"Closed like a box-wood shutter," wrote the poet René Char, "An extreme and compact fortune is our mountain range, our compressing splendour." This closed wooden shutter is in Céreste, the village where Char lived when he was leader of a Resistance cell during the Second World War. Plain and simple on the surface, like Char's words, but with something intriguing about it - that dark grape colour; the deep tactile texture of sun-dried cracks in the wood: the planks are aged but solid, and hiding who knows what behind.
There are any number of metaphors it can stand for but right now, for me, it's the moment when I turn in on myself to return to the writing of a new book. At the beginning I stand outside, perhaps for quite some time, wondering what exactly I will discover. Though I have a few pre-conceived ideas of what lies inside the dark and dormant house of my imagination, I won't know what surprises are in store until I concentrate on entering. To sit at a desk and immerse myself is an adventure, a safe one, though it's always possible to lose control of events. And Char's mountain range can at times be there too, in the uphill battle to shape ideas and words into viable forms.
This summer in Provence I did my favourite kind of research: going to the places where a novel will be set, poking into corners and wandering with endless curiosity, though some might call it nosiness. I spend a couple of mornings in Céreste, exploring the winding streets. Another day I attended a little 'conference' under the plane trees which addressed the poets of the Resistance. It was all the more fun because I knew that sooner or later I would have to sit down and crack on - but I'd do so with a full scrapbook of notes and pictures for grey winter days.
This week I gave a talk about how I became a writer. It was a good time to think about what I was going to say, because I realised that I could do worse than to focus on what had really made the difference between wanting to write and be published, and being published. And then take my own advice.
The talk was held at an appropriate venue, The Poet at Matfield quite near where I live in Kent. It's a traditional old pub, now transformed into a fine restaurant. The eponymous poet was Siegfried Sassoon - born in Matfield, across the green from the pub - decorated soldier of the First World War and best known for poetry which exposed the horrors and stupidities of war.
When you read the works of men like Sassoon and Char, the experiences their words reflect, you realise that they set out all the important, the compelling subjects: life and death, love and betrayal, honour and dishonour, truth and lies. I should have said that while I was speaking, but I didn't. I was thinking more of what they inspire in a smaller, more personal way. Because a sense of purpose and determination is more use than high-mindedness.
And that was what I said. If it doesn't sound too trite in juxtaposition, you have to be determined to become a writer. You have to want to do it, and follow through. It's not just putting the words on the page either, it's about being sufficiently clear-sighted to junk what's not good enough. It's about reading widely to be able to gauge what's good and bad, always with a single aim in mind.
I've always been stubborn, but when it comes to writing I simply will not admit defeat. Which doesn't mean I think I'm always right - far from it. Sometimes it means admitting I've got something wrong and working like a demon to put it right, engine humming with determination to reach the happy ending of a decent published book. With this novel I'm experimenting a bit more with structure. I'm excited about it, and so far my publishers like the idea that it will be different. It may not work, but if at first you don't succeed... I'm going in.