Tag Archives: Michèle Roberts

Oranges and LemnS (for the Belles of St Clemns)

I can hear you festival-goers from St.Clémentin groaning at my blog post title. For the unlucky readers and writers who weren’t able to come this year’s literary festival, some explanation may be necessary.

Who planted the seeds on my bike?

Who planted the seeds on my bike?

The LemnS bit is easy. Olympics (and a long list of other awards) poet Lemn Sissay, the festival’s keynote speaker, wowed everyone with his unique performance. His choice of clothing – a slick grey suit with fluorescent green trainers – was only the tiniest hint of the paradox to come.

It’s not every day that a performance combines first class stand-up comedy with heart-rending poetry. His desperate themes delivered in dramatic poses and followed up by boyish grins and jokes were a see-saw of emotions. The image of him hanging over a cliff face, clutching a branch, is engraved in my memory. What a man of contrasts! His name, although he pronounces it as ‘Lem’, sounds more like ‘lemon’ in Ethiopian. It means ‘why’. Surely that shows a poetic destiny?

After we’d lived his poetry and sympathised with his answers to Roisin McAuley‘s astute questions, we plundered the festival bookshop for his books.

The ‘Belles’ part is fairly easy too – these are the lovely ladies present at the festival: the readers, writers, speakers, helpers and, of course, the belle organiser Jocelyn Simms. Perhaps I should also mention the beaux men, headed by Gordon Simms and followed closely by John Hudson (see my blog post about him here), Roger Elkin, Ian Mathie, Gavin Bowd, Peter Hoskins and all the others I didn’t manage to see.

During the festival, Gordon kindly announced my publication deal with Impress Books, which led to an invitation for me to lead a workshop at the Charroux litfest in 2017 and lots of congratulations from my supportive fellow readers and writers.

There seem to be two kinds of writer: those who tell stories about their exceptional life experiences, and those who use their language skills and imagination to invent or retell stories. At St.Clémentin you could find both. Ian Mathie kept a full room of spectators spellbound with his tales of living in a mud hut in Africa for forty years. And Clare LeMay gave us a fascinating insight into the skills of an audio describer for theatre, film and art galleries.

We were spoilt for choice of practical workshops for poetry, play and prose writing. Alison Morton, of Roma Nova fame, doled out generous helpings of tips for self-publishing. And, as it’s a bilingual festival, different translators talked about what it’s like to inhabit two languages. Ed Briggs, notably, pleasured her audience with her poetic essay on English and French words – which Katherine Gallagher advised her to take to Bloodaxe.

Yes, yes, we get the point, I hear you say. We’ll make sure we come to the 2018 edition. But what about the ‘Oranges’ in the title?

Patricia Duncker

Patricia Duncker speaking at St.Clémentin

Orange is a reference to Patricia Duncker and her infectious, grounded energy – and I don’t mean the colour she was wearing. Patricia’s literary knowledge, technical craft and analytical skills qualify her as an intellectual. But she’s not a whimsical ‘wrrrrriter’ (as she says with a flourish of her hand and rolling of ‘r’s).

Her bold opinions and her passion for literature inspired us all and made us laugh. Those lucky enough to participate in her workshop (Me! Me!) had a thorough dousing in beginnings, structure, double narrators and genre. She also lavished advice on us concerning the challenges we face in our own work.

She is a writer who truly knows what she’s talking about, both in English and French literature. I can understand why Michèle Roberts, when she was a judge for the 2010 Orange prize, argued in favour of long-listing Patricia’s novel ‘The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge’.

Ha! There you are: the oranges. It took a little research…but you’ll find the reference here, in the article Michèle wrote for the Independent in June 2010.

So the festival is over for another two years. I look through the programme of the 70 events which took place over three days and wish I could go back and attend all those I missed. Perhaps I could have squeezed in a few more – but then I wouldn’t have met the other literary lovers and discussed reading and writing with them over tea, cake, aperitifs, picnics, lunch…

Bravo and many thanks, once again, to the Simms, to their host of helpers, to the speakers and to the enthusiastic public. I’m sure there will be some official photos on the St.Clémentin website in the weeks to come.

An Arty Business

The highlight of my last week – besides rediscovering that the sun can be hot – was a writing workshop in the Deux-Sèvres with lovely Michèle Roberts. She’s half French and half English, which makes her particularly interesting to us Francophiles. As well as her understanding of cultural differences, particularly in literature, she is warm, generous and encouraging. We love her! Many thanks to Gordon and Jocelyn Simms for organising the day.

English literary events in my part of France are rare, so it was intriguing to meet the participating writers. What a friendly bunch they were. I could have chatted to them all day. But the call of the pen meant we had to sit down and actually write. Some rebels carried on conversations by passing notes, though I’m not sure this counted as a workshop activity.

Luckily, our pens didn’t accompany us to lunch, which meant I was able to have a long chat with successful self-published author Alison Morton. Her business sense impressed me. And it got me thinking…


Back with French friends that evening, I met my opponent-in-war (see my blog post The Novel War). And made the mistake of telling him about my inspiring day.

“Hmm,” he said. “Trust you Brits to turn art into business.”

And so began a delightful evening – in a rather less supportive atmosphere than Michèle’s workshop.

We drew our swords: should writing be treated as a business and marketed to readers? Or should it remain an art form and sleep in a notebook?

He claimed it is enough to create art; that art is about expressing yourself. He said that if you create to sell, your creations are no longer sincere. Artists create for themselves. They don’t care whether they sell their work or not.

I thought about the joy of writing family memoirs; the comfort of a journal; the pleasure of finding exactly the right image to convey an emotion; the satisfaction in perfecting a short story or a poem, knowing that it will never be published. I thought about unpaid bloggers. And finally I thought about the dreaded synopses, covering letters, blurbs and social media.

Many glasses of rosé later, we were no closer to a compromise.


The question of whether to write for ourselves or to write for a market is one that haunts me. Some experts advise writing with a particular market in mind. Others tell you to write whatever comes naturally.

When my moody teenagers were yelling babes*, I took part-time parental leave (thank you France) so that I could change their nappies myself every afternoon. Oh yes: and so I could write during their siestas. I wanted to write myself a proper novel without making all the mistakes I’d made in novel Zero. I had no thought of a market. I knew I could write a novel because I’d already done it. But novel Zero was tightly plotted and planned and hadn’t left enough room for creativity. So I wanted to write a novel organically; to begin with a character and let the story grow.

“Don’t worry,” I told my partner. “I just need to get this writing thing out of my system. Then I’ll go back to full time project management, the kids can go to school and we’ll get the car mended.”

Between drafts of my organic novel ‘Tree Magic’ (to be published in January 2017 by Impress Books), I started to write commissioned feature articles. This meant I had no time for my novel. But it didn’t matter: feature writing was so fulfilling. I met people, my work was read (even if nobody actually looked at my name) and I was being paid.

Then, one day, a French friend said, “This magazine writing is all very well. But don’t forget about what you really want to write.” I interpreted this as: ‘don’t let business stand in the way of art’.

A few months later I went back to my fiction. The dishwasher broke down and didn’t get mended.


Although Michèle Roberts talked about the differences between the French and British approaches to literature, we didn’t have time to distil our thoughts down to Art versus Business. But I do feel that, for many French people, art is superior to business: whereas – dare I say it – the Anglo-Saxon culture celebrates business achievements.

I concluded my rosé-tinted evening with the thought that we need Art for personal expression and Business to buy time for that personal expression. Who can blame writers for trying to do both at the same time?



*I actually love my children to bits! They’re never moody and they never yelled. Well, not much.