French Book Friday – With Fiona Valpy!
A very fragrant FrenchBookFriday today! Two novels for the price of one AND a very aromatic journey to Bordeaux and the Dordogne….
I’ve always loved books that transport the reader to another place – it’s that sense of escapism, I suppose. Armchair travel is a great way to see the world! And then, if you have the opportunity to travel to places you’ve read about it’s exciting when there’s that sense of familiarity: that’s part of the writer’s art, communicating what a place not only looks like but sounds, smells and feels like.
With my first three books (The French for… series), I was lucky to be living in France. As they are all contemporary novels, most of my research simply involved absorbing my environment. But I do think that observing with a view to writing about a place makes you pay particular to attention to the details that will evoke the experience most vividly, and they are often the subtleties that you might otherwise have missed. So I think writing those three books helped to heighten my awareness of the new and different culture in which I was living.
My next books (Sea of Memories, due out on 1st March 2018, and The Beekeeper’s Promise, due out in mid-May) include more of a historical perspective, with storylines that involve life in Nazi-occupied France during World War 2. So, for these novels, far more desk-based research has been needed, on top of a familiarity with the places and characters. Although it was daunting at first, I’ve found I’ve really enjoyed the extra dimension this has brought to my writing and the challenge of trying to do justice to elements of France’s harrowing history.
The French for….series
All three of The French for… books deal with principal characters who find themselves floored by the challenges life throws their way, and follow their journeys as they find ways to get back on their feet again. All three heroines learn a great deal about themselves along the way and discover strengths they possibly didn’t realise they had. And, without giving too much away, I do like a happy ending!
Fact and partly fiction?
The inspiration to write was everywhere in France. We’d bought a tumble-down farmhouse, which was semi-derelict, and it was so satisfying putting the life and soul back into a building which hadn’t been loved for a long, long time, making it a home. I’m also a passionate lover of wine and met a lot of the local wine farmers, even working the wine harvest at one chateau. The food, the wines, the scenery, the sunshine and the spirit of French joie de vivre all found their way into my writing.
Evoking the five senses in a scene…
Sensory description is one of the most powerful tools in evoking a sense of place, wherever you are in the world. In France, there is so much inspiration. It’s a very sensuous country. In addition to the main storylines, each of the books also has an underlying theme which is typically French: in The French for Love it is wine; in The French for Always, it’s the scenery and gardening; and in The French for Christmas it’s food and cooking, ( – a reviewer once described it as “food porn”!) These underlying themes help reflect the characters of the heroines and deepen their understanding of the culture in which they are immersed.
Surprising finds when researching your novels…
In some ways, people were very open and happy to share their knowledge and experience, but there are still some definite no-go areas. The years of German occupation during World War 2 are still a very dark period in the country’s history and I discovered that, even today, people can be reluctant to talk about what went on then. As my friendships grew, I began to gain a deeper understanding of just how complex the situation was. I believe there is a legacy of trauma which the country still suffers from today, and which I have been inspired to explore further in my next books.
Favourite French word?
Enchanté. In English when we are introduced to someone we say “Pleased to meet you” or “How do you do?”. But in French you say you are « Enchanted » As greetings go, it’s a pretty wonderful way to say hello.
I lived in France for seven years and it was truly a life-changing experience. Of course, real-life ups and downs come with you wherever you go in the world, and sometimes being a foreigner in an unfamiliar culture can be exhausting – there are days when you simply long for the familiarity of home. There were certainly some difficult and challenging experiences, and three years filled with dust and mess and back-breaking, physical hard work. But I discovered a lot about myself and found a new creativity, not just in renovating the house but in writing too.
Things you might do differently?
Ideally, not live in the house while it’s a building site. What luxury it would have been to leave at the end of each day’s work eat a meal at a dust-free table, in a house with a working kitchen and a hot bath!
Travel tips for your novels?
Fly to Bergerac and hire a car at the tiny airport there. Or catch the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and drive south via Bordeaux.
Rent a gîte and spend time immersing yourself in the local ambience.
Visit the local markets. The daytime ones are as you’d expect, with stalls of fresh produce. But the night markets (marchés nocturnes) which are hosted in different villages and towns across the region through the summer months are fantastic – take your own knife, fork and glass and buy your supper from the local producers who cook typical regional fare at stalls set around long, open-air tables where you’ll be sure to make new friends over a glass or two of wine.
Visit wine farms. If you’ve driven to France, fill the boot of your car with cases of the local wines to remind you of the French sunshine when you get home.
And with that – Thank you very much Fiona for that sunny tour to France !