An Interview with Author Helen Matthews
Welcome to my blog, Helen and thanks for joining me for an interview. It’s great to meet other authors who set their fiction in France. I'm sure your readers would like to know a little more about you and your writing, so here goes!
Q. I understand that your latest novel Lies Behind the Ruins about a family who try to escape problems that threaten to overwhelm them in the UK, by relocating to France?
That’s right. My story centres on the Willshire family – Paul, Emma and children Owen and Mollie. While they are on holiday in France, Paul persuades Emma to impulse-buy a cheap run down property, telling her it will be easy to renovate it into a holiday home. Back home in London, their problems escalate and they have to flee to France, even though this means heart-breaking loss for Emma. While Emma works tirelessly to rebuild their lives and open a small business, under the surface secrets and lies refuse to stay buried with terrifying consequences …
Q. It sounds intriguing! What made you decide to set your novel in France?
I’m lucky to have a small holiday house in France. Many years ago when our children were small, we took exactly the same risk as the Willshire family and impulse bought a ‘ruin’ in France. We were on a camping holiday in the Vendée (on the west coast) when we stumbled on a tranquil village, with a chateau, a lake and a man-made beach. As we strolled around the main street, we noticed many of the ancient stone cottages were for sale at prices below £8,000. We decided to take a trip to the estate agent and investigate.
In the end, we didn’t buy a cottagebut took a gamble on a dilapidated farm building which needed to be practically knocked down before renovations could start. The building work took several years and we spent our holidays living in a caravan on site and meeting with architects, builders and plumbers. Even now, we’re still working on it but we love every moment of our time there.
Q. You obviously know a lot about the process of buying and renovating an old farm building. Did you use your own experiences when writing your book?
I did, but I had to take care because, for me, the nuts and bolts of property purchase and renovation are endlessly fascinating and I was in danger of boring my readers with too much detail. With advice from my editor, I whittled down the techy bits and hope I’ve now got the balance right.
The obstacles we faced in our renovation were practical and financial. Although the initial deposit for our property was small enough to fit on a few credit cards, I had to regularly increase the mortgage on our house in the UK to release funds for the renovation. Our architect’s plans were rejected twice before we received planning permission and finding a builder proved impossible. Eventually my husband had to put his small business in the UK on hold while he went to France to work on the house, with the help of friends, under the guidance of a retired French builder.
Q. You mention that your holiday home is in the Vendée but I see your novel is set in another area, Limoges and the Limousin. Why is that?
All my characters have stepped straight out of my imagination but I didn’t want the locals in our village to think I was writing about them! The characters and daily life of the village in the book are typical of many French rural communities, but the scenes set in the city of Limoges take place in real streets and buildings, including the cathedral. When I describe the pistachio-coloured frontage of a chocolatier, reflected in an ornate mirrored door, leading to one of the character’s apartments, this is an actual location and I’ve stood on that very spot. I like to blend real places with fictional ones so the village of Sainte Juliette is imaginary. As far as I know, there’s no saint with the name Juliette (yet).
Q. You obviously love France and every region is different, so what are the standout things about Limoges and the Limousin?
Limoges is a fascinating city, famed for its porcelain, with a stunning cathedral and a historic old quarter with half timbered buildings. I remember seeing one that is hardly as wide as the span of a man’s arms.
Close to Limoges is Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of a World War II Nazi atrocity that took place in 1944. The village was destroyed in a reprisal attack and the ruins are preserved in memory of the 642 people who lost their lives. It’s one of the most haunting places I’ve ever visited, in France or elsewhere in the world – perhaps on a par with the horrors of the Killing Fields in Cambodia. At the entrance to the village, a sign reads Souviens-toi! Remember! I couldn’t get Oradour out of my mind so, even though it’s not an ideal day trip for a family with young children, I sent the Willshire family there on a visit. In a world that seems increasingly fractured and unstable, it’s good for us to remember the past. I’d like to think that we could learn lessons from history but I’m not sure anyone in power is paying attention.
Q. I understand how you feel about Oradour having written Arlette's Story, my own novel about the once-beautiful village. But back to you – why do you love the Vendée?
I could talk forever about the stunning coastline, seafood, friendly neighbours, calm pace of life and the glorious weather. But pinpointing a single answer is a bit like trying to explain why I love my children. The feeling is visceral – it gets under your skin.
Q. Who do you think your novel will appeal to?
My first novel, After Leaving the Village was a dark and gritty suspense thriller, not for the faint-hearted, but most readers found it a gripping page turner. Lies Behind the Ruin is also suspense but I’d describe it as domestic noir and the psychology of family relationships. I’d say it would appeal to those who like their beach reads on the darker side.
Let’s hope many readers of this interview will pack a copy in their suitcase when they head off to the French beaches this summer. Thank you for joining me today.
That would be fantastic. Thanks Ange. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Lies Behind the Ruin was published on 25thApril 2019 by Hashtag Press and can be ordered hereor from the author’s website. After Leaving the Village is also available from Amazon and all good bookshops.
Angela Barton's books can be purchased by clicking on the home page.