Saturday, 24 December 2011

A Spotless Rose


Like many people around the world, I'll be listening later to the Carols and Readings from King's College, Cambridge which are so much part of Christmas Eve. Here's my very favourite carol, A Spotless Rose composed by Herbert Howells in 1919.

I always find this breathtakingly beautiful. The echoes of the English Renaissance drift into a perfect marriage of words and music. If you are lucky enough to hear it live, especially in one of the Cambridge college chapels, the sound swells up into the high stone vaults and seems to swirl around like so many leaves in the wind. I first heard it at school in Sussex, where the choirmaster had been a choral scholar at King's and had brought all his passion and expertise to the music there. Then, when I went to Cambridge as a student, this was the song I always longed to hear by candlelight at Trinity.

A very Happy Christmas to you all!

Monday, 19 December 2011

The missing partridge and other matters




“We are literally living the twelve days of Christmas. Last night was the seventh carol service, six grown-ups parties in a row, we have had five flute concerts, four children’s parties, three work events, two elderly parents staying and only missing the Partridge because I haven’t made it to Waitrose yet.”

So reads the email this morning from the friend who has been making me laugh ever since we were sixteen. All the mad rushing around and suddenly it really does seem like Christmas.
Here’s this scene set for a family party at home yesterday that marks the point for us when the festive season truly starts. As befits a Georgian house (built circa 1750) the dining room is cosy and lit only by candles. It may be an affectation, but when we renovated the house and took out neon strip lighting (nice) we very deliberately decided not to have any electric lighting in here. In all the years since, we’ve never regretted it and our dinners and winter lunches with friends and family have always taken place in a warm convivial glow against the dusky red walls.

The tree has been dressed, most of the shopping is in, presents are wrapped, and now it’s just a question of keeping up with the entries on the calendar.
All writing stopped with the end of the school term and the really important concerns of life like the promised  iPhone for the Teenager and the logistics of the Rhianna concert at the O2 in London. Still, as all Two Regular Readers of this sadly neglected blog may know, there was a word count in operation before Christmas, and the results are in. I was aiming for 50,000 words, and managed 48,000 of the first draft of the new novel before deciding to hive off a section and make that into a separate novella. That now stands at 12,000 words, so all in all I’m feeling pretty pleased. Or I would be if I weren’t convinced that at least 30,000 were rubbish. They may well be, in which case I will simply have to try harder in the New Year.

For those who are curious about the setting and subject matter, I can reveal that I am back in the lavender fields of Provence during the Second World War. Those pictures of the workers haunted me (you can see them here) and life couldn’t really have been as apparently simple there as Bénédicte claimed in The Lantern, could it?
Anyway, I raise a glass to you all and wish you a happy and calm week before Christmas! 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The village in Kent


Phew! What a weekend. The village Christmas fair opened on Friday morning, became a night market with live entertainments on Friday night and then went on all day on Saturday. It was a triumph of organisation by many of our lovely friends and neighbours and a real community event to raise money for the village's 14th century church and a local cancer drop-in charity.

All the fantastic array of stalls had a local connection, and the idea was that we could all do plenty of our Christmas shopping while supporting home-grown businesses - everything from aromatherapy products to jewellery, pottery and paintings, to fabulous hampers and Christmas trees, decorations, baby clothes (there have been a lot of new babies in our vibrant little community), bags and vintage clothes, handmade chocolate and amazing cakes.

I was offering signed copies of The Lantern as my contribution and it was a great chance to chat to new as well as familiar faces. Rob played the piano and premiered a lovely new song with vocals from Grace Butler. Steve J gave us his Elvis, though there was quite a bit of competition from John. There were winter morris dancers, a sweet school choir and a ukelele band - it really was a great party atmosphere.

Not the greatest photos, I'm afraid - camera hand rather wobbly after all the signing, and the glasses of wine - but they give a small snapshot of the event. Note the backdrop up on the stage from the last panto - the village square as scenery designed and painted by Graham and Fred who worked so tremendously hard for days to get everything set up.


It was a terrific event, that ended in champagne at Graham's birthday party across the road, where there were a great many tired but happy faces. Huge thanks especially to Liz and Sophie, Claudia, Deirdre and Graham, Karen, John, Fred, Ivan, Derek and Gwen, who were right in the thick of it. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The falling leaves


Nearly the end of November, and no writing update yet this month! It’s always the way: just when it all seems to be going so well, life has a way of pulling you up short. I made it to about 45,000 words, then had a fortnight dominated by a couple of nasty migraines that each lasted for days on end and made further progress impossible.

It was during that time of feeling disengaged that I realised that part of the draft would work much more powerfully as a separate story, perhaps a short novel. The more I thought about it the more convinced I was, although I was hesitant to suggest it to my literary agents in New York and London. To my amazement they understood my reasoning and got behind the idea immediately. With still-searing head I found myself writing publishing proposals, and then waiting on reactions.

When I did get back to my desk, it was to make tentative attempts at the new novella, leaving this autumn’s work in limbo for a while. But the stories are connected, and the idea is that the three books will form a very loose trilogy with The Lantern.

So I’m only now easing myself back into my writing routine, and building in plenty of relaxing walks which really do help focus the mind. I took my camera out the other day – a nice uphill metaphor here I think!

Friday, 28 October 2011

A golden isle



From the port at La Tour Fondue, the crossing was only fifteen minutes, the final transition between sky and land and sea, and from imagination to reality...

The answer to last week's teaser is the tiny island of Porquerolles, off the south coast of France about mid-way between Marseille and St Tropez. A rocky south coast is lined with rocky calanques made up of cliffs and fjord-like inlets, while white sand beaches face north across the narrow strait to the mainland at Hyères and Le Lavandou.

One the three tiny specks of land that make up Les Iles D'Or - the golden islands - Porquerolles is most wonderfully atmospheric, one of those islands where cars are not allowed and almost everyone cycles or walks. Or they sail. Everywhere you look out to sea or back to the mainland there are white sails cutting across the blue. In summer there's an almost tropical feel about it, with palm trees waving amidst the pines.

Its history is a curious mixture of the military and the romantic. It was once a strategic defence and all over the island are the remains of forts and it was first used by the army as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War: it was bought in 1912 by a man who had made his fortune in silver mining in Mexico and wanted to give it to his new wife as a wedding present, or so the story goes.

I'm deep into an imaginary world here, with a forgotten garden, wartime secrets and connections that are too strange to be called coincidence...

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Head in the clouds


No, not here in real life (I wish!): only in my imagination at my desk, in one of the settings of the new novel. But I'm looking up to say hello with a little teaser...does anyone recognise where in the world this is?

For those of you who like to know how books progress, I'm now 36,000 words into the first draft, about which I am feeling quite proud, as it's currently school half-term - two whole weeks for us! - and it's been a busy time. We're mid-way through, and we've had friends to stay, an evening at the theatre in London, cinema and shopping trips and lunches with friends, as well as a few commitments for me with The Lantern.

I'm setting myself a very realistic target of 50,000 words by the start of the Christmas holidays, which will give me lots of wiggle room to re-write and improve as I go along. I'll let you know in a while if you're right about the location I'm revisiting and trying to bring alive on the page and screen...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Work in progress


Hello from the depths of my study, amid teetering piles of research material and pages of notes! Hope you’re all well and enjoying the start of autumn. I’ve been working hard as I intended: at 25,000 words into the first draft, it’s “so far, so good” with the new book, even if there’s a long way to go yet.

I always think of this stage as the word equivalent of painting a big colourful picture. You need to fill the canvas completely with broad brushstrokes to block in the main features. It’s an undercoat – little more than a guide for the more detailed work that will form the top layer that you’ll gradually build up. This really is one of the fun parts, because it’s all about experimenting and it doesn’t have to be perfect.

The allowing of it to be imperfect is key to the whole process, for me at least. It completely eliminates writer’s block, as putting words down fast kick starts the imagination. How many of the current 25,000 words make it into the finished book? I’ve no idea. They are the building blocks. The good parts will survive to the next stage, and the parts that make me cringe will be cut or rewritten.

It’s a good time to write key dialogue and conversation scenes, though, because they have to sound spontaneous and new all the way through to the finished book, and sometimes I’ll hardly change these from this first enthusiastic charge into the heart of the book.

It’s not a good time to read any reviews of previous books. I think I’m very open to criticism and have a strong sense of how I might take feedback and improve. With the new book, for example, I’m trying hard to inject some rocket fuel under the plot right from the start, and to rein back on superfluous description.

But there comes a point when writers have to be true to themselves and what they are trying to achieve – which is not necessarily what a proportion of Amazon reviewers were expecting, and failed to find. I don’t want to abandon characteristics of my writing that many other readers have written to me personally to say they’ve loved.

And whenever I feel daunted, I make myself smile and remind myself that this is fun. I never forget that I might otherwise be commuting to a job I hate, or be a square peg in a round hole of any number of work situations, and that I’m very lucky to have the chance to do this in the first place.    

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Autumn "Au Revoir"


The vine canopy is starting to drop russet leaves over the summer dining table. Clouds hang in the valley before the sun warms the morning. Autumn is definitely in the air, even if it’s still summer at midday in Provence.

It’s the time of new beginnings, work-wise, as nature dies back. Like many, I feel energised at this time of year, full of ambitious new plans and determined to bring them to fruition. This is when I always start my books, fired up with a full notebook of research and ideas that may or may not work but have to be tried.


This post is by way of an “Au Revoir” for a while, or at least fair notice that I won’t be blogging as regularly during the coming months while I give my full attention to the first draft of a new novel that has been bubbling under all year. And to do it, I have to disappear to my study and block out everything else.

All writers write in different ways, and mine is in concentrated isolation. Sometimes it’s hard enough to fit in real life, let alone any other writing which can only be a distraction. I don’t like to mess around. Writing a first draft is like digging the foundations of a house: it’s hard and precise work, and a great deal rests on it. If the structure is wrong now, the building will never be quite right and ever harder to put right later.

If anyone asks me now what qualities I think writers need to have, I would have to say: persistence, determination and sheer stubbornness to succeed. You also have to love what you do, playing around with words and the use of language to create something new.


For me, there’s no better time to do that than when the skies become heavier, and the colours fade beyond the window where my desk stands. If it’s raining, so much the better. Then there’s nowhere I’d rather be than making bright pictures in my head and trying to find the words to pin them down.

I hasten to assure you, all my lovely blog pals I’ve made this year, I’m not abandoning my blog completely, and that I will still be touring around reading yours when I need a break. I have so enjoyed all your comments, and appreciated your support, for which huge thanks, and am delighted that we found each other. But this one will revert to its original function, which was an add-on to my website to use for any news updates.

Please do come and find me on my official Facebook page, though – the “Like” link at the side here will take you there. That’s much easier to keep going, and we have some lovely little chats about books, Provence and life in general.

Back soon – but for now, cheerio!  



Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Figs falling


  “It was one of those days so intensely alive and aromatic you could hear as well as smell the fig tree in the courtyard. Wasps hummed in the leaves as the fruit ripened and split; globes of warm dark purple were dropping, ripping open as they landed with sodden gasps.
   The pulse that pumped out the sweet, heady scent was quickening as I bent down to pick the fallen figs, then pulled them apart to find insects were already drunk on their scarlet hearts.”
                                                                     from The Lantern 

I defy anyone to look at a fallen fig like this: its heart shape and juice spilled like blood across the stone and not think Gothic thoughts... There's something very sensuous about figs, with their blatant sexual connotations, and the sweet, blowsy scent as they grow on the branch. Others lie on the grass under the tree, newly split open on impact and ripe for destruction by thirsty insects.

   
Those are the doomed windfalls, but here are some picked from the tree. I simply love their colours, the delicate darkness of the purple skin and pistachio greens.


And here's how we ate them. I prepared a bed of good fresh lettuce dressed with a vinaigrette of Dijon mustard, honey, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Then cut rounds of bread and topped with goat's cheese, and put on a tray in a fairly hot oven to bake with some slivers of jambon cru (Parma ham) and the halved figs, each spread with a little clear honey. Everything cooks together for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese looks done. Delicious!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Baroque fruit in Avignon


I was wandering around Avignon a few weeks ago, on a day of coshing heat. After a lovely shady lunch opposite the northern end of the Palais des Papes, I set off through the great cobbled square, looked up and really noticed for the first time the frieze on the Hôtel des Monnaies: festoons of ripe fruit and vegetables amid the coats of arms of the Borgia family.

It is so typically Provençal – even in the stones of the most ostentatious buildings, are celebrations of the pure joy of living here in the sunshine and the natural produce of the region. Grapes and pears and courgettes are carved with acorns and the pumpkins of the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ now stealing up on us.


The Hôtel des Monnaies, a mansion built in 1619 in the Baroque style, is now used as a conservatoire of music. It was dedicated to Pope Paul V, one of the more restrained Borghese family Popes, though there’s still a sense that those overblown fruits were alluding to the culture of excess in the papal palace across the way during previous centuries.

If you’ve read The Lantern, you’ll know important the landscape and the fruits of the land are to the story, and what they represent. Among all the blog reviews I’ve had the pleasure of reading over the past few months, are some that have really engaged with this aspect of the novel. A lovely one that came out this week, on Reading the Past by Sarah Johnson, from which I quote this paragraph:

 “Reflecting the bounty of the land, the language is ripe and sensual (tomatoes are "as ribbed and plump as harem cushions"). The regional specialties, like vin de noix – sweet walnut liqueur – sound mouth-wateringly delicious. Armchair travelers will revel in Lawrenson’s lush descriptions of the lavender harvest, an event in which Bénédicte participates in order to share the experience with her blind sister, Marthe, who grows up to be a renowned parfumeuse. The cycle of life is evoked in full, from birth and growth through death and decay – as it affects local crops, the structure of Les Genévriers, and the affairs of its human inhabitants.”

Click here to read the whole review.


Throughout August and into this month, The Lantern has been on an internet blog tour run by TLC. There are all sorts of views and reviews, which you can access by clicking here to the blog list.




Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mirabelles and decadence


mirabelles, the tart orange plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest green leaves
                                                                        From The Lantern

Late summer in Provence, and the garden orchards are full of plums. The mirabelles - smaller than they look in these - have a very distinct sweet-sour taste. When you cook with them they suck in more sugar than you ever intended and still never lose their tartness. You can pluck them off the tree and eat, and the first one is delicious and unusual, but somehow you don't want another - not right away, anyway.

They are beginning to wrinkle on the branch, testament both to glorious plenty, and their status as an acquired taste. Actually, mirabelles are fantastic with cheese, but we've had a brake on too much cheese and red wine this year, as it's just too easy to carry on eating and drinking long past reason!



The plums we grab in passing, and then go back for more, are the greengages. These are both crisp and sweet, and rarely blemished or invaded by insects. What bliss, when you feel a bit peckish, to wander down to the terrace with the old fruit trees and pick a few handfuls - all organic, of course, as the gardening chez nous so far consists only of cutting back when we can't see out.



Earlier in the summer are the superb wild plums: pink outside, peach inside. Like the greengages, they are beautifully crisp but sweet. I can't understand why our local friends dismiss them with a flap of the hand as 'les sauvages', wild fruit one step up from weeds. These are the ones I like best, especially the fruit from the trees no bigger than saplings that grow from a pile of stones.



The second year we were here, before the land was cleared to drain a boggy area, I was picking the plums here with an old friend, filling a huge bowl together as we pushed our way deeper into a messy clump of trees, when we found the remains of an old wooden cart that must once have been used on the farm.

Wherever you are here, there's evidence of what has gone before. For so many years, poor farming families and their tenants lived in places like this. Life was hard, but rich in natural produce. Now, many of these properties are owned by wealthy incomers, who are used to buying their food from supermarkets - food often sourced from vast distances - and it seems decadent to be able to reach out and take a  plum straight from the bough. And know that what is really decadent is the sea of plenty that will have to be left for the birds and the squirrel-like loir and the insects, whereas in years gone by it would all have been carefully preserved to last through the coming harsh winter.
  

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Circle of life: The professor, the painter, the musician and me


Yet another of life’s mysterious circles. My life always seems to abound in connections and coincidences, and here is the latest. My New York publishers (rather rashly) sent a review copy of The Lantern to the eminent author, art historian and literary critic Mary Ann Caws, who is currently Distinguished Professor of English, French and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of City University in New York.

Well, not only did she like it, but I am honoured and delighted that she wrote the following review which generously highlights points of comparison between her work as a translator and summer life in Provence, and Eve’s story in the novel. She also asked me a few questions, and posted the interview on her blog, New York, Provence, Poetry (click here).

It turns out that she too knows the artist Julian Merrow-Smith, whose marvellous, luminous paintings have often adorned these pages, and his wife Ruth Phillips, the ‘cellist and writer. So, as I never need much excuse to include a Merrow-Smith picture and direct you to his Shifting Light daily painting blog (click here), the illustrations on this post are from his recent archive: High Lavender and Lavender Field in the Drôme.

Here is Mary Ann’s review:

"I have just finished an advance copy of Deborah Lawrenson's The Lantern, about the Luberon and Cassis, near me in my summers and both etched in my mind and writings -- and the too-good-to-be-trueness of a relationship -- and essentially about the haunting of a place and a self by a memory, or several. Living my summers, as I do, in a It Had To Be Fixed house, that is, my cabanon that has seen 300 years of life, and death, and horses and peasants and, now, us, every page spoke to me of much. The descriptions are, each one, themselves a haunting -- the smell of lavender and of almond biscuits, the taste of the various winds in their howling and their gentleness, the sight of the squirrel-like loirs or dormice scuttling about and dislodging the tiles on the roof.

The narrator, one of the heroines, if you see it like that, is a translator (me too), and so her sense of words is terribly acute-- perhaps that explains the haunting quality of not just the lavender scent so permeating throughout,but of the exactness of the language bringing it all into presence. It is particularly moving for me on two accounts: because I live there in  my summers, and know every inch of that sight and smell. The second is that my great friends, the cellist Ruth Phillips (daughter of another friend, Tom Phillips, painter, translator, knower of many things) and her husband, the painter Julian Merrow-Smith, have both produced recently two volumes equally baked in Provence, the Provence to which I am  so passionately committed, and they are present in my reading and seeing of anything about this countryside and mindscape. Julian's paintings, one done each day and many appearing in his Postcard from Provence, and Ruth's Cherries from Chauvet's Orchard (both published by the Red Ochre Press at the Hameau des Cougieux in Bedoin -- a village exactly 7 kilometers from my cabanon) are with me now in New York, preserving what I most love about the Vaucluse. Keeping its scent and its sight: although The Lantern turns about a blind woman, who becomes the "nose" of a perfume establishment which has the whiff of present-day L'Occitane...I can smell her creation, "Lavande de Nuit" now, even here. It will last the winter."
 



Mary Ann Caws (born 1933) is an American author, art historian and literary critic.
She is currently a Distinguished Professor of English, French and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is an expert on Surrealism and modern English and French literature, having written biographies of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James. She works on the interrelations of visual art and literary texts, has written biographies of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, edited the diaries, letters, and source material of Joseph Cornell. She has also written on André Breton, Robert Desnos, René Char, Yves Bonnefoy, Robert Motherwell, and Edmond Jabès. She served as the senior editor for the HarperCollins World Reader, and edited anthologies on Manifestos - Isms, Surrealism, Twentieth Century French Literature. Among others, she has translated Stéphane Mallarmé, Tristan Tzara, Pierre Reverdy, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and René Char.
Among the positions she has held are President, Association for Study of Dada and Surrealism, 1971-75 and President, Modern Language Association of America, 1983, Academy of Literary Studies, 1984-5, and the American Comparative Literature Association, 1989-91.
In October 2004, she published her autobiography, To the Boathouse: a Memoir (University Alabama Press), and in November 2008, a cookbook memoir: "Provencal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France" (Pegasus Books).
 
If you would like to find out more about the Surrealist Movement, there is an excellent introduction here on Artsy.net.




Saturday, 27 August 2011

The author's view


It has been an amazing few weeks since The Lantern was published in the US and Canada. Reviews have flooded in, including some wonderful write-ups in the Washington Post (here), USA Today (here) and the Chicago Tribune (here). I can’t tell you how thrilling it has been to receive the links in my email inbox.

There have also been a plethora of opinions and lovely reviews online, the links to some of my personal favourites I will include at the end of this post. What is endlessly fascinating is how readers react so differently to the same book. For some it’s too slow, while others enjoy the dreamy pace. Some think it lacks true Gothic elements and has no twist to offer at the end; others are chilled by the quiet near-realism of the ending. Some think there’s too little plot; others see the weave as an intriguing story that drew them in. A few think I’ve simply stolen Daphne du Maurier’s most famous work.

The truth is that we all read according to our own interests, experience and preconceptions. In the months I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve tried to match pictures to words and to show the background of the book without really suggesting how to interpret the story. What lies beneath, in other words. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my view of The Lantern.


On a subtle level The Lantern is a novel about reading and stories and words. Is it too descriptive, using too many varied adjectives? Maybe, but the narrator Eve is a translator: words, and the precise choice of them, matter to her. The control of language, for her, means stability and rational understanding of her surroundings and situation when it seems she might otherwise be losing control.

Eve is a shy bookworm, whose comfort zone is reading. But her new life cut off from family and friends, coupled with mounting uncertainty about Dom, only sends her to books that exacerbate her dread, until she is not sure whether she is imagining the worst because she is influenced by the stories she is reading, or whether she is more accepting than she should be because she is seeing real life through the gauze of literature.

It is also a novel about spirits and ghosts and the histories held all around us, both in the obvious sense of the atmosphere of the run-down old house, and the ghosts of Eve and Dom’s own past that will not settle. Is Les Genévriers haunted, or are these psychological manifestations? And, just as there are always echoes of the past life of old houses, there are always echoes of earlier stories in literature.

In The Lantern, there is a clear line that stretches back through Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece Jane Eyre, the classic English gothic novel of the house, the man and the first wife…

Why set the novel in Provence? Remember Mr Rochester’s request of Jane (which she refuses) that they live together as man and wife in the South of France even though they cannot be legally married because his wife is still alive. Beyond Jane Eyre is the Bluebeard legend: the old French tale of a new young wife whose husband refuses to tell her what became of his previous wives, but she realises that the answer lies behind a locked door of his castle.

Bénédicte, as an elderly woman alone on the hill, becomes the subject of speculation and stories heard and embellished by trespassing village children. Behind the brightness of the Provençal countryside are dark tales told by farmers and shepherds, retold in books by the writer Jean Giono and read by both Bénédicte and Eve. Then there are the partial, apparently interrupted stories told by Rachel, and discovered by Eve.

The Lantern is also about isolation. Eve and Dom insulate themselves from the modern world in their own dream cocoon. Bénédicte lives on alone at Les Genévriers, the young girl who has become an isolated old woman whom others call crazy. Marthe is isolated by her blindness. In such circumstances, small details become large.

At times when the characters seem detached from the reality, their state of mind or interpretation of a situation is mirrored in their descriptions of the landscape. In a very obvious example, Eve and Dom travel to Davos for a skiing trip, but Dom will not admit what is troubling him - while all around is the cold, hard white dazzle of a frozen world.

Both the novel’s past and present voices are first-person narrators; both are courageous, loyal and self-contained in their different situations. (Perhaps on some psychic level, there is a mutual recognition of this.) Although they do admit to fear and anger, for the most part their emotions are buried, but surface in the way they see what is around them, in their descriptions of nature, the house and the landscape. To Eve, in the first flush of love, the property seems to expand around them, with the infinite possibilities of blue horizon beyond. Later, the walnuts fall from the tree “like fat brown tears”.

This detachment and displacement is echoed in loss of one sense and the subsequent need to compensate by using others more acutely. The idea of writing a “sensory novel” (which luxuriates in descriptions of all five senses) grew from this. How do you capture music, or fragrance, or texture, or taste in words? The challenge was to try to write visual descriptions might be vivid if heard by a blind person, or scent descriptions that might come alive through the sight of words on a page.


Here are just a very few of the blog reviews that have put a wide smile on my face. I’ve posted others on the book’s Facebook page (here). If you’ve enjoyed the book, do consider “Liking” and joining us – apart from anything else, interaction is much easier over there.

Nomadreader (click here)
The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog (click here)
Cornflower Books (click here)
The Lost Entwife (click here)
Rundpinne (click here)
Devourer of Books - Audio (click here)
Amusing Reviews (click here)

Monday, 22 August 2011

Dog days of August


The days start by casting lemon-bright sunshine through the wooden shutters. The sky is cloudless. By ten o'clock, the heat is rising and all freshness has gone. This is the "canicule", the heavy heat of late summer when all you want to do is plunge into this:


Or find a shady spot where the warm pines release their scent...


...to drift away with a good book - this is Seek My Face by John Updike (so far, so very good)...


All this gentle activity is interspersed with some lovely food, with the emphasis on fresh fruit picked from the trees and vegetables from a local market. Some ice-cold wine...then, after dusk, a wander off to one of the many village fetes - not fetes in the British sense, but three-day parties in the main square under plane trees strung up with lights, and dancing to a live band.


Last weekend, the party was at Viens. The same band, to our certain knowledge, returns year after year. The line-up has changed since those days in the 1980s when a high point was their rendition of George Michael's "Car'less Whis-perr" ("Gill-ti feet 'ave go' no rhyt-hem") and songs from the perennial French love affair with the Rolling Stones. There are dancing girls too, in extraordinary - and occasionally risque - costumes. The whole village turns out, young and old. The children jig around, while their grandparents swoop around to the tango and passo doble and show they've still got the moves.


Friday, 19 August 2011

Wild flower meadows


                …wild flowers in meadows, the wind’s plainsong in the trees…

Most years, by the third week of August, the grass of a hillside garden in the Luberon would be an expanse of close-cropped straw, dried and baked in the sun. But this year, June and July were suprisingly stormy and a great deal wetter than normal, with the result that our garden has become a series of wildflower meadows. And as the idea is to relax and go with the flow in summer, we have left them to bloom.

Butterflies are flitting around from one flower to the next, and bees are busy on their rounds too. Sitting under a shady tree is to be surrounded by humming and buzzing and constant movement.


Just as Dom predicted: comfrey and meadow clary, autumn squill, watercolor blue chicory in scrubby clumps and scabious.


Here is the vibrant blue meadow clary. A sturdy form of pale blue chicory is everywhere, as is the wild geranium and cow parsley. I do love the old-fashioned names of wild flowers. Who named them, the jack-go-to bed-at-noon, the march pennywort, the ladies mantle and the enchanter's nightshade? They all seem to hold the history of country language and folk tales.

…the butterflies on meadow flowers and the scrubby spikiness of the land underfoot as we chased them…



Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Vote for The Lantern!


The TV Book Club summer read series is coming to a close, and there has been a vote running for the favourite book of the season. Now, I don't really like to ask (though my UK publishers have strongly suggested that I do...) but if you've read and enjoyed The Lantern, and you felt it was appropriate, and you felt so inclined, then I'd be very grateful for your vote on the following link (here). It's very straightforward, no joining of a site or anything, and you will have the chance of winning book tokens worth £100 thanks to Specsavers. But you will need to be quick as the vote closes in the next few days.

Here again are the edited highlights from the TV Book Club discussion. We all thought that the panel's verdict was overwhelmingly positive, apart from Rory McGrath's objection to too many descriptive terms - fair comment, actually, which would have alerted those who like their prose plain that this might not be the novel for them - and a few so-so quips from Jo Brand. And the lovely book group in Winkwell seemed unanimously to enjoy it, even the men who thought they might not.


Alors, mes amis, over to you...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The courtyard door


The photograph of the courtyard door on my post ‘Rooms we didn’t know were there’, prompted visual artist Ruby Elizabeth Littlejohn to comment: “The weathered colours and textures are incredibly beautiful.” Indeed they are.

I can see exactly why these images would appeal to her. Her art blog Forest Dream Weaver is full of natural delights which she transforms into inspirational wall hangings and paintings. What is especially appealing is the way she shows us the way she takes scenes and shapes, textures and colours from nature and weaves them into her own unique vision.

If you haven’t discovered her yet, I suggest you clickety-click (here) for a sample of her work and how it evolves, and (here) for just the most exquisite representation of rowan blossom you are ever likely to see, from fine detail to its place in the landscape.


As for the art-in-nature on this old courtyard door, this is one of those times when you hold back from re-painting because the old is so delightful. The knobbly iron nails have their own quiet integrity. The weathered sea-green paint has grown moss stains. Dried remains of venerable ivy have the air of fossils and the grain of the wood is so split and sun-blasted that it seems almost as if the wood is gradually resuming its origins as a tree.



Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Lantern - out now!


Very exciting times here, as The Lantern goes on sale in the USA and Canada. What you will see (I hope!) is its subtly mysterious cover and, with any luck, be reminded it was a book that might prove interesting. From my point of view, it is a thrilling moment tinged with some concern that it won’t repay my publishers’ faith in it, but mostly joyous amazement that I finally made it across the Atlantic with my sixth novel to be published.

And also a great deal of gratitude for what has gone on behind the scenes: first of all to my magnificent literary agent Stephanie Cabot, whom I first met in London when she was head of the august William Morris Agency. My great friend Felicia – who knew her – told me in no uncertain terms to stop flailing about and go for the top. I’m so pleased I dared, and have been for a long time now. What was even better was that Stephanie never even saw the letter I’d sent with my book, The Art of Falling, telling her that we had a connection – she called me in for a meeting because she liked the book.

Stephanie is now back in New York at The Gernert Company, where Rebecca Gardner, Will Roberts and Anna Worrell have also worked tirelessly in my behalf.


I was so, so lucky that The Lantern found its perfect editor at HarperCollins, in Jennifer Barth. Despite having been published before, I was not prepared for the infinite care and understanding that Jennifer gave my words, and the way we would work together with such productive empathy. I simply can’t praise her highly enough.

Also at HarperCollins, Jason Sack, Mark Ferguson and Olga Gardner Galvin have done a fantastic job. Many, many thanks too to Kathy Schneider, Tina Andreadis, Leah Wasielewski, Tiffany Woo, and the magnificent library team led by Virginia Stanley and Kayleigh George.

When I went to New York for BEA this May, I was introduced to the whirlwind that is Katherine Beitner, the publicist for the book, who not only kept me up to date with everything going on around us, and made sure everything went like clockwork, but kept me laughing and relaxed thoughout. I knew she was good – very good – but I had no idea she was going to get reviews of The Lantern in the Wall Street Journal and Oprah’s magazine, in Redbook magazine, and, astonishingly, in the past few days: USA Today (click here) and now as the lead book review in this week’s People magazine! (Not available online, sadly.) Katherine, I salute you - what a star!  

So there you are, so many more people that I haven’t mentioned by name, including the all-important Harper sales teams, who are behind one small book. Whoever would have thought all this would happen, when I sat down at my desk nearly three years ago to start writing a quiet but disturbing story about a shy, bookish young woman who finds herself living in France with a gorgeous but strangely secretive older man…? Certainly not me.

So it’s over to the readers now. I so hope you find things to enjoy in it, and that you’ll let me know if you do.


Monday, 8 August 2011

Rooms we didn't know were there


A lopsided stone arch at the end of the main house, which would once have let carts into the courtyard…
                                                     From The Lantern

Come with me, I want to show you something. Here’s the entrance arch to “Les Genévriers”, slightly askew but remarkably solid, but we won’t go through there just now. We’re walking behind the main farmhouse, heading down the alleyway which was once a centuries-old path up the hill from the town far below.


          …the alleyway between the big house and the row of workers’ cottages.

In the building on the right is the place where a dream first came true, in the most literal sense. I’m a big dreamer, in every way – a daydreamer and a cineaste by night. One scene that recurs quite often for me, in various dream guises, is that of walking through a house where I live and finding rooms I never suspected were there.

Perhaps you have that one too. I don’t think it’s all that unusual. I read once it was supposed to signify personal development and the subconscious acknowledgement of more potential if certain areas of the mind could only be unlocked. In my dreams, it’s always a fascinating and welcome discovery, anyway.


When we bought our property in France, it was the rambling nature of the buildings that appealed immediately. As described fairly faithfully in The Lantern, it is more than a simple house: it is an old hamlet. We had seen it twice before we signed the purchase documents, once inside and out with the vendor’s agent and a second time inspecting the outside only, rather less officially.

There was certainly an element of reckless folie de grandeur about our purchase of the place, but we had fallen under its spell and there was no going back. We’d half-joked for years that top of our material wish-list would be a ruined hamlet in the Luberon, and suddenly – totally unexpectedly - here it was, and what’s more, in what we considered the ideal location. If we hadn’t gone for it, we would have regretted our lack of courage for evermore.

Arriving that first July, ready for adventure, we quickly realized that the main farmhouse was well-nigh uninhabitable. There were ominous cracks right across the floor of the top storey and the remaining bedrooms were cramped and full of dead lizards and insects. So the first summer – and for a few years afterwards - we slept in the building across the alleyway. This long edifice was once a line of farm workers’ cottages but already converted into two apartments. At the end was another small locked house (with no key) that we had never seen inside.


The woodworm-y entrance door to the downstairs apartment leads into a little sitting room. A large high-ceilinged bedroom is a few steps below, and there is a bathroom with wonderful views and its own outside terrace.


We’d been sleeping in the bedroom for several nights before I thought to investigate what I thought must be another cupboard, tucked away down another short flight of stairs, that I’d never even noticed when the estate agent showed us round.


The wooden door was truly small, but on the other side was a fair sized room. It was damp and full of cobwebs, but thrilling nevertheless. If you’ve ever lived in a city, you know that rooms just don’t get missed off property details. But here it was – the room we never knew was there.


            …the doors that opened into new rooms that hadn’t seemed to exist.

As it turned out, it was only the first such discovery, as we hacked down the overgrown garden and rampant ivy and the buildings seemed to expand organically around us. The garden door that led not to a tool store but a vaulted wine cave stretching under the courtyard, still with its old – empty! – barrels, was even more exciting. The locked house at the end of the alleyway eventually yielded to force and gave up its terrible stench of drains and ancient lintels and shallow stone wash basin.

When I look back now, that time does take on a dream quality, more so because it did feel as if we were doing something more than slightly crazy. But along the way we have gained far more than extra rooms. We’ve found that a dream really can come true – maybe more than one.       

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