Letters from ElsewhereToday, you’re invited to meet Rachel Swift, who tops and tails The House at Zaronza by Vanessa Couchman, another great Crooked Cat read. Here is her letter to Maria Orsini, whom she never met but who had a great influence on the lives of Rachel’s family.

Dear Maria,

Rugged Corsican landscapeYou died long before I was born and I really wish I had had the chance to meet you.

I came to Corsica wanting to find out more about my ancestors. This was my first visit and, as soon as the plane touched down, I had a sense of coming home. Somehow, the rugged but magnificent landscape and the perched villages seemed familiar. And that scent of aromatic herbs from the mountain scrub they call the maquis was almost intoxicating.

My search led me to the beautiful village of Zaronza, where I stayed in the house you once lived in. I discovered that my grandmother, also called Maria, had lived there as well for a while, although you weren’t related. There is still much more to find out about my grandmother and my other relations and that quest will take me to other parts of Corsica and to the French mainland.

But I became intrigued by you, because of the framed love letters addressed to you that hung on the walls of the house. As I discovered later, you had hidden them in the attic and the present owners found them when they broke down a wall. You never married your schoolmaster, the author of the letters, because of something terrible that a person close to you did. And you spent your life regretting it.

Corsican villageWhat an extraordinary woman you were! From a sheltered upbringing in a quiet backwater, you left Corsica in 1917 to nurse at the Western Front, something that would have been unthinkable for a Corsican woman a generation earlier. But you were always deeply attached to the island and now I understand why. I feel something of that bond myself.

You had a huge influence on my grandmother, who also left Corsica in search of her dreams. One day, I will piece together the jigsaw of my family’s history. In many ways, although you are not my ancestor, you are a key part of that puzzle.

With love and thanks,

Rachel

About The House at Zaronza

Front cover final 2Set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front in World War I, The House at Zaronza is loosely inspired by a true story.  Maria Orsini, the daughter of a bourgeois family in a Corsican village, and the local schoolmaster carry on a secret romance. Maria’s parents have other plans for her future and she sees her dreams crumble. Her life is played out against the backdrop of Corsica, the ‘island of beauty’, and the turmoil of World War I. This is a story about love, betrayal, loss and reconciliation in a strict patriarchal society, whose values are challenged as the world changes.

You can find The House at Zaronza at AmazonBarnes & Noble and Kobo.

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About Vanessa Couchman

Vanessa CouchmanVanessa lives in France and is passionate about French and Corsican history and culture, the inspiration for her writing. The House at Zaronza is based on an intriguing true story that she came across when holidaying on the beguiling Mediterranean island of Corsica.

She is working on a sequel, set in World War II, and another novel set on Corsica during the 18th century.

Vanessa has been writing fiction since 2010. Her short stories have won, been placed and shortlisted in creative writing competitions and published in anthologies and online.

Vanessa has a degree in history from Oxford University and an MBA. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, ex-pat writing community Writers Abroad and the Parisot Writing Group.

Find Vanessa at:

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Vanessa CouchmanMy guest today is the Crooked Cat author, Vanessa Couchman, whose debut novel is set in Corsica. In The House at Zaronza, a young woman uncovers the story of a secret romance from the beginning of the twentieth century.

Hello Vanessa and welcome to my blog. Could you start by telling us about the place you live in?

Hi Miriam, and thanks for inviting me. We have lived full time in South West France since 1997. We fell in love with an ancient farmhouse set in glorious countryside. Having a continental climate it can be freezing in winter (no one tells you that before you move!) and roasting in summer. But we love it here. I’m not a city person by temperament and the country life suits me perfectly. Although it’s good to catch up on exhibitions, theatre etc and especially English bookshops whenever I go to London.

People think Israel is always hot, and are surprised when I mention snow in Jerusalem.

How well did you know French before you moved and how good is your French now?

I learned French at school for years but it doesn’t equip you for living here! My grammar was good but I could barely string two words together. (My husband had lived in France before, so his French was reasonable). I went to French classes for 4 years and now I would say my French is fluent but not perfect. Being a perfectionist, I will probably always say that!

Ah, a perfectionist. That fits with my impression – that you’re organised and modest. Organised because of the way you handled your interview of me, down to the exact time when it would be published, and even converted that to my time zone. And modest because when I praised you for being organised you downplayed it.

Does that trait also apply to the way you write? Do you plan everything before you start?

I was brought up not to push myself forward, so the idea of blowing my own trumpet always makes me squirm. Not the best of attributes, perhaps, when it comes to marketing books! I suppose I would describe myself as efficient and can achieve quite a lot if I set my mind to it. I also have a tendency to indolence, so there are bursts of activity with fallow periods in between. When it comes to writing, I do like to plan things – but not too much, since that can stifle creativity. Sometimes, I just like to start writing with an idea in mind and see how a particular scene will work out.

I have the same problem when it comes to marketing books. It doesn’t come naturally, but we twenty-first century authors have no choice.

I recently wrote a blog post about the word ‘passion’ after someone wrote that it has no place outside the bedroom. Having concluded that it does, I wonder what you’re passionate about.

Gosh, hard to know how to answer that one. I’m passionate about women’s rights and passionately against oppression in any form. That all sounds a bit high falutin’, so coming closer to home, I’m passionate about history, which was the subject of my first degree, and that’s why I normally choose to write historical fiction. My interest in history grows as I get older and I’m particularly interested in Corsican history and the history of the area of France where I live.

I’ve never tried or wanted to write historical fiction before, but an event I happened to come across triggered an interest. How should I go about it? Do you have any tips for writing historical fiction?

Gosh! I’m no expert. One of the dilemmas is how much history and how much story to include. Getting the balance right is very hard. Great chunks of historical background will just turn off the reader. Equally, you have to get your facts right and ensure that you have captured the spirit of the age.

Since we’re talking about fiction, my advice is to focus on getting the story right and worry about some of the detail later on. You still have to research the period in question, but the research shouldn’t develop a life of its own. Sometimes you have to adjust the storyline in the light of the history. But navigating a course through these problems is just what fascinates me about historical fiction.

You have written historical fiction. Therefore you’re much more expert than I am, and this looks like excellent advice.

The House at Zaronza - Vanessa CouchmanI enjoyed reading The House at Zaronza very much. I particularly liked the superb writing, the settings and being able to lose myself in the story. What have others said about it?

Thank you. I’m pleased you enjoyed it. Well, you know what I said above about squirming! However, I’ve been delighted with readers’ responses to Zaronza. A number of people have mentioned the Corsican setting, which is pleasing, since that was very important for me. People have also mentioned that they felt involved with the characters and kept reading to find out what happened when they should have been doing other things! And lots of people have asked about a sequel, which was not something I considered when I first wrote it, but I am working on one now.

Lastly, I’m interested to hear more about the choirs you sing with. I have belonged to choirs in the past, but only one at a time! How do you have time for several? What sort of music do you sing? Do you give performances?

I love singing, but took it up again only a few years ago, not having been in a choir since university. Until last Christmas I belonged to a big local choir, which gave concerts several times a year, but sadly had to give that up since they changed rehearsal times. I also belong to a small ensemble of 12 people run by a friend and a women’s choir of about 30. And we sing in big a scratch choir twice a year, which comes together to give concerts in aid of a church restoration fund. Fortunately, not all these choirs meet every week. It’s mostly classical music and choral works with the big choirs, but we also sing more modern works and French songs with the smaller ones. But I would never, ever sing a solo in public!

I wouldn’t do that, either. I don’t think I could stop my voice from quivering.

Vanessa, thank you so much for this interview. I’ve enjoyed finding out more about you.

Thank you, Miriam, I’ve enjoyed it too.

Clearly Vanessa is not going to blow her own trumpet, so I shall sing her praises! She is one of those people who manages to fit so much more into their lives than I can. She is an excellent writer, a kind and friendly person and… I’m sure there’s more but that’s all I know.

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Vanessa Couchman is passionate about French and Corsican history, from which she derives the inspiration for much of her fiction. She has lived in France since 1997, where she runs a copywriting business and also writes magazine articles. Her short stories have won and been placed in creative writing competitions. The House at Zaronza is her debut novel.

The House at Zaronza is available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Vanessa Couchman can be found at her Website and blog, Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter: @Vanessainfrance