Sunday, October 21, 2018

Goodbye for now


I have just turned 43 and more than ever, I discover that as a writer, nothing is more regrettable than two activities. 

One: revealing myself when my natural tendency is to opt for secrecy. I would choose evasiveness any time rather than divulge what I am writing or researching. In the past I always felt compelled to say something, describe anything, so as to justify the long writing silences and offer meaning for the months spent in incubation with nothing to show. I would share and share to prove that there was an idea being hatched, that I was authentic and that it was all true and there existed a work in progress. But I won't do that anymore. I don't need to prove myself.

My work is something I would rather not reveal until complete. Either way, when I shared a little in the past, I always sensed a lack of a connection with others about what I was trying to describe. Unless they actually ended up reading the entire completed book, it gave me an uneasy feeling that they had understood nothing. 

Nothing gives me less satisfaction than people knowing what I am up to when they don't really understand it. To make matters worse, given I am likely to remain purposefully enigmatic about the work in progress, then there is no point in speaking much of anything until the deed is done. 

Otherwise it is a waste of time. Which brings me to...

Two: spending time writing long emails, articles, marketing posts or any other self-promoting posts when I would rather be researching and writing; there is nothing wrong with author marketing and I respect it when it makes sense, but if it takes away from my current work in progress, especially when I am so limited in time, then I resent it. 

I feel reluctant to spend that precious commodity, time - there is enough piracy and unfair treatment of writers as it is without compounding the problem. Do you understand? I don't want to write for free unless I am aiding other writers by composing a review of their work. Our books are already cheapened every year as it is. 

I also feel indignant about being a person that I am not. I loathe the reputation that writers have acquired on Twitter or any other social platform - that of being self-promoting, constantly blasting others with posts about their work. It saddens me that it has come to this when in fact writers are the least likely to be self-promoting by default. Many writers chose that medium because they are introverts in the first place and don't enjoy the limelight. Yes, it is annoying to see writers continually rant about their books. Even I am annoyed by it, though I understand it. It doesn't come to mind to non-writers that we have no choice. If we remain quiet, we will not be read. Even those who are traditionally published are called to do their part in marketing. 

Why do writers have to promote themselves so much? You see, the nature of our medium works against us. To illustrate this, I will say, that today, especially today, the public is slow to take up a book from an unknown writer. A couple of readers might give you a chance but for this, they will need to accommodate you, squeeze you in between the known writers they adulate, make time for you. Time is crucial for readers. Why would they read you when they can read Dickens, Hugo, King. I am guilty of the same. I would drop any unknown writer to spend time with Wilkie Collins. But now a different medium like visual arts has an advantage. An unknown person can post a photo on Instagram and it will be seen by thousands because the eye cannot but see. Visual artists have an advantage because the mode of consumption for their work is instant. You cannot read, let alone comprehend, a 300 page book in the flash of a second, but you can effortlessly consume countless images in a matter of minutes. Hence why writers try to grab your attention. 

Anyway it has come to this. I don't want to be the self-promoting writer even if I will not judge others who choose to engage in marketing. But don't worry, I am not contrived. If I have something exciting to share, I will share it.

Since 2010, I have enjoyed posting in this blog - it was fabulous when there was time, but 2019 is going to prove demanding in so many areas of my life that I have no choice but to say goodbye...for now.


This is not the death of this blog. Or maybe it is...

Perhaps I'll start a new one. After all, this was the second blog after Les Nuits Masquées which I held since 2007. I can't believe that I have been blogging for 11 years. 






Saturday, August 4, 2018

Chantilly: A Tale of Carême


I wish I were setting off to the Hofburg Palace in romantic Vienna, but that will have to wait until 2020 when I am in Europe. For now, I am heading to friendly Brisbane where family waits. I have my fourth novel, CHANTILLY, on my Kindle and I can't wait to put on the hat of reader. I am bound to be horrified and realise that there is still much to do, but that's life. I can't see this novel being released for a while. Who knows, it might even be released in France. And so it should! It deserves to be born in France. Marie-Antoine Carême would demand nothing less. 

I have published only three novels, but each time it is the same. I dream up the cover long before the writing is polished. I imagine this book beside a tea set. It has a mint jacket, a familiar pastel hue in 19th century estates. That frivolous word, Chantilly, is a splash of white, its generous curves  dancing just above the middle of the cover.  Blush, peach and light pink flowers bloom across the page, perhaps just above the words "A Tale of Carême". Something like that. Would you have cake with that? Please do.

I've written a blurb too. My goodness, I am terrible. Who does that? 

So you pick up that taunting mint delight and flip to the back to read the blurb. A story about a chef, huh, you mutter as you twirl the tiniest golden spoon in your Assam tea. And hell, why not. 


"From rags to riches, an abandoned child from the worst back streets of Paris will rise to become France's first celebrity chef. 

A heartwarming story of friendship and cake, Marie-Antoine Carême's imagined biography has all the elements of a classic fairy tale.

From the finest patisseries of rue Vivienne, to the dreamlike chateau of Valençay, and all the way to the palaces of Vienna, Carême is swept up in an extraordinary journey, serving desserts for princesses and tsars alike.

But the man who invented the modern toque and revolutionised French cuisine is baffled when Mr Boucher, an ex-maître d'hôtel for the House of Condé, promises to reveal to him the secrets of Chantilly.

Along the way, to help him, is a downtrodden flower vendor, a crippled gastronomic critic, sequestered Spanish princes, and the richest man in France.

But it is the influence of one man that will remain as unforgettable as this wonderful tale.
Because in Carême's words, as in all fairy tales, there is always a prince."

There is always a prince.


A fairy tale, huh. A fairy tale about a 19th century chef. You lay the teaspoon on the pretty saucer. You take a sip and feel a warm rush. And then, it hits you. You realise that you would love a slice of that buttery sponge. And maybe lashings of Chantilly to go with it.

Please do.


Friday, July 6, 2018

An Author's Rant


"Dwelling for months in the forest, in forced isolation, 
she had given birth to this masterful trickery of the mind."  
- Julien's Terror

For all those gentle Goodreads peeps who entered the latest Julien's Terror giveaway, and found themselves unlucky, fear not. I will be running a Bastille Day freebie.

For five days, from Thursday 12 July to Monday 16 July, Julien's Terror will be FREE on Amazon Kindle. This is for all Amazon territories, not just the US.

There were 1555 US entrants and three winners will soon receive their print copy. I have to admit I set up this giveaway in the hope that it would reach those with an interest in the setting and subject of the novel. I hope the winners will enjoy Julien's Terror and are kind enough to post a review on Amazon. (or Goodreads!)

Now bear with me as I want to share a glimpse into my latest novel.

While writing Julien's Terror, I couldn't help but notice something. A little background first. The story is set during the French Revolution, with focus on that narrow period from September 1793 to July 1794 called the Terror, and also during the years following the Terror, which saw the rise of Napoleon and the changing landscape of Paris.


It is erroneous to believe that after the fall of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, change happened overnight and that the people of Paris suffered no more hunger. The Declaration of Human Rights changed little economically. There were still bread shortages resulting from crop failures and extreme bad weather the years before. There was still inflation. In fact inflation worsened in 1795. Following the Terror, after years of social tension, of political and economic uncertainty, there was this surge, this desire for affordable pleasures.

All of a sudden, with the emerging bourgeois middle class, everyone in Paris began to take an interest in feasting like a king, in visiting newly emerging restaurants and cafes, and in feeling special through the consumption of a gastronomy that had once been the privilege of nobles.


It was also a time when the chefs who had once served aristocrats began to offer their creations to the wider public. And then something happened. Dalloyau, the famous pâtisserie chocolaterie, opened its first store on 101 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Back then, it was actually called "Maison de Gastronomie", the House of Gastronomy.

It so happens that in Julien's Terror, my main character, Marguerite visits this store to purchase cakes before something tragic and quite mysterious happens. But I'll say no more...


That same Dalloyau store still stands today in its refurbished glory. I ate a Mille-feuille there during my visit to Paris last year.  Dalloyau is also open in many parts of the world, including Japan and the Middle East. When the first store opened in Paris, in 1802, it was a sensation. For the first time in restaurateur history, customers could "take away". They could purchase cakes and bring them home to enjoy.

One man was paying attention. About a year later, in the winter of 1803-1804, he would open his own pâtisserie boutique on rue de la Paix. He used his boutique as a shop front for his rising popularity as a reputable pastry chef, and for creating his lavish pièces montées destined for diplomatic dinners.

That person was none other than 19th century chef, Marie-Antoine Carême. Carême is barely mentioned in Julien's Terror, because you see, I was saving him for later...like a dessert that I was not yet ready to share.

While writing Julien's Terror, I observed the workings of my mind at all times. What had I just written? First, the mysterious Marguerite enjoys Carême-inspired vols-au-vents at her wedding, then she orders cakes at Dalloyau in Paris, later she sits down at Caffè Florian in Venice, and last she savors a succulent strawberry tart during the traditional strawberry month of May. She really gets around this Marguerite. Julien's Terror is not a frivolous tale, I assure you. Yet those frivolous ideas were flowing, and I couldn't help but tune into them.

It was clear. I was obsessed with cakes.


I was not only obsessed, but I was seeing parallels between Napoleonic France's preoccupations with all that is pâtisserie and gastronomy, and our own present preoccupation with fine pâtisserie - especially high teas, but also pastel-colored maccarons, Croquembouche, the lot daintily presented on porcelain belonging in the 18th and 19th century. This nostalgia is no coincidence. We want to go back there! Wedding cakes today are taking on flower decorations like never before.  Old-fashioned flavours like lavender and violet have returned. That whipped-vanilla-cream word, Chantilly is now in vogue in the English speaking world. There is a resurgence for that sugary time, that sweet indulgence of the 19th century when all the ladies of Paris were aspiring to do exactly what Marie-Antoinette had infamously uttered (a gross exaggeration), and eagerly practising what she had hinted to when she told them, or so they think, to "eat cake".

That's when it struck me. That's when the idea for Chantilly: A Tale of Carême was born.


I am two-thirds of the way through the first draft and I've been eating cake like never before.

If Julien's Terror proves too macabre for some readers, then Chantilly will be a gently whipped delight. Both historical novels cover the Napoleonic period. But whereas Julien's Terror is often distressing, psychologically intriguing, and speaks of real life horrors, Chantilly is rich in sentimentality, a fairy tale written for the heart. And most of all, it celebrates friendship and gastronomy.

I can't wait to share it.







Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Madame de Staël - the woman who defied Napoleon


She excelled in the art of conversation, was a writer, a deep thinker and therefore agitator, and was possibly one of Napoleon's greatest enemies. In the early 19th century, while everyone in France submitted to Napoleon's will or else succumbed to his magnetic force, following him into war throughout Europe, one woman saw him for what he really was. Long before the #metoo age, Madame de Staël stands out as a formidable feminine force against the Napoleonic war machine.

In the first decade of the 19th century, Napoleon's censuring policy was at its peak. A special bureau kept an eye on printers, bookstores and newspapers. In 1800 Napoleon closed down sixty political newspapers, leaving just thirteen. In 1811 this was reduced to eight newspapers - almost all of these supporting him. By 1811 the number of publishing houses was limited by law to no more than eighty. Nothing that was unfavourable to the French Republic was tolerated in print. Madame de Staël's profound socio-political observations were seen as a threat to Napoleon's control of the French Empire.

In a time when the ideal woman had to be beautiful, bear children, but keep her ideas to herself, Germaine de Staël was not only out of line, she was a threat. She was not graceful, was quite loud, and liked nothing better than to tell people what she thought...about everything and in a well-spoken manner, whether this be on art, culture, politics or literature. De Staël published essays, books and letters that expounded on her rather modern views even if these opposed or criticised those held by Napoleon. It seemed that nothing would silence her.


In 1803 Napoleon banned Madame de Staël from being within forty leagues of Paris. Despite the fact that she often continued to sneak in and out of France, she found refuge at her chateau in Coppet, Switzerland. There, isolated from friends and often depressed, she held literary salons and invited her guests, many of them writers, to voice their ideas liberally. Napoleon was so wary of her that he had spies sent out to Coppet to intercept letters and continue to watch her.

In December 1806, while in Prussia, Napoleon wrote to his Police Minister, Fouché with no uncertain terms concerning de Staël's escapades into France, "Do not allow that hussy, Madame de Staël, near Paris." In case you might be thinking this was a bit of an in-joke, nope. Napoleon really did not wish de Staël to come near Paris. In March, he followed up on his previous letter with bolder instructions, "You must execute my commands and ensure that Madame de Staël is not allowed within forty leagues of Paris. That wicked intriguer will in time have to learn to take the wisest course." Was Napoleon obsessed with de Staël? Of course. No news is good news but he just could not cease thinking of her. In mid-April, the emperor wrote again with the words "It gives me pleasure that I have heard no more of Madame de Staël. If I take an interest it is because I have facts to back it up. That woman is a real crow..."

On the publication of her novel, Corinne (2006), literary minds lauded de Staël as a genius. Napoleonic press had none of it, and the Gazette de France wrote of the author, "A woman distinguished by qualities other than those proper to her sex is contrary to the laws of nature."



Not content with banishing de Staël and being endlessly preoccupied with her whereabouts, Napoleon later banned one of her novels. De l'Allemagne (1810) was a thorough study of Germany and its people. On its publication, Napoleon moved in, and five thousand copies soon to be released in France were destroyed.

But why was he opposed to the book, you might ask? At the time this novel was written, France and Germany had been at war and perhaps Napoleon had no wish to transform France's view of Germany because it would conflict with his political interests. Or perhaps he feared that the author might be praising Germany's intellectualism and culture at the expense of France. Yet again, being a keen writer himself, he might have been secretly envious of her literary prowess. Whatever the reason, the book became forbidden until 1813, at which time it was re-published and became a success. De l'Allemagne can be credited for improving cultural understanding between the two countries.

Madame de Staël believed that Napoleon was a ruthless tyrant who regarded individuals as pawns on a chessboard which he controlled. Long before everyone, well mostly everyone as we shall see, she saw right through him. After all this was a man who ended up leading France into war for over 15 years. Even Napoleon's foreign minister, the incredibly gifted Talleyrand who served multiple regimes and had a talent for survival, was early on made aware of Napoleon's unquenchable thirst for war. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and Germaine de Staël not only possessed a shared view on this psychological portrait of Napoleon, they had been friends. From the reign of Terror, they had remained in communication during their exile and beyond. Even if from 1800, Talleyrand was guilty of distancing himself from her in order to align himself with Napoleon's sentiments, in later years, he kept a room for Madame de Staël in his chateau at Valencay.



Taking it from biographer Maria Fairweather, de Staël can be credited for putting together the coalition that brought down Napoleon. An uber rich woman with influential contacts, her salons not only hosted dissident thoughts, but the writer Stendhal called her family home in Switzerland 'the general headquarters of European thought'. He does not exaggerate. Most of the important treaty negotiations between Russia and Sweden against Napoleon were conducted through Madame de Staël.

For all her brilliant intelligence, warmth, and courage as a writer, de Staël possessed an Achilles heel. It was that she was terrified of being alone and suffered much in her relationships. Not as beautiful as her friend, the celebrated Juliette Recamier, and aware of her clumsiness, she clung to people, and was as emotionally unstable as she was passionate. Her long time lover, Benjamin Constant, had once observed: "If she knew how to rule herself, she could rule the world." He tried in vain to leave her but was confronted with one emotional scene after the next. Having secretly wedded another woman, he found it difficult to reveal this to de Staël. When she found out, she ordered him back to Coppet. Benjamin Constant promised his new wife, Charlotte, that he would return, but he lingered at Coppet under de Staël's torrid emotions, their days alternating between heated debates and short-lived peace. Soon enough the neglected Charlotte tried to kill herself, not before alerting the couple of the fact, for full effect. They found her in time and revived her. Charlotte pleaded for Benjamin to return lest she would once again poison herself. At this Madame de Staël threatened to stab herself.

She may have lost her lover to Charlotte in the end, but de Staël had the last word with Napoleon. In her book, Dix Annees d'Exil (Ten Years in Exile), she devotes almost every page to recounting the details of her persecution and banishment, providing anecdotes about Napoleon's tempestuous, vulgar and egotistical character. Call it her #metoo moment, it is a work of revenge, of reckoning for years of suffering, and it brings to account a man who had fooled France but never fooled her.

What I most admire in Madame de Staël is her personal integrity and the courage to be herself when a military powerhouse of a man opposed her. She was in all likelihood incapable of being other than herself, despite censure and ostracism.

When he was about to meet her for the very first time, the German writer, Goethe received this letter from his friend Schiller, "Madame de Staël will appear to you as you have imagined her. Everything about her is of a piece: you will find not one thing in her which is disparate or false. That is why, in spite of the differences between her nature and ours, one is comfortable with her; one is disposed to listen to anything from her while wishing, at the same time, to tell her everything; she is the personification, as perfect as it is interesting, of the true French spirit."


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

La Guyonnière - an inspiration for my latest novel

Born in Hue, Vietnam, my Eurasian mother came to France for the very first time in 1955. She grew up in Paris and Nantes but warmly recalls memories of her summer holidays at her paternal grandparents' country home in Western France, in the area of La Guyonnière.


Her childhood was provincial in many ways.
She told me of how she would eat an entire Far Breton to herself, how she and the other children went cycling in the countryside, or else joyfully ate the ripe berries they had picked from the nearby groves.

It all sounded to me like an idyllic French holiday. I could imagine my mum in a summer dress and a little white apron, her hair parted in two braids alongside her moon-shaped face, her naturally tanned Eurasian skin basking in the French sunshine.

I learned from genealogy documents that my family's property in La Guyonnière extended for more than 100 hectares and was called La Roche-Thévenin. It had existed since at least the 14th century, passed down through my Bégaud ancestor.

Upon retirement, my great-grandfather, Pierre Candeau had become its guardian. Today, since passing on to his brothers and sisters, the property has been resold. It still exists but it is no longer part of my family's heritage. I don't know the current owner. I believe they often open the property to the public for commemoration of its history.

La Roche-Thévenin
Courtesy of Llann Wé 

When I wrote my latest novel, Julien's Terror, I stumbled upon the area of La Guyonnière again. It is an area east of Montaigu in the West of France, not far at all from Nantes. I had my characters spend some time there while traversing the Vendée. It was an accidental find.

I was actually researching the life of the Vendée general who, at the peak of France's revolutionary Terror, when extreme secularism saw the murder of priests and nuns, stood up valiantly to lead Vendée peasants against a government that tyrannised them.

From the rest of the world's point of view, Charette remains an unknown general despite being later praised by Napoleon for his genius military tactics. Charette was very much a leader of the people, and had been summoned by the peasants themselves who had had enough of mandatory conscription and the brutality against their priests. It is suggested that he practiced (invented?) guerilla warfare before the term became later known in Europe, following the Napoleonic wars in Spain.

It turned out that around the time when my novel takes place, there was such a thing called the Battle of La Guyonnière and it led to the capture of Charette. It took place in March 1796 when Charette had long lost hope and was living in hiding, from shelter to shelter. Seven months earlier, the defunct king's brother, the Comte d'Artois, who Charette had counted upon for bringing reinforcements, had decided he did not wish a part in the conflict, and had deserted him and the royalist cause, sailing back to England.

Now Charette was living on luck. He had even found refuge at one of my ancestors' home in Chavagne-en-Paillers. But in March 1796, his luck had run out. He was wounded and running for his life. Harrassed by General Hoche and progressively abandoned by his troops, Charette made way for La Guyonnière. From there, he and his men encountered a couple of the general's columns. They managed to escape to the woods of La Chabotterie until another larger column, this time led by General Travot, encircled them. All of Charette's men were killed, save for three. It was said the following exchange took place between Charette and Travot.

"Are you Charette?"
"Yes, it's me. Where is your commandant?"
"I am the commandant."
"You are Travot?"
"I am."
"About time. It is to you that I wanted to surrender," Charette replied, handing him his sword.

The Capture of Charette, Louis Joseph Watteau, 1796

Julien's Terror recounts the tragic fate of Charette following his capture, and how for several hours, to the sound of drums, he was paraded with great derision through the streets of Nantes. On 29 March 1796, exactly 222 years ago, he was shot on Place Viarme in Nantes.

Just as he had shown courage in the battle, he went bravely to his death. He refused to be blindfolded. He stood straight, and addressing the firing squad he designated the left side of his chest, calling out, "Soldiers, aim well. It is here that you must strike a brave man."

Charette's greatness is merely glimpsed in my novel but the landscape of the Vendée looms large both in my mind, and in this story which is so dear to my heart.

I can scarcely escape the pervasive presence of the Vendée in my family's history. One of my 19th century great-aunts was born south of Montaigu in the Brouzils, very near the forest where once Charette and thousands of Vendée peasants took refuge while infernal columns raged through Western France. La Guyonnière and its properties - La Roche-Thévenin, La Chausselière and La Friborgère - were all owned by my family. In the south of La Guyonnière, my ancestor, Pierre Charles Marie Gourraud de La Proustière had been mayor of Chavagne-en-Paillers, and his property brought refuge to Charette.

Despite this pervasive Vendée heritage, no one in the family speaks of it nor encouraged me to write Julien's Terror. I wrote it while knowing nothing of my family's strong roots in this Western region of France. While only one of my uncles now lives in the Vendée, in La Roche-sur-Yon, we are for the most part, scattered all over the world, from Corsica to Hawaii, from Norway to Australia.

I can't help but think it is no coincidence that of all places I could have written about, I returned to La Guyonnière and more broadly, to the Vendée, as though I was impelled by a collective memory, a spiritual energy that wished to be heard and take form.

We Bretons have a bond with the dead, so I'll take that. In memory of Charette.