The famous green boxes used by the Parisian bouquinistes
They have been designated a World Heritage Site status
I am deep in work at present, lost in the brambly mire of editorial notes on my still untitled novel due for publication in 2017. As well, I am also preparing or rather allowing to gestate the novel I am about to begin writing. I am not a Plotter. I start with grainy images of characters and places. Once I have a first instinct about what these people, this particular character - usually a woman – wants, I begin to trail her, as it were. What period am I traversing? Where are we? What is at stake for HER? The questions are endless. It goes back to my drama school days when I was taught to build the inner life of my character, the role I was rehearsing. "Get to know everything about her".
Agents and publishers like material they can sell, they can establish you with. In my case, in one broad word, it is FRANCE.
My six memoirs set on our Olive Farm in the South of France became international best sellers. They established me, as it were, as one of those Brits who had upped sticks and moved abroad, to France. A rather simplified summation of the facts, but never mind.
My agent is happy that he can sell the combination of moi and France.
But no one wants to write the same book over and over so I am always looking for new approaches, different angles for stories. And this is great fun.
My latest novel, published this year, THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, is set on a vineyard overlooking the Mediterranean somewhere not far from Cannes or St Raphael. There are also several scenes set in Paris. But at the heart of the book, where its dark family secret lies, I take the reader back to the last days of the Algerian War of Independence in 1962. The fallout when war is in its dying throes. The people who are affected by the retreat. Sometimes the characters might be victims, sometimes perpetrators. Right at the core of THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER is a choice, a decision taken when no other direction seemed possible.
The research involved a trip to Algeria – an expansive, varied and very beautiful country with many layers of its own fascinating history. I was fortunate because I had recently returned from a four week trip there for research on a previous book, a travel book: THE OLIVE TREE.
So powerful were the images and history of the country that they stayed with me; they haunted me until I decided to use them for THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER. The story took root within me and would not go away until I wrote it. I think it’s a fair claim that this is a good situation for a writer. The emptiness of no inspiration and the silent question: what on earth am I going to write about next? is not what any of us wants.
So, when I am inching towards that empty stage where, somewhere there, the next story is waiting to be told, I look about me in earnest, on the hunt as it were, for spoors, threads.
I make trips to brocantes – junk and antique stores - which in any case is a form of relaxation for me. I am searching for objects that might kickstart my imagination. I visit galleries and stare into paintings. I watch old movies.
A few weeks ago I drove to the edges of the Champagne region to visit a huge jumble yard; one I know quite well. It is so sprawling that usually I only stroll about the Art Deco or Art Nouveau sections or the garden furniture. But on this occasion I was trying to solve a writing problem and so just meandered about not really looking at anything. I found myself in the book section. This is a very fusty, dark room where lorry loads of books that have been collected from House Emptying expeditions are stacked in piles. There is no order to it; you just have to rummage. There I found in excellent condition a biography of Francois Truffaut, a director I greatly admire. It was a snip at 2 euros.
It took me back to an era of modern France that has always fascinated me. France in the late 60s and the 70s. An evocative period in which to set a novel. Last week, I was wandering the bouquiniste stalls in Paris and I spotted a rare black and white magazine hanging from a clothes peg on one of the stalls on the Left Bank. It was not a snip at 32 euros. Still, I couldn’t resist and bought it. It brought to life through pages of black and white photographs the period when Truffaut was making such films as Fahrenehit 451, Stolen Kisses ...
And so I have found a key, a door into my next novel.
Fascinatingly, an episode from my early past that I had completely forgotten until now was that in 1971 or 1972 I met Truffaut. He would have been about forty. He was in London casting, looking for the lead for the film that won him his Oscar for Best Foreign Film: La Nuit Americaine or Day for Night. I lost out to Jackie Bisset who was given the role. My French, Truffaut decided, was not sufficiently fluent.
And now here I am living in France, living my life in the French language, reading his biography in French. How life turns!
François Truffaut 1932 - 1984
Truffaut died at the age of fifty-two. Tragically young, but he has left behind him a body of masterpieces. He changed the direction of French cinema and his work acutely chronicles two generations of modern history.
He is buried in Montmartre.