Tag Archives: Talking Trees

What If…

Decision points: if you look back over your life I’m sure you’ll identify several of these. They’re those moments when our choice of action alters the course of our lives.

I was reminded of decision points last Friday, when I went to hear Amanda Hodgkinson speaking about her work. Amanda wrote the international bestseller 22 Britannia Road and then Spilt Milk. She lives in France and was invited to speak to the International Club of Bordeaux.

Amanda Hodgkinson, courtesy of the ICB

Amanda Hodgkinson, courtesy of the ICB

Grand crèmes and croissants accompanied the 30 literature-lovers who gathered in Books & Coffee. As Amanda and I shook hands, we thought we recognised each other. A literary event? A fellow browser in Bradley’s bookshop? Perhaps it was just the collision of writerly vibes.

Amanda gave an inspiring talk about the background to her books and her path to authorship. She charmed everyone with her down-to-earth approach and her interest in our own work.

We discovered that JK Rowling doesn’t have the exclusivity on fairy-tale ascensions to publication. Amanda presented her story so modestly that it seemed Good Fortune had simply smiled down on her. From childhood writing on walls, through the distraction of house renovation, to pressing the send button on the email to a literary agent  her story could have belonged to any struggling writer.

I soon realised that it wasn’t a question of good fortune. Her journalism experience, MA in Creative Writing from UEA, background research for her novel and her undeniable talent all explained why her chosen agent grabbed Britannia Road. And why the big publishers fought to publish it.

Of course I’m envious. It’s any writer’s dream. But I was saved from dwelling on envy by a sudden thought. Had I recognised in Amanda the writer I might have been? (No doubt with less elegance and certainly with less talent than Amanda…)

What if I’d made different decisions when I was younger?

In 1994 I’d had enough of my engineering career. I considered doing an MA in Creative Writing – these were rare at the time. But France beckoned. My boyfriend was French. I finally opted for love in an exotic setting.

I remember telling myself that by moving to France I’d killed off any possibility of being a writer (the Internet didn’t exist then). Even before this, I’d deliberately spurned writing. What if I’d taken my English teacher’s advice and studied English at university instead of rebelling and choosing engineering? What if?

I explore this idea of ‘what-ifs’ in my first novel (recently renamed Tree Magic, by the way). In my story, 13-year-old Rainbow must decide whether to use her gift for communicating with trees and be treated as a weirdo – or to pretend she doesn’t have this gift so that she can live a normal life. As the story unfolds, we see the consequences of both options.

Do I regret my decisions about writing? Not really. It’s far too early for regrets! I think I’m lucky, at the age of 40+, to have a passion in which to invest myself. It’s exciting to have a goal to work towards and dream about. It’s absorbing to learn about writing. Had I studied it when I was younger, I’d probably be jaded and cynical by now (and wishing I could change a lightbulb on my own).

As it is, I can play the role of groupie and listen to the generous authors who share their experiences with the public.

Many thanks to Amanda and the ICB for such a stimulating morning.

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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…

rosé

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.

Opening the playground gate

Hello! I’m Harriet, I’m English and I’m a writer. I’ve been living in France for 20 years, during which I’ve written 3 novels and lots of non-fiction features. My partner is French and we have two teenage daughters.

I’ve called this blog my playground because it’s where I’d like to play with words and ideas. These are the ‘What-if‘s and ‘Why don’t‘s that get scribbled onto post-its (and promptly forgotten about). Sometimes the ideas are inspired from reading a book. Other times a walk in the countryside can give rise to an idea. And often ideas spark from discussions. There always seem to be more ideas than there is time to turn them into words. And from words into stories – well, there’s even less time for that.

On the subject of turning words into stories, my novels would like to introduce themselves here.

I won’t spend too much time on my initial novel. Let’s just call it Novel Zero and pretend it doesn’t exist. (I hope I’m not inflicting any psychological damage on it by keeping it on a floppy disk. After all, I did learn loads from writing it. Perhaps one day it will rise from the bottom drawer and, Cinderella-style, find a Prince Charming. It will definitely have to dress up before it leaves the house, though).

My first novel, ‘Tree Magic’ was a runner-up in a first novel competition and has been accepted for publication. Trees are awesome! We should talk about them more. ‘Tree Magic’ is a magic realism story and features 13-year-old Rainbow. She discovers she has a magic gift for communicating with trees, which causes her all sorts of problems. Rainbow has a creative, hippie mother and a scientific stepfather. They’re both too busy making music or arguing to spend time with her – until she causes a fatal accident. That’s when she has to decide what to do about her gift.

I’ve just finished the nth draft of my second novel and will soon begin the agent / publisher search. Its working title is ‘Red Lies, White Lies’ – at least, that’s this week’s title. It’s a mystery novel for adults and teenagers and is set in a French village. Here’s a short blurb:

The disappearance of a child and the attempted murder of a young man in a French village bring heartache and headaches for Englishwoman Dot Chasseux and her teenage daughter Erica.

OK, the novels have had their say. Now back to the playground.

What better playground than a tree?

What better playground than a tree?

Writing is a lonely business. A playground seems to me to be a good place to make friends and have some fun. If you’d like to play too, then come along and join me.