Monday, December 12, 2016

Julien's Terror - Imagining the French Revolution

Julien's Terror, my latest novel, is the story of a haunting - a haunting that is either metaphysical or psychological, or is it both? 

Set in the dramatic period of the French Revolution, culminating into Napoleon's empire, it revolves around a young couple from different walks of life. Yet both have lived tragedy and both are touched by it. 

Julien's Terror features impressive figures of the French Revolution, including Charette, the Vendée counter-revolutionary and Marie Anne Lenormand, the celebrated Parisian fortuneteller.

Historical figures who play a minor role in the story but which I place on a pedestal, are the author, Madame de Staël who Napoleon hated, and the famed Austrian physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, whose works laid the foundation for hypnotism and psychotherapy.

The novel is dedicated to Charette.

While some dates around Charette’s presence in the Gralas forest may have been modified or blurred to aid the narrative, the events of the Vendée war depicted in Julien's Terror and the tragic massacres that unfolded in Western France are historical. 

When I was a teen, enamoured of art, I reproduced a centuries old drawing depicting Charette’s entry into Nantes on February 1795. At this young age, I knew not the significance of this drawing and its relation to the French Revolution.

Many years later, I learned the meaning of this drawing. It was a truce (not in the novel). Charette had agreed to a truce with the Republic and one of the secret conditions of this truce was that the revolutionaries would free the young king, Louis Charles. The truce was later ignored, as more fighting between Republicans and the Vendéens insued. 

Meanwhile, the young King, Louis Charles died in the Tower of the Temple in Paris. He was neglected and suffered the worst conditions. 

Ah, I almost forgot. Louis Charles is a central figure in Julien's Terror. 

There are many things that drove me to write Julien's Terror. On the one hand I was unsettled by the disturbing fate which an eight year old was forced to suffer until his death.  I wondered at times whether Louis Charles' soul might not haunt Le Temple had Napoleon not demolished it... 

There were also personal reasons - my awe for Charette is one of them.

Recently, while researching my Breton and French genealogy, I discovered that one of my 18th century ancestors, had hidden Charette in the area of Montaigu, south of Nantes. It was that perilous time, prior to Charette’s capture in 1796, when the Vendée general had been abandoned by most, and erred from farm to farm in search of an asylum. I was proud of my ancestor for hiding Charette.

There was also the urge to tell the world of something tragic, to reveal a past...

Nantes is my home city in France, the city of my ancestors and a place that I have returned to many times since childhood. But when I visited in 2013, I experienced an urge to write about the drownings, the “noyades”, and to depict the tragedy that befell Nantes during the Terror.

And then, there was a fascination for the psychology of the people of France in those times. 

More than simply creating a character who had lived those events of the Revolution, I wanted to create a dynamic between two people, both damaged by their experience of the reign of terror. I examined the psychology of that period. What was fascinating was the increased resort to fortune telling services; the arts practiced by Marie Anne Lenormand were never more popular than from the revolution to the First Empire, where people sought answers and were deeply anxious about their future, and the future of France.

Delving into the past, with a psychological lens, I envisaged these historical events as a major cause for the rise in suicides, the growing number of asylum patients and the rise in depression. And then I remembered the majority. The majority which in all appearances seemed to not exhibit mental problems. If they did, then these poor souls never sought help, because such psychological help did not exist as it does today. This majority whose mental illness would remain concealed in a domestic realm, would resume living, but it would forever hide wounds.

That’s when I realised that this majority, it was an entire nation. And perhaps just as France’s wounds were never healed completely, so too, there exists today, in most parts of the world, wounds that have not healed and psyches that are forever marked by historical events. In essence, it is the psychohistorical dimension of this novel which most drove me to write.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

If Having Children was like Writing Books

The life of a writer is peppered with misunderstandings. 

For example, well-meaning people have often attributed my voluntary childless existence to the fact that I am a writer. Perhaps there is a belief that the focus, dedication and endurance required of motherhood has been, in my case, channeled into writing instead.

They will speak of my current work in progress as my latest child or else mention my 'babies' to mean books. 

Yet as many writers and mothers will tell you, these two passions are entirely different and mutually exclusive - I know many authors who are also mothers, one doesn't replace the other and vice-versa. 

Perhaps the allusion to books as babies originates from age old beliefs that women are meant to be mothers first.  And if they are not...then it is assumed that it is because they have fulfilled a need through another means. Note that one does not often hear of a male writer's literary babies, the book/baby metaphor is mostly used with women. 

Being spoken to about my literary babies does not enchant me. I see no parallel between writing and being a mother. 

A mother's journey is a social, family- and friend-seeking journey.  Writing is a solitary endeavor, one of isolation. Solitude is as crucial to creating a book as it is for many creative pursuits.

Writers are a poorly understood group of people and like many creative minds are prone to mental illness and suicide. Consider that some forms of psychosis involve a
 fixed belief in an imaginary world that lasts months or years.  This is similar to what the novelist goes through to write their book.

Writers choose the path less traveled because that is part of their nature.  On the other hand, having children is still a common, universal path. It is a well understood behavior and in some countries, it is still socially expected.

It is reductive also to compare the two.  Mothers may well be offended by the comparison, and right they are!  A book is not a living person.

As a writer who has been doubted and questioned for my choices in the past, and who has lived the journey so far, I also find it simplistic and offensive when the writer's journey is construed and interpreted as what it is not. Especially by those who know little about it. 

The sum of it is that you need to be in the shoes of a writer to know what it feels like, in the same way you would have to be a mother to know what it feels like. 

Anyway, the comparison led me to humorously imagine what mothering really would be like if having children was like writing a novel....

So here we go - if having children was like writing books:

* There would be PUBLIC online reviews and ratings for how well you are doing as a mother.  This may include blatant disparaging comments like how your previous kid was better than the current one, how your abilities as a mother have declined over time etc...

* People who have never had children, or never taken care of kids (non-writers) would be seen as authorities on your child, and these people's public review or word of mouth would determine other people's perception of you as a mother.

Let's see how this would look like: 

Remember all these are public... How do you feel? Would you be ready to keep doing it? 

Read on...

* You would not get paid by the government for child support; you would be seen as an eccentric who needed to prove their worth as a mother and compete with other mothers in order to receive some support grant for your efforts.

* People would find you annoying/repetitive/boastful/vain/freaking boisterous for posting pics of your child on social media.

* Some people would not want to know about your child unless the child had won some award or been recommended in some way by some friend or legitimate authority.

* You would be a minority - few other people would have had children and so few would understand your journey.   (Yes, only a small percentage of the world's individuals actually do write a book!)

* Some people would always see you as a wannabe and never treat you seriously as a mother.

* Schools (aka bookstores) would refuse to take in your child based on your method of birthing.

* You would not get paid a cent by your full-time employer for choosing to take a few months off from work to realize what you see as your natural calling - aka have a baby; nor would they hold your job for you.  (Writing is my calling - I know I could never ask for 6 months off work, partly paid, to write books and then return. That is a dream.)

* Some people would ask you, "but, have you been a mother before?" to mean that you can't seriously intend to be a mother otherwise (aka -  Are you published? Are you going to publish it?)

* It would often take years for your child to be born, and  in that time, there would be zero physical evidence of your long journey and so you would receive no support, and people would wonder whether you are at all having a child or dabbling with words, and whether this child is happening at all, or if you are just a FAKE.

* People would ask whether you have had a traditional hospital birth with REAL medical staff or a self-run home birth with a midwife, and then... treat you and your child differently based on the method used to birth it; they may choose to have nothing to do with your child for that same reason.

* You could have children at a very old age... at 70 or 80; you could have one child per year or more... 

* You would want 10 or 25 of them; three or four would never be enough for all that passion inside you; you would crave the opportunity to create children non-stop.

* Talking deeply and meaningfully about your children would be something you would limit or never do, as most people would not understand what you are going through since, like writing a book, it would be a relatively rare endeavor  - if you are lucky you would have a couple of people who know of your journey and these people would 'get you'. If you are lucky. 

* You would not enjoy a yearly celebratory day dedicated to you where everyone glorifies how mothers change the world and bring meaning to their children's lives - nobody would really care about you being a mother until you are DEAD and sometimes never; and you would be ok with that!  ( Writers have and do change lives... Often they also change the world but no day is dedicated to them...)

* Strangers all over the world would know about your child and be touched by it; though you may never hear of them.

* Strangers all over the world would know of you.

* If you are lucky, strangers would remember you and your child long after you die.

And there you have it, the comparison seems almost silly now that one reflects on it.  We could substitute writing here with any other creative activity. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Nantes of Jules Verne

In 1828, the world-renowned science-fiction author, Jules Verne, was born in what was then called the Venice of the West - the city of Nantes, in France.

Around the same period, when Jules Verne was only a baby, the English landscape painter, JMW Turner, drew sketches of Nantes.

Nantes - view from Île Feydeau, Turner 1828

The wonderful drawing above illustrates the lively canal activity around Île Feydeau. Then the home of Nantes' wealthiest families, Île Feydeau's majestic residential buildings can just be discerned on the right-hand side.

In the early 20th century, major diversion projects began in Nantes and lasted through WWII. Before this time, the Erdre, the Loire's tributary, flowed through a number of canals, lending the city a somewhat Venetian aspect. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Nantes' port thrived with large vessels destined for Africa and the Americas, including sadly, slavers. Dark as Nantes' past may be, one easily forms an impression of a bustling trade city comparable to Venice.

Banks of the River Erdre, looking North - Turner

Touring through Nantes one finds much history. There is first the medieval Chateau along the banks of the Loire. The Dukes of Brittany had their seat here and it serves as a wonderful museum today.

The unforgettable Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes

Turner's sketch of the castle is lovely too.

Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany - Turner

But a rare treat, if you are a fan of Jules Verne, is to follow the Loire River from the Chateau, past Place Bouffay, all along key spots where one of Brittany's finest authors lived.

18th Century map of Nantes before the diversion of the Erdre
Ile Feydeau lies in the center of the Loire

Stop 1 -  4 Olivier de Clisson Street
An island within a city.
Such is Île Feydeau, which today following the diversion of the Erdre, is accessible on foot.
Parallel to the quay is the old Rue Kervégan which is lined with restaurants and fine mid-18th century buildings. Ile Feydeau is the area of Nantes which was once inhabited by rich slavers and merchants. Its edifices are ornate with marine monsters and creatures that evoke the intense relationship between the island's ancient dwellers and the sea.

Beautiful balconies on Île Feydeau 

The head of marine creatures gracing Île Feydeau homes

It is also on Ile Feydeau, at 4 Olivier de Clisson Street to be precise, that the founder of science-fiction (a title he shares with H.G. Wells), was born. Jules Verne's father was a lawyer and barely of middle-class.

Plaque on 4 Olivier de Clisson Street
"The 8 February 1828
Jules Verne
Precursor of Modern Discoveries
Is born in this house."

4 Olivier de Clisson Street

It is no surprise that from a young age, Jules Verne became well-aware of Nantes' trans-atlantic slave trading. He turned out to be a staunch opposer of slavery and of the slave trade, denouncing these in his book, Dick Sand, A Captain of Fifteen. Later in his twenties, he would become a good friend of author, Alexandre Dumas, whose own father had been borne of a slave.

Stop 2 - 2 allee Jean Bart (cours des Cinquantes otages)

At 2 Allee Jean Bart, long before the Erdre was diverted to give birth to what is now the Cours des Cinquantes Otages, we find Jules Verne's other childhood home. His family moved to Jean Bart when he was barely a toddler. They remained there until Jules Verne was 12 years old.

"Jules Verne, as a child lived here from 1829 to 1840."

Stop 3 - Church of Saint Nicolas
Nearby, the basilica of Saint Nicolas, whose earliest building dated from the 12th century and which had undergone a number of evolution through the centuries, was re-constructed starting in 1844 based on plans that had been finalised on the eve of the French Revolution.

Jules Verne's father belonged to the parish council that commissioned this wonderful building.
This neo-gothic church is classified as a historical monument since November 1986.

Neo-Gothic Church of Saint-Nicolas

There are other Jules Verne residences or landmarks in Nantes that are worth mentioning, including 1 Rue Suffren, 6 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Chantenay country home on 29bis rue des Reformes, but all are old stone houses and it can get a little dull.

But if you follow the Loire River toward the Jules Verne Museum, you come across a more recent statue, created as an homage to the celebrated author - it is Captain Nemo looking out across the Loire...and just behind him, a fictitious statue of the young Jules Verne sits on a bench, dreaming of the sea.

And that is a rare treat.
Because to dwell upon the imagination of a child who would one day become one of the world's greatest science fiction authors, well, that is sheer bliss.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Julien's Terror - My Third Novel

This is not the cover of Julien's Terror by the way.

As readers, we do judge a book by its cover, don't we?

What imagery comes to your mind with the words - French Revolution, mysterious woman, tormented couple, obsession, haunting and psychological thriller?

Where to start? How can a self-published author avoid cliches yet use appropriate book cover symbols to draw a desired audience? What is my desired audience? I think she is female, over 25 and obsessed with 18/19th century France. The macabre and gothic must appeal to her while she must also have a fascination for the human mind and for unveiling secrets.

Is that you? Then how can I best attract you with my book cover? Tell me.

The next six months will be intensely creative as I finalise the imagery to feature on the cover of my third novel, Julien's Terror, before preparing an art brief.

Despite the tenebrous aspects of this novel, I was overjoyed over the last months. I spent ample time researching fascinating real-life characters, all of which are featured or mentioned in the story. They include 18th century fortune-teller, Marie Anne Lenormand, writer Germaine Staël, the unflinching Minister of Police Fouché, the brave Breton counter-revolutionary François de Charette, the unique physician Franz Anton Mesmer, to name a few...

I am excited!

And I've saved it for last: Julien's Terror now has a blurb...


Julien's Terror

Eight years after France's bloody Reign of Terror, a young couple is happily married in Paris. Julien d'Aureville is an upcoming bourgeois raised in the poor and intensely revolutionary district of Saint-Antoine. His young wife, Marguerite Lafolye, is an orphan from Brittany who escaped the cruelty of Nantes' butcher, Jean-Baptiste Carrier. Fiercely royalist, she remains a mystery to her husband.

Marguerite becomes obsessed with Dauphin Louis-Charles, youngest child of the late Queen Marie-Antoinette and in Le Temple, the medieval prison where Louis-Charles was kept for almost three years before his death. 

Meanwhile terrifying nightmares plague Julien from the beginning of their marriage. In desperation, he reaches out to Paris' celebrated fortune-teller, Marie Anne Lenormand. But when Marie Anne attempts to draw insights into Julien’s wife, she is startled to find that she cannot read her cards.

Who is Marguerite Lafoyle? 

To Marguerite's horror, Napoleon wishes to demolish Le Temple. The couple make a final visit to the old Templar building where Marguerite mysteriously faints.

And then jealousy rears its head. A romantic visit to Napoleon's Venice sees one of the fortune-teller’s predictions come true. When Marguerite meets dashing Austrian, Maximilian Von Hauser, Julien's worst fears are realised.

And it's only getting more sinister... Marguerite begins to behave strangely.

Deep in Marguerite's past, where the tyranny of murderous Republicans meets with ancient Breton folklore, lies a terrifying secret. Is Marguerite a liar? 
Who is she really? And is she truly possessed by the late Dauphin? 

In this chilling psychological tale set in post-revolutionary France, a young couple confront their darkest fears. Looming above them, between healing and oblivion, lies the French Republic's most shocking secret.

Friday, January 1, 2016

In the Name of Courage

Loyalty, a worthwhile trait it may be, and often it is elevated to the highest standing among the qualities required for true friendship, but it pales in comparison to that noble trait of Courage.

To be clear - not the courage to take action in your own life, to keep on trying, to make a change or to follow your dreams, but the quality that allows you to stand up for a friend, when you know they are in the right and when it would ruin your reputation to side by them.

Yes, that kind of courage. The tough kind.

Often relegated to the military, long forgotten as a foundation for relationships, courage stands underrated these days.

Humans have a profound reverence towards courage when it is embodied by historical figures. Those historical figures stand out, as the very best of humanity. And yet when it comes to our every day relationships, and more specifically, when it comes to loyalty in our relationships, the value of courage is forgotten.

Demonstrations of courage are most often frowned upon, at worse they are perceived as foolishness, bravado, absence of maturity, inability to reconcile opposites. A person who takes a stance is seen as 'difficult to work with' or as 'splitting up the family'. We are afraid to rock the boat and to choose a side, and those who do are labeled black sheep.

In retrospect, it is those black sheep that history remembers. In the same way, you can bet that it is those black sheep that stood up for them when no one else would that friends will remember. Because it is easy to be loyal when all odds are in your favor, when your reputation is not at stake and the costs are low, but in times of crisis, it is courage not loyalty that will determine character.

Courage deserves mention because it is through this virtue that the most solid friendships are forged and through its force that human bonds truly shine.

In times of war, it is courage, not loyalty, that will see you hide and save the lives of your endangered friends, and extend a hand to those strangers who are similarly oppressed.

In the advent of a great injustice, it is courage that will allow you to put yourself in unfavorable light to stand up for a friend - often, at the risk of your life and your job.

It is courage that will allow you to give your all, when you know, deep down, you possess nothing yourself and are at risk of becoming destitute.

It is courage that will see you sever ties with, confront, or refuse to engage those who have imperiled or hurt those you love.

It is courage that prompts you to speak up and make a fool of yourself for the sake of defending a loved one.

Through your acts of courage, you are making a public choice for all to see. This position is often difficult and places you under a vulnerable light - it is this which is the true test of loyalty.

And so I put it to you, what use is loyalty, or even, what use is believing in your friend, or having the same convictions as your friend without the courage to go with it?

For lack of courageous saviors, people have ended up in concentration camps, alone or dead.

Courage is highly compatible with the idea that humans can only truly be friends with a few people. Not hundreds. Not thousands. You might think your sociability and your affability serves you well and that you can befriend more than a hundred souls but if you are to be a loyal friend, remember that you cannot please everyone.

Because when you are forced to make a choice, when you are dislodged from your fence and courageously stand by those you are loyal to, you will no doubt be forced to leave others behind.

And that, in itself, takes courage.