|From the Writing Desk of Carol Drinkwater|
From the writing desk, of Carol Drinkwater
Welcome to the French Village Diaries interview feature, From the Writing Desk, where this week, to coincide with the release of her new novel, An Act of Love, I am delighted to be (virtually) joining actress and author Carol Drinkwater at her writing desk in France.
Carol Drinkwater, known for her award-winning portrayal of Helen Herriot in the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, is the author of over twenty books for both the adult and young adult market, including the bestselling nonfiction Olive Farm Series of memoirs that recount her experiences on her olive farm overlooking the bay of Cannes. Her fascination with the olive tree inspired two travel books and The Olive Route, a five-part documentary film series following her travels around the Mediterranean. Carol and husband Michel split their time between their farm in the south of France and their home on the outskirts of Paris.
Carol’s memoirs were great comfort reading for me when we moved to France in 2004 and everything felt daunting and different.
Your writing space
Carol, how important is your desk space to your writing? Is it tidy and well-organised or creatively cluttered?
Carol: My desks. I have three – two at the Olive Farm and one at our northern address, outside Paris, where my husband has his editing suites. All of them are extremely cluttered. Every now and again – usually when I have delivered a novel - I tidy up, but in no time at all, the piles grow, the papers shift like desert sands losing all order, covering over everything else and I am obliged to root out for myself a small patch where I can continue to write my notes, scribble thoughts, dates etc. By the way, the desks are all wooden dining tables stolen from other rooms. Two have drawers, the third doesn’t.
Does your desk have a view? If so, does this inspire you or can it distract you?
Carol: Each has a view. The principal one is in my library at the Olive Farm. It looks out across a courtyard to olive trees, a Judas tree, and drystone wall terraces. No, I don’t find looking outwards distracting. I know some writers need a blank wall but that would make me feel shut in, claustrophobic. I like to see the nature, birds and other creatures going about their day. The dogs come and sit at the open terrace doors and snore while I work. I find their presence very reassuring but I would not want them inside on my lap or at my feet. That would be too distracting.
Do you try and write at regular times of the day?
Carol: For work, I am a morning person. When I am deep in a book I like to begin at six or seven in the morning A cup of coffee in my hand, still in my dressing gown or, in summer, a sarong, I pad to my library and settle myself in silence there, tuning in to the dawn chorus beyond the French windows. I am not someone who can write late into the night. I have noticed though since lockdown that my hours are changing. I sleep later, which is something I never used to do.
Writing during Covid-19
As a writer, with a desk and computer at home, work would have continued for you throughout lockdown, but has the pandemic affected your motivation to write?
Carol: Yes, now it is affecting me. Last year, I was editing my new novel AN ACT OF LOVE, and worked almost ceaselessly. Waking at a very early hour and continuing without stop for long stretches. I worked far more intensively than almost ever before. A year on since our first confinement, I am in a very different mental place: I am feeling a little directionless and I am grieving. Friends have died, others are sick. I cannot travel - Michel and I are incessant travellers. I find all these facts hard to deal with. I am at work on a new novel and I am battling with myself to allow myself sink into it. Even settling to this interview has taken me two days!
Do you think the content of your future writing projects will be influenced by the pandemic?
Carol: I think I am influenced by these experiences already and so the heart and soul of me, which is in my work, has been profoundly moved. It does not mean that I will write scenes set around a pandemic but some of the despair, the disappointment at how so much of this has been handled, has changed me. The loss of friends has left an emptiness within me, a sense of no return.
Your latest release
Your latest novel An Act of Love is set during the Second World War. The lockdowns and curfews of this past year are more normal occurrences during war years than in peacetime and have been challenging for many. Can you tell us a bit about An Act of Love and what are you hoping readers will get from this book that will help them cope?
Carol: My heroine, Sara, is seventeen. A brave, courageous and fiery spirit although of course at the outset she has no real sense of her own power. She, along with her parents, escaped Poland before the Germans marched into their country in 1939. They find themselves - after two years on the run, living in hiding – delivered into a mountain village inland from Nice where they are offered an abandoned house to take refuge in. Sara’s story is that of a young woman at the beginning of her adult life wrestling with all those mixed emotions. Her longing for love, romance, freedom, maturity, independence. However, she and her Jewish parents, are refugees. The world is not hers to take, to enjoy as she would like. During the course of the novel she makes some choices that change her and her life forever. She grows up, grows strong and learns that she is the mistress of her universe.
The inspiration for An Act of Love came from the stories from the past that you discovered on a visit to a small Alpine village. How important do you think community is when people are living through difficult times?
Carol: This is a fascinating and very relevant question. Community plays a very important role in this novel and I think that community – learning to share and count on others – can be a huge blessing. A life changer, life saver.
One day, some time in mid-90s, I walked into a village where I discovered that the population of that French village had made the choice to harbour refugees, predominantly Jews, who would have be slaughtered if they had been caught by the Nazis, or sent to camps – at that stage no one knew what those camps meant. I uncovered so many stories of extraordinary heroism. French villagers and immigrants who risked their own lives to help, save others. Acts of love, bravery, decency. I was so inspired by so many of these generous human beings that I was impelled to write a novel about such people. Unsung heroes and heroines.
Life outside of writing
What do you look forward to, when you’ve saved the document and switched off the computer, as your treat at the end of the writing day?
Carol: These days, my desires are very simple things. A glass of wine by the fireside or out on the terrace with my husband. I have learnt to be grateful for what I have, which includes a treasure trove of gifts. If I have achieved a decent day’s work, I am at peace. If not, I take comfort from the fact that there is another day tomorrow, please God, and that I have a very special man at my side who encourages me.
With plenty of space and lovely scenery, France is a great place to explore. If you were to take a break away from the writing desk where in France would you take your picnic?
Carol: Well, aside from a shady spot on our own lovely Olive Farm, I am always attracted to the Calanques area near Cassis (where I set my last novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF). I also love the Camargue, so a windy beach somewhere there and a swim afterwards would suit me down to the ground.
How would you normally celebrate the release of a new novel, and will it be different this year?
Carol: I am usually on a book tour when my latest work is published so lunch or dinner with my publishers. Or with friends if I’m attending a literary festival. This year, I suppose, Michel and I will be together at the farm and it will be a very quiet affair. It is also the week after my birthday! That is fine, I am perfectly happy with the two of us together lifting a glass to a novel that I am extremely proud of and that, I sincerely hope, readers will enjoy as much as I have loved writing it.
I am sure they will. Sara’s story gripped my attention and I lost hours among the pages, my heart in my mouth, fearing for her safety. It is a beautifully descriptive book that will stay with me for a long while yet. Thank you for taking the time out of your writing day to let me join you at your writing desk.
Carol: It has been a pleasure. Thank you for your interest and support.
An Act of Love will be released by Michael Joseph in paperback and ebook format, on 29th April 2021. Join me back here on the blog tomorrow to read my full review.