I love delving into the past and uncovering new stories, and in my writing, the tiniest historical detail can spark an idea for a whole chapter. My female characters rail against the social constraints to which they are subject and often achieve great success, but they are of course flawed and human, like the rest of us. It’s the motivations, flaws, loves and every-day lives of my characters that I love to bring life, against sweeping historical backdrops - and I will find any excuse to take off and research a captivating location or person for my next story.
My first novel is set in the Champagne region in France, and I’m currently working on my next one, set in late eighteenth century Paris. I spent a lot of time in France as a child, have lived in Paris and spent a year with my family in a fishing village in South West France, so that’s where my books have ended up being set so far. Who knows where next!
‘I want to paint you,’ he whispers. In his high-ceilinged studio filled with golden light she takes in the canvases propped against every wall, the paints like jewels. She thinks of the pictures she longs to paint, of her lost little girl playing in sunlit gardens. Will she ever see her daughter again?
Paris, 1860s. For Mimi Bisset, survival is everything on the cobbled streets of the Paris slums. She tries to forget the pain of losing her daughter Colette: born out of wedlock and forcibly given away to a rich family. But Mimi’s world turns upside down after a chance encounter with handsome artist Édouard Manet. Boldly posing for portraits on Manet’s chaise longue, Mimi feels a wild freedom – and as Manet teaches her how to layer the vivid paints on canvas herself, a passion grows between them that breaks all the rules…
At Manet’s side, Mimi is caught up in his world. They dance all night at Paris’s new can-can clubs and drink absinthe at masked balls. But one day, strolling by the Seine on her lover’s arm, Mimi catches a glimpse of familiar green eyes… it’s Colette, with a family who Manet knew all along.
Although she’s reeling that the man she loved kept such a secret from her, Mimi is filled with hope she’ll finally get her daughter back. But when a terrible rumour begins to circulate about Mimi, the only place she has to go is back to the slums. Destitute, hungry and alone, can Mimi clear her name? Or will her heart shatter all over again when she loses her daughter for a second, final time?
A completely gripping and heartbreaking read that will whisk you away to 19th-century Paris. Perfect for anyone who loves Marie Benedict, Chocolat and Dinah Jefferies.
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What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I love Paris, and much of my work is set in France, so no trip there is complete without visiting the fabulous Shakespeare and Company. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of literary delights, with a higgledy piggledy maze of rooms stacked with tomes from Anaïs Nin to Emile Zola. The bookshop also serves as a refuge for writers who need a place to stay, with beds hidden amongst the bookshelves for those willing to work in the store in return for a night’s sleep. The shop’s motto, “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise” seems particularly apt today.
I also live a couple of hours away from Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, and there’s something about the smooth glacial hills and Georgian towns that always bring to mind his tragic heroines making their way through the ancient landscape.
Tell us the best writing tip you can think of, something that helps you.
Don’t wait for the perfect place to sit, the lightning-bolt of inspiration (though it’s wonderful when it comes), just sit down and write. A quote I read from author Tom Wolfe sums it up brilliantly, “(W)hat I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I'm feeling inspired. It's mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write.”
What are common traps for aspiring writers? Advice for young writers starting out.
Give yourself permission. I started out when I had small children and a day job, so carving out the time seemed somehow unreasonable. It can be really difficult to spend time writing when there’s a to-do list that you never quite get to the bottom of, but you have to be brutal about your time. Some days I only had twenty minutes to spare, but I made sure I always used the time I’d promised myself to write, however small. Sometimes I’d almost be exploding in frustration if my precious twenty minutes got eroded by some unexpected happening, but I’d made sure I wrote for 10 minutes instead! Just keep going; you’ll make progress if you write a little every day. For me, it was something I just had to do.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Never give up on your dreams
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I took an MA in Creative Writing, and I would say it gave me three things: permission (see above), deadlines, and fellow writers to bounce ideas off. I’m quite a sociable person, and essentially writing is a solitary pursuit, so it’s wonderful to have a circle of friends to talk to about your passion, and who are honest about your writing. They got me started, but the biggest literary collaboration in my life is with the author of Elephant in My Kitchen, Katja Willemsen. We met by chance as ‘blow-ins’ in a little fishing village in the south of France. We’d both moved there for an adventure – me with my husband and little family, her to escape corporate hell in Paris. We got chatting, formed a two-person critic’s circle in Katja’s garden and spent many happy hours critiquing each other’s work over mint tea and the odd glass of rosé. I moved back to the UK, but we kept going, and ten years later, barely a week goes by without us swapping new chapters, or giving each other pep talks when we reach some kind of writing impasse.
Can you give us a quick review of a favourite book by one of your author friends?
Pantry Bones by Katja Willemsen (as yet unpublished)
Sassy ex-cop Manon moves from Paris to the wilds of the Pyrenees for a quieter life, but the charming, sleepy village conceals a hotbed of intrigue and rivalries. When a skeleton is found in old widow Puig’s pantry, the cop in Manon cannot resist wading in to succeed where the bumbling local constabulary have failed. A twisty plot involving the local priest, the arrogant mayor and an international crime ring keeps the pages turning, whilst the local southern-French colour and cuisine adds a charming counterpoint to the dark goings-on.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I’ll come back to that word, permission, again. Getting published is validation, so you’re a writer in the eyes of the world, not just your own. It also makes the whole process of completing a novel much quicker. First, the royalties help buy you the time you need, and secondly, you have the backup of an editor and several proof-readers. I’ve also learned a lot by just writing, and I’ve discovered that with limited time – I still have a day job – plotting is key. I used to sit down and just start writing. Now, I plot things much more closely and I find it means I’m ready to go when I sit down to write, rather than wasting time getting my head back into the novel.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
That’s definitely my MacBook Air. I just love it – it’s light, aesthetically pleasing, and never lets me down. I love being out and about, so I just prop it up next to my flat-white in my favourite café and get writing.
And there’s nothing like being there, so where time and money allow, I visit the places I’m writing about, which can be so inspirational. My most recent novel, The Painter’s Girl is set in Paris and we meet the Impressionists in the late 19th century through the eyes of a muse. As soon as lockdown allowed, I hopped on a Eurostar and hot-footed it straight to the Musée D’Orsay which houses the largest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world. Having been in lockdown for almost the entire time it took me to the write the novel, I almost cried when I saw all the paintings I’d been writing about. I walked and walked around the winding backstreets of Montmartre, followed my protagonist along the rue de Richelieu to the left bank, strolled along the Seine imagining the Bateaux-Lavoirs, the old laundry boats where washing was scrubbed by day, and gentlemen callers were entertained by night.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember as a child a teacher reading out CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to us, and thinking it was the most transporting, magical thing I had ever heard. I would only have been about six years old, but it really had an impact and I’ve never forgotten that languid summer’s afternoon with the smell of freshly cut grass floating in through the classroom windows and the school lawnmower droning in the background.
What’s the best way to market your books?
Who knows?! I hope that good writing and a compelling story will always find its audience, so that’s what I concentrate on. I’m a bit rubbish with social media and the like, but I do my best!
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I would ideally spend a good six months researching a book in advance of writing. I like to totally immerse myself in the subject and get to the point that, even if I make something up, it sounds authentic. Research is so inspirational too – the tiniest detail can spark a whole thread. The world is such a rich, surprising place, and places with a history definitely speak to you and tell you their story if you’re prepared to listen.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Ooh, interesting question. Every time I read a book I love, I wonder why I bother! I’m not sure if I’ve read anything that’s made me feel differently, though. I have broad tastes and love a wide range of styles.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
I love historical novels, and as a reader, I like to feel I’ve learned something about the period I’m reading about. For that reason, I try to make sure that the political and social context I’m writing in is accurate, along with dates and period detail. There have been times when a character’s striking a match, or telling the time on a grandfather clock, or riding in a certain kind of carriage, and I’m sent scurrying to my references to double check those things existed at that time! In terms of historical figures, I think the ‘pillars’ should be accurate. That is, the crucial dates, the achievements, the well-known facts that have made them famous, but the rest is up for grabs. It’s important to assess the kind of person they were from the facts, but the way they got to the ‘pillars’, the conversations, the love affairs, the intrigue – the undocumented bits – are what I love to imagine. In my most recent book, the protagonist is a fictional character who observes the famous Impressionist painters, and that gives me licence to put them in imagined situations, whilst still staying true to what we know of them.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Yes I do. I read the good ones several times over, and the bad ones only once!
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
I discovered with my second novel that writer’s block is definitely a thing! I hit a wall with where I was going plot-wise and I was up against a punishing deadline. I didn’t sleep for nights, and spent my time feverishly making mind maps to try and find a way out. I did eventually, and it was a good thing because really I was just questioning where the book was going, then taking the time out to properly solve it without worrying about time constraints.
Tell us about your novel/novels/or series and why you wrote about this topic?
It’s often just one detail that sparks my imagination. In this case I read a quote about a muse painted by one of the Impressionists. The critics of the day dismissed her as a ‘syphilitic whore with two children, totally unsuitable as a companion for the artist.’ And I thought, what about her? What about her children? She had syphilis, but she was still working, and must have been absolutely desperate. She’d lose her looks, and therefore her living, if she didn’t lose her life first. It seemed so unfair that the man was lauded and this poor woman was dismissed in all her misery. So I started to read up, and found all these amazing women who became artists in their own right, or lit up the Paris social scene with their dazzling wit, beauty and talent. From there, I came up with Mimi, an amalgam of some of the famous muses I researched. I breathed life into her and dropped her in the world of the early Impressionists, who were the rebels and revolutionaries of their time, in a Paris where class lines were blurring. It was a place where a girl with talent and an adventurous spirit could perhaps change her fate, and prove her worth in a man’s world.
What is your favourite line or passage from your own book?
“In the main room, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party was garnering murmurs of approval and Mimi could see why; it was delightful. It was the beautiful gang on a summer’s afternoon in an expansive tableau, the men in boaters and white singlets, the women in beribboned straw bonnets, silk jackets and muslin blouses lounging, chatting and sipping wine, glasses and bottles reflecting the light on the table, all under a golden haze of youth and promise, an abundance of it, elegantly squandered in carefree disregard for the precious hours slipping away.”
What was your hardest scene to write?
I can’t tell you without giving some of the plot away!
Tell us your favourite quote and how the quote tells us something about you.
It’s not a quote exactly, but this verse from Sylvia Plath’s poem Blackberrying speaks to me:
Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.
There’s something so visceral, lush, summery, eccentric and nostalgic about it, it just gets me. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s what the question made me think of!
Thank you, Helen, for this fabulous interview and we wish you well on your novel!!