Category Archives: On Writing

Judge Harriet on the Segora Case

The Waffly Bit (feel free to skip this part)

Who is guilty?

What will my verdict be?

How come I was chosen to wear the wig?

(Who wants to give me Photoshop lessons?)

Law isn’t a subject that attracts me, so I never thought I would one day be Judge Harriet. The idea of holding someone’s life in my hands and of having to stand up in front of people and talk makes me feel sick.

Oh, wait a minute… something about both those activities sounds familiar (though the lives are fictional).

Anyway, I’m here today to talk to you about the controversial Segora case, which will be judged in June.

When Segora organisers Jocelyn and Gordon Simms invited me to be the judge for the short story section of this case, I hesitated. Should stories compete with each other? Could I make a decision? Would the wig suit me?

Then I came up with a cunning plan: I would enter a story and judge it the winner. I quickly accepted their invitation.

Unfortunately, they somehow predicted my cunning plan and nipped it in the bud.

(Had I used clichés like that in my story, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to pull the wool over their eyes and declare myself the winner).

Seriously, Gordon & Jocelyn probably invited me to judge because they’d run out of options my story Quark Soup was one of the winners in 2016, and Shingle and Sand was Commended in 2015. And I accepted because I love reading and analysing fiction. I’m also a big fan of the Simms, who have brightened English literary life in France with their bilingual literary festivals and workshops.

I feel very honoured to be a judge (wig or no wig), and I already know I’m going to be humbled by the quality of the stories.

Without more ado, here are some insights into what Segora is all about. First, you’ll find the facts about the short story competition – there are also vignette, poetry and one act play sections in the competition. Then there’s a Q&A interview with Jocelyn and Gordon Simms. And finally I’ve added tips from some of the previous short story judges, who kindly agreed to contribute. Thanks very much to Amanda Hodgkinson, Emma Curtis and Clare Le May. You are stars!

The Bare Bare Facts (no photos please)

Salle du Jardin du Cloître (presentation evening)

Length: 1500-3000 words

Closing Date: 15 June 2018

Entry fee: £7 per story

Prizes: 1st £300; 2nd £50; 3rd £30

Presentation evening in France

All proceeds go to the charity Médecins Sans Frontières

Please see the website for full rules and lots more details, including a photo of a fine young man masquerading as Gordon.

 

Q&A interview with organisers Jocelyn & Gordon Simms

How did you discover my cunning plan?

Jocelyn, what inspired you to launch the Segora competitions in 2007?

Well it was around my 60th birthday when I said wouldn’t it be fun to have a website and launch a poetry competition? Gordon was somewhat dubious about my idea (a worrying trait I have noticed over the last 40 years) but I persuaded him that it was a nice thing to do as he had won lots of poetry competitions and it might help other poets to get published. In those days there weren’t so many competitions for writers. We decided to encourage the art of short story writing at the same time.

Why ‘Segora’?

Segora is the Roman name of St Clémentin, the village where we lived. It was rumoured to be a lost Roman city, a crossroad where the routes between Nantes/Poitiers and Angers/Saintes intersected. Indeed, Roman remains have been found there. I liked the sound of it on my tongue and it already presented a mystery (no bad thing for writers).

Can you tell us a little about previous short story winners?

Our first short story judge was Dr Phoebe Lambert, a very close friend and former head of an FE college. I clearly remember reading the winning story in bed one night. It was by Graham Minett. I was so pleased it was chosen. It is still for me one of the most sensitive and memorable stories we have ever received.

Later we asked Graham to judge the competition and he chose Emma Curtis. Both of them are now flourishing authors and it is really a great pleasure to think that winning the Segora competition was instrumental in their decision to become full-time writers. Emma has won the competition twice with beautifully constructed, unusual stories spiced with a touch of menace.

A finalist, Claire Adam, was so delighted with her prize cheque she decided to frame it for the purpose of inspiration. She is soon to be published by Faber. Another Segora entrant, Bruce Harris, has recently had a collection of short stories, Odds Against, published by Earlyworks Press.

And what are your favourite, least favourite and most memorable parts?

One of the nicest aspects of running an International competition is contact with people from different countries. One of the worst aspects is trying to explain the rules. A particularly memorable occasion was one of our presentation days, which we included in the St. Clémentin Litfest, with three judges and half-a-dozen prize-winners in attendance.

Any new projects in view?

Now we live in St André-sur-Sèvre, where we held a Segora presentation day last year – a most enjoyable event which will be repeated in 2018. Our commitment to creativity has not gone unnoticed and this year we are involved in putting on a mini festival alongside a painting exhibition taking place during the weekend 21/22 April in St André. Once again the love of words, language and culture unites people. It is our currency!

 

Jocelyn and Gordon are kind and inspirational as well as being superb writers (they also have good taste in judges). Please support them and Médecins Sans Frontières by entering their poetry, play, vignette or short story competitions.

Facebook page and Website

 

Tips from Past Judges

Clare Le May was runner up in 2012 with Missing Persons, which appears in her collection Twisting Tales, published by Webvivant Press :

“It was a privilege to be a judge, and I enjoyed the exposure to such a huge range of writing styles. What made some stories stand out more than others included an interesting choice of theme, an intriguing twist and evocative writing, sometimes all three. But it was difficult to rank one above another, like asking if an impressionist painting is better than a classical. In the end I chose the stories that seemed to be uncovering a truth, leaving me with something of value, that in some way, however small, had changed the way I thought about the world.”

Emma Curtis is published by Transworld and is the author of two psychological thrillers: One Little Mistake and When I Find You. Twitter: @emmacurtisbooks  Instagram: @emmacurtisauthor :

“It was a huge honour to be asked to judge the Segora Short Story Competition in 2017, and so interesting to be on the other side of the fence.  Judging is an instinctive task, as well as an academic one, but story should always come first.  Having said that, a writer needs skill to chip something beautiful out of a block of words and grammar. Their story must be compelling; it has to shine. Once I had my shortlist, I went back to how each entry made me feel. It was a balance between the tangible: voice, narrative arc, pacing, style, etc. and what the story-teller in me was drawn to.  In the end, as well as First, Second and Third, I awarded two Highly-Commended and two Commended.  I know from experience exactly how much any placing means to an aspiring writer.”

Amanda Hodgkinson is the award-winning internationally bestselling author of 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk, and novella Tin Town in the anthology Grand Central. Her novels have been translated into 16 languages and have won and been nominated for literary prizes in Europe and in the UK. Amanda holds an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Suffolk in England:

“It’s a great honour to judge a short story competition and a serious undertaking too. But overall, what an absolute pleasure to be the one who can choose the winner. And how does a judge choose a winner? For me, I look for stories that stay with me. I want to find the story whose characters are still in my head long after I have finished reading. I wager that if asked, all short story judges will tell you this too. It will be the story you want to discuss with other people. You might even feel like you want to press copies of the winning story into the hands of friends and family, saying, ‘You mustread this.’ For me, that desire to share what you have read with others is the mark of a really good piece of writing. Fiction is such a powerful way of communicating between ourselves and connecting in endless ways with the world. Really, I believe that short story competitions are vital to writers and readers. Long may they continue!”

(I was lucky enough to go to one of Amanda’s talks, and you can see my blog post about it here.)

The End (well done, you made it to the bottom of the page)

I will of course be applying all the above advice when June arrives and it’s my turn to judge. In the meantime, happy writing and thank you for reading this long, long post.

And, once again, here are the Segora Facebook page and Website

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Books in Mr B’s Bath

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may remember my excitement back in July when my story ‘Big Bones’ was shortlisted for the coveted Bath Short Story Award. I mentioned this in the ‘Other News‘ tab above (which I update regularly with events unrelated to Tree Magic).

18 out of the 1100 entries In the BSSA were shortlisted, and I’m proud to say that these stories have now been published as an anthology. You can see it in the photo and buy it here.

My prize (to myself) was a trip to Bath for the anthology launch party. You can read about it here on the Bath Short Story Award website  – or you can continue reading below for my version of the party. Actually, you can do both.

I haven’t flown anywhere for at least 5 years, so discovering how Ryanair now works, with all its restrictions and website defects, was, um, interesting? (meaning that I used lots of swear words). Luckily, the flights were fine, and I discovered the cheap and cheerful Park and Trip car park near Bordeaux airport, which was recommended by my friend Jane and is run by some friendly guys.

I also noticed how fast British travellers walk. I seem to walk much faster than French people in the streets. But I was outraced by the Brits in the airport queue. Has anyone else noticed this? I suppose they were keen to get home to their grey skies after being subjected to too many snails and oysters.

Did I say ‘grey skies’? Well, I actually had crisp, sunny weather for the whole 3-day trip. But I won’t bore you with weathery stuff. No, I have something exciting to talk about today.

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

Anyone who knows this totally amazing bookshop in Bath will now have a smile on their face. Because. And I’m not just saying that because I found this when I arrived:

No. That was coincidental, and probably due to the efforts of my lovely publicist at Impress Books.

When you enter Mr B’s Emporium at 14-15 John Street, you feel as if you’re walking into someone’s  – a book lover’s – home. And this someone has a house worthy of your dreams. You’re not treated as a customer, but as a book-loving friend of the welcoming staff. Which, of course, you may well end up becoming!

It has a series of little rooms on three levels, and reminded me of Shakespeare and Company in Paris – though with its carpeted upstairs floors and well organised bookshelves, it is cosier and more British. I later noticed a poster on the wall stating that Mr B’s is twinned with Shakespeare & Co.

After explaining why I was taking photos, I signed Tree Magic and learnt that the staff have a project to collect authors’ signing pens and display them on the ceiling. This is just one of the ideas that show how invested the staff are in their ‘home’. They also sell gifts, including a Reading Spa: a kind of bibliotherapy in which your ‘therapist’ will recommend books to suit your tastes. This would make a perfect gift for a friend (*clears throat* in case family / friends are reading this).

Mr B’s bookshop was the venue for the BSSA launch party, and when I returned for this in the evening, I was welcomed by the award organisers: Jude Higgins, Jane Riekemann and Anna Schlesinger. They are authors in their own right, as are many of the competition entry readers.

It was, of course, wonderful to meet the other authors, some of whose names were familiar from other competition shortlists. Once we’d done the scary reading from our stories, many of us went to the pub around the corner, where we spent a great evening discussing writing and reading. I met another Jon McGregor fan, found a lady who has a house only 20 mins from me, and discovered someone’s daughter had read Tree Magic and loved it.

Many thanks to everyone involved in the event, especially Jude, Jane and Anna for their dedication. And thanks to Chris and Anita for photos.

If you’d like to read the amazing stories in the anthology (I still can’t quite believe mine is there alongside such jewels), you can find it in Mr B’s bookshop and here on the BSSA website.  And they have just opened entries for the 2018 edition of the Bath Short Story Award, judged once again by Euan Thorneycroft from the AM Heath Literary Agency.

Now the literary fun and games of the last few months are over, I can get on with my exciting new project… You may not hear from me for a while.

 

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.