Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to author Susanne O’Leary about what France means to her.
Susanne O’Leary is the bestselling author of more than 20 novels, mainly in the romantic fiction genre. She has also written three crime novels and two in the historical fiction genre. The wife of a former diplomat, she has also been a fitness teacher and a translator. She now writes full-time from either of two locations, a rambling house in County Tipperary, Ireland or a little cottage overlooking the Atlantic in Dingle, County Kerry. When she is not scaling the mountains of said counties, or doing yoga, she keeps writing, producing a book every six months.
1) I think France is a special place and it is famed for many things including its cheese, wine and diverse holiday locations plus, dare I say it strikes and dog poo littered streets. What do you think makes France so very unique and ‘French’?
Susanne: France has a very strong identity, proud of its language and culture. What makes it unique are the age-old traditions and the rhythm of daily life. The queuing for a fresh baguette twice a day, the food market, the patisserie for Sunday lunch, kissing on both cheeks, in short, the very elegance of daily life. And the chic women, the little boutiques, the strict etiquette when it comes to being polite. Not to mention that blend of coffee, fresh bread, garlic and a whiff of petrol fumes wafting around any French town. It’s a kind of oh-la-la-ness that hits you every time you go there.
2) What is your first memory of a trip to France?
Susanne: The very first time I went to France, I was 15 and I was staying with a French family in Annecy, Haute Savoie. I was educated in a French lycee in my native Stockholm, so my French was quite good, but being in an all-French speaking environment was new to me. I remember how impressed I was with the beauty of the town and the views of the snow-covered Alps across the lake.
3) You spent four years living in France, can you tell us what the best thing about being immersed in French life was and the scariest thing?
Susanne: The best thing was living in Paris, my favourite city. I swear I woke up every morning with a smile on my face, whispering: ‘I’m in Paris’ to myself. I loved hearing French all around me and having all that French culture on tap, like French movies in the cinema around the corner, the little art galleries and the museums. Also sitting at cafés people-watching and browsing in the quaint shops on the Left Bank. I loved the French countryside too, that ‘Douce France’ kind of living in little villages when we were on holiday.
The scariest thing? Minding two very lively boys and making sure they were safe and I knew where they were at all times. One of my boys, age 10, once got lost cycling through the Bois de Boulogne. I was in bits before we found him. He was completely cool about it and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.
4) Do you have any top tips for learning French? Or maybe an embarrassing language mishap you are happy to share?
Susanne: I think the best way to start, would be to learn the verbs avoir and être (to have and to be) by heart, and to try your very best to learn French pronunciation. As I started French at a very early age, I think I learnt the language like a child, so it all came gradually with a feel for the language without even thinking about grammar.
5) Imagine you are sitting outside a French café at 10.00am on a sunny morning watching the world go by, what do you order from the waiter?
Susanne: I would order un café crème(aka ‘café au lait’) and a croissant. Love that combination.
6) France has many different cheeses, a silly question, but which French cheese are you? A hard and mature Tome, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or maybe the salty and serious Roquefort?
Susanne: Definitively a Reblochon. Hard on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, with a touch of dangerous bacteria.
7) Every region in France has a culinary specialty, do you have a favourite regional dish?
Susanne: I love bouillabaisse, that fragrant fish soup from the south of France.
8) France has some beautiful cities and there are a few that constantly battle to be my favourite, what is your favourite French city and why?
Susanne: I adore Paris. I would have loved to have lived there permanently. So many reasons; the food, the culture, the friendly (yes, I swear) people, the buzz and all the different historical parts and museums and art galleries and boutiques and cute restaurants…
9) How does France inspire your writing?
Susanne: First of all, the many beautiful vistas, and then the history and the beautiful architecture. So much more, the air and smells of Provence, the buzz of Paris, the food and wine. The elegance of the women. The handsome men. And the language.
10) With plenty of space and lovely scenery France is a great place to explore. If you were to take a day off from writing where in France would you go?
Susanne: I would go to Provence. Especially Antibes, which has all of the things I love about France, plus the sunshine and the glorious, azure Mediterranean.
Finally, your latest novel The Road Trip, sees two characters travelling through France in a convertible (my dream holiday), can you let us have a sneak peek at some of the places they visit and things they experience?
Maddy and Leanne have a special dream of driving through Paris in a sports car, like in the song ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, so they do just that. A snippet:
They continued up Rue de Rivoli, driving slowly, the top down, with Leanne humming the tune of ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ while she drove. ‘Oh, this is what I dreamed of,’ she said with a blissful smile. ‘I can die happy now.’
‘Thank God for that.’ Maddy managed to take a few shots of Leanne at the wheel with a backdrop of the shopfronts of Rue de Rivoli, and the Luxor Obelisk as they drove across Place de la Concorde. They continued up the Champs-Élysées, around Place Charles de Gaulle, glancing up at the magnificent Arc de Triomphe while all around them traffic roared and car horns tooted.
Then they go and visit the famous cathedral in Chartres which, apart from La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, has the most beautiful stained-glass windows in France.
The cathedral of Chartres was mind-blowing to Maddy. Not expecting anything more than an old Gothic church, she nearly stopped breathing when she looked up and saw the vast stained-glass windows, their jewel colours glowing in the dim light, throwing splashes of red, green and blue on the stone floor. She had read in the guidebook that the cathedral was built in 1260 on the foundations of an earlier church that had burnt down in the previous century, but she had had no idea of its magnificence. Awestruck, she stood there, looking up and marvelling at the still vivid hues and beautiful shapes.
After that, they head south to Provence, where they stop off first in Orange to see the Roman Theatre, which is truly amazing.
Leanne and Maddy spent an enjoyable half hour walking up and down the different levels of the amphitheatre, amazed at the ancient site and the history behind it. They finally sat down on one of the seats at the very top, looking down at the half circle that made up the front of the theatre. Up here, they were hit by the magnitude of the edifice, and how the stage down there seemed to echo with voices from the past. The sense of history was so strong, they could nearly see ghostly figures in strange costumes moving around, hear the applause from the people on the packed terraces and smell dusty air, thick with atmosphere.
They continue on to Gordes and the lavender fields of the Abbey of Notre Dame de Senanque before they finally arrive in Nice. Then they go to Vence, a little town in the hills above the city, where Leanne’s father has a big villa.
Wow! Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you and giving us a great teaser for the book.
You can read my review of The Road Trip here and follow Susanne here:
The Road Trip is available in ebook and paperback format and links to Amazon can be found below. If you like to travel in France, you’ll love The Road Trip and it’s currently only 99p for the kindle version – bargain!