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.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

A Writer's Life

After jetsetting around Rome, Paris, Brittany, Capri and Sorrento in June last year, it was time to return to Sydney, and face the fact that the only reason I can afford international travel at all is because I am a corporate Techie, and not because I sell millions of books. Let's not kid ourselves, now.

I swallowed that pill and returned to my day job, back to what became a challenging six months project with Fairfax Media. As a Business Analyst/Iteration Manager (a hybrid word meaning, someone-who-doesn't-have-a-life), I embarked on the re-development and re-launch of two major sites, representing Australia's well-known news brands: The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Rather than overwhelm you with descriptions of my Agile world with its sprints, its JIRA tickets, its endless meetings and the often maddening but always exciting digital media pace, I will simply say that despite the unrelenting whirlwind of my day job, I managed to actually make progress with another world, the gastronomic world of my fourth novel - set lavishly in the chateaux of Vienna and France, in the patisseries and alleys of Paris from the Left to the Right bank.

Chantilly: A Tale of Carême is my fourth book. It is a delightful, sentimental and passionate journey,  into the life of France's first celebrity chef, who began as a pâtissier but worked his way up as a master of French Haute Cuisine. More than a rags-to-riches fairy tale, which it is, it delves on overcoming one's personal demons, and on Antonin Carême's existence against a backdrop of political intrigue. It brings to life fascinating figures of the period, including the eccentric Grimod de la Reynière who was the first food critic, and a well-known Jewish banker who, while wanting acceptance from a Parisian social scene that had rejected him, managed to turn Carême into a celebrity.

Talleyrand: I love this guy

The book is also about an unlikely friendship. It explores Carême's surprising relationship with another great French man, the enigmatic Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Napoleon's foreign minister. Navigating in two different worlds, preoccupied with vastly different objectives, these two men will cross paths and each will learn from the other. Talleyrand has continued to perplex all historians who study him, and it is no surprise that research into his personality and psychology has taken most of my time. I am loving it.

And of course, it wouldn't be a book about a chef without it offering a glimpse into the culinary delights of the time, or highlighting the gastronomic inventions that swept early nineteenth century Europe. So I am having a ball, not only researching by reading Carême's own published works, but also pleasing my senses by indulging in cake whenever I can.

 I made this mango and strawberry Victorian Sponge and ate it all.

Any writer who pens a book like Julien's Terror has to battle their own demons. So even while flirting with pâtisseries and dancing the waltz in Vienna, I was lured, deliciously into another world - the darker world of MALEFICA. It seemed I could not step into the light without the darkness reaching out to engulf me.

So I went. Into the cold.

Valais landscape

Winter in Cologne. The majestic peaks of the Valais.

And I went further, into the lunar dark...

Into the mystical Nuragic caves of  Sardinia.

Ah yes, I am there. It's back to the 15th century.

Split between so many worlds I often feel that I might lose my mind. It's all there, at the same time, vying for space in my imagination. I look present but I am faraway, gripped by moving images, listening to the voices.

MALEFICA is my fifth novel. It is the fantastic sequel to The Mascherari: A Novel of Venice and it is part of a historical mystery trilogy that sees Antonio da Parma and the witch Elena as chief protagonists. My mind screams with excitement. There is still much research to be done but the concept has been alive in my imagination for over a year and the treatment is slowly taking shape.

You might think I stopped at two books. That the world of digital media strangled so many of my creative thoughts that I'd have no room for another story. Nope, that isn't so. I have also begun research on the third book in the trilogy. It will be called THE MASTER OF COLOGNE and will be set in France and Germany.

What has become clearer to me is that I need to be closer to Europe for my research. And so, because you only live once, I am planning to fly out of Australia and spend a sabbatical year (at least) in France where I would do nothing else but paint, write and travel to the places that have inspired my books. How does 2020 sound? In the meantime, it is another excuse to work hard and keep pumping out those JIRA tickets! Because books will simply not pay the bills. That's not what they are for.

So there it is, a glimpse into a writer's life. A psychotic universe of here and there, of doing something despite the fact it does not pay. Because you have to, right?

You just have to.