Posted on 11/15/2018 at 09:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Serendipity has played a crucial role in historical-fiction author Vanessa Couchman’s career.
As a young girl, she dreamed of being the UK’s first female prime minister, but another woman broke the glass ceiling before Couchman could get there, so it was off to other career pursuits.
As a tourist, she randomly chose to stay at the Corsican guesthouse whose owner had discovered a stash of hundred-year-old love letters from a star-crossed couple and now displays them on the walls, rather than the other place under consideration.
The fictionalized version of their story became Couchman’s first novel.
And as a researcher, she found a snippet of Corsican history about yet another tragic couple, who ultimately starred in her second novel.
Of course, those fateful moments (well, at least the latter two) would have gone to waste if they hadn’t happened to someone who has always had the writing bug!
Here’s what Couchman had to say about her lifelong writing journey.
SADYE: What prompted you to start writing and seek publication?
VANESSA: I developed a love of books and reading from a very early age, thanks to my mother, who always had her head in a book!
I began to write my own stories aged around seven or eight. They were mostly about witches and magic. ...
As so often happens, though, the stories we had to write at school – they called them “compositions” – were never on greatly inspiring subjects.
Then, the need to take exams, go to university and finally end up in the world of work meant that I didn’t write anything resembling fiction for a very long time.
Fast forward to about ten years ago, when I had already been living in France for over a decade.
My story-writing fingers began tingling again, and I joined an online community of expat writers, Writers Abroad.
Other members were far more experienced and accomplished writers than me, and they taught me a huge amount about the craft of writing.
My early attempts at short stories were pretty cringe-making, with hindsight, but Writers Abroad’s constructive criticism helped me to improve and inspired me to submit my stories to creative writing competitions and anthologies.
Naturally, I suffered quite a lot of rejections, but I started to chalk up some shortlistings and the odd win. So huge thanks to Writers Abroad – to which I still belong.
SADYE: What exactly made you realize that you should turn a box of long-ago love letters into the novel The House at Zaronza?
VANESSA: The letters were written by the village schoolmaster in the 1890s to the daughter of the house.
Her parents would have disapproved of their relationship, so they met in secret and hid their messages in a private letter-drop.
She had to marry someone else, and the schoolmaster left the village. What a story!
This really got me asking myself a lot of questions: How did they meet? What was it like to live in a Corsican village at that time? What happened to them both? What was the man she had to marry like? And plenty more.
I wanted to fill in the gaps in the story and follow their lives.
I had been thinking about turning my hand to novel writing, since I fancied the idea of developing something more sustained than a short story.
As our vacation progressed, I began to reflect more and more on this story of star-crossed lovers. I realized that here was my novel.
When I returned home, I couldn’t wait to get started on it.
SADYE: With hindsight being 20/20, what would you tell your younger self in regards to writing?
VANESSA: Well, you know, I really regret that long gap (I’m not saying how long!) when I wrote no fiction at all. I feel I have a lot of ground to make up.
If I could say just one thing, it would be, “Don’t give up; don’t be discouraged. Write what you want to write, follow your instincts and just keep at it.”
SADYE: What is your favorite part about being an expat writer?
VANESSA: Moving from the UK to France in 1997 opened up new horizons to me.
Not only did I have to (re)learn the language, but I also discovered a whole lot about French history and culture.
I describe myself as a history nut. I majored in history at university and have an abiding interest in how people lived in past times.
We live in the southwest of France, a region steeped in history, where every village, every house, has its story. I love to visit these places.
I also love to root out what I call the “little” stories, those that have never made the front pages or the history textbooks, but reveal what happened to ordinary people during some momentous periods of history.
This is not to say that the UK doesn’t have its historic places and stories – quite the opposite.
But coming to France has been a voyage of discovery, and it has given me more than a lifetime’s worth of ideas for my writing.
SADYE: Why did you and the other authors involved decide to form Ocelot Press?
VANESSA: I and the other eight authors in Ocelot Press are, or were, published by Crooked Cat Books.
We decided to set up an author collective, where we would each retain authorial independence but would support each other in the production, promotion, and marketing of our books.
Between us, we have quite a lot of experience of both trad publishing and self-publishing to draw on.
We all “knew” each other already, even if only virtually, and appreciated each other’s work.
Some of the authors have a foot in both camps, i.e., certain of their books are still with a publisher; others, like me, have opted for the total self-publishing route.
This is the great thing about publishing today; there is no one fixed way of doing it, and you have far more opportunities for experimenting than even ten years ago.
And you might have noticed the link between the cat and the ocelot!
SADYE: Which historical era most fascinates you, and why do you think that is?
VANESSA: Well, as I said earlier, I’m a history nut. My short stories have covered periods from the Middle Ages up to the present.
In my novels, the farthest back I’ve gone is the mid-eighteenth century, in The Corsican Widow, and I don’t think I’d stray much earlier than that.
In a way, a historical novel is the tip of the iceberg that conceals the enormous amount of research you have to do to ensure your story has an authentic setting. It’s fascinating to do it, but hard work if you have to keep starting afresh.
The period of history that most interests me is from the 1890s up to the end of WWII in France. My current project is a two-book story covering just that period.
This was a time when French society changed radically, and it spelled the end of a way of life in the rural areas that had lasted for centuries.
Two world wars took their toll in different but devastating ways, and much of what France is today was formed in that crucible.
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Categories: Author Interview