THE FOOL’S HOUSE published November 2015
SIMPLE POISON published June 2016
Interview by Luc Bobbard
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m into the third of three interlinked novels set in the Languedoc in France where I spent many years, living and working. The books are set in and around the same village with a rather complicated, conflicted population so typical of the South of France where the new struggles against old established ways and century-old family feuds abound. Waterstones list my books as crime/mystery. THE FOOL’S HOUSE, the first, was published in 2015. During the writing of that we moved house four times which was very disrupting. The second, SIMPLE POISON was published in June 2016. I’ve managed to arrange my life so that I can spend most of my time writing. The last of the three books, THE RESTING HOUSE, I hope to finish in 2017, barring too many house moves. I am lucky, I can write anywhere – in fact, I write best away from my desk, in a café, on a train or plane. I wrote the first chapter of book 3 in the airport lounge at Amsterdam airport.
You’ve spent most of your career working for magazines and translating films. Was your fiction writing a natural progression of the different strands of your work?
Everything has fed into what I write whether it’s short stories, novels or more autobiographical shorts. I’m preparing a small volume of each over the 2016-17 winter which I am hoping to spend in Holland. What was strange was that it wasn’t until I went to work in advertising and for magazines in France and Germany that I wrote my first short stories in English. Though I spoke French or German all day at work English just started to burst out. All those accumulated stories just seemed to be there, fully formed, waiting for me to write them down. I’ve never experienced ‘the blank page’ syndrome. Quite a few short stories were published in Writer’s Voice/France, a short fiction publication based in France which I also edited for three years.
In London I was Art Director and Art Editor of Time Out magazine. I squeezed that job into four days a week because I translated films in parallel to my magazine work. I was also lecturing at Chelsea School of Art, something I later did at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts in Strasbourg. After I came back to the England I wrote for Archant Life magazines on all kinds of subjects, culture, food, interviews, books reviews, etc., just straight journalism.
Last year, and this year as well, I read extracts from my current novel to an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
You grew up in France but you are not altogether French.
We were refugees. My mother was Romanian from a once aristocratic family – private live-in tutors, servants and chauffeurs, great big house in a park. They all spoke four or five languages. They fled to Vienna. My father was a poor farmer’s son. He ran away from home at the age of fourteen and educated himself. He was brought up in Prussia, so we learned really good German from him early on. He taught me that everything I did was worth doing well, or at least as well as I was capable of, whether it was academically or just sweeping the stairs. My mother, with her totally Latin temperament, taught me to dream of impossible things.
We spent short periods in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, among others and finally settled in France. I’ve never been able to shed my French culture, despite years in the UK. France does that to people who grow up there.
You spent ten years translating films for the National Film Theatre and the BFI. What was your first language?
People always ask that. My mother and her family spoke Romanian, French, German and a few other languages including Hungarian. I still remember isolated sentences of Romanian and Hungarian. We spent some time in Luxembourg, so we learned Luxemburgish, a Germanic dialect similar to Dutch. It was French in school. I can’t really say which is my first language, except that my French, English and German are roughly of the same levels as I worked as Art Editor or Art Director for magazines in all three languages.
Do you think that being multilingual helps a writer?
Definitely. Everything one writes or thinks goes through the brain in several versions before it hits the page, although one is not conscious of it. I do notice that at times my syntax is a little different from English writers. That comes from the French.
Did you read in the different languages as a child?
We read anything we could get hold of. I remember reading some of my mother’s Romanian poetry when I was about ten. It’s so similar to French and Italian. When I was about fourteen I struggled through Hemingway’s Moveable Feast in English, even though I couldn’t speak it at all.
Why were books so important to you?
They were the only means of escape from our very difficult life. My elder sister and I became addicted to reading. Our books were stacked under the beds or in a tiny, half empty wardrobe. We had so few clothes I often wore my mother’s to school. My older sister and I fought over clothes. She was physically much stronger than I, so I mostly lost and was often very cold going to school. In the winter, because there was so much snow, we had to get up at five in the morning to get to school at eight. Life was very harsh, but both she and I lived through books.
We lived in the Vosges mountains in the North-East of France, totally remote – beautiful summers and long winters, sometimes the temperature went down to -30 degrees with loads of snow. No one had TV or telephones. There was one clapped out 2CV in our village which at times doubled up as ambulance. There was no public transport either – everything was done on bikes or by horse and cart. Mopeds were a luxury.
When did you start to write?
I must have been about seven or eight. I wrote plays and performed them with home-made puppets. By then I had done a lot of living, as most refugee kids, so they were stories about what had happened to me. They frightened other kids, so I pretended I had made them up and gave them a happy ending. That’s when I became aware that in story telling, unlike in my life, anything was possible.
To what extend did your early reading influence your later writing?
After about fourteen my sister and I got into reading the Existentialists – Sartre, Camus, Ionesco; also Francoise Sagan, Prévert, Cocteau. I discovered Paul Eluard’s wonderful poems and the Surrealists quite early on. In our Lycée it was a question of honour to read difficult books. But I also read translations of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Pearl Buck, Truman Capote and others. I was also aware of Samuel Beckett’s writing, I can’t quite remember how that came about. We all aspired to be intellectuals. French education did that to young people at the time.
I wrote lots of poems, probably quite bad ones. None have survived. Every time we moved house most of our stuff was left behind or thrown away. After 1961 we got a radio and I listened to American Jazz and English Pop music on Radio Luxemburg until 2am. When I was twelve I used to dream everyone around me spoke English and I could speak it too. I was always so disappointed when I woke up and found that I couldn’t. Looking back it seems like a premonition.
When you were seventeen you came to London to learn English and worked as an au pair. Did you run away from home?
No. I’d finished my schooling early. My father couldn’t afford to keep me while I studied at a French university. Our teachers in France spoke English with an appalling accent, like ‘my mozzer is in ze bassrooom too wosh ze clozzes’. The minute I had passed my exams I knew I had to do something to take control of my life. Speaking good English was a passport to the world. I don’t think it occurred to my parents in their wildest dreams that I would never come back. But I felt like a greyhound let out of the trap.
If they couldn’t keep you in France how could they do it in London?
They didn’t, they couldn’t. I had earned the money for my train ticket to London by picking blueberries in the woods for weeks. I had about ten pounds, the ticket cost £12 so my father gave me two pounds. It only took me two days to find a job in a family in London.
Have you never been tempted to write about the life of a London au pair girl in the Swinging Sixties?
Perhaps I should. The film ‘An Education’ was a brilliant portrayal of that time. In the 1960s rich people used au pairs as cheap maids. I had to clean, take the kids to their private Hampstead schools, get up every single night when the three year-old wet the bed, change all his sheets, get up at six to make breakfast for the husband. At nine at night I was finally free to go out. They made me eat alone in a drab kitchen like a scullery maid. Coming from France that was the hardest thing for me. I was paid £2.10s. but I felt rich because it was enough to buy a book a week. The first thing I bought was the Complete Works of Shakespeare. It cost three shillings and sixpence – quite an ugly cheap edition. The pages were really pulpy, a bit like thick newsprint. Despite my poor English I read it out aloud, sitting in bed in a tiny, dark room. The lady of the house thought I was crazy. She told her friend I was the best cleaner she’d ever had, so she left me alone to cram more and more books into my room.
Why did you stay with them?
Because I noticed that they spoke English like the broadcasters on the BBC. So I stuck it out for a year. The lady of the house was very posh. As a goodbye present she gave me two pairs of orange Nylon knickers. Of course I didn’t have posh underwear on that salary, but I couldn’t understand why she did that. I put them in the first bin I found in the street, I felt so insulted. But I never regretted that year; all they had lost was a good cleaner, I walked away with perfect English.
Were you writing then?
I was, but still in French and very short pieces. When I left that family I spoke English like the Queen. Later when I studied at Chelsea School of Art, it was fashionable to claim that you were working class and you’d practically been raised in a hole in the ground. Several times I was actually accused of having been to the Cheltenham Ladies College and lying about it. By the time I worked for Time Out magazine, my accent had been toned down a lot – I also acquired a great line in swear words.
I did my final thesis on the surrealist Max Ernst, my first real piece of writing in English. My head of department said I wrote better English than all the other students. I was really surprised and after that I began dabbling in writing short pieces in English, but they still sounded strangely French. On my art course I was the only one who didn’t have a grant. For four years I worked nights as a waitress in discotheques till four in the morning. I couldn’t get a grant to go to the Royal College of Art, so I didn’t go. I knew that if I had to work nights for another three years I’d be dead. I was down to about six stone. At the end of my last college week I went to bed on a Sunday morning and didn’t wake up till Wednesday afternoon. I think my brain was telling me to stop working nights.
Time Out was the London magazine. How did you come to work for them?
I’d been Art Director for a couple of BBC magazines. At Time Out I started doing layout work, then I became Art Director and Art Editor. I loved the combination of the written word and the visual.
Did your journalist colleagues encourage your writing?
They didn’t, but their writing did. There were some talented, witty, funny people working for Time Out at the time. One of them, a well known and respected critic, he’s still working, used to mooch around the office all day, insulting people and at six in the evening he’d sit down and write a couple of thousand words in an hour and it was perfect.
There was a lot of copy cutting and editing to do every week; a thousand word article suddenly had to be cut down to two hundred words because of space problems. It taught me a huge amount.
What kind of films did you translate for the National Film Theatre?
All sorts. Some of the work was simultaneous translation, the rest live commentary from my own type script, usually done the day before. In feature films it was mostly dialogue – early Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Brecht, Truffaut; Jeanne Moreau directed films at the time. There was an epic, four-hour documentary about the Vietcong struggle with a very wordy, political commentary by Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. They were very anti-American, loved Fidel Castro. I think they were friends. Claude Lelouch had made a film, La Bête Humaine. It was a woman pleading with her lover over the phone and wanting to commit suicide, all shot on a luxurious Florentine bed – entirely sung as an opera!
Weren’t you given any guidelines for the translation?
No, but I didn’t sing. I just translated it in a very neutral voice. Afterwards Lelouch came to see me and said I’d done the right thing. He’d been very nervous about a live translation.
There was a very rare film about Antonin Artaud, the French playwright and creator of the Theatre of the Absurd. I knew his work but many in the audience didn’t. In the film he recited a Lettrist poem, a sort of automatic, percussive speaking without recognizable words. It was shot in black and white, with a fixed close-up of his face looming out of the darkness like a demented ghost. I was supposed to do a simultaneous translation. I thought, what do I translate here? There weren’t any words. While he rattled on I could see the audience below my translation booth getting really restless. So I gave them a three line explanation of what he was all about. Then I shut up. I sweated blood from just sitting there, not able to do anything.
The only translation I gave up on was a three hour interview with the French philosopher Derrida who spoke in a never ending stream, going in all directions until no one could follow his train of thought. The BFI had given me a recording before hand. It was impossible to take his arguments apart and make a sensible English commentary for a live audience.
A little while later I also designed programmes and posters for the NFT. My favourite was a set of 4 I did for the French season for which I also did translations of the really old classics. They’d had only older people coming to these seasons, but after I did those posters the audience was full of young cinema fans looking like punks.
How useful has your time in journalism been?
From the translation work I learned a lot about writing dialogue. From journalism in France, Germany and especially in London I learned to commit ideas to paper quickly, but then to cut and edit, one could say brutally. If I write magazine articles now I can feel instinctively when I’ve reached 1000 words. I think it’s the best training for writers.
It’s one thing to cut other people’s copy, but what about your own? Don’t you get attached to passages or sentences that you’ve slaved over for days or weeks?
I’m not precious about my writing when it comes to cutting or editing. I often read parts out loud or record something I’m not sure of. If I stumble over something I change or cut it. It was good practice for reading my work at the Cheltenham Literature Festival for two years running. When I write, I wear the writer’s hat, when I edit it’s as if the copy was someone else’s, when I read it to an audience I pretend I’m on Radio 4. Writing a story is a very separate, subjective process, for me at least. I’m elsewhere; I’m the characters I am writing; it just sort of flows. Editing definitely, definitely doesn’t flow. I stand back and edit, one lot of proofs after another.
Once the ‘story telling’ part is finished I know my writing has to be a product. I often enjoy reading ‘clever’ writing; French writers indulge in that a great deal, but I have no desire to do it myself. I want readers to understand the characters, not struggle with my sentences. I saw Paul Auster recently and he said that making things simple for the reader is the hardest thing and I totally agree with him.
Who reads your work before you put it out there?
I don’t give it to friends and certainly not to anyone in my family. I ask other writers or people who work in the theatre to read it. I can usually get them to pass it on to people who don’t know me, but always on the undertaking that they tell me what an agent might say. Book groups can make useful test readers; they are often the ones who will decide to buy a book, or not.
The YouWriteOn site has been very useful. People on that site review work anonymously, they have nothing to gain or lose, so they are honest. I tested a chapter where a character was going back and forth, remembering her past life a few times. I revised and revised again because I felt it might be a bit heavy going. In the end I turned a lot of it into dialogue and suddenly I got enthusiastic reviews. It’s easy to work out whether comments come from real writers, hobby writers or serial work-shoppers. Those are mostly Americans with lines straight out of the ‘How to Write a Novel’ manuals. Some writers on the site give very extensive feedback. It’s up to you whose comments you discard or value.
Do you think that studying art influenced your writing?
Those four years gave me a chance to read a lot about creative people, artists who broke all the rules. Finding out about such people taught me to ignore boundaries, that if you can imagine something you can very probably do it.
What has inspired your writing?
It’s strange how my stories come about. They seem to arrive fully formed, as if they were floating around, waiting to be written down. When I’m sure of the story in my head I write at a gallop, but unfortunately, despite the speed of writing, the first draft is never perfect.
I was actually quite shocked by the short stories I started with. The first came completely out of the blue while I was waiting for a bus on Piccadilly in London. It was based on a woman I used to see across the road from our flat, a grocer’s daughter who I imagined to be abused by her drunken father. After forty years she gets her revenge. I think I edited that thirty seven times. About twelve years ago, in my early short story writing days, I met American East Coast authors Barbara Helfgott-Hyett who taught at Boston University and at Harvard and Lucy Ferris, a Fulbright scholar from Connecticut University. Both had quite an influence on me when it came to editing and structuring my work. Lucy read my work and was very helpful. So was Rebecca Loncraine with whom I did a number of workshops at Oxford University in 2007.
Is your current work still as dark?
THE FOOL’S HOUSE has very dark, almost melancholy undercurrents as a result of the characters’ complicated motives and alarming circumstances. It also deals with how past events can haunt people’s lives years, even centuries later.
In the second Languedoc Trilogy novel, SIMPLE POISON, also set in and around the typical Languedoc village which I have named Sainte Colombe, the pace is quite fast. The central character is driven by a visceral hatred of all who stand in her way. I have carried this character around with me for about ten years and I really enjoyed writing her. It does not end happily for her.
Last year I also wrote a full-length stage play, as well as a plays for radio.
Click here for PLAYS
Could you have written these novels when you were younger?
No. I write about people who have done a lot of living. I don’t think one can have much of an insight into characters until one has observed humanity, good and bad. I like complicated characters; some can be bad and good, all at the same time.
Some older first-time novelists have emerged recently, especially women. Why do you think that is happening?
It’s the Baby-Boomer generation, I think. They created a whole new culture, in music, fashion and a sexual revolution in the ’60. They are used to working hard, they grew up with very little. If they wanted something and it didn’t exist, they created it. The creative ones, who are now retiring, don’t equate life after sixty five with sitting and watching day-time TV. Now that they don’t have to work anymore many suddenly grab the chance to do what they’ve always wanted to do. That generation didn’t have many role models, so even now when they have reached pension age, they are still doing things no one has done at that age before, whether it’s in writing or rock music.
Is that how you feel?
Absolutely. Except I’ve not spent my life getting frustrated in an office or a bank for the sake of paying a mortgage. My career has been very varied and I loved the work I did at different periods. I never went after the money. I decided what work I wanted to do and got paid for it rather well. But I worked incredible hours and had no time to do the writing I’m doing now. It’s very liberating to be older. It’s much easier to recognize priorities; it helps not to waste time.
Unfortunately, as an older fiction writer it’s much more difficult to find agents and publishers. There is an implication that you ‘don’t have a future’ – i.e. you don’t have twenty great books in you. But there is no guarantee of that with much younger authors either. I recently read follow-up novels by a young author. He was on all the shortlist for the big prizes with his first book. The first book was fantastic. Both his follow-ups, in the same setting and with the same central character, were truly bad, with plots all over the place, the writing unfinished; the characters were totally unbelievable. It read as if written in a panic. The other more established author is frequently shortlisted for major prizes. She produced an infuriatingly leaden fifth novel, badly constructed and with dull characters. The main protagonist was never there when something exciting happened and was then told about it by his girlfriend in a very dreary way. The book still came second, I believe, in a major prize. She had stuffed it with irrelevant information, just to make it a really fat book. That seems to happen a lot at the moment.
What other projects do you have lined up?
At the moment I’ve put everything on hold. My priority are the Sainte Colombe mysteries.
There is an ongoing non-fiction book about the English in France. Some extracts are one this website under Never say NON …. Most English don’t understand French society at all, and that’s the ones who have bothered to learn the language. Those who write books about France don’t do any better. I and most French people find it quite insulting that France is misused in this way. We feel that the British love France – if only they could get rid of those irritating French people, it would be paradise. What they don’t seem to realise is that it is the French who have made France as it is.
I’ve had to shelve a manuscript about a Polish-Jewish great-aunt who was just one day away from being transported to Theresienstadt and the gas chambers. She committed suicide with the help of her family and hospital doctors in Berlin. About a third of it is in the first draft, but it will be a very hard book to write. It will also upset my four remaining siblings. They have trouble dealing with our family’s complicated past and refuse to think about it.
You said you might live in Holland for a while. Why do you move around so much? Is the grass always greener on the other side?
Neither I nor my husband are running away from anything or are dissatisfied with our life. We are just insatiably curious and love change. With me, moving around is so engrained – I’ve moved more than fifty times in total, as a child out of necessity, as an adult out of choice. I have lived in five European countries, worked in four of them. In the last few years I’ve been improving my Italian and I’m learning Spanish and Dutch. I can earn a living in most European countries, just enough to allow me to get on with my writing. I want to spend time in Italy; I worked in Venice for a publisher once. I can write anywhere, I don’t have to live in London all the time to communicate with people for my work. That has become possible thanks to emails and the internet.
How can you hold on to friends with your lifestyle?
Our friends live in London, Scotland, the USA, Hongkong and all over Europe, even in Kosovo at the moment. We are always in touch and see each other now and then. They have got used to our peripatetic lifestyle and have quite enjoyed coming to stay with us in different parts of Europe.
People who know me well say I always jump off the cliff, hoping there’s something there to catch me. All I can say is that I’ve always landed on my feet. It pays to take risks, so I just do it. There is plenty of time to be scared afterwards.
FRANCE MAGAZINE September 2016