Here’s someone I’ve been meaning to get to know for a while – and when her debut novel, THE CHAPEL IN THE WOODS, went free on Kindle, I knew I’d run out of excuses. Well, I made it one of my ‘must do’s’ over the Easter weekend and I’m glad I did. It’s an engrossing read and once I’d finished it, I couldn’t wait to ask Susan a few questions.
NED : I’ve not only read your book but also your biography. That reads like the synopsis of a novel in itself. Has it really been as romantic as it sounds?
SL : It’s funny but people often say to me that I’ve had an interesting life, but to me it just feels ordinary. I do strive to have new experiences and explore life continually, as the old adage goes ‘This ain’t a dress rehearsal!’
NED : You say you spent nine months sleeping on a beach in Greece. Not as long as Rip Van Winkle perhaps and I’m sure you must have passed some of the time awake. How did that come about?
SL : Ha ha, you got me there! My brother had rounded up a gang of friends to go out to Greece for a spot of island hopping and I couldn’t resist joining them. I’d fallen in love with the idea of Greece, back in my childhood, when I read Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals.’ I visited most of the Dodecanese but was based on the tiny island of Nissyros, a volcanic island with no natural water supply, necessitating delivery of water once a week by sea tanker. The islanders were very welcoming and from them I learned enough Greek to have basic conversations. I helped peel potatoes and chop up interminable piles of tomatoes for the tavernas. We were even invited to a grand Orthodox feast day where we had our own places at the longest trestle table I have ever seen which snaked its way through the centre of Mandraki.
When we set out to Greece we agreed we would each take five paperbacks in our backpacks to read and then swap with each other. As some of the group returned to England, they left their books. Other friends came out and brought more. As time went on we amassed quite a library on the beach and news of it reached across the islands bringing travellers of every nationality to set up camp with us on the beach and swap their paperbacks.
NED : Were you aware that you were building up experiences that would ultimately inform your writing?
SL : I have been writing since I was tiny and I always knew it was the only thing I really wanted to do with my life. I didn’t consciously set out to have experiences to write about but now, with hindsight and maturity, I realize that writing is one of those activities that requires solitude to achieve but a great deal of living life to the full to conceive.
NED : You’ve now ‘retired’ to West Cornwall. Is that because of all the UK it has the closest links with your beloved France?
SL : It was the beauty and simplicity of Cornwall that attracted me and its qualities to offer my children an idyllic childhood. I hadn’t thought of the link with France but I think that could well have been subconsciously instrumental. The children have grown up surfing, fishing, cycling, barbecuing on the beach and walking in stunning coastal and countryside settings and are now beginning to spread their own wings for their exciting futures. I don’t think I could ever say I would stay anywhere forever and nor can I ever envisage retiring. I am at the moment in the process of organizing a move up to Oxfordshire; an area which has been very close to my heart, for a whole new chapter in my life and feel rather excited at the thought of what it might bring.
NED : I was brought up in North Devon and I know how isolated that can feel. I’m aware of the great artistic community in Cornwall – does that extend to literature? Are there active writing groups in your part of the world and if so, how important are they to you?
SL : Cornwall is geographically isolating, right out at the tip of the West of England, but as you say there is a wealth of artistic talent and zeal in this part of the world. Through my work at the theatre in Truro I was lucky enough to meet a host of talented authors, artists, poets and actors of whom some have become close friends. I am a member of a very supportive writing group which meets once a fortnight in one of our houses. This has been an invaluable cure to writing self-indulgent nonsense! Last year I was honoured to be invited to take part in Penzance’s Literary Festival which has been growing at an astounding pace under its founder, Peter Levin and its patron, Patrick Gale. It takes place in July and is well worth factoring into a visit to this beautiful area.
I feel very fortunate to have been embraced by such a colourful artistic scene and I shall miss it dearly.
NED : Turning to THE CHAPEL IN THE WOODS. Tell us something about your writing process - how long did it take you to complete it?
SL : I initially wrote THE CHAPEL IN THE WOODS through Diana’s eyes, only hinting at Edward and Hélène’s existence. It wasn’t until I completed a Creative Writing module with the Open University that I felt brave enough to research the middle ages and the Second World War to write their stories. It took a year to complete though this was set over several years.
NED : It’s no secret that the book combines three apparently independent threads of storyline. I have enough trouble writing one – how did you manage to cope with three? Did you write them one by one and combine them afterwards? Or did you write it just as it comes on the page?
SL : I wrote each one as a stand-alone story from start to finish and through an elaborate system of snipped up postcards and blu-tac I pieced the plot together on my study wall, rather like a written story board that they use to put together film scripts.
NED : And what about research? Only one of the storylines is contemporary – how much background work did you do on the other two?
SL : I read a huge amount about the SOE and the women who fought for France and even read the SOE manual that operatives were issued with. I tried my hand at some basic code breaking to be able to imagine what it must have been like to have to communicate accurately and secretly beneath the extremely dangerous supervision of the Nazis. For Edward’s strand I learned a lot about medical procedures and beliefs of the dark ages, and researched the life of Thomas Becket. I also studied as much about French feudalism as I could find. One of my biggest problems was finding the information about how ordinary people lived; so much is documented about the Kings and Queens and prominent figures, but in comparison little is available on what people, ate, wore or believed in.
NED : Who are your writing influences? Were you reading anything over the Easter holiday that inspired you?
SL : Sebastian Faulks was definitely responsible for awakening my interest in the SOE and Joanne Harris, for her ability to bring the reader into the heart of France with a writing elegance which would be hard to rival. Edward and Clothilde’s story was coloured by my interest in Marie de France, whose stories of the Troubadours of early France were brought to England with the marriage of Isabelle of Acquitaine to Henry II. Since publishing on Kindle, I have discovered the wonderful world of indie authors and I have spent most of the past year reading their work and have discovered some real gems, such as Francis Potts and Lorraine Blencoe.
NED : And lastly, a question that I know many of your readers will want answered. Are you working on something new? What have you got in the pipeline that we can look forward to?
SL: I am currently working on a novel set in Cornwall and hope to complete the first draft before I leave for Oxfordshire in August. It is, again, based on a close knit community and its working title is THE WEATHER GODS. Just as a teaser it is about extreme weather events, celtic beliefs and a young Cornish mosaic artist, Merryn Jewell.
Well, that sounds worth waiting for. My thanks to Susan for this insight into her life and we wish her all the best in Oxfordshire. And because of the wonders of modern technology, we’ll be able to keep in touch with her progress!
You can follow her on Twitter @susanlouineau
Or you can find her on Facebook at http://bit.ly/10KrKbC