Friday 28 September 2012

The Night Flight: work-in-progress

Where have the days gone? The week has passed in an instant as I went back to the work-in-progress, the long-awaited return to desk punctuated with visits from pleasant chaps, old favourites all, who keep our domestic show on the road: the electrician, the plumber, handyman and chimney sweep.

The house glitches have been mended and secured. A new bookcase has been installed in my study so that I can see my current research books clearly in the shelves instead of having to hunt for them in the piles on the floor. From now on, there’s no excuse for not putting my head down.

You know you love what you do when work, no matter how intense, never really feels like work. All week, I’ve been in a good mood. I haven’t even achieved that much yet, what with all the interruptions and chats over cups of tea, but as the decks have been cleared I’ve been assessing and reorganizing what I’ve already written.

In response to the lovely messages - and curiosity about the subject matter - both in blog comments and privately, here is a little taster of what’s on the desk. There’s France, and wartime, but also England, secrecy and romance, a Mediterranean island and an impossible task. The working title for the book is The Night Flight.

I’m intending to take a bit of a risk with the structure of this novel. Regular readers of this blog who are interested in writing might recall that I began writing this book last autumn. About 30,000 words in, I decided to concentrate some of the material into a novella as it seemed too much of a diversion from the main narrative.

The novella took shape, and the original idea – agreed with agents and publishers on both sides of the Atlantic – was that it could be published as a free e-book, a marketing come-on for the new full-length novel. By the time I’d done the story justice, this novella, The Lavender Field, was a bit longer than intended but I was pleased with it and had some lovely reactions from my usual early readers.

Then came a long wait to hear back, during which time I hesitated to get back to the main novel in case I was on the wrong track. During the summer I was contacted by the London publishers. They loved the novella and thought it was too good to give away (hurray!) - would I consider expanding it into a full-length novel? (hmm…) I thought about that for a while, but decided that what made it work was that it held the right amount of story in the right number of words. It’s fairly fast-paced with a dash of adventure and anything more would just be padding.

So here’s the solution, and I’d be very interested in your reaction to it: it this appealing or not? The idea is that the new novel will be ‘a novel in three stories’, each the length of the novella (which is about a third of a normal novel). Each story will focus on a different character who has been introduced in the previous one, and although there will be a satisfying, self-contained plot and characters in each, they will add up to a whole picture, from the past to the present.

The Lavender Field would form the first part. It’s the story of Marthe Lincel, the blind perfume creator in The Lantern: what really happened to her in wartime Manosque, omitted from her sister Bénédicte's narrative – perhaps because she never knew. Here’s a short blurb and the prologue as a taster:

"When Marthe Lincel leaves the school for the blind in Manosque for an apprenticeship at the local perfume factory during the Second World War, she has no idea that the Distillerie Musset is at the heart of a Resistance cell operating in Nazi-occupied Provence. As secret messages are passed in scent and planes land by moonlight on a plateau covered in lavender, danger comes ever closer." 


Provence, 1944

   Not a word should be said. The scent was the word.

   Each week it was the same routine with only minute variations: the girl caught the bus coming down from Digne, no different from any other nineteen year old with a job to do. The bus drew in under the plane trees in the village of Céreste and she alighted. By a bench where she placed her baskets for a moment, she reached into her shoulder bag for the perfume bottle and carefully dabbed her wrists, rubbing the scent up her arms just to make sure. Nothing suspicious about this, simply attention to detail; a charming advertisement for the Distillerie Musset, makers of soap and scent. A blue scarf secured her hair and she wore the lavender print apron she would wear to serve in the shop. Then she picked up her two heavy baskets and made her deliveries: one to the hotel, one to the doctor’s surgery and one to the general store. She walked purposefully but would stop for a few minutes to pass the time of day with occasional customers. Then, when her load was lighter, she went on to various houses around and beyond the village and finally arrived at the café.

   She would order a small glass of weak wine, a little food perhaps, and greet the regulars. Acknowledge the Gestapo officers or the Milice at the best tables. Drink the wine, turn to leave and then hesitate by the man reading the paper. Go over to the Germans to ask if they had any special requests, a present for a girl perhaps. Give them a heart-lifting smile. Take a few paces back to the table where the man sits with his newspaper. He’s always there, a little unkempt, smudging his glass with dirty hands. Sometimes he reads, sometimes he stares into space. They all know that his spirit is gone. He drinks too much. Ignore him. Let the scent give the message. It has warmed now on her skin thanks to all the walking, and is released in sweet pulses. Lavender: come to the farm. Rose: we have more men to move. Thyme: supplies needed urgently.

   Stand there to take a note of any orders from these men who enjoy their new powers so much. Be pleasant though all instincts are to spit in their faces.

   Then a walk across the road to wait for the return bus. She times it well, glancing up at the clock on the front face of the Mairie to check her watch is correct. She does not want to hang around too long, does not want the eyes of the men in the café to linger on her face and body. On the other hand she will not risk cutting it too fine and missing the bus. Just a nice normal pace, all the way there and back.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Writing and determination

"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.   

Thursday 20 September 2012

With the royals near Viens

In the fall-out from William and Kate's brief sojourn in Provence, a couple of things have been bothering me (not, not those...behave!). The royal couple probably wish they'd stayed in a real hideaway inside the medieval village of Viens, with its twisty enclosed streets and secret courtyards, or safe behind the strong iron bars of one of the beautiful strongholds like this one...
...rather than William's cousin Lord Linley's château up the road where the swimming pool terrace turned out to be rather more exposed.
It may be grandly named the "Château d'Autet" but the property, though a large house with attendant buildings, is a centuries-old hunting lodge with few features to distinguish it from the characteristic bastides all aroundsolid and imposing as they are. Still, I'm sure the name adds distinction for the wealthy holidaymakers who rent the place.
The other puzzlement on its website is the statement that David and Serena Linley were introduced to the area by Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. Again, is that just another marketing angle, to link it to a publishing phenomenon?
Because a little local knowledge tells me that David Linley was much more likely to have known the area through his own family. His mother Princess Margaret and father the Earl of Snowdon were great friends with the British entrepreneur and inventor Jeremy Fry, who had a summer home close to Oppedette, only a few kilometres away.
Fry's retreat was a formerly deserted hamlet called Le Grand Banc, hidden away on a hillside overlooking the gorge at Oppedette. In the sixties and seventies it was an artistic, intellectual and bohemian haven place for his many friends, including the Queen's sister and her husband and children. Nowadays, it is a small, very exclusive hotel - and the Gorge d'Oppedette cuts through the landscape in a natural barrier to even the most daring of photographers.
And Viens still has a bohemian vibe and a thriving artistic community, as I wrote during the summer here: Viens: a sunny bohemia.  


Saturday 15 September 2012

A date in Cucuron

Another scene from A Good Year (see previous post on Ridley Scott's movie filmed in the Luberon) the great green bassin - L'Etang - at the heart of the quiet village of Cucuron. This is where Max takes Fanny on their first date, to an outdoor cinema in an almost impossibly romantic setting. Candlelight and lanterns flicker and the water shimmers beneath the leaves of two hundred year old plane trees that stand guard around the pond.
Actually, the romance of the place is real. The origins of the pond lie in a lake created in medieval times, fed by water sources from the Luberon mountain and used to power the local flour mills. The rectangular bassin we see now was constructed in the 19th century. Today it's a serene place but the deep green shadows cast by the trees give it an air of mystery. From any distance, all is surface reflection of the tall trees, restaurants and houses lining its banks, masking an infinity of depth.
Cucuron sits on the south-eastern side of the mountain ridge, over the col from the main Luberon valley where we are; this is the side of the Durance, the strong wide river that rises in the Alps and flows down to join the mighty Rhone south of Avignon. It's a village of farmers rather than tourists, though the two meet every Tuesday morning for a lively market with stalls placed all around the pond.
The fields around are full of vineyards and olive groves, melon fields and cherry orchards, vegetable and wheat fields, all set within the National Park. The long history of the village, from neolithic settlement through to Roman invasion and medieval ascendancy, is embedded in the ancient walls and quirky yet unassuming buildings. A gentle stroll through narrow winding streets takes you to dungeons and belfries and a lovely Romanesque chapel from the 13th century.
It strikes me that what Mediterranean countries do so much better than we do is allow the ancient and modern to co-exist. Even structures with an early industrial purpose have an element of beauty and are allowed to evolve, adapted and tranformed rather than destroyed. It shows a natural understanding and faith in the past.
And that too makes Cucuron a truly inspired place for a romantic first date.


Wednesday 12 September 2012

Chateau la Canorgue - A Good Year

Sometimes we all need a bit of escapism - a book or a movie that takes us back to summer and long sun-dappled days. One of those movies for me is A Good Year, directed by Ridley Scott close to his house in the Luberon and based on a book by Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, and an old neighbour of Scott’s.
The premise has its roots in many a cosy daydream: a young man (Russell Crowe) inherits a dilapidated vineyard in Provence after the death of his uncle. He has a high-pressure job in the City of London and can hardly spare the time from making money to take a non-business phone call – until he makes a flying visit to France to see it. The film also stars Albert Finney and Marion Cotillard…and the Château la Canorgue, a mile or so from Bonnieux.

It’s one of those films that may not have been a huge box-office success when it was released in 2006 but has become a quiet hit on DVD. And quite rightly so: it’s warm and romantic with gentle dollops of wine, food and country wisdom, the kind of film you find yourself watching again when you want some uncomplicated relaxation.

There’s some lovely cinematography of the landscape and anyone who knows the area will enjoy spotting the familiar sights of the castle at Lacoste, and the views across from the Café de France there over to Bonnieux, as well as the Café de la Rennaissance at Gordes in a key scene. 

Le Château la Canorgue makes a beguiling backdrop. The mellow umber faҫade of the main house slumbers under shady trees, a grand old lady of all our Provenҫal dreams. There’s nothing overdone here. The plaster flakes at the same rate as the bark on the plane trees.

In front of the house is an ornamental pond, which may or may not have been constructed for the film. Now it is clear and serene with a sentinel cypress overlooking the immaculate vines, in contrast to the atmosphere of tangled neglect in the scene from the film (below my photo).

In real life, the wines produced here have been going from strength to strength. The rosé, in particular, with its juicy strawberry notes and inviting pale peach colour, is a fixture on almost every restaurant list in the area. Winemaker Jean-Pierre Margan, whose family has lived and worked here for generations, has been named Winemaker of the Year by the Gault-Millau magazine.
When we went in to buy a case a few months ago, the cool of the wine cave was a tantalizing place to linger while outside the countryside was almost silent in the heat. The château itself itself isn’t open to the public but for the curious and romantic, I suggest a comfortable sofa, a nice glass of wine and a look around – especially the dreamy view of the terrace – by settling down in front of A Good Year on the DVD player. Santé!
PS: And if you've seen the film and are curious about what Cucuron - where the romantic date took place at the outdoor cinema set up over the vast bassin - looks like in normal circumstances, click here.

Friday 7 September 2012

Bravo Brazil!

A Portuguese translation of The Lantern is published in Brazil this month - and what a cover! This may well be my favourite to date, taking as it does the basics of the evocative brocante design originally produced by Orion in the UK but giving the wrought iron a lick of dark lavender paint. The iron grille is heavier, more imprisoning perhaps, and the effect is simply stunning. The only worry now that publishers Rocco have done such a great job (I'd notice it in the bookstore, wouldn't you?) that what's inside will have to live up to high expectations for Brazilian readers. It'll be interesting to see what they make of it...
Meanwhile back in England, it's back to serious writing for me. Not quite harnessed to desk yet, but the To Do Before... list is getting shorter. Perhaps now is the time to say I'm sorry I wasn't very responsive to other people's blogs this summer. Now it can be told, but it was hard enough putting my own blog posts up after mid-July as my laptop decided that it didn't want to connect to the house wi-fi anymore. Just wasn't having any of it: no connection available. So I was reduced to begging time on any family computer that would have me and my blog ramblings, not to mention the photo downloads.
Unlike last autumn, I'm going to try to keep the blog going though it may not be any great shakes - or indeed of much interest. Some writer/bloggers put out posts about sitting for hours, keeping the tea, biscuit and word count. I take the view that writing is writing, and other subjects are more interesting. It's the words on the page that matter: you don't have to account for them. 

Wednesday 5 September 2012

The white cliffs of Dover

The famous white cliffs seen from the boats crossing the Channel from The Continent, are a stirring sight. A reminder of the way things always were, before the engineering triumph of the Eurotunnel and the Eurostar trains shuttling under the sea. These monumental yet unstable cliffs stand for England, and for hundreds of years returning travellers have gathered on deck for a first glimpse of the green and pleasant land come to meet the white chalk edge.
It's been years since we last took the car ferry, and we probably wouldn't have this year but for a spot of luck winning P&O tickets in a raffle at the village May Day fete. In the event, not only did we enjoy the crossings but they brought back memories of all the times when the boat trip was an integral part of the excitement of Going Abroad. Slower times, when exchanging pounds for French francs was undeniably exotic, and a first Dubonnet in the lounge bar positively sophisticated.
What I liked most was the sense of connection to all those other crossings down the years - the thrill, for a child, of passing through passport control; the first crossing I made alone as a teenager, going back from Brussels to see friends in London; the brief heyday of Hoverspeed, the hovercraft service. The sense too of all those other passengers down the centuries, watching out for the cliffs and the soft blue-greys and greens of home after the bright, clashing colours of foreign adventure.

Saturday 1 September 2012

The fragrance of quince

The end of summer hangs in the air. Streams of heavily-laden cars are heading north and the narrow streets seem to breathe a sigh of relief. On Radio Nostalgie, wistful growlers sing songs of love left at the beach and memories of balmy nights that will have to last the winter.

As we too pack up to leave, I've picked some quinces from the garden and placed them in a bowl. The quince is a brutish-looking fruit: a cross between a hard, knobby pear and a crab apple with a covering of soft fur, a neanderthal in the fruit world. But its fragrance is renowned; the skin of fresh quince is said to scent rooms for weeks with a perfume of milky coconut and pear, guava and musk and violet. Floral tones are there too, as is fitting for a fruit that is related to the rose.

I have tried before, in a half-hearted way, by placing one fruit on a stone mantlepiece. But we stayed away too long that time, and all we came back to were browning, mouldy remains. For the best results, apparently, two to three quinces should be placed in a bowl. That's all there is to it. I'll let you know whether we find ourselves opening the door on our return to a lushly-perfumed hall.

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