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French Book interview: Deborah Lawrenson Author of The Lantern

Lavender Fields, Provence

We talk to Deborah Lawrenson Author of The Lantern and The Sea Garden.

Deborah Lawrenson graduated in English from Trinity College, Cambridge and worked on several national newspapers and magazines in London.

When Deborah started to compose The Lantern, she says she had in mind to write “an homage to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its young heroine who finds her man becomes more mysterious to her the longer she is with him.”

The inspiration and setting for The Lantern comes from Deborah’s own home in the Luberon, Provence in the south of France, known for its hilltop villages, lavender, abundant fruit and clear bright light.  She says “I’ve been having a love affair with Provence for more than 25 years. The light, the views, the colours, the heat—I find them all intoxicating. I went for the first time with the college boyfriend who would become my husband; his family had had a house in the Luberon for some twenty years. We finally bought our own property in France seven years ago after my husband decided to give up banking and realize his long-held ambition to compose music…”

Can you tell us a little about your home in Provence – is it like the house in The Lantern in many ways? Do you ever feel the presence of something mysterious there?

“Les Genévriers” (not the property’s real name) is described more or less as we found it. Its setting is as accurate as I can make it without giving away its precise location. It is a crumbling old farming hamlet on a hillside in the Luberon complete with courtyard and centuries old ruelle (alleyway).

The mysterious scent is taken from my own experience. One morning I woke early and the bedroom was suffused with a lovely perfume. It was springtime and the windows were open; I assumed that the scent was coming from a shrub in the courtyard below, but when I got up that didn’t seem to be the case. I went back to bed, thinking it must be coming from a leaking bottle in my travel bag. But when I checked, the bottle was sealed tight and anyway that scent would not have been right.

What I could smell was a lovely fragrance, though, redolent of rose and daphne with a hint of incense, so I lay back and enjoyed it. On very rare occasions since I have smelled it again, though I still have no idea where it comes from…

The flickering of the light inside the house, as the strong sun filters through leaves outside, is also based on experience and can be disconcerting. The discoveries of rooms we didn’t know existed, and the blocked-up storeroom by the arch in the garden, are all real.

Provence France

The hardest part of writing a novel is?

Making myself stop writing and get up from my desk to do some exercise.

Do you get writer’s block and if you do, how do you overcome it?

I don’t tend to suffer from writer’s block. I sit down and start thinking about the words and getting the story right, not about myself. Must be the old journalism training.

Do you consider the book’s characters as being solely your creation, doing your bidding, or do they develop an independent existence, behaving in ways you hadn’t anticipated?

The moment they start taking on a life of their own is when you know you are doing something right. It means you’re seeing the situations you’ve put them in from the point of view of a character.

Henri Matisse

If you could have dinner with a French character – real or from a book – living or dead, who would it be and what one question would you ask them?

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) who loved the south of France and dared to paint it in wild and shocking colour. I’d like to take him back to the summer of 1905 when he and André Derain (1880-1954) worked side by side on the Mediterranean shore at Collioure, producing pictures that seemed to break down the effect of bright light. Was there one view or sight that prompted their first experiments with Fauvism?

If you were to cook for that person – what dish would you choose?

A dish that encapsulates the strong flavours of the south: a goat’s cheese and tomato tart. Followed by sea bream with lemon and capers. You’d want to feed a starving artist properly.

Desert Island books – if you could only take three books to a deserted island what would they be?

War and Peace – I might finally get through it on a desert island.

The collected poems of Andrew Marvell.

The biography of Gerald Durrell by Douglas Botting. A strange choice, you might think, but it is one of the most enjoyable biographies I’ve ever read, full of detail, perception and humanity with all the narrative drive of a novel. Key to Durrell’s character was his idyllic childhood on the island of Corfu – how does one ever move on from perfection encapsulated?

You worked on Nigel Dempster’s Gossip Column for the Daily Mail – what was that like, do you have a favourite story to share?!

It was enormous fun – I was twenty-five and I couldn’t believe my luck! A Fleet Street job that really didn’t seem like a job, involving as it did arriving for work at 10.45 am; interviewing film stars and the great, the good and the frankly naughty; lunches at the Ritz and the Savoy; writing a bit of copy; drinking champagne in the office with Dempster (a great professional, full of hilarious and improbable-seeming stories – though you had to hunker down during his hissy fits); and going out to parties and first nights.

A fondly remembered story that sums up those days? The time Lauren Bacall was in London, and arrived at a West End first night party. Everyone was falling over themselves to have a few words with her, especially the journalists trying to get a few exclusive words to for their own paper. I managed to speak to her and she was gracious but told me only how much she loved London and wasn’t the theatre here wonderful. Which was OK, but being young and thinking anything was possible, I was hoping she’d tell me something she’d never told anyone.

A short while afterwards, I went to the Ladies. I’d just closed the door of the cubicle when I heard someone else come in, and then another person. They started talking, and I realised that one of them was Lauren Bacall and the other was my girl reporter rival on the Daily Express gossip column.

Very quietly, I got my notebook and pencil out of my bag – just in case she got some fabulous story from her. But in point of fact all my rival got from Lauren Bacall was a flea in her ear for being so unprofessional as to follow her into the Ladies and try to take advantage while she was off-stage so to speak. Quite rightly so. Lauren Bacall was – still is – a legend of Hollywood and the ultimate class act. She is not to be interviewed in the Ladies. And she saved me from the moral dilemma of what to do if I actually had eavesdropped on a sensational exclusive from the loo…

My guiltiest pleasure is…

Buying paintings at local auctions. We’re not talking Sotheby’s here and the thrill is in the surprisingly cheap hammer prices. I love bold impressionistic work from the 1920s and 30s that doesn’t seem very fashionable at the moment so often goes for comparatively little. The guilt comes from being fully aware that we are running out of wall space…

… And Green & Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate ice cream, most unwise given the hardest part of writing a novel (above) but irresistible.

Red or white wine?

White burgundy, ideally a well-cooled St-Veran.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so… what?

Sometimes. Each novel is different. The Lantern, for example, was written to Debussy and Fauré and modern jazz singers like Stacey Kent and Sophie Milman. This time, though, I’ve been less inclined to write with music. I don’t know why, but I’ve found myself turning the CD player off because it’s become an unwelcome distraction. Although Satie has lately been allowed to play quietly.

What are you writing at the moment?

A novel in three distinct “books” that join together in an unexpected way, working title: The Night Flight. One of the sections will focus on a character from The Lantern, Marthe the blind perfumier. (There was so much that her sister Bénédicte didn’t know about her life in Manosque and afterwards…) Another part is set on the island of Porquerolles off the coast from Hyères, where the restoration of a garden proves unnerving. Finally, a story of an English life in the shadows after the Second World War.

See our Review of the Lantern here.

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