1 - First things first. What are you having? Name your poison, Jean, or in this case the hot beverage of your choice. Are you a latte or a lemon tea? A shortbread or a chocolate cake? Or perhaps you have some local French delicacy in mind?
JG - Cheesecake and a strawberry milkshake please, seeing as this is a special occasion. I love dairy products!
2 –Let’s get to know a little bit more about how you ended up here on my sofa. A quick bio if you please m’dear. Feel free to shock and entertain us with your exploits to date.
JG - My mother would certainly be shocked to know that I spend a lot of my time talking to strangers and sometimes meeting up with them, in the name of ‘marketing’ and ‘training’. Thanks to the Internet connecting like-minded spirits, I have three friendship networks at the heart of my creative world; our hysterical fiction group J dog forums and photography forums. I didn’t hesitate to accept a lift from an online Slovenian friend to get me from Salzburg Airport to a small village in Austria for a photography workshop with a group of total strangers. As expected, we all got on just as well in person as online.
Before moving to France and expanding these three passions – writing, photography and dogs – I taught English in Wales. My claim to fame is that I was the first woman to be a secondary Headteacher in the Welsh county of Carmarthenshire and although there were many difficult aspects to the job, it gave me great satisfaction. However, Wales is wet and I needed time to write so, when my husband retired, we headed for Provence and sunshine.
My life has been crazy-busy with five children, who are all very tolerant of my oddities; I grew one baby myself from a seed and accumulated the others along the way, as teenagers.
3 – How did you get into writing and which came first, the photography or your novels?
JG - University studies of English Literature stopped me writing for a few years. Writers were ‘great men’ and I was a very ordinary woman. Who was I to think I could write? Then a need to express myself led to poetry, and to shaping that poetry for others to read. I turned to prose at 40 J Maybe, as Wendy Cope says, I wasn’t miserable enough for poetry J
Moving to France in 2003 turned me into a photographer. I started sending a regular album to family and friends as a sort of diary, then I had articles on lifestyle and food accepted by France Magazine so I had to shoot the accompanying images. For my cookbook ‘A small cheese in Provence: cooking with goat cheese’ I created the recipes and shot all the food images. My husband grew used to being told ‘Your meal will be on the table in 10 minutes; I just have to shoot it’. The book mixes local landscapes, some shot by my husband, with cheese-related quotations and of course, all the info and recipes for goat cheese. I still love shooting food and my photos have appeared in cookbooks and magazines, which gives me a big kick.
I’ve worked hard, learned from the pro friends I’ve been lucky enough to meet online and my photography balances the writing perfectly. Photography gets me out and about, living in the moment and I get instant gratification. A novel takes two years to complete, including all the historical research. Also, I now earn money from my photography, more than from my writing.
4 – What was the first thing you had published and how did you go about it?
JG - I sent my poems away to Johnathon Clifford, Editor of the National Poetry Foundation, and he collected a few at a time until there were enough he considered worth publishing in ‘With Double Blade’ 1988. I owe Johnathon thanks for the quality of his editing and support, not just for being my first publisher.
5 – From your experience do you have any tips for those not yet published?
JG - Good editing is rare and essential. Regardless of whether you seek a traditional publisher or self-publish, find a good editor! Nowadays, publishers expect a typescript to be polished and well-edited so forget any idea of an editor turning your rough diamond into a gem – those days are gone. If you don’t know any editors, I can recommend Famelton Writing Services These are people I trust and their prices are up-front.
6 – I love to genre hop, how about you? Do you write in a specific genre? Which is your favourite and why? Is there a particular genre or type of scene that you would avoid and if so why?
JG - I am the Queen of Genre-Hoppers with 15 books published, including historical novels, military history, autobiography, poetry, translated books on dog-training and YA. I love all my babies but it is especially pleasing to see ‘Someone to look up to’ in amazon uk’s top dog books because it’s based on the true story of a rescue dog.
JG - Last year was an experiment in marketing methods and it says it all that my amazon No 1 bestseller had no marketing at all! You just never know what you did right so it’s worth trying a variety of Internet approaches – goodreads, giveaways,ebook promotions. Smashwords has a useful free guide to book promotion. This year I have a novel to write and I will only do the marketing I enjoy and that allows my readers to reach me. I like blogging Here and I love chatting over coffee with other writers and readers J. I also love hearing from readers and always reply.
8 – As a child which was your favourite book? Were you read to as a child and did that develop your love of books? Do you have a favourite book and author now? What are you reading now?
I remember ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio as a special time with Mummy when I was about six, and ‘Five Minute Tales’ was the obligatory book at bedtime, so yes, I think my parents started and encouraged my habit. ‘Jean always has her nose in a book’ was just a fact. I discovered Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ at my grandfather’s house and knew at once that my real parents were a black panther and a bear.
I can’t imagine not being in the middle of a book and always feel a sense of loss when I finish one that really gripped me. I have hundreds of favourites, too many to mention, but I do like a good, complicated but coherent story. I feel flattered that reviews have compared my historical novels to those of Dorothy Dunnett. I love her Lymond and Niccolo series.
I’ve always read a lot of non-fiction for research, and for pleasure, everything from popular maths to evolutionary theory. I’ve just finished a great book on ‘Night Photography’ by Lance Keimig and I’ve started a biography by Carolyn Burke. ‘Lee Miller, both sides of the camera’ is about an amazing American photographer, who was also a very beautiful model, born in 1906. I was hoping for inspiration but the start shows how traumatic her young life was so I’m re-thinking!
9. – Can you give us a hint at what you have planned next?
I’m deep in the 12th Century again for my third novel about the Troubadours, Dragonetz and Estela. I spent last year on research and letting the story stew in my imagination and am happy with all the possibilities in my head, the politics and romance, dangers and settings. Although I have a vague idea of the story, the characters will determine what actually happens, within the constraints of historical fact. This is why I need to be steeped in the history of the time so I know what is possible and what isn’t. It’s a very challenging genre and my readers will pick up on any mistakes, not only in the history but also in continuity from the earlier two books. The fans of my historical novels definitely keep me on my toes!
I do play music while I write and thanks to your recommendation Santa bought me Sting’s ‘If on a winter night’, which is perfect. In each Troubadours book a different song of the period has been a motif re-appearing throughout the story and the new one will continue this pattern. I can reveal here that ‘the song’ for my Troubadours book will be ‘O Ignee Spiritus’ by Hildegard von Bingen, an amazingly talented 12thC physician and composer, abbess of an Alsace convent. I do play medieval troubadour songs while I’m writing and this is a superb recording of Hildegard’s work, including the key song for my novel. For the lyrics quoted in English in my books, I translate from French and Latin, and for the Occitan I work from the French, English and Occitan versions. I also confess to a weakness for heavy rock and if you call round while I’m writing, I might not hear you ring the bell because I’m playing Metallica at full volume. My musical tastes are as wide as my writing!
10 – And tell us even more about the one you’ve brought with you. I did explain about reading an excerpt later didn’t I? Oh good. Don’t think you get coffee and cake for nothing.
JD - I’ve chosen ‘How Blue is my Valley’ because it’s my bestseller and because it’s likely to be the only autobiography I’ll ever write. Imagine me with a laptop, in the only corner of an old French house that isn’t being demolished by workmen in the name of renovation, with no idea of the plot because I’m writing what happens, as it happens, and you can imagine how stressful it was writing this book. For some reason that makes people laugh J
JD - He’s big, independent and would fight to the death to protect someone he loves; Sirius, a dog you won’t forget. (the Pyrenean Mountain dog in ‘Someone to look up to’)
12 – While I top up your coffee would you like to read a short excerpt from your book?
How Blue is my Valley (autobiography about moving to France)
It is true, however hard to believe; I am wishing for rain. I am a changed person after four months without the wet stuff (unless you count a few drops which didn’t even change the colour of the paving stones).
We play out the scene in ‘Jean de Florette’ where the townie shakes his fist at departing thunderclouds which have passed by his garden yet again. We use all our old standard guaranteed rain starters. We hang out the washing, John waters the garden, we walk the dogs… nothing works. The air steams with humidity, our shirts run with sweat, we snap at each other as we wait for the storm that doesn’t come. It is like going through labour without giving birth. We are exhausted by two complete days of nearly-about-to-rain-honestly-perhaps-well, maybe not. Then the sun comes out again and we get on with our rainless lives.
It is August so all roadworks are suspended while the council workers holiday. Even my optician is shutting up shop and I won’t be able to get my new varifocals until he comes back, by which time I will have thought of a way to raise the required cash. If you live in Dieulefit, where do you go for your holidays? My optician is off to … Ireland.
When he heard I was from Wales, he sniggered, then apologised. I asked him to explain, He said, ‘No, I shouldn’t say,’ I said, ‘Go on,’ and eventually, he did. He had just watched a film about a mountain in Wales, no, he corrected himself, about the mountain in Wales. Did I know how high it was? I did. He laughed, ‘And they are proud of it.’ I told him that if he only had one mountain, he’d be proud of it too.
I ask about Ireland to distract myself from the pain of the estimate, barely eased by having a pair of prescription sunglasses thrown in – for that price I should be getting a cute guide dog thrown in. My optician is looking forward to the countryside, the culture, the people, the unspoilt beaches, the swimming… The swimming? Ireland is a lot like Wales, I tell him, gently, and it might not be as hot or as sunny, as it is here. I don’t tell him that I remember the swimming all too well … every time I opened my back door.
When I walk out of his shop, I can see the encircling mountains, the ridge of Dieu Grace, the St Maurice range, Mielandre … all of them around a thousand metres or more and considered nothing by the locals, who live within an hour of the Alps.
It finally rains, with cymbals and drums that send Sensitive Dog into a frenzy. She has almost got over her fear of men in yellow jackets, thanks to the daily immersion therapy provided by Dieulefit council; she’s no longer scared of ambulances and fire-engines as she now sings along - the particular note in French sirens has taught her to howl for the first time in her life; she has not had a recurrence of the blue-balloon-in-the-sky trauma; fire risks have led to a fireworks ban so we are spared that bout of hysteria; but the natural bangs in the sky turn a dog, supposedly of the only breed capable of taking on a wolf, into a hyperventilating, shaking, whining Mummy’s girl.
'Laugh out loud in many places, this autobiography from Welsh writer and photographer Jean Gill tells the tale of her first year in Provence - complete with challenging situations and thought-provoking musings. Jean takes readers on a tour of the beautiful Drome area, painting such a vivid picture of the fields of lavender, sunflowers and olive trees that you could almost be there with her.' Living France Magazine
The true scents of Provence?
Lavender, thyme and septic tank.
There are hundreds of interesting things you can do in a bath but washing dishes is not one of them, nor what writer Jean Gill had in mind when she swopped her Welsh Valley for a French one. Keen to move out of the elephant's stomach, that stew of grey mists called weather in Wales, she offered her swimming certificate to a bemused Provencale estate agent and bought a house with good stars and its own spring-water. Or rather, as it turns out, a neighbour's spring-water that is the only supply to the kitchen, which, according to the nice men from the Water Board, is emptying its dirty water directly and illegally onto the main road... and there's worse ...
But how can you resist a village called Dieulefit, `God created it', the village 'where everyone belongs'.
Discover the real Provence in good company ...
You can find out more about Jean at the following places :
15– And finally if you’ve been paying attention to previous posts we’re playing a little game that I hope all my guests will contribute to. Can you give me 100 words of your choosing to follow on from this? your last line will be picked up by the next guest... and so on:
JD - I always give 101% so I’m afraid it’s 101 words J
His gimlet-eyes spotted a figure standing in the gaping maw of the alley…
The figure was indeed grey but no woman. In the flickering lamplight , he saw grey fur, oddly matted and sticky. Balefire eyes pinned him to the pavement; invisible claws ripped into his most private thoughts.
‘Rose,’ the gruffness invaded his mind seeking something, someone… ‘Rose, come back…’ and his elfness melted, turning, returning with a stab of pain to her own Rose self. ‘They turned the power up too high,’ a voice pawed at her, sheathing its claws in velvet.
‘I had to find you,’ Rose said, remembering.
‘You found me,’ said the greyness, wrapping the girl in soft fur.
Thanks so much for joining me at The Coffee House today, Jean. It's been great fun and a privilage to learn a little more about your life. Good luck with all your future endeavours.