Sunday, 22 November 2015

The source of the Loire

I've had a busy ten days, seeing old friends and newer friends, and trying to keep to my goal of 5,000 words a week while juggling other commitments. Under it all, like everyone who loves France, I've also been struggling to come to terms with the Paris atrocities, though I won't be putting the tricolour over my facebook avatar. I would rather simply carry on, celebrating the strength of the country and its people.

The stately Loire river...most people, when they think it, will visualise the châteaux at Chinon and Saumur, Blois, Angers, Amboise, Nantes and Orléans, those grand stone fairytales rising from the gentle banks. But then, last month, I found myself in the Auvergne region south of the Massif Central, and was amazed to discover that the Haute Loire was on the doorstep. I had no idea the river rose so far south. So, in the grand tradition of exploration, we set off to find the source.

Autumn colours were beginning to take a grip on the hillsides south of Le Puy-en-Vélay. It was cold and a bit grey, but the road wound through some pretty countryside. We hardly passed another vehicle as we headed for Mont Gerbier de Jonc in the southern Cevennes hills within the department of the Ardèche. The temperature dropped fast as we climbed.
There came a point when the road was a white-out in freezing fog, and we wondered whether this was such a good idea after all. Then we emerged, and followed a logging truck for a while along otherwise lonely roads. The sign for Gerbier de Jonc was barely visible, but a café provided a parking place, and the promise of hot chocolate. To the side, steps were cut in the slope:
Leading to this snowy vantage point...
And the first glimpse of the conical summit from which the springs emerge to start a mighty river:
As I say, a very long way from the Loire that we think we know, seen below at the Château de Chenonceau. And a tough landscape in winter. But the French are like that: tough underneath, where it counts.


Monday, 9 November 2015

Autumn escapade II

The second day of our autumn road trip down to Provence and on to the Parisot literary festival took us south past Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, to the pretty riverside village of Lavoûte-sur-Loire. Who would have thought the Loire flowed quite as far south as this?

The village is hidden away in a valley north of Le-Puy-en-Velay, and we were lucky enough to find the most delightful B & B in an old mill: Les délices de Lavoûte. As the photos show, it was a damp, grey day October day, but the warmth of the welcome from owners Florence and Frédérique dispelled any lingering chill.

The mill sits on the banks of the young Loire, surrounded by gardens, trees and water. Inside, a log fire blazed and the room we were shown was spacious and charming. As in Honfleur, a lot of thought had been put into creating an interesting and quirky ambiance, like these seasonal displays on the walkway into the building.
Best of all, we could stay for dinner, as the ladies offer a Table d'hôtes where guests can eat together in the evening. We had a fine supper with a French/Dutch family, found out that the establishment is also a patisserie, and slept like logs. Breakfast was a special treat, with homemade bread and rolls, as well as jams and delicious fruit salad.
In the daylight, we could see the view from the dining room: the misty Loire meandering north under the bridge. It gave us an idea... (To be continued.)  
Les délices de Lavoûte B & B is a lovely discovery. Highly recommended. Click here for their website.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Autumn escapade

Back at my desk in misty, damp Kent. And with no more excitement on the horizon apart from the leap in the dark of starting a new novel, I thought I'd rewind a bit and show you at bit more of our French escapade. This was the first stop: medieval Honfleur on the northern coast, and the very pretty Cour Sainte Catherine B &B. Typical Normandy architecture marries to a quirky sense of style in what was once a collection of buildings, including a priest's house, attached to a seventeenth century convent.
I particularly liked the red apples on the grey table. The morning rain adds a sheen. Here, a courtyard tree is painted red, and set off with matching table and chairs. Can you imagine how delightful it would be to sit here in better weather?
At night the harbour is atmospheric and restaurants crowd round the water, a short walk away.
The website for the Cour Sainte Catherine is here. Just be careful when trying to reach it through the narrow streets in your car, as we found to our cost. Treat every turning with caution!

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Parisot literary festival


I’ve been away, to a literary festival. Now that it’s safely over, I can confess: this wasn’t just the first time I have ever spoken at a literary festival, it was the first time I have even been to one. 

There was a time when only rock stars toured the festival circuit. Writers stayed at home clutching their heads and crumpling paper, venturing out to a bookstore on special occasions. But now there’s a whole book festival world out there, a roaring express of big names and bestsellers. I knew it existed, but I was always the slightly bewildered passenger waiting on the platform for the stopping train as it rushed through.

So, many months ago, when I was asked to Festilitt, an extraordinary small Anglo-French festival in Parisot, south-west France, I jumped on board. I was so thrilled to be asked that I forgot that I’m one of those writers who is more comfortable with words on the page than speaking them in front of an audience of strangers. I was even more thrilled – though the nerves tightened - when it was announced over the summer that Helen Dunmore, Kate Mosse and the French novelist Daniel Crozes were headlining a programme that included the historian and famous whistleblower Clive Ponting; Francophile novelist Amanda Hodgkinson; two prodigious young ones: novelist Sara Taylor and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders; and a creative writing masterclass with Greg Mosse.

It’s a tribute to the lightning rod that is festival founder Gina Connolly, that a tiny village in the Tarn-et-Garonne can draw such a prestigious gathering.


Rob and I decided to drive back down to the South of France, spending a week or so beforehand in the Luberon, sorting out the house for the winter and relaxing. There had been a lot to do since we left Provence in September, including getting our daughter off to university, and the sad business of clearing and finalising the sale of my late parents’ house.

As it turned out, it was a trip full of mixed blessings. The car tyre blow-out we had on the autoroute an hour south of Calais was mitigated by the lucky chance that it happened just as we were passing a rest “aire” and we were able to limp right off the motorway. Our specialist tyres weren’t stocked by any local dealers, but the second tyre merchant we tried in Abbeville happened to have a secondhand one of the right dimensions, for which they refused to accept payment, only charging for the labour of fitting it.

We made it to Honfleur that night, then managed to get stuck – literally - in a maze of narrow medieval streets. At a doll-sized T-junction, the car ended up with a bollard embedded in its side and it took several pedestrians and me, out of the car, giving instructions centimetre by centimetre before Rob could free it and turn.

In Provence, as sometimes happens when you start to relax, I got a sore throat, then a full-blown cold. By Thursday, the coldy headache had turned to a dread migraine. Once set in, the worst of my migraines can last for two weeks. But I have had far fewer this year, so “Why now?” I was wailing.

On Friday morning, we packed up the house and set off for Parisot. I will draw a veil over the panic in an Avignon traffic jam when we realised there were two Parisots: one in the Tarn and the other in Tarn-et-Garonne. The sun blazed down. Works on the autoroute around Montpellier produced gridlock. We drove faster and faster but arrived in Parisot, Tarn-et-Garonne, too late for the opening events. (If you click on the photo here - or any of the photos on my blog - it will enlarge.)

Glued together with strong migraine pills after a sleepless night in our B & B, I arrived in what was clearly the right Parisot the next morning for my talk in the Salle des Fêtes at 10.30am. The moment I met the indomitable Gina, I knew it was going to be all right. A couple of my blog friends, Vanessa and Evelyn, had turned out for my session, and it was lovely to meet them in person.

The subject of my talk was the sense of place, especially in my books set in France. I stood up, took a deep breath and began. I noticed, to my horrified delight, that Helen Dunmore was in the audience. When I sat down to answer questions – and great questions they were, too – I was flying. 

At lunch afterwards at the restaurant La Castille, I was still on a roll, and my head was holding steady. The rest of the weekend, I was on that literary festival express train. Helen Dunmore spoke movingly about the aftermath of the First World War and her exploration of that ambiguous time in her novel The Lie. Dinner was held for all the participants, French and Anglophone, in nearby Castanet. The next morning the hall was packed with both groups for Ella Frances Sanders and her charming Lost in Translation, illustrations of fascinating untranslatable words.

The montage above includes a quick drawing by French artist Peyrine to illustrate a scene from my novel The Sea Garden - the Resistance in action!

By the time I sat next to Greg Mosse at lunch on Sunday, I was getting distinctly used to the high life, in all senses. I fear prescription drugs, excitement and a few glasses of steadying rosé may have made me a bit hyper, but what the hell - I was enjoying myself.
What was so lovely about the Parisot Literary Festival was its friendliness and sense of camaraderie that encompassed us all: writers, readers and the fantastic organisers and local writing group. It was small enough to keep bumping into people and continuing conversations. So thank you Gina and Paul, Liz, Anita, Peyrine, Debra, Maggie, Michelle and everyone involved both on-stage and off. Rob and I had a fantastic time with you all – and the conversation indeed lasted all the way up through France and home on the cross-channel ferry.    


Friday, 16 October 2015

Be one of the first to read!

Faro, Portugal, setting for the opening of my forthcoming novel, 300 Days of Sun. Over on my facebook page, HarperCollins US are offering the chance for three readers to win an very early copy of the book, in bound galley proof. If you're on facebook, please do check it out. The book is going to look beautiful and here are some photos to set the scene and a taster of what's inside, from (almost) the start:

I met Nathan Emberlin in Faro, southern Portugal, in August 2014.

At first, I thought he was just another adventurous young man, engaging but slightly immature. His beautiful sculpted face held a hint of vulnerability, but that ready smile and exuberant cheekiness eased his way, as did the radiant generosity of his spirit, so that it wasn’t only women who smiled back; people of all ages warmed to Nathan, even the cross old man who guarded the stork’s nest on the lamppost outside the tobacconist’s shop.

Yes, he appeared from nowhere – but then, so did we all. I didn’t go to Faro to get a story. That summer, I was on the run, or so it felt; I was trying to consign an awkward episode to my own past, not to get entangled in someone else’s. Besides, a lot of people I met in Faro were in the process of change, of expanding their horizons and aiming for a better life. The town was full of strangers and constant movement: planes overhead, roaring in and out of the airport across the shore; boats puttering in and out of the harbour; trains sliding between the road and the sea; buses and cars; pedestrians bobbing up and down over the undulating cobblestones.


The café, at least, was still. On the way to the language school, it had the presence and quiet grace of an ancient oak, rooted to its spot in the Rua Dr Francisco Gomes. The columns and balustrades of its once-grand fin-de-siècle façade had an air of forgotten romance that was hard to resist. I pushed against its old-style revolving door that first morning simply because I was curious to see inside.


I went up to the main counter, into an aromatic cloud of strong coffee, where a group of men knotted over an open newspaper. The barman, wiping his hands on an apron that was none too clean, seemed to be engaged in voicing his opinion and was in no hurry to serve me.

Photographs of old Faro were set into wooden panelling: black and white scenes of a fishing community, of empty roads and dusty churches. The argument at the bar counter intensified, or that’s what it sounded like. It’s not always possible to tell in a foreign language. It might just be excitability. But some words were easy to understand.
Contra a natureza. Anorma. Devastador.
So, if you'd like to be one of the first to read on, there's still time to get your name in the draw. Good luck - and I'd love to know what you think. The publisher's catalog copy is here, and we've had the first blurb from the lovely and very generous Erika Robuck, author of the fab Hemingway's Girl and The House of Hawthorne among other seriously good reads:
"With its lush settings, high-stakes suspense, and novel-within-a-novel, 300 DAYS OF SUN delivers a labyrinth of complex relationships the reader is both breathless to solve and eager to return to upon completion. I lost sleep reading this fabulous, haunting novel."

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Cover reveal: 300 Days of Sun

Ta-da...isn't it glorious? I am very happy indeed. The picture shows the dramatic rocks on the Algarve coast in southern Portugal, where the novel is set - and I hope it makes you want to plunge into the book as well as that sea.

The scratchy, scuffed effect and the lettering reminiscent of the 1950s is perfectly in tune with the story, too. Central to the action is a book published in 1954, written by a young American woman married to a foreign correspondent, based on her experience of wartime Lisbon, her travels in the south, and the aftermath of a time when the Allies and the Nazis faced each other across the casino tables and restaurants of supposedly neutral Portugal.

It's a story about borders and the transforming effects of crossing them, either willingly or unwillingly; the way altered geography and shifts of power change our lives. As I wrote, the story took on a thriller-ish feel, which made it exciting to write. Above all, there's a strong sense of place and atmosphere, with an evocation of a dangerous yet fascinating era.

Before publication - which is not until April 2016 - I will post up the start and various extracts, but for now I will leave you with the HarperCollins catalogue introduction. Fingers crossed it leaves you enticed.

Combining the atmosphere of Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins with the intriguing historical backstory of Christina Baker Kline’s The Orphan Train, Deborah Lawrenson’s mesmerizing novel transports readers to a sunny Portuguese town with a shadowy past—where two women, decades apart, are drawn into a dark game of truth and lies that still haunts the shifting sea marshes.

Traveling to Faro, Portugal, journalist Joanna Millard hopes to escape an unsatisfying relationship and a stalled career. Faro is an enchanting town, and the seaside views are enhanced by the company of Nathan Emberlin, a charismatic younger man. But beneath the crumbling façade of Moorish buildings, Joanna soon realizes, Faro has a seedy underbelly. And Nathan has an ulterior motive for seeking her company: he is determined to discover the truth involving a child’s kidnapping that may have taken place on this dramatic coastline over two decades ago.

Joanna’s subsequent search leads her to Ian Rylands, an English expat who cryptically insists she will find answers in The Alliance, a novel written by American Esta Hartford. The book recounts an American couple’s experience in Portugal during World War II, and their entanglements both personal and professional with their German enemies. Only Rylands insists the book isn’t fiction, and as Joanna reads deeper into The Alliance, she begins to suspect that Esta Hartford’s story and Nathan Emberlin’s may indeed converge in Faro -- where the past not only casts a long shadow but still exerts a very present danger. 

Barnes & Noble: 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Sanary - so not St Tropez

I've been away the past week, a working break on the Côte d'Azur, if that doesn't sound too implausible. An old fishing village on the shores of the Mediterranean is such an old cliché that these days it almost always means millionaires on yachts and bronzed stick insects dripping in bling. But not always. Sanary-sur-Mer is still a working fishing town as well as a jolly holiday place for the more down-to-earth French.

I really was working. The page proofs of the new novel, 300 Days of Sun, had to be painstakingly checked, mistakes hunted down and sentences forensically assessed. With the house full of visitors again, I couldn't see how it would get done, so this was my answer. Work in the morning, sun in the afternoon.

It was great! I've never been away specifically to work on my own before, and I like it. Rather too much, perhaps. Previous brief visits to Sanary had intrigued me. It seemed friendly, with a lovely atmosphere, and is pretty as a picture. It has some lively literary connections, too, which are always interesting. Thomas Mann lived here in the 1930s, and Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World just out of town along the coast. D H Lawrence found some easing of his tuberculosis here, and Sybille Bedford - a wonderful writer who deserves to be better known - wrote Jigsaw, her "unsentimental education" among the wild and eccentric bohemians in the twenties and thirties in Sanary.

A short walk down a tree-lined, almost suburban, street to the west of the port was the pretty Portissol beach, where the water can change colour from pale grey-green to deep blue.
I even took the train along the coast to La Ciotat one day, as I've had the glimmering of an idea for yet another novel and wanted to do some research. Another afternoon, I took a boat trip to the calanques at Cassis and beyond.
At night, there were unpretentious restaurants by the harbour where I felt perfectly happy eating on my own, watching the world go by and the night market being set up. After that, there were various bands and other free entertainments that sprang up along the esplanade. As I told the family when I got back, having completed my list of changes to the proofs and sent them off to New York yesterday morning before I left: it was a full week's work!
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