Tag Archives: Tree Magic

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.

That’s SO Cheesy!

Writing Residency Day 3

Did you think that life in the mountains was tranquil?

I did. But that was before I met Françoise and Karine; before they introduced me to the friendly valley folk; before I got talking to the artists and culture-lovers who drop into Le Kairn bistro-bookshop.

It’s non-stop activities and invitations here, I’m telling you. If you want to meet like-minded people, Arras-en-Lavedan is the place to be. Even some famous bloke from French television will be here on Thursday, so I hear.

 

 

Anyway, after the exertion of yesterday’s transhumance, today was a little less physical but just as wet and busy.

It was also far less spooky (although the exhibiting photographer here at the Maison des Arts, Raphäel Paya, did have a go at making me scream).

 

 

First of all, I drove back to Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm in Marsous to learn all about a special technique. So here’s today’s challenge: look at these photos and guess what Dominique is up to:

Yes, she’s making cheese – today’s batch was Tome Des Pyrénées made from ewes’ milk. She also makes goat cheese and mixed-goat-and-ewe cheese, all of which you can taste and buy at their farm.

I’m not going to try to teach you all about cheese in a 500-word blog post, but if you read the novel I’m researching (and writing in the small hours here), you’ll pick up some tips. Here’s a brief explanation to go with the photos, though, because if I keep meeting interesting people it will be ages before my notes become a story.

Before we entered the room, which was lightly perfumed with ‘suckling baby’, Dominique had already begun her daily task of heating a vat of the day’s milk to 55°C. While we watched, she made the milk curdle by stirring it with that strange guitar-like instrument. Then she de-curdled it, this time stirring it with her arm for 30 minutes until the curds and whey separated. Next, she gathered the curds, threw away the whey (ooh, those words sound nice together), gathered up the curds into a doughy ball, which she cut into chunks and kneaded into the moulds.

I had lots of ideas while watching and listening: muscular right arms; music and goats; listeria and salmonella… And I liked the mix of traditional and modern when Dominique stirred with her right arm and answered her mobile phone with her left.

But time was pressing, and I had to go to Le Kairn to prepare my Tree Magic talk. In reality, this meant eating lunch with Karine and meeting French writer Manoell Bouillet, who had dropped by and introduced herself to Karine.

Manoell writes plays and creates soundscapes, and may help Karine create a poetical circuit around the village. I told you Le Kairn was a networking hotspot. Karine went back to work behind the bar, Manoell and I had writerly discussions – and then I introduced her to Alex (who I met on Saturday, and who works on the art circuit in the village) before welcoming my first talk guest.

Here’s a photo of me during the talk. There are actually at least 500 fans sitting just out of sight and lots of security guards to keep back the screaming crowds who forgot to book and couldn’t squeeze in.

Seriously, it was great to meet some readers and discuss writing experiences. The lovely Scottish playwright Gloria Carreno was a real inspiration to me because she writes plays in English and French.

She has produced them in Edinburgh and London – in fact one is currently under consideration with La Comédie Française – and it was fascinating to listen to her experiences of how a script becomes a play. She’s also keen to meet other playwrights – and theatres which would like to produce her work.

With the day’s activities over, I was able to return to my little room, where I typed long into the night.

Tomorrow is going to be a calm, writing day.

In theory.

Temporary Offer: Tree Magic ebook only 99p

I couldn’t resist sharing this publicity picture with you. My publisher Impress Books created it and chose their favourite endorsements. Write a review on Amazon and you may see your name in print too! The paperback version comes out in 3 weeks (1st March).

ebook-99p-plus-endorsements-feb-17

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

#SundayYA – 22nd Jan 2017

c0eiiebwqaepd2uI’ve been invited as a guest on the Twitter chat show #SundayYA on Sunday 22nd January 2017 at 6pm British time (7pm French time).

I’ll be tweeting about Tree Magic and trying to answer the host’s questions…

Look who else is there in January: the wonderful Emily Barr and Sara Barnard. I’m honoured to be listed below them.

Come along and tweet your own questions, or just read the tweets as they appear live on the #SundayYA thread (click on ‘Latest’ at the top to see a running commentary, or use a tool such as Tweet Deck).

You’ll have a couple of weeks to read Tree Magic before the show as it’s released on 9th January 2017.

Look forward to seeing you there.

Meanwhile, I wish you the very happiest Christmas and a wonderful New Year.