Part 1 - The Nitty Gritty!
Q - You portray France and French attitudes very well in The Chapel in the Woods, have you lived in France and if so, where. What did you like and dislike about it?
A - I lived in France for seven years and I spent three of them in a remote village on the edge of the Marchenoir forest near Beaugency. I loved French country living and the way the French celebrate food; every meal is a ritual carefully prepared for its savour and texture. A Frenchman describing a meal is animated with such emotion that it could be likened to a piece of theatre. In the countryside their relationship with food starts at source, either growing or gathering their food wild and then conserving and storing it and really capitalising on their surroundings. The only thing I didn’t like was being so far away from my family – but you can’t have everything!
Q - What made you write this particular story? It’s very complex – 3 time periods , woven together exceptionally well.
A - In the woods near my home was a derelict chapel in a clearing of sumptuous grass. Next to the chapel were a natural pond and a cherry tree that dipped its branches beneath the lily pads. On a walk I wondered why the chapel was built there and why it was subsequently abandoned. I asked about it in the village and I was told of a rumour that an English priest had hidden in the woods when he had escaped from strife in England. I immediately thought of Thomas Beckett and his flight from Henry II. Of course, this rumour is not substantiated but it sowed the seed for The Chapel in the Woods and I began to wonder who else may have used these woods through the centuries and my character Hélène Godard, SOE Agent was created. Every part of our world has witnessed thousands of years of activity well before we existed and I find myself fascinated by what may have gone before.
Q - The way you described the village and the French was central to my enjoyment of The Chapel in the Woods. I know you are to start writing a new novel soon, will this also depict life in a similar vein?
A - I’ve always been interested in the mechanism of community and belonging; probably because I have travelled so much in my life and never really stayed anywhere long enough to belong. So, yes the new novel is based on a fictitious Cornish seaside village with its characters and conflicts, habits, beliefs and rituals particular to the region.
Q - The Chapel in the Woods is your first novel. Have you written anything else in the past? Short stories, etc.
A - I’ve been writing all my life but as an adult I have written a radio play about a Cornish chimney sweep, a handful of short stories and some poetry.
Q - How long did it take you to write The Chapel in the Woods and was this on a part-time or full-time basis?
A -CITW was written for the most part part-time over several years whilst bringing up children, finishing off my degree and working, but if I put the time spent on it all together it would have taken 18 months full-time.
Q - Who was your favourite character in The Chapel in the Woods? Why?
A - My favourite character is Hélène; she is brave and level headed with a no-nonsense attitude to life. Michaud comes a close second with his gallantry and solid reliability.
Q - Are there any scenes that you cut? If so, why? Do you wish you had left them in?
A - CITW has been through many titles and many edits but every cut I made was the right one and I don’t regret them.
Q - Did you always know what the ending was going to be? Or did you have more than one possibility?
A - I didn’t know precisely what the ending would be though I had several ideas. I decided to rely on my characters who, as they developed, dictated the twisting and turning of the plot in line with their hopes and fears. It was the characters who wrote this story, not I!
Q - Was there any part of The Chapel in the Woods you found difficult to write? If so, why? Which scenes did you enjoy writing most?
A - Yes, the execution of Philippe Cottereau was very trying. I read a huge amount about the SOE including their training manual. I learned the very basics of the earliest codes used by the SOE to be able to put myself in Hélène’s shoes to imagine the fear and pressure these brave men and women must have been under transmitting from hiding places all over France and the courage they must have had to take another person’s life for necessity.
Q - Can you tell us about your new work? Will it have one or more time periods? Where is it set?
A - My new work covers a single time period though it may dot around within that period as and when information needs to be revealed. All I can say at the moment is that it has a very Cornish flavour.
Q - When do you anticipate the new novel being ready?
A - I hope to publish it in March 2013.
Q - Are you likely to write about France in future novels, or indeed any other countries?
A - Yes, I have several ideas for further novels set in France and one in Greece.
Q - If you weren’t an author, which other talent do you have/wish you had and what would you like to do with it?
A - If I wasn’t an author, though I can’t ever imagine not writing, I would love to try my hand at restoring old properties. I love old buildings and the historical secrets they hold.
Q - What genres do you like to read, which are your favourite books and which authors have influenced you?
A - I like to read a range of genres though I’m not keen on science fiction. I love Joanne Harris and Sebastian Faulks but my favourite book of all time has to be John Fowles: The Magus.
Part 2 - The Fun Stuff!
Rupert Penry Jones – yes or no? Yes to RPJ!
Which star sign are you? Are you typical of your sign? - Sagittarius. Yes, I think I am a typical one – stalwartly loyal, adventurous and always land on my feet no matter how close to the wind I sail.
Favourite French word? Pantoufles (slippers) which I consider to be almost onomatopoeic for cosiness!
Favourite French Meal – Langoustine and Crème Brulée win it every time for me.
Favourite place in France - Place des Vosges in Paris is my favourite place in France; home of Victor Hugo, and lots of stylishly rustic antique shops and cafés.
Favourite film - I like so many films it’s tricky but I would say Midnight Cowboy, Amélie and A Good Year.
If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? My problem is that I have to live in just one place. For me it would be ideal to have a place in my hometown of Oxford, another in the Western French Pyrenees and of course one in Cornwall.
Heroes and heroines – literary and otherwise? Jean Paget of Nevil Shute’s A Town like Alice is one of my heroines and for a hero I think it would be Henry from Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveller’s Wife.
If you had a time machine, which era would you go back to? I’d love to go back to the Victorian times to perfect manners.
Who would you most like to find seated next to you on a long-haul flight? Jean Reno!
Describe your ideal man - Tall, muscular, little round glasses, an Arran cable knit jumper and an abounding sense of humour and imagination.
Well, thanks to Susan for those detailed answers. We look forward to her new novel and for now, if you fancy experiencing French village life, you can buy The Chapel in The Woods here:-