A Literary World: An interview with Vanessa Couchman
A Literary World
An interview with Vanessa Couchman
I am honoured to have as my guest today, the internationally acclaimed author, Vanessa Couchman. I have known Vanessa for a few years now. She writes historical fiction with a French flavour, and as I am a self-confessed Francophile, her books and blogs are always guaranteed to get me in.
Welcome to A Literary World, Vanessa. It’s great to have you here with us. Tell us about your background? When did you decide to become an author?
Books and reading were in my family. When I was quite tiny, my mother read to me in bed every night and inspired my love of stories. She was very keen on history, which I have inherited from her, and many of the stories she chose had a historical theme or background. So it’s no surprise that I chose to write in this genre.
I don’t think I ever took a conscious decision to become an author. I started making up my own stories almost as soon as I could write. The Greek and Norse myths appealed to me as did anything to do with magic and witches. I also wrote some rather bad poetry. However, education and career intervened for many years, so a long gap elapsed before I took up writing again.
When we moved to Southwest France in 1997, I set up my own business as a management consultant and corporate writer for clients. This kept me very busy but still allowed time to write fiction again. I then joined an online expat writing community, Writers Abroad, which was brilliant. The other members had so much experience and skill and I learned a huge amount from them. I started with short stories but then decided to try my hand at something longer. Serendipity works in strange ways, and my first novel, The House at Zaronza, was based on a true story about an forbidden love affair and hidden letters that we unearthed only by chance during a holiday in Corsica.
What are your novels about and where are they set?
The settings are a very important element of my novels. My books are set in two places: Corsica and France. My love affair with the island of Corsica began in 2003, when we made our first visit of six so far. The island and its history and culture captivated me. It has been part of France for 250 years but has an atmosphere all its own. My Tales of Corsica series is set there. The House at Zaronza is set in the early 20th century and goes beyond WWI. The Corsican Widow is set during the 18th century, when Corsica was struggling for independence against its then owners, Genoa. The two books are connected by being set partly in the same house. I plan a WWII addition to the series and possibly others.
The other setting is France, where I live, and where my Alouette Trilogy is set. It spans the period from the 1890s to 1945. The series follows the fortunes of a young woman, born to a modest farming family in the Aveyron region of Southwest France. She has a remarkable singing voice and wants to become a professional singer. Since I know the region so well, it was a no-brainer to set some of it down here, but it also moves to Paris, America and elsewhere. A prequel, Augustine, and Book I, Overture, are already published, and I am working on the rest of the series.
Overall, the central characters in my books are strong women who are disadvantaged by life and must surmount the barriers to achieve their aims.
Can you tell us about your latest novel?
My latest novel is Book II in the Alouette Trilogy, provisionally entitled Intermezzo. This continues the story of the opera singer, Marie-Thérèse Vernhes, who takes the stage name Ida Vernet. The story takes place in WWI and includes spying as well as a lot of singing! I’ll admit that I have been working on this for more than two years, since I had a bit of a writing hiatus during Covid. However, it is about two-thirds written, and I hope to publish it this year.
The final book in the trilogy, Finale, is already on the drawing board and will take place during WWII, but I have a good deal of research to do before I will be ready to start writing.
What sort of research did the stories require?
Since the Alouette Trilogy covers almost 70 years and two world wars, there has been an awful lot of research to do. First, about the history of the period. Second, about how people lived in rural areas in France during a time when there was huge social upheaval, and the rural world changed significantly. Tracking down contemporary photos and accounts has been important here. Third, about life in Paris, where the trilogy partly takes place. Finally, about the world of singing and opera. I have had to make some educated guesses at times, but that’s not uncommon in historical fiction.
Many of the sources are in French, but having lived here for so long, I’m now pretty fluent, so fortunately that didn’t pose a problem. Some sources are hard to get hold of. For example, in Intermezzo, the main character is invited to sing with le Théâtre des Armées, which entertained French troops at the Western Front. I have tracked down a detailed memoir by an actress who performed with the company, but this is in a library in Paris, which is 600 km from here, so a trip there is de rigueur.
Are the characters based on real people?
The character of Marie-Thérèse in the Alouette Trilogy is very loosely based on Emma Calvé, an opera singer who was one of the stars of her era (late 19th/early 20thcentury). She died in 1942. Emma Calvé was born in Aveyron, was singled out early on for her wonderful voice and struggled to make headway for a while. She later became wildly successful and led an extravagant and glamorous lifestyle. However, although there are parallels between the actual and the fictional women, this is not a retelling of Emma Calvé’s life. She even appears in the novels as a character, since she is Marie-Thérèse’s idol. Marie-Thérèse has her own personality, which is not the same as Emma’s
Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?
I think it should, but unfortunately the same themes tend to recur in reality because our collective memory is short.
What do you think is the secret to writing a good story? Are there any?
If I knew the secret, I would bottle it and sell it! When writing historical fiction, I guess the important thing is not to let the history and the research overshadow the story. I believe people read fiction because they want to be transported to a different world and step into fictional characters’ shoes. In historical fiction, developing a believable world is crucial while also creating characters that people can identify with, even though they are separated by centuries.
Do you have a special writing space?
I sit on one side of a partners’ desk, with a view of our garden, while my husband occupies the other. We have worked like that for years, and he has learned not to interrupt me when I am busy writing.
Is there a special time of day that you like to write?
I prefer to write in the morning. If I don’t, it doesn’t get done.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do to chill out?
I’m very keen on music, and I love singing, although with Covid the opportunities for that have been very limited. Walking is a favourite pastime, and we love to walk in the Cantal, a mountainous region in central France. Gardening and cooking are near the top of the list, too.
Who are your favourite authors?
A difficult question! There are so many. If I must choose: Maggie O’Farrell, Hilary Mantel, Hannah Kent, Marcel Pagnol, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant.
Vermeer. There will be an exhibition of his paintings in Amsterdam next year, which I would love to see.
Favourite piece of music?
Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I never tire of hearing it.
What’s next for you?
Finish the Alouette Trilogy. I also want to visit Corsica again soon to research for the next book in the Tales of Corsica series.
Thank you Vanessa. The backstory to your books is most interesting. Your books on Corsica intrigue me because I visited the island a few years ago and found it to be quite different to other parts of France, which I imagine was inspiring for your novels. I am also looking forward to learning more about Marie-Thérèse in the Alouette Trilogy. When you mentioned Le Théâtre des Armées, you had me scurrying off to find out more about it – a whole subject in itself. Perhaps you might come back and tell us more about that in the not too distant future. On behalf of my readers, I wish you continued success.
Blog about life in France: https://vanessafrancewordpress.com
Amazon Author Page http://author.to/VanessaCouchman