenean sheep.

In the morning you could visit the Pyrenean trekking and traditions festival ‘Eldorando’ in the nearby village of Arrens-Marsous. You could have a lunch of local products there – or come to Le Kairn bistro for a meal – and then visit the permanent and temporary exhibitions at the Maison des Arts. As well as the permanent exhibition, Roxane Lasserre will have her ceramics on display and Raphäel Paya is exhibiting his photos until 5th June.

Then, if you’re not too tired, you could come and meet me at Le Kairn. It won’t get my goat if, after all that activity, you fall asleep during my talk!

Please let me know if you’d like to come, via my Facebook author page or blog contact tab, in case the arrangements change. I hope to see you soon.

Here are some practical details:

La Maison des Arts (next to the church at the bottom of the village): open Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday from 3-6pm.

Le Kairn (route du Val d’Azun): open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 7pm (open every day in the holidays).

Eldorando: 2nd-5th June. Nepal is the country of honour this year. Entry 2€ / day.

Tourist Office Val d’Azun (Place du Val d’Azun, Arrens-Marsous) Tel: 05 62 97 49 49

Sing for the Trees – Guest Post

The 22nd April is Earth Day, a moment to celebrate our long-suffering planet. Have you heard of this before?

Susan and her husband Ian

I hadn’t. Not until I was told about a children’s novel about trees called Emma Oliver and the Song of Creation. It was written by Susan Elizabeth Hale, the American who founded ‘Sing for the Trees’ as part of the Earth Day celebrations – and who came to France last year to sing to a special tree in Bagnères-de-Bigorre.

Now, I can’t sing – so I’m not sure I would be doing any trees a favour by singing to them. But I was intrigued to learn more about another lady who appreciates trees. I contacted Susan, read her fun story for 9-11 year olds, and asked her to tell me more about ‘Sing for the Trees.’ Here are her answers to my questions as well as some links to find out more about her work.

  1. What is ‘Sing for the Trees’?

‘Earth Day-Sing for the Trees’ is an annual global celebration for trees that began in 2010.

  1. How can we take part?

On 22nd April, at noon. Wherever you are in the world, just sing for the trees you love!

  1. You were the founder of ‘Sing for the Trees’. Where did your original inspiration come from?

In January 2010 I was already at work on my juvenile fiction novel Emma Oliver and the Song of Creation. I felt discouraged, as I knew the message I had to deliver about trees would take a long time to come to fruition.

What could I do now? I woke up with an idea. I heard a voice in my mind say Earth Day-Sing for the Trees. The 40th anniversary of Earth Day was coming up on 22nd April, and I had attended the very first Earth Day in Northern California. How could I let people know about my idea? I was new to Facebook and decided I would create an event.

I thought I would be lucky to get 100 or so of my friends involved and was astounded when the first year over 3,000 people signed up to sing for their trees. This included a man in England named Ian Woodcock. He sent me a lovely email with pictures of three trees he sang for: the Great Oak of Eardisley, Whiteleaved Oak and the Much Marcle Yew tree.

I came to the UK in the spring of 2011 and we met. He took me to the Whiteleaved Oak. We are now married and live ten miles from this tree. The trees brought us together!

  1. That’s a lovely story. Do you have a background of working with trees?

No, but I have a life-long appreciation of trees: from the fig tree in my grandmother’s back yard to the California redwoods. My father was on the tree committee in our hometown of Hanford, California.

  1. So what is at the origin of your concern for the wellbeing of trees?

In 2007 I travelled for a full year. Everywhere I went throughout the USA, UK and France, people told me stories of how their local trees were dying. Hemlock trees were dying in North Carolina, juniper trees were dying in New Mexico. I heard stories about olive trees dying in Spain. In 2007 I lived briefly in Peachtree City, Georgia. Many streets there and in Atlanta are named after peach trees. But where are the peach trees?

Trees do so much for us. They give us the very air we breathe. The bottom line is that if there are no more trees, there’s no more ‘us’.

  1. Why sing?

The voice is a way of making connection. Singing creates a connection through the heart, and when we sing to someone we add the special ingredient of love. Indigenous societies have always offered songs to the earth as a way to give thanks. England has a pagan tradition of singing to apple trees in January through wassailing to wish good health to the trees in hopes of an abundant crop in the new year. In Emma Oliver and the Song of Creation, Emma’s special tree, Annie Oakley, tells her: “Your singing nourishes us. It is sweeter than the sweetest honey. The song spreads through Aaouma’s root system to all the trees on the Earth.”

  1. Yes, I remember that line. What made you want to write Emma’s story?

When I was in the 4th grade I told my teacher I wanted to be a writer. Later, as a young woman, my father said, “Susie, some day you ought to write a book.” I wrote my first book Song and Silence: Voicing the Soul in 1995. My second book, Sacred Space Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places was published by Quest Books in 2007.

Nina Winge Earth Day

As a music therapist and voice teacher, my life’s work has centred on and around the healing power of singing. Most of the people who came to my workshops were my age. I don’t have any children and wanted to find a way to bring my message about the importance of singing and trees to children.

  1. Do any trees have a particular significance for you?

Yes, Much Marcle Yew and the Whiteleaved Oak do. I believe these trees brought me to my husband and to the UK. The story is told in full in a Valentine’s Day article published by the Woodland Trust here: Valentine’s Tree Love

  1. And what is your favourite species of tree?

Yew. The largest concentration of yew trees is in Wales and some are thought to be 5,000 years old, making them some of the oldest trees on the planet. Yews are considered to be candidates for the Tree of Life due to their age and their ability to regenerate themselves.

  1. Which season do you prefer for admiring trees?

All seasons offer a unique experience of trees. I love winter for revealing the bones and bark of trees: bare branches against the sky. Spring gives buds and blossoms. Summer offers us trees with full leaves and fruit. Fall dazzles us with colour and change.

  1. Which organisations support ‘Sing for the Trees’?

The College of Sound Healing, Sound Travels and The Woodland Trust in the UK.

  1. And will you be in France again for the 2017 edition?

No, I will be in Sedona, Arizona. The red rocks are calling me. There are many special juniper trees with twisted trunks from the vortex energy in the land.

  1. Finally, are there any tree stories from around the world you’d like to share?

I love it when people share pictures and stories about their events. A few special ones come to mind:

– The first year a kindergarten teacher in Switzerland took 30 of her students to the forest and they sang for the trees. Afterwards, every time they went to the woods, they spontaneously burst out singing. They even sang for their Christmas trees.

– A bedridden woman sang to the tree outside her window that gives her comfort. She wanted to thank the tree for the way it brought healing to her.

– A group of people on a Peace March through the site of the first atomic blast in Nevada sang to the Joshua trees as they walked.

– Children sang around a Native American Prayer tree at the Cabin Path outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

– A man sang to a tree near the ruins of the Berlin Wall.

– Last year a young woman in Ireland created an event to sing for the Fairy Tree at the Hill of Tara.

Thanks, Susan, for taking the time to share your passion for trees with us. And thank you, readers, for reading this rather long post. I’d love to hear which tree you’re going to sing for on 22nd April.


Some Useful Links:

If you’d like to find out more about Susan, singing, tree-hugging or ‘Earth Day – Sing for the Trees’, Susan has added some useful links below:

Contact Susan on her website: Emma Oliver and the Song of Creation

All about Sing for the Trees

The Facebook event 2017 with lots of tree suggestions.

Buy Emma Oliver on the UK Amazon website

Scientific studies on the benefits of tree-hugging

Studies on singing: 6 Ways Singing is Beneficial, Singing Changes your Brain, Eric Whitaker’s video on Why We Sing.

And, to finish, here’s Susan’s biography:

Susan Elizabeth Hale M.A. is an internationally renowned music therapist. She circles the Earth with song, teaching how to find and free the natural voice. She is creator of Earth Day-Sing for the Trees. Since 2010, over 10,000 people in 45 countries have participated in this annual global event. Susan is the author of Sacred Space Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places (Quest Books, 2007). American born, she now lives in the Malvern hills with her husband Ian. Her newest book is Emma Oliver and the Song of Creation, a juvenile fiction novel published in 2016 by Our Street Books.


Casting Aside your Morals

When I tell the French people I meet that I’m a writer, they often ask if I write in French.

‘No way,’ I say.

‘Why not?’ they ask. ‘You’re pretty much bilingual.’

That ‘pretty much’ is what has always stopped me. How can I possibly nuance my language, weave a subtext, hook the exact word I’m fishing for from the little pond of French I possess? Come on: it’s difficult enough to do this in my native English.


Me (copyright Christine West)

I have tried. A few years ago a literary friend invited me to her French creative writing workshop. When I eventually summed up my courage and went along, I discovered that it was a surprisingly stimulating experience.

Knowing I couldn’t expect any elegance from the French corner of my mind, I felt more liberated than in English workshops. My creations were basic but the ideas, associations and images flowed easily and naturally. By letting go of my language expectations I was able to focus more fully on the narrative.

Much as I enjoyed the other participants’ poetic prose, though, I was unable to write a satisfactory piece in French.

So I was intrigued to see the title ‘Why Write in a Different Language?’ featuring as one of the discussions at the European Literature festival in Cognac last November. I hurried along to listen to the panel of authors, who all write in non-native languages.

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

There were two Slovak authors, Jana Benova (has written in Czech) and Irena Brezna (writes in German); a Czech writer, Lenka Hornakova-Civade (French); and the Russian writer Vladimir Vertlib (German). It turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking themes of the festival, and one that remains with me three months later.

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (coline-sentenac)

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (photo Coline Sentenac)

Lenka argued that your native language is one of emotion. In your mother tongue, the emotion surges out and grips you as you write. Writing in a different language, however, gives you the distance you need for the surgical precision of the job.

Jana Beňová (Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana Beňová (photo Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana agreed that when writing, you’re searching for the clearest way of communicating, and suggested that this distance can also be achieved in terms of letting time pass or writing in a different location.

Vladimir talked about dogs: when he says his native Russian word for ‘dog’, he can smell and feel the animal. But when he says the word in German, there is a space between the word and the feeling. This made me think how feeble the French swear words sound to me, compared to the strength of English ones. Now I know why.

Irena Brezna & Lenka

Irena Brezna & Lenka

There’s also a freedom in writing in a different language, according to Irena. She’s sometimes horrified when she reads her German work once it’s translated into her native Slovak: not because of bad translation, but because she’s shocked to think she could have written those things. The distance she felt when writing in German is lacking when she reads her translated words in her native language.

Jana confirmed this and quoted the results of an interesting study. Apparently, when you use your mother tongue you respect your morals, whereas you morally let go of yourself in a foreign language.

You have been warned, Ex-pats. No casting aside of your morals here, please.

The panel also explored the difference between translating into a different language and writing in that language.

At the time of the Cognac festival, Lenka was in the process of translating a French work into her native Czech. She pointed out that when translating you must respect what is written rather than interpreting the author’s intention. The result of her translation, both in terms of sonority and meaning, didn’t resemble what she would have written in Czech.

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir put himself firmly on the writer side of the fence for this very reason, admitting that he would be tempted to rewrite rather than translate.

He brought the discussion back to the freedom of a non-native language, saying that you actually re-invent a language when you adopt it: you create your own nuances that enrich your use of it.

Lenka suggested this is because you don’t have the codes you learn from growing up in a language. And Irena added that German readers have told her that her use of German is more beautiful than native German.

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

I particularly liked Jana’s reference to Samuel Beckett – an Irish writer who lived in France and wrote in French. He apparently said that he knew English too well to write in this language.

Who knows? Perhaps, one day, I will know English so well that I’ll be able to write in French! Though with over a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, there’s still a way to go.

And, to be honest, I like writing in English. I like the way it keeps me in touch with my origins.

If you’d like to read more about other writers who write in non-native languages, there’s an article on the Telegraph website here

(Photos courtesy of Littératures Européennes and Lycée Jean Monnet’s photography club)

The Secret Cure for January Blues

ski-hut-treeIt’s a cold, clear day. The winter sun casts long shadows and the sky is frigid blue. Spring is aeons ahead and Christmas was aeons ago.

You could be sad. You were sad until a minute ago: you were staring glumly out of the window and trying to remember the hope of summer.

But you’re not sad anymore because you’ve just noticed the tree.tree-angouleme-jan-17

It’s the same old tree that has always been there. It seems it’s been there forever. You never really looked at it before and you don’t even know its name.

But today you’re looking because – check this out – it’s undressed. Its sleeping branches are silhouetted against the blue sky and you can see every detail of its structure, every woody member of its body. It is stunning! How come you never noticed it before?

Hang on: it’s not alone. There are naked trees everywhere. The countryside is an exhibition of natural statues, each one unique, each individual beauty an open hand stretched towards the sky.

dscn1751Look at them: go on. Get outside and admire them. Because this mass nudity won’t last forever. In a couple of months they will wake, dress in lime green leaves and hide behind them, like Eve in the garden of Eden.

Once you start looking, you won’t be able to stop. You may pull out your phone and take a couple of photos. You might even push your morning schedule to one side, go out with your camera and start collecting.


Before you know it, you’ll be out there in the early morning fog; in the freshly fallen snow; at midnight under a full moon. You’ll rush indoors for your camera when you’re walking home at night and spot a silver birch, its white bark reflected in the moon.

You’ll be dashing from field to field, from park to park, eager to add to your collection before it’s too late – before green spring arrives and your eyes turn to the flowering ground bursting into pinks, blues and yellows.

January blues? Huh, the only blues you’ll see now are those of the sky.

dscn0940I feel a little like those undressed trees this month: bared to anyone who cares to look. That’s what it’s like when your debut novel is out there for anyone to read, for anyone to criticise.

I’ve been lucky so far. The radio interviews and twitter chat shows featuring Tree Magic have all been positive experiences. As for the personal messages I’ve received – well, they’ve made all the hard work worthwhile.

I’m amazed by the glittering 5-star reviews posted on websites. These reviews make a big difference, even if they’re only one sentence long. So thanks enormously to those of you who have enjoyed Tree Magic and posted a comment. This has also helped with January Blues.

It is no doubt thanks to these lovely comments that I now have some exciting news to announce: *drumroll* my publisher has decided to publish a paperback version of Tree Magic. YIPPEE! My dad will be able to read it!

The paper book will be out on 1st March 2017 and you can pre-order it on Amazon here. My publicist at Impress Books is having lots of brilliant ideas for publicity projects.

But don’t worry: I’m not going to witter on about Tree Magic forever. I have lots of plans for blog posts this year that don’t mention writing at all, including interviews with three people who contribute in their own particular ways to our local culture here in Poitou-Charentes.

I hope Tree Magic will continue to inspire readers as much as naked trees inspire me. You can find updates on Tree Magic’s progress by clicking on the Tree Magic News tab at the top of this blog. And if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Meanwhile, open your eyes and go tree-hunting to chase away those January blues.

What Killed the Radio Star?

profiteroles-recadreAccording to the song playing in the restaurant in Angoulême on Friday lunchtime, it was Video. A strange coincidence, I thought, to hear that song today of all days. Radio killed the Tree Magic star, more like.

Luckily, I had profiteroles to cheer me up.

You know when someone makes a witty remark or asks you a difficult question, and you come up with some brilliant repartee – five minutes too late? Or how you leave an exam and forget everything except the questions you couldn’t answer?

helen-millarThat was exactly how I felt after my first ever radio interview. Helen Millar, the host of RCF Charente’s weekly English programme, AngloFile, had invited me to come and talk about my novel Tree Magic. Here’s a picture of her. She was a lovely host: friendly, reassuring and interesting. And there were no difficult questions. As she’d assured me beforehand, it was just a chat.

The thing is, on radio you have to keep talking. And talking is much more difficult than it sounds: talking coherently, in any case. As Barry Gornell recently said at the Cognac European literary festival, writers don’t talk: they listen and watch (though he actually spoke very well). I would include ‘think’ in his list of things writers do. I’d also add that if writers were good speakers, we wouldn’t go to all the bother of writing in order to communicate.

Helen talks admirably, which I guess is just as well for a radio host. But she is also a writer, which completely disproves the point I just made. Damn. I thought it was a good point, too.

Helen is known as Rosemary Mason for her professional writing. As Rosemary, she was a founder writer on East Enders. She has written stage and television plays, was a production assistant at the BBC and a screenwriter in residence for Thamesdown Borough Council. She launched a media writing degree, taught screenwriting and became Head of School at Southampton Solent University.

I should have been interviewing her!

Instead, a friendly technician, Fabrice François, set us up and we galloped through 26 minutes of air time, including me reading from Chapter One of Tree Magic. It passed so quickly that I forgot to thank my publisher (sorry, Impress Books). I forgot to say what Tree Magic is about, and that there is a prologue before the first chapter. I forgot to talk about the legend of Amrita Devi, on which the novel is based. But I did manage to refer to my writing groups and the Charroux and St.Clémentin literary festivals (well, OK: I did forget to say they are bilingual).

Not only is Helen a writer, she also runs an informal writing group near Marthon, to the east of Angoulême. This meant we were able to discuss a whole range of writerly issues, from inspiration to deadlines to short story competitions and writer’s block. We talked about how training as an engineer – which I did – can affect your language skills. And we chatted about the effect of nature on writing.

But each time I began to answer a question, we seemed to bifurcate right and left into fascinating themes such as what happens to hippies and punks when they grow up. Was it just an impression, or did I never actually answer a question she asked? Perhaps that’s just me being engineery…

In any case, it was wonderful to meet another local writer. The RCF (Radio Chrétienne Francophone) studio was a cosy, informal series of offices staffed with smiles. I was even offered a piece of cake. Once the red button stopped glaring at us (well, at me), we continued chatting about writing and Helen told me more about the family history on which she’s currently working. Writing certainly hasn’t killed this radio star.

logoYou can listen to AngloFile every Tuesday from 6:30-7pm and on Saturdays at 11:30am. My interview was first broadcast on Tuesday 29th November and will be repeated on Saturday 3rd December, as well as on Tuesday and Saturday during the Christmas break.

If this post hasn’t put you off, you can even click on the RCF web page here and listen to it now.

And if you’d like to pre-order Tree Magic, you can do so on Amazon and other online bookseller websites. Many thanks!

When Danube meets Charente

dscn0720Last night I met a river. A deep, contemplative river of a person, just like the River Charente as it idles through Cognac.

She is, of course, a writer – and not just any old writer: she’s the 2012 EU Literature prizewinner, Jana Beňová.

Qualifying letters normally tack onto a name, but Jana’s tag, the one which open doors for her, is a prefix. It heralds, in a triumph of trumpets, the Slovakian name that follows; a name few English-language readers would recognise. It introduces her. It stamps value on her work. It instructs us to take her career seriously. And it advises residency hosts that by inviting her to write in their community, they will be rendering a service to Culture (yes, with a capital C).

Cognac’s Littératures Européennes association has taken heed of that advice. During October and November Jana is breathing in the balmy Cognac air and breathing out poetry onto paper. She’s the first guest in the new, annual Jean Monnet residency, which coincides with the literary festival from 17th to 20th November.

Foto N - Tomáš Benedikovič

Foto N – Tomáš Benedikovič

Jana is a 42-year-old poet and novelist with a degree in dramaturgy. She was a journalist for a Slovakian daily newspaper for 7 years and has published poetry, short story collections and novels since 1993. Her novel Seeing People Off, subtitled Café Hyena, won the EU prize.

Café Hyène, as it is called in French, is a distinctive work of art. It follows the activities of a group of literary friends in the run-down Petržalka district of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Not only is the language captivating, the storyline is original: it shows the lives of Petržalka citizens in poetic, philosophical bursts, like fireworks.

You won’t have seen this novel in English (why not, for goodness sake?). It will only be available in May 2017, published by indie American publisher Two Dollar Radio. I’d definitely recommend the slim volume: it’s the kind of book you can read several times and still discover something new and thought-provoking each time you open it.

I was lucky enough to be Jana’s interpreter when she arrived in Cognac and addressed the general public. She speaks great English, though little French (just enough to order what she likes to eat and drink). It was my first experience of interpreting and, apart from telling the audience that her favourite activity was working – instead of walking (oops!) – I found it to be an interesting, though intense, challenge.

Jana loves the town of Cognac, which, she says, should be perfect for ageing her work into a VSOP or an XO. When I met her in a wine bar for a chat, she told me how the river brings a sense of raison d’être to a place – much like the Danube in Bratislava. She regularly walks along the River Charente, admiring the golden autumnal light and continuing her writing process in her head. She’s not a writer who sits at a desk and churns out words. She needs time to contemplate things, to let her mind create as she wanders. This is why swimming is one of her favourite activities.

dscn0716She can’t note the ideas she has while swimming, but is confident that she’ll remember them. When she walks, she always takes notes. I told her how I record my ideas on my telephone when I’m running – even though it can be difficult to hear my recorded words through my puffing. But recording speech doesn’t work for Jana. There’s something in writing that pushes you forward, she says. This doesn’t happen when you speak.

It’s this need to continue being ‘in’ her fiction even when she’s not at her desk that led Jana to stop her work as a journalist: she says you need to be fully present as a journalist, which you can’t do if you’re writing fiction or poetry.

Winning the EU Prize for Literature hasn’t changed Jana’s career path, although it helped financially and has been especially useful in attracting translations. Jana has read books from all over the world, and as a writer she longed to be part of the world literature scene. For a Slovakian writer using a language read by only 5 million people, getting translated is as important as getting published. Of course, EU Literature prizewinner also sounds good!

The prizewinning Café Hyena has a deliberately disjointed style. It isn’t necessarily Jana’s only style – indeed, she didn’t decide to write it in this way. When she starts writing a piece, she’s not fully sure of what it is. She constantly asks herself where it’s going in terms of style, structure and narrator. Then, after some time, it opens and shows her the way. She says the style comes from the body of the piece, so her new work will be different to Café Hyena because she feels she has finished her journey into this style.

dscn0712The Jean Monnet residency is the moment for Jana to bring together the ideas for her next oeuvre and set them down on paper. Yes, on paper. She finds the physical act of combining pen and paper important in the writing process, and regrets that screens have replaced typewriters.

Residencies are useful because they allow her time to live alone and write; time during which she doesn’t have to do any other work. Writers need to be alone. The best way to be alone without being lonely, according to Jana, is to sit in a café.

Of course, writers need to see people too, and Jana’s schedule includes visits to local towns each week to meet the Charente public. This brings the balance that is key to Jana’s lifestyle – another being the city / country balance. Big cities are great for a short time, but then she needs to come to a country town for the serenity. Even her choice of home is a balance, as she alternates between Spain and Hungary. The building in which Jana writes is important to her too. Luckily, she feels at home in the 200-year-old residency house in Cognac, and likes the sense of other people having lived there.

Writing isn’t just the act of writing, she says: it’s all about living. And when you want to write, you will do anything to combine the two. She owns nothing and has no money saved for retirement – but as long as she’s writing, she is free and open and unafraid.

dscn0732Thanks to the Jean Monnet residency, Jana is gathering her Cognac thoughts, ageing them and writing. We will all benefit from what I’m sure will be a complex, mellow XO blend.

Come and meet her at the Salamandre conference centre in Cognac on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November at 10am.

Did you say Paradise?

What have a tiny French village and the UK’s most successful literary agent got in common?

No, not a brand of wine. Not a signed author either. The answer is Festilitt, the Parisot bilingual literary festival, in the Tarn-et-Garonne. And, in case you’re wondering, the agent is Andrew Lownie.

The annual Festilitt’s 4th edition, from 21-23 October 2016, was the first for me. I’d heard whispers of ‘Parisot’ among British writers in France for a couple of years, always accompanied by nostalgic sighs, as if the word were ‘Paradise’. So when I had to decide between spending a weekend doing housework, or meeting readers and writers, it wasn’t difficult to choose.

Lac de Parisot

Lac de Parisot

However, it was difficult breaking the news to my bike and tent that the village campsite was closed and that, unlike the Charroux and St.Clémentin lit fests, I would have to leave them behind.

Instead, I opted for a mobile home with a view, and a run around the lake in the misty mornings. Not bad, eh? I almost bypassed the festival in favour of writing on my terrace. After the cows and donkeys in Charroux and the Red Indian in St.Clémentin, the only scary noises were the plopping of acorns onto the roof in the dead of night.

ParisotSunny Parisot was full of people – I think all 500 of them were out in the streets – I mean, street – when I climbed out of my car on Friday afternoon. This buzz of activity convinced me that I must have chosen the right Parisot (there’s another Parisot further south). Strangely, everyone was dressed in dark colours, and I wondered whether I’d missed a dress code page on the Festilitt website. It wasn’t until my exploration took me to the hilltop church that I realised a funeral was taking place. Once everyone was inside, the streets were deserted.

It’s not always easy to arrive, alone, in an unknown place. The friendly welcome I received from the French and British organisers set the tone for the whole event. And the good news was that although I was only on the waiting list for the talk by Andrew Lownie on Finding an Agent, I was encouraged to come in and make myself at home.

His talk was enlightening: given that his agency receives 100 novel submissions a day and only takes on 12 new clients a year, I understood why agent rejections proliferate. Best of all, Andrew, like all the speakers, was present all weekend. His easy smile and generous interest in people’s projects meant that he was easily accessible, giving everyone ample time to ask him their own questions. What a lovely man. What a shame he doesn’t represent YA fiction authors.

Lektor Studio readings

Lektor Studio readings

The official opening was on Friday evening, at aperitif time, of course. I was amazed to see a packed village hall, and even more surprised to see French and British, old and young, mingling and chatting.

Yes, there were official speeches. But there were also copious quantities of buffet food and drink – all prepared by village volunteers and completely free. Members of the Parisot writing group invited me to join them, and I spent a wonderful evening meeting people and forgetting names. Some, like the fascinating Bob Fell – here in the photo listening to a private reading from Lektor Studio – were unforgettable.

Manu Causse & Emmanuelle Urien

Manu Causse & Emmanuelle Urien

There was also entertainment from talented French authors and translators Emmanuelle Urien and Manu Causse. Their humorous mix of French and English musical poetry – including improvised translations of Beatles hits – ended with a touching song in Occitan. The whole village sang along (at least, all those who speak Occitan).

I understood that the event wasn’t just a literary festival. It was a village celebration. What makes Festilitt so special is the way the French villagers have integrated the British into their lives, and how both nationalities work side by side to bring pleasure to the festival participants.

This intimacy was also obvious the following day, when the audience raised hands to ask questions after each talk, and were acknowledged by their first names. I felt privileged to be part of the group.

The organisation was simple: there was one English and one French session each morning and two of each in the afternoon. Between the afternoon sessions, tea and cakes were provided, and you could eat at the village restaurant at lunchtimes. Although the events and refreshments are free at Festilitt, donations are welcomed through the ‘Friends of Parisot’ scheme.

On the British side was Jim Powell, author of The Breaking of Eggs and Trading Futures. He talked about his work, including the BBC Radio adaptation, and I learnt that after receiving 80 rejections for his first novel and 30 for Eggs, he was considered as one of the 12 best new novelists in 2011. There is hope yet!

A captivating talk about Guy Burgess followed, given by Andrew Lownie (who is the author of Stalin’s Englishman). What a knowledgeable man – have I said that already? Fiona Barton, author of The Widow, talked about the relationship between journalism and fiction. Her insights about crime reporters meeting people at moments of crisis in their lives, and how they must sympathise without showing too much emotion, was thought-provoking.

Carys Bray

Carys Bray

The lovely Carys Bray, with her natural smile and eyes full of joy, talked about grief and her life as a Mormon, which were both key to writing her prizewinning novel A Song for Issy Bradley. Her excellent readings brought the already excellent novel to life. She was followed by Laura Barnett, who explained her approach to the complexities in writing a novel which tells three versions of a couple’s life: The Versions of Us.

Meanwhile, French authors Hugues de Jubécourt, Luc Corlouër, Frédérique Martin, Georges-Patrick Gleize and Pascal Dessaint gave presentations in the library.

One session was truly bilingual: Susan Elderkin gave a slideshow presentation about her compendium of literary remedies, The Novel Cure, co-written by Ella Berthoud. Susan advocates reading a book to help overcome personal ailments – a therapy known as bibliotherapy. I loved the way the authors present at the festival were asked to seek remedies from Susan in the form of questions about their own literary ailments. When Jim Powell requested a remedy to soothe post-Brexit Britain, along to laughs from the audience, Susan prescribed Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses to raise political awareness among the young.

As Susan’s French translator couldn’t come, one of the festival’s organising team, Liz Stanley, translated everything into French. I can’t continue without telling you what a remarkable job of organisation, translation and interviewing Liz did during the weekend. Yet she was always accessible to calmly answer any queries. She told me the whole French/British team made this possible, with Kath Humphries and Debra Okitikpi on the British side. And no festival would exist without the founder, Gina Connolly, who has just stepped down from the association.

Susan Elderkin signing

Susan Elderkin signing ‘The Novel Cure’

Because village families hosted the speakers, they were accessible all weekend. So it was as easy to have a cup of tea and chat with international literary figures as it was to talk with villagers and other festival-goers. Equally, the Saturday evening meal, in which 80 people participated, was an ideal occasion to discuss literature, to listen and learn. A speaker or two were placed on each table, and you could choose to sit with a particular one.

If you’ve managed to read right down to here, congratulations! The post is long, because it was such a fantastic event. I could go on for pages in my enthusiasm… But I should get on with the housework I didn’t do last weekend.

Many thanks to the Festilitt organisers, to the speakers, to the fellow writers I managed to catch up with, and to all the extraordinary people I met, ate with, had coffee with, and who bought me much-needed beer (thanks Rob). I look forward to seeing you all next year.

Photos courtesy of Festilitt and Paul Bray