The Good Life France Magazine




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9 months ago

Issue No.26

And I love Chartres,

And I love Chartres, which is twinned with myhome town of Chichester in Sussex. When I’min Chartres, I have such a strong feeling ofhistory and of the past. When I was writingmy latest novel The City of Tears, which is setin the late 16th century against the backdropof the French Wars of Religion, I had to trainmyself to forget the 13th century city I'dwritten about Labyrinth but imagine insteadwhat life would have been like some threehundred and fifty years later. Novelists arenosy! Wherever I am, when I'm writing, I'malways snooping, always excavating the citybeneath the city. I seek the untold stories, thestories of ordinary people, particular thewomen who are left out of the history books.I prefer to explore on my own, quietly with anotebook and a map, standing alone in theshadows and letting the past fill my head. Ifind that the story, the plot, the charactersand atmosphere come to me best in silence. Ido a lot of my pre-site research at home, sothat I already have the sense of thetopography and architecture of the place I'mwriting about, so by the time I visit, I'm feel Ialready know the city. This slower processhelps me to bring a place to life. The researchthrough archives, museums, libraries andbooks are an essential part of the preparation- readers deserve accurate and gripping realhistory - but then there’s what I think of asthe “foot research” - walking, seeing thelandscape, imagining the characters, that'swhat brings a novel to life.Photo: Bobby ChitwoodSometimes I will have spent years visiting aplace years before I even think of writingabout it. All of my knowledge of Carcassonnecomes from having spent some of every yearthere for the past 30 years or so. And the firsttime I ever went to France was to Chartres ona school orchestra exchange trip, so all of mymemories of Chartres go back to being a 14year old clutching her violin. But It wasn’tuntil I was writing Labyrinth in 2004 that Iever put those streets and that amazingcathedral down on paper. Novels, ideas,characters take a long time to brew ...

Was there a point when, before you wroteLabyrinth, your first big blockbuster, theidea was just in your head, when yousuddenly thought - I'm going to do this, asort of a Eureka moment?To start with, I fell in love with the place,then the history. We bought a tiny house inthe shadow of the medieval city walls ofCarcassonne in November 1989, when I wasexpecting our first child. For three months ofmy maternity leave with my daughter in1990 we were based there and, two yearslater, we did the same thing when our sonwas born During these early years, I wasalways reading about the astonishing historyof Carcassonne - particularly about thereligious wars of the 13th century and agroup of so-called heretical Christians, theCathars, and I was hooked. Little by little, Istarted to realise that the images I had in myhead were actually not scenes from historyat all, but rather imagined characters setagainst the backdrop of the history I wascoming to know so well. Then, in the late1990s, we went to one of the key sites in theCathar story, Montségur in the Pyrenees. Itwas March, the time of year in 1244 whenthe siege of the citadel came to an end, andsome two hundred Cathars were broughtdown the mountain by the Catholic soldiersto be burned at the pyre.As I climbed the mountain on my own -leaving my husband, mother-in-law and ourchildren building a snowman beside thememorial to the Cathar martyrs at the foot ofthe mountain - I thought about how it wasthe key end point really of the CatharCrusade, the moment at which theindependence of the Midi came to an end. Itwas really cold and there was a heavy mist.And then suddenly I was up and through thecloud cover, where the sky above was anintense blue.