With summer coming (yes I know, it does still feel a long way off but it is on its way, I promise) I thought we might turn out eyes to a somewhat warmer place. Today Angela Wren is here to talk about France and what it is that inspired her to write her French set crime novel Messandrierre.
Q: I know you spend a lot of time in France – what is it that is so attractive to you about the country?
Angela: That’s a big question, Viki and I’m not sure I can answer it in anything less than a rather large book! So, France is 6 times the size of GB but only has about the same population size. That means there are vast tracts of land that are open and genuinely wild.
And when you think about the green and rolling countryside of the Limousin, the ruggedness of the coast of Normandie, the vast forests of Aquitaine and the mountains of Rhône-Alpes and Pyrénées, you quickly realise that it is a country of contrasts and extremes. As I travel around it seems as if there’s a whole world of scenery within its borders.
Add to that the sunshine, the pace of life – I swear rural French clocks run more slowly than English ones – that quintessentially French attitude to everything and the culture and you have, what is to me, a fascinating and intriguing place to be. I feel very relaxed and very much at home there. In addition, the place never fails to amaze me, because there is always something new around the corner: a different nuance to a word or phrase to remember, a missed bit of history to discover, a new village or town to visit and explore properly. I don’t think I will ever be bored with France.
Q: I see why France is the influence for your books, but why the Cévennes and where exactly is this?
Angela: The Cévennes is a mountainous area that centres around Monts Aigoual and Lozère in central southern France and sits on the south-eastern flank of the Massif Central. It’s part of the Languedoc-Rousillon region, to be precise. It’s a vast untamed area with tiny hamlets and rugged, wild uplands in between.
It was whilst I was there in 2007 that I had the idea for using the area as a backdrop to my novel Messandrierre. I’d been following Robert Louis Stevenson’s trail through the area and I had his book, Travels with a Donkey, with me as my guide.
It was September, and overnight the weather changed dramatically, and I awoke to find snow on the ground. What had been a sparse, richly coloured autumnal expanse interrupted by the dark green inkiness of the dense pines was suddenly a wide and bright white vista that seemed to stretch on forever. As I took a few moments to watch the snow and gaze at the mountain tops, the thought that misdeeds could be so easily hidden here floated across my mind and the first few lines of the book were born.
‘I died beneath a clear autumn sky in September, late in September when warm cévenol afternoons drift into cooler than usual evenings before winter steals down from the summit of Mont Aigoual.
My shallow grave lies in a field behind an old farmhouse. There was no ceremony to mark my death and no mourners, just a stranger in the darkness spading soil over my body. Only the midnight clouds cried for me as they brought their first sprinkling of snow to the tiny village of Messandrierre.’
Q: Does that mean there are real places in your books?
Old City of Mendes
Angela: My village is fictional, as are all the characters with which it is populated, but it is modelled in size and detail on the real village where I always stay. For the book, I had to move the chateau and turn it into ruins, fell a few trees and build some hunting chalets so that Messandrierre would properly support the story I wanted to tell.
Mende, the principle city of the département of Lozère, is referenced in the book several times and a specific incident occurred there that relates to the disappearances that my hero, Jacques Forêt, investigates. It also features in the second book in the series which is called, Merle. That is the name I’ve given to a fictitious suburb in Mende where a murder takes place. Mende, in reality, is a fascinating place with a rich and varied history, and during the 1939/45 war, it was part of Vichy France. It is well worth a visit for anyone in the area.
Q: Using a 19th century journal as a travel guide rather than a modern guide is different… But why? Very little can be the same surely?
Angela: Stevenson, like me had a great interest in history and as he moves from place to place he comments on what he finds there and how that matches with, or not, his expectations as a result of the history. He also dismisses some places and items of interest unfairly, in my view. He travelled through the Cévennes in late September and into October, but I think the best time to be there is in June and July. For me, the book was like having an old and trusted friend with me. As I visited Luc, or crossed the bridge into Langogne, or sat eating my lunch by the bridge in Pont de Montvert, I could debate with, or challenge, RLS in my thoughts. For example, the bridge across the Tarn at Montvert dates from the 17th century. Just think about that for a minute. Not only did Stevenson cross that single bridge, so did any number of others, a knight perhaps, merchants and drovers, maybe a troubadour or two, who knows, but it’s sometimes good to just speculate about history.
Of course, the best part of making such journeys is to write about them afterwards and my last trip to the Cévennes provided enough material for a series of blogposts about the area. Following Stevenson
Q: What are your plans for your next book and your next trip to France?
Angela: The second book, Merle, is with the publisher for editing and should be out later this year. The third book, Montbel, is my current work in progress and is at an early stage but hopefully will be available sometime next year.
As for France, I’ve been poring over my maps and I will be heading out there pretty soon. I’m planning on meandering across the Vivarais plateau in search of WWII history and I will have a very interesting book with me as my guide too!
Thank you Angela! That’s been a fascinating chat. Tell us a bit more about you and your latest release.
My first novel, Messandrierre, is set in France, where I like to spend as much time as possible each year and was published in December 2015. The follow-up, Merle, is with the publisher for editing and will be available later in the year. I am also working on an anthology of alternative fairy tales which I intend to self-publish.
About the Book… Sacrificing his job in investigation following an incident in Paris, Jacques Forêt has only a matter of weeks to solve a series of mysterious disappearances as a Gendarme in the rural French village of Messandrierre.
But, as the number of missing persons rises, his difficult and hectoring boss puts obstacles in his way. Steely and determined, Jacques won’t give up and, when a new Investigating Magistrate is appointed, he becomes the go-to local policeman. Will he find the perpetrators before his lover, Beth, becomes a victim?
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