Carol Drinkwater is an Anglo-Irish actress, author and filmmaker, best known for her award-winning portrayal of Helen Herriot (née Alderson) in the television adaptation of the James Herriot books All Creatures Great and Small. As an author, she has achieved bestselling status with her much-loved memoirs of life on an olive farm in Provence. Her latest book is Hotel Paradise. Scroll down to read an excerpt from the book.
NAW- Tell us about your book, Hotel Paradise.How did you get the idea for it? How long did it take to finish the book?
Hotel Pardise is actually a novella, or a long short story (24,000 words). I was commissioned by Amazon to write a similar length story previous to Hotel Paradise. Amazon wanted to include my work in their Kindle Single library. The first one, The Girl from Room Fourteen, shot to the number one slot in their Kindle Single list both in the United States and the UK within days of publication. Sothey asked me to write another which is Hotel Paradise. Both these stories are set along the French Riviera coast, which is where I live. Or rather, I live inland of the coast overlooking the Bay of Cannes. I have been here for many years now and know this fabulous territory very well. It has a rich and fascinating history and I am always inspired to write about.
There are two tiny islands off the Bay of Cannes. I can see them from my terrace and one has a very rundown hotel on it, abandoned now. I used to dream of buying that old hotel – WAY outside my price range, I’m sure – and then one day while I was on a walk around the island dreaming up ideas for a story, I stopped outside the hotel and knew immediately that here lay the location for my next tale. The ideas, the characters grew from there. I had such fun writing it and now, because I have given it an imagined name, Hotel Paradise, it is almost as if for a while I have owned the hotel and lived in it. The execution of the story from the day I conceived the idea to delivery was two months, but I was also working on other projects.
NAW- Tell us about the character of Genevieve Bowles. How did you develop the character?
‘She’ was waiting for me within ‘the hotel’. I saw ‘her’ ( she had no name at this stage) standing there in the library. The library is the setting for the very first scene in the story. After that,‘she’ never went away from me. This is the joy of being a writer. A fictitious figure appears in your imagination. Who is she, you ask yourself, what does she want? She was standing by the window, shelves of books behind her, always standing by the window whenever I pictured her in my mind. So, I knew in my bones that she was waiting for someone. At first I toyed with the idea of someone who had died, the person she was waiting for. I could hear his footsteps… ‘He’ was walking towards the library door, arriving from the back of the property and then I began to feel her anxiety, or was it sadness, a melancholy mood… why? The other point was that the room she was standing in was a library with chic decor. How could such a room exist in this rundown hotel?
And so the first questions for the first scene began to haunt me, began to form themselves into a scenario and from there the story took root. I loved writing it.
‘She’, Genevieve Bowles, is a composer, a kind of Carole King figure. Once I had found her, imagined her in that rundown hotel’s library I had to begin to figure out how she had got there, her age, was she successful at what she does? These are all questions writers ask themselves and slowly the profile builds itself in layers. Genevieve is a sensitive and loyal creature who loves deeply and the man who walks into the library is someone she loved very powerfully when she was younger…
NAW- Tell us about the Olive series. How did that materialise?
Ah, The six Olive books are a very different matter. They are based on my own life. The first one, The Olive Farm, is the recounting of my own love affair with a French film producer I met in Australia when I was working as an actress on a film. We fell in love, he asked me to marry him (on our first dinner date!) and then when I returned to Europe, together we came to Cannes to the Film Festival. Here, up in the hills behind Cannes, we found a jungle of land and a very abandoned property. It turned out that this estate had been a rather elegant olive farm, which we have spent twenty years restoring. The Olive Farm, The Olive Season and the third book, The Olive Harvest, together build a very personal journey of a woman moving to another country, living her new life in another language; all to be with someone she loves. The tragedies and the joys. The books are deeply personal and, I hope, full of inspiration. What I had not expected was the power of the Olive Tree itself, the place that it began to take in my life. The next two books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, took me on a solo seventeen-month journey around the Mediterranean into some of the most beautiful territory and into war zones, in search of the history of this old tree which is one of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean: its cultures, its cuisine. Those seventeen months were some of the most memorable of my life. The last book in the series, Return to the Olive Farm, is life back here after all that I had experienced while travelling and how that period of travelling has changed me, my desire to run the farm organically after the destruction I had witnessed elsewhere.
We have since made five films, entitled collectively, The Olive Route, shot around the Mediterranean. These are loosely based on the two travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree.
NAW- You also write for Scholastic, right? Is it difficult to change voice when writing for the young? What do you like more, writing for adults or for the young?
I am a kid at heart full of curiosity and wonder. Thank goodness because it is from that energy that inspiration flows. I love writing for youngsters. I do not write for very small children but for the adolescent market, basically nine/ten years upwards.
Yes, it is a change of perspective and there are certain subjects that from the publishers point of view are taboo. Sex, for instance. In my latest book for young adults, The Only Girl in the World, set during the first world war in France, a young French girl meets an English soldier and they fall in love never knowing whether he will come back from the Front, from the war. Their time together is precious and limited which heightens the passion. In today’s world, they might sleep together but this is 1916 and I am writing for a younger reader. So, my young lovers express their powerful emotions in subtler ways. It is a challenge to be true to the story and work within certain constraints set down by the publishers or schools etc. I love those challenges and I love getting into the mind again of those young people, seeing the world anew with eyes and emotions that have not yet been bruised or jaded by life. I think it keeps me young!
But I don’t necessarily prefer this to writing for adults.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I am Anglo-Irish, educated in England at an Irish convent. Although I have English blood from my father’s side, I feel my soul and personality to be more Irish. I trained as an actress in London and worked at the National Theatre in England and went on to work on many TV films for the BBC and for English and Australian television companies. I have always written but took up writing professionally about twenty years ago.
There is little free time when you write for adults and youngsters and you run an olive farm. I like to swim, travel, read, go to the movies or watch films at home. My DVD collection counts over 2,000 films. I began my professional life as an actress after training at one of the top drama schools in London. I still occasionally record the narration scripts for documentaries but these days it is mainly for my husband’s film company. I would still love to act but I have had to make some choices and finally my life here in France and my writing have won the day.
NAW- When did you decide to become a writer? What was your inspiration?
I have always written. When I was a child of about seven I started collecting words. Big words, different words, unusual expressions… and I wrote them down in a very large green book which I still have somewhere. Neatly written with a nibbed pen. Then I began collecting excerpts of poetry and Shakespeare… I became fascinated by words, expressions;the choices used to communicate thoughts and feelings. It was only a step or two before I began writing myself. I wrote a play which I directed and starred in at school and we took it out to local homes for retired people (heaven knows what they thought of it!) and then I wrote a short article for a magazine which was published and I was paid for it. It was just a few pennies but I was a paid, published writer and I was ten or eleven years old!
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
Marguerite Duras, Isabel Allende, Graham Greene, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sarah Waters, Alan Furst, William Boyd, Colette, Laurie Lee …. so many!
NAW- Name your five favourite books.
This is impossible but I usually cite The Lover by Marguerite Duras, The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, The End of the Affair and The Quiet American or almost anything else by Graham Greene, The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee. The list is endless. It is impossible to choose just five.
NAW- What are your upcoming works?
I am working on a novel set in the South of France and another Kindle Single.
Excerpt from Hotel Paradise by Carol Drinkwater-
Genevieve was standing between open French doors, gazing out upon the Mediterranean. Her attention was drawn to the hotel pontoon where lunch was soon to be served. Several dozen round tables had been set up there, each dressed with white linen tablecloths and vases of spring flowers. Guests were milling to and fro; waiters were scurrying back and forth; bottles of champagne had been uncorked, bubbles were flowing. A speedboat was nosing in from the mainland, cutting through the spume. A glossy couple in sunglasses disembarked – she, negotiating an elegant ascent in stilettos from the gently rocking launch onto the pontoon steps. They were greeted as luminaries by the head waiter, who bowed his head discreetly and guided them to a table at the water’s edge. Shaking hands, embracing those they encountered, they seemed to be acquainted with everyone. Genevieve vaguely recognised the man. She had squeezed by him in the crush at the Palme d’Or awards ceremony the evening before. She glanced at her watch. Simon should be arriving any time now. She would wait for him here, in this room. This library.
What a transformation this old building had seen. It was hard to believe it. She was happy, though, that the new owners, whoever they were, had kept the hotel’s name. For the old man’s sake, and his wife’s.
She wondered how many of the diners out on the pontoon would be staying over. Many others had flown out this morning. The usual crazy exodus of transatlantic departures that followed the Cannes film festival’s final night ceremony.
Had the pontoon been closed for this private party given in Simon’s honour? She felt sure it must have been. What were the bedrooms like now? As elegant as the lobby and this library where she was waiting. A handful of private suites with sea views? And the attic? Their attic. It was a gym. The attic had been converted into a gym. She had read that in a brochure at Reception.
Another speedboat was drawing close to shore, another party of elegant guests disembarking. Simon was not amongst them. His TV interview must be running over.
How many days of Genevieve’s life had been dedicated to this view? Gazing upon it, daydreaming alongside it, composing music with its rhythms as an accompaniment, an inspiration for the chords, the choruses gathering form within her. So many aspects of her life – not everything, of course, foolish to be overly dramatic – had been fractured here, had fallen apart. How bruised her world and her young heart had felt back then. But this, this natural canvas, this seascape, had remained constant. Looking out from this window, it was as though she had never been away, had never left. The waves breaking on the shore, forever in motion, retracting, re-amassing, were essentially the same. This view, save for the pontoon, had been a part of Genevieve’s daily life for close to two years. Yet it was all so long ago. It was hard to remind herself that it was she who had lived out that time here and not another someone she had vaguely known.
A man’s voice. ‘Yes?’ She swung her body to face the interior of the room, but did not shift from her position by the French doors.
‘Bienvenue. Welcome to the Paradise.’
‘Can we serve you with anything? Shall I send a waiter?’
‘Merci, I’ll wait.’
‘Very well. And, my congratulations, if I may, Madame Bowles. To you and Monsieur Fuller. Le film estmagnifique. Quite magnificent. We are honoured to be hosting Mr Fuller’s luncheon here.’
‘Is this your first visit to the Hotel Paradise?’
She opened her mouth to speak but no words would form. She nodded. A harmless and convenient lie. It was her first visit to this, the renovated Hotel Paradise.
‘Well, you are most welcome. I would be delighted to give you a personal tour of the place.’
A tour of the place? Again, her response was not forthcoming. ‘Thank you. Perhaps later. After the party.’
‘Bien sûr, Madame Bowles. We hope you will enjoy the luncheon and come back to stay with us at some point in the future.’
Once the manager had disappeared, Genevieve’s attention returned to the waterside view. Her heart was pumping fast. Setting foot in this hotel again was more disturbing than she might have anticipated.
Out on the pontoon, someone was waving to her. He was moving towards the library doors through the swirl of people. She frowned. It could not possibly be…? Then, his attention distracted by guests, the man set off in another direction before she could confirm his identity. He was limping. She had lost sight of him now.
Her memory was playing tricks with her. Paul? It could not be.
‘There you are, Gen. I was looking for you.’ A voice from behind her, at the library door. Simon had arrived.
No. She knew the voice before she turned into the room to where he was hovering at the entrance.
‘I wanted to welcome you to the Paradise.’
They stood facing one another across the distance of a room, across the distance of two upturned lives. Paul, at the entrance to the library; Genevieve, back to the open French doors. She could feel the warmth of the high, midday sun on her shoulders. The clouds had dispersed and the heat was penetrating.
‘Welcome back would be more accurate, I suppose.’ He grinned. ‘Good to see you, Gen. You look amazing. And what a star you’ve become.’
He was wearing a cream silk shirt and cream linen jacket. Dark loose slacks. Suede shoes. His hair was tousled. He still looked like what he was or had been, an aspiring photographer. Elegant, erudite, impoverished, charming – above all, charming – never giving the impression that he was down on his luck or out of his depth. His hair had silvered at its tips since the last time they had been in one another’s company. It enhanced his good looks. But the limp? Was he here to take photographs for a newspaper, a magazine?
‘What a surprise.’
‘It’s been a long time, eh, Gen?’ He spoke the words with a light-heartedness that suggested it might have been yesterday, that the distance of time had been no matter.
When was the last time? She knew the answer too well. Twelve years ago. Here in this waterfront property; this shabby, wind-battered, water-seeped island hotel that had become their home.
To any outsider who might have been observing them at this moment, the formality between them was as though they had never been lovers, had never lived such a turbulent passage of time in one another’s company.
As they spoke, small talk, she was aware that he was surveying her face, scrutinising her as though trying to recall in her features the Genevieve she had been back then when they were together. Rearranging the face he was seeing today, to erase time.
‘I read you were here on the coast. Mistress of Song, eh?’ he grinned. ‘It’ll be an Oscar next. You look fabulous.’
‘I saw the film. It’s terrific. A well-deserved Palme d’Or.’
Silence. Paul glanced about him without entering, as though there was an invisible boundary he should not cross. His apprehension was perceptible.
‘It’s Simon’s film, not mine and yes, it is superb. Five years in the making.’
‘I wasn’t expecting… Are you staying here?’
‘Here at the Hotel Paradise?’ He laughed, relaxed now, brimming with vitality and pride. ‘This old wreck, our old wreck, Gen, is my baby.’
TWELVE YEARS EARLIER
They had met on a boat on the River Seine, a Bateau Mouche. More accurately, it had been an exchange of glances, not of words. He had taken her photograph; they had not spoken, had not offered any introductions. She had been standing out on the open upper deck in the March wind, surveying the scope and spectacle of her newly adopted city while he had watched from a discreet distance, admiring her. Admiring her athletic figure, her healthy skin and dark intelligent eyes, before he lifted his camera and took the shot that captured her vibrancy, her shoulder-length curls blowing against her cheeks in the crisp morning. She had smiled, briefly acknowledging the camera’s scrutiny. He was rather attractive, she had remarked silently, the guy with the camera. He had a solid, muscular cut to him. And then she had dismissed him from her thoughts, returning her attention to the water, to her private musings. Her leather-jacketed arms pressed against the rail as she leaned over, gazing down at the sludgy, fast-moving water or out at the city’s skyline. Right bank, left bank. Paris. As the tourist boat ploughed forwards, throwing up white foam in its wake, Genevieve felt liberated. Leaving London, moving to Paris… it had been the right decision.
Genevieve had been twenty-seven back then; single, ambitious, not ready to settle down or start a family. She was dedicated to a career in music, in song-writing, composition. But she had grown disillusioned in London; the lack of opportunities, the rejections, the job and housing grind; a ruptured affair – her decision – had been followed by a sense of life’s mundanity, its meaninglessness. She found herself in a rut, restless, and had decided to withdraw her meagre savings, close the door on her rented flat and take off. She had no fixed itinerary, no plans. She longed to see the world, to live it with every fibre of her being, to gain experience. That above all. To throw herself in at the deep end and find the means to swim, to live by her own rules, resources; see where the rolling stone took her. And with those experiences, she would fire her music.
She had chosen Paris because it was Paris. It was a city of music, of vibrancy, and of ordinary sounds. Sounds that in London had meant nothing to her, but here, they were magical because her life felt magical. She had arrived in November by train. Paris in the rain. The patter and drum of raindrops on umbrellas, the screeching of car horns, the hiss of coffee machines, the splash of feet crossing the busy boulevards. It was a city to listen to, to listen in. Alone in darkened cinemas, foreign-language soundtracks, keeping dry and warm, inhaling the woolly scent of her dampened sweater, the aroma of burnt popcorn. Living hand to mouth on the left bank in a rented sixth-floor chambre de bonnesin the fourteenth arrondissement. Sixteen square metres overlooking a leafy cemetery in between Denfert-Rochereau and Montparnasse. No lift. Late night footsteps on the stairs beyond her tiny studio. The comings and goings of strangers. Christmas window shopping. Hot chocolate thick as tar at street cafés lining the boulevard des Champs-Élysées. Gazing back towards Place de la Concorde, the largest square in the city, where flotillas of elegant women in fur coats carried shopping bags and hailed taxis. Everywhere was illuminated. And then – enchantment! – it had snowed. Snow falling in the still cemetery beyond her smoked-up window. Paris: Christmas-wrapped in the soft tiptoe of swirling snow.
Genevieve loved everything about her new existence. The veg and fruit stalls, the quartier where she lived in her snug, attic rabbit hutch, the local vendors all moustaches and berets and jubilant, sing-song voices, the insouciance, even the lean and mean uptown femmes. She secured herself a job serving in the bar at Charlie Birdy in Montparnasse. The hours were evenings till late, till the last man fell, and occasional lunch or brunch sessions. It paid the rent and they gave her a meal. Hamburgers and Southern Comfort. It kept her from starving. In the afternoons, she carried her trusty guitar into the narrow, bustling lanes spilling over with kebab joints around the Latin Quarter, to busk.
She knew not a soul but was relishing the freedom, the happy-go-lucky lifestyle she was establishing for herself. She was answerable to no one except herself and her music. Her French was pretty good, improving by the day, and she was composing. Sooner or later, she told herself, her break would come. Her opportunity. Patience and experience were required, and both took time.
Seated on a low stone wall, steps from the bookshop Shakespeare & Company, a guitar resting on her crossed thighs, he came upon her. He rounded the corner and there she was. There she was, the graceful creature he had photographed on a boat. He stopped to listen, to admire her. Her fingers plucking at the strings. So, she was a musician – an accomplished one, playing a popular classical piece with a Spanish theme to it. He had heard the music before but could not have put a name to it. She put him in mind of a young Ava Gardner. High cheekbones, handsome features, not pretty, but sexy. He hung around until she had finished her set, and then in faltering French he invited her for coffee. She smiled, a broad open-faced beam that illuminated her eyes; eyes as dark and rich as wenge wood.
Copyright Carol Drinkwater 2014.