France – Get on your bike with Suzie Tullett
French Book Friday involves not just a literary jaunt to Paris but an escape…
An Paris is the city to escape to… it’s pretty magical at any time of year, there’s lurve all around and …the cakes…did we mention the cakes?
Hi Suzie, Welcome to the BookTrail
For me, a story’s setting and the locations I include are characters in their own right. They add a sense of atmosphere and authenticity to my work. I like to soak up a place’s atmosphere, get a feel for the pace of life, eat local food, and listen to the rhythm in people’s voices. Locations are special on so many levels.
When we moved to Brittany in France five years ago it was obvious the area would make a wonderful setting for a novel. There are corn and rape fields as far as the eye can see. Cobbled villages are home to an abundance of stone cottages with their geranium filled window boxes. And the little cafes dotted around are perfect for watching the world go by whilst enjoying a pain au chocolat and a grand café crème. Add to these the place’s rich history, it’s culture, the language, and let’s not forget the food and wine, and Brittany provides the perfect backdrop for a book. Hence my latest novel, The French Escape.
Because I live in the region in which the book unfolds, researching the setting for The French Escape was pretty straightforward, everything was on my doorstep. It was a case of immersing myself in the local community and getting to know my immediate area.
If I’m writing about a place that I’m not familiar with, however, I go there and walk its streets, taking a tonne of photos. I read as much about it as I can to find out about its history and geography. Most of my reading doesn’t reach the page in an obvious sense, but through all my research I’m able to add realism to my writing.
Did you visit the places and what did you find out?
One of the places I visited for The French Escape was La Vallée des Saints, situated at Carnoët, which is linked to the Priests and Monks that came over to this region of France from Britain around 1500 years ago. Be it in celebration or out of respect, sculptors began creating giant granite statues of saints to sit on a feudal mound with far reaching views – a practice that continues to this day. They all stand proud, facing the same direction as if watching over the valley below. Some are more traditional in style and some are more abstract, whilst some sculptors have created their saints in modern day form.
It’s clear from The French Escape’s book cover that a chateau features in the story and whilst mine is purely fictional and all but abandoned, I did enjoy mooching around the very real chateaux dotted about Central Brittany. Currently owned by the 14th Duke of Rohan and his wife Antoinette, the one at Josselin is particularly imposing. Dating back to 1008 it’s got quite a history and probably has quite a few stories of its own to tell!
My research also included a trip to Lac de Guerlédan, a spot recommended to me by the locals. Both picturesque and fascinating, the lake was created to power the dam of Guerlédan and until recently was periodically drained for maintenance purposes revealing locks that were once part of the Nantes-Brest canal, along with a hidden landscape of buildings. The lake itself doesn’t feature in the actual novel, but it did give me a sense of how this predominantly agricultural area has adapted over time to meet modern day needs.
Any stories you can tell us about the writing of this book?
Linked to any location are the people who inhabit it. They bring a location to life, give it its heartbeat, and are as inspirational as the setting in which they live. Take the expat community here in Brittany. We’re such a varied bunch, our love of France sometimes being the only thing we have in common. I’ve met fellow writers, artists, pensioners, and parents with young children simply looking for a better life. I’ve met people who’ve travelled the world, having ultimately decided that France is the place to be. And I’ve met people struggling to survive for one reason or another.
Whoever I meet, however, it’s always interesting to hear how we each came to be here. Some of us are searching for a more relaxed lifestyle, whilst some just fancy a better climate. Others are attracted by the cheap house prices compared to those in the UK and some, I’m convinced, are here to reinvent themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of reinvention, Madonna and Lady Gaga are proof of that. But for an author living in France, it’s these latter stories that really get the creative juices flowing. It’s as much about what they’re not saying, as it is about what they are. Enough to make the writer in me wonder if some of us are running from rather than to.
Of course, it isn’t just the foreigners in Brittany that inspired this novel. Understandably so, the French have played an equally important part in developing this book. From the owner of our local coffee shop, to one of my French writing students, to the little old lady who knocked on our door collecting information for the census, the locals have been inspirational throughout. Over the years, they’ve taught me a lot about the French way of life, the Breton people and their unique language, along with their ways and customs… things that make Brittany as a location even more special.
Travel tips for visiting the setting in your work?
The French Escape is set in Central Brittany, a very agricultural region with the most wonderful countryside and charming little villages all well worth exploring. But whilst there are good rail and bus networks linking the bigger towns and cities, for anyone wanting to go off the beaten track, in my experience, a good set of wheels is necessary – bicycle or car.
Thanks Suzie! What a wonderful bicycle ride around France!