I’m dripping in France at the moment. As I wrote several posts ago, I’m writing a novel set in France, spanning the first fifty or so years of the twentieth century. That’s two World Wars, the rise of Modernism and a hell of a lot of history to get to grips with. For months I’ve been reading biographies, memoirs, non-fiction, you name it, scrabbling around in the darkest recesses of my shelves to find books I knew I bought for a reason decades ago. I’ve been listening to French music of the period – Trenet, Piaf, Chevalier, Auric – and watching French films and even going back over old diaries of French holidays, immersing myself in French culture in the hope of writing credibly about the period. Writing historical novels is all about detail.
Next week I am going to Paris. The moment the idea of the novel came to me last year I wanted to be there, to check out the places that would feature in it, but I’m glad I didn’t go then. Now that I have come to the end of the first draft, this feels like the perfect time to go. So Europe here I come.
I am planning to do some other work in Paris, such as record a radio interview about Le Corbusier for By Design, but the thing I am looking forward to most of all is simply soaking up the atmosphere. It reminded me of that talk I’ve mentioned before, with Marcus Zusak, who said he went off to Germany and Austria after he had written the first draft of The Book Thief. He wanted to make sure that the apples a character mentioned were indeed the apples that grew in that region. I’m the same. For instance, when one of my characters mentions the towers of Saint-Sulpice as she walks down a particular street in Saint-Germain, I want to check I’m right, that you can indeed see the towers there. After all, it’s off-putting when you find mistakes in a novel you’re reading. And as a writer, I know that readers are always quick to point them out.
Writing history is a minefield. Writing about the history of another country is worse. I have a fairly reasonable understanding of British history because I grew up surrounded by it. My childhood was spent in a Welsh border town that had Roman remains and a medieval castle and I sang in the choir of its Norman church. So the history of the Welsh wars with England and stories about the coal mining over the hills were all familiar. Then I moved to a Victorian spa town, and then on to London. Well, you just absorb information from looking around you. Perhaps that’s why I have always been a little shy of writing Australian fiction – one of the most reflective characters in my novel Not Always To Plan is Ruth, an English woman who married an Australian. I’ve noticed that before, British writers in Australia adding British characters.
I didn’t ever imagine that I would be writing about a real French figure. I’m not much of a researcher, as I told a friend. And yet it has been a glorious experience. Of course the années folles of 1920s Paris are well documented, most famously by Hemingway, but I hadn’t counted on the German occupation in the Second World War being as interesting as it was. The slicing-up of the country into different zones and the whole politics of who was siding with whom is fascinating. And then there’s the deep vein of anti-Semitism with the oddness of a Jewish prime minister only years before the Occupation and the horror of the round-ups in Paris. And through all this, normal people tried to live normal lives. Finding their stories has been the biggest task.
It’s been a long road to travel, and I am still on it. But it’s also been so rewarding. I’m looking forward to new discoveries in France and ready for information that may change my novel. I’m not much of a researcher perhaps but decades after studying at university, I’m finally beginning to understand what a pleasure it can be.
(And by the way, no, I’m not writing about Jacques Tati but don’t his films just sum up a certain Frenchness!)