Interview with Katherine Pancol, French bestselling author

Last year, I interviewed the very popular French novelist Katherine Pancol, whose books I have much enjoyed. The interview was published in Good Reading magazine, and as I am in France at the moment I thought I would republish it for readers here.

Interview with Katherine Pancol
By Sophie Masson
Katherine Pancol is one of France’s most popular novelists, who regularly tops best-seller lists with her enthralling books, which combine gripping plots, superbly-developed characters, vivid settings, zesty language, wry humour, romance and a hint of the surreal, even supernatural. Every book’s been a success, but the biggest so far was with a trilogy which started in 2006 with Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles, (The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles)continued in 2008 with La valse lente des Tortues( The slow waltz of tortoises) and in 2010,Les ecureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi(The squirrels of Central Park are sad on Mondays). This trilogy has sold in excess of 6 million copies in France alone. It was translated already into 29 other languages before an English-language version of the first book finally joined them in 2013, which in Australia was published by Allen and Unwin.
I only discovered Katherine Pancol’s work myself recently, despite being of French origin, though living in Australia. I read the books in French before the English translation—which carries the wonderful story and characters well, though in my opinion, missing a little of the spicy sparkle of the French original. And interviewing her, I discovered that the author is as intriguing and engaging as her novels.

SM: How did the idea for The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles first come to you?

KP: Isak Dinesen used to say : “I start with a tingle, a kind of feeling for the story… Then come the characters, and they take over, they make the story”.
It’s exactly that. Every time.
I was spending the summer in a seaside village in Normandy. I like to go swimming early in the morning, when the beach is empty and the sea is all mine. One morning, just as I was about to go into MY sea, another woman came in. We talked. She was a researcher at the CNRS, a university research centre in France. She’d been working on the same subject for 30 years: travelling newspaper-sellers in 18th century France! She’d written and talked about this subject all over the world.
She had a certain old-fashioned, tentative charm, and as I listened, I felt that familiar tingle!
Josephine was about to be born.
The rest was like a snowball that turns into an avalanche, as I imagined a whole personal world for Josephine.

SM: When you started this book, did you envisage it as the first in a trilogy?

KP: Not at all. I wrote the first one and thought I was through with the story. Bye Bye, everybody ! And then… I kept thinking about the characters and I was missing them. All sorts of questions came to me. What was going on in their lives? Were they happy or sad? In the end I realised I was continuing the story in my head every day so I decided to write it down and there I was with another novel !

AM: The story is told from several different points of view. How did you handle that?

I think it comes from the characters. When they are well-developed, it is they who write the story, and me, I just follow them. I trust them. To write a novel you have to know your characters very well. Like yourself. You think like them, you laugh like them, cry like them, you share the same dreams, the same fears. You are them. Each of them. I never make a plan when I write. I am the characters and they write the story.

SM: Josephine is a specialist in the 12th century, which recurs frequently as a theme–is this period one you are interested in?

KP: I chose it completely by chance, because I did not know it at all. At school in France, you usually start with the 13th or 14th centuries. So, I thought it was a good way to learn. I love to learn new things.
The 12th century is very interesting because it is very like our time. It is a century of many tumultuous changes. European countries were opening up to each other and to trade, money became all-important, it was the start of the great European fairs, the first universities, religious fanaticism was raging, women worked and represented 50 percent of the active population. It was a very modern period in a very ancient time!

SM: To me, the novel has strong fairy tale elements. And yet it’s also realistic, with great social irony and comedy. How did you combine those things?

KP: I don’t know ! It’s just my way of telling stories ! When I was a child, I read a lot, all kinds of books. I was just as happy reading myths and fairytales from Egypt, Persia, Arabia, Norway as The Brothers Karamazov, Le Père Goriot(Balzac), David Copperfield. Everything was blended in my mind. And even if say I didn’t really understand Dostoyevsky I was still enthralled by the atmosphere, and loved discovering other words, other feelings, an other world.

SM: The portrait of French society in the novel isn’t always flattering. Do you think that your years outside of France have given you a different perspective on your country?

KP: I spent ten years in New York. In that time I came to understand what was wonderful about the US and what was less wonderful. Same for France, and for Paris where I live. There are things I love and others I love not at all. There’s no such thing as a perfect country, or perfect civilisation.
In Paris, I love the beauty of the city, the stone of its buildings, the light, the sky, the food, the presence of the past, the cafes, the restaurants, the Seine, the style of Parisian girls! In New York, I love the energy that emanates from the city, the optimism, the freedom, the mix of nationalities, of languages. In New York, you tell yourself that everything is possible. You dare to go out on a limb.
In Paris, you don’t. You are less daring. More self-conscious.
I love the two cities, but differently.
It’s because I’ve lived in New York that I realised how French I am. Or rather, European. I could easily live in Rome or Madrid. I love Latin countries.

SM: I saw the ‘yellow eyes of crocodiles’ image as symbolising fear: fear of death, fear of life, fear of becoming yourself, fear of losing yourself–is that a fair comment?

Kp: Yes ! It is.
Nearly all the characters are afraid.

SM: And the character of Henriette Grobz, which is the only one with no redeeming features–is that possibly because in her cold hardness she does not allow anything as human as fear in?

KP: Henriette is only scared of one thing: not having enough money. Money is the only thing which reassures her, the only value she holds dear, her refuge. And that is her fear: to be in need of money.
She despises her younger daughter Josephine because she’s fragile, sensitive, generous. Henriette loves only force and power. She supposedly loves her older daughter Iris, but in reality she loves an image: what she could have been herself.

SM: Why do you think so many readers worldwide have loved your book? And why did it take so long for the novel to be taken up by English-language publishers?

KP: I think that we are all, in a sense, ‘Josephines’. And not only women feel this. I have received many emails from male readers, young and old, who identify with Josephine. One young Chinese soldier, even wrote ‘I am Josephine!’
I replied in some surprise and he wrote back, describing how he’d always felt inadequate in the face of life. That he was always afraid he’d not measure up. Afraid he’d do the wrong thing, of not being good enough..
So I offered him Seneca’s words: ‘It is not because things are difficult that we don’t dare to take a chance; it’s because we don’t dare that things become difficult.’
As to why it took so long for the book to come out in English—I think the Americans waited to see how the book went in territories other than France. It reassured them, when they saw it went well in Spain and Germany, for instance, and so they took the plunge.
SM: What reactions are you getting from anglophone readers?

KP: Pretty much the same as in France. On my website,, people can contact me directly, and I’ve had all sorts of emails from English-language readers. For instance, a man wrote to me about Antoine(Josephine’s faithless, hapless husband) a woman wrote saying my book had made her feel again that life was worth living, still another wanted the rest of the trilogy. I’ve had only enthusiastic messages. People write to me as though to a friend.
SM: Will the other two books in the trilogy be published in English too?

KP: I hope so ! I cross my fingers ! If “The yellow eyes of crocodiles” is a success in English, the publisher will have the other two volumes translated. If not, well..

SM: Can you tell us a little about your writing career? And a little about your new trilogy?

KP: I studied literature at university ,taught French and Latin in a Swiss private school, then back in Paris, I became a journalist. I remember the first time I saw my name in print in a newspaper. It was in Paris-Match(a famous French weekly magazine). I was 23. I was at newspaper kiosk, and I danced for joy around that kiosk!
Later, I went to work for Cosmopolitan. One day, the publisher said I must absolutely write a novel! I resisted for six months. Then I decided to do it. To please him. And because he was convinced of my abilities, he was also convincing! So I wrote my first novel, ‘Moi d’abord’ (Me first, 1979). It was a big success. My life changed. I discovered you could write for your own pleasure, and not just for readers. It was like entering into the most wonderful sweet-shop!

My new trilogy is called ‘Muchachas’ and tells the story of a woman, Léonie, who is a victim of domestic violence; of her daughter Stella–and of a man who is handsome, strong, brave, a fireman who saves lives but who at home beats his wife and rapes his daughter. It is Léonie’s story, Stella’s story, and the story of all those around them—those who pretend not to see what’s happening and those who try to help. It’s set in a small French provincial town. In the novel, there are characters who dream their lives away, those who endure it and those who decide to change it.And then there’s another story within it, another world, where readers will find again characters from the Josephine trilogy: Hortense and Gary, Josephine and Philippe, Shirley, Alexandre, Zoé. It’s set in England, in New York, in Paris, in Italy.
These two worlds meet in the new trilogy.
In fact, it is a single novel that I broke into three volumes when I realised it was 1500 pages long!


Memories of an inspirational childhood home

empeauxI am in France at the moment and the other day, as always when I am back here, I went back to the village where we used to spend all our time as children, when we were back in France on our periodic holidays from Australia. The beautiful old house where we used to live has been highly important to me not only personally but as a writer too, so today I thought I would republish here a piece I wrote a little while back, about the house and its place in my imagination.

The good-fairy house

The very year I was born, my parents, who were then working as expatriates in Indonesia, bought their first house, with the help of my paternal grandmother Marie-Louise Masson. A few months later, as a sickly baby, I was left with her, for the sake of my health—and stayed with her till I was five years old and my parents took me with them to Australia.
La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as my parents named their French house(after my father’s wealthy French-Canadian ancestors’ manor at Terrebonne near Montreal)was at the time a large, beautiful but damaged late-eighteenth house, with crumbling seventeenth century outbuildings, in a south-western French village called Empeaux.
It wasn’t common at the time for people to buy a country house so far out ‘in the sticks’ , especially when it was in such bad condition. Not only would the house need restoring from top to bottom, but there was massive work to do as well in its enormous overgrown garden, dotted with ancient trees including a rather sinister yew and a magnificent elm planted by one of Henri IV’s advisers, as well as fruit trees. (The garden was so big everyone called it ‘the park.’ )
Well, nothing daunted, my parents set to work, devoting a large part of their expatriate salaries to pay a succession of masons, tilers, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters and other local tradesmen. Slowly but surely, and with the help of much cash, the house turned from Cinderella in rags to beautiful princess admired by all. And it became our family base, our French base, to which we returned every two-three years, for two-three months.
We loved that house. In its warm, enchanted space, everything was extraordinary. The house was full of stories: some sad, like that of the heartbroken young man who’d hung himself in one of the bedrooms(haunted, it was nevertheless a beautiful room, and a great family favourite); some scary, like the well in the garden where a witch had been thrown, long ago; some touching, like that of the old gentleman who tapped at the front door once and told us how he’d spent his childhood in the house(I still dream about it, he said); some amazing, like that of the elm tree which because of its origin featured in the heritage of France(named a National Monument, it died, sadly, in the Dutch elm epidemic of the 1980’s).
The old wooden stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar smelled of the earth. In the storage antechambers that ran the length of each main room, there were lots of things to discover: the Indonesian baskets full of Balinese dance costumes in red and gold and green and gold, with their assorted jewellery made in gilded leather decorated with bits if glass; a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including one made of Canadian wolfskins; a wicker cradle with my aunt Geneviève’s lovely 1940’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and the big pottery and glass jars where in the winter goose and duck confit slept under layers of fat, for it was so cold in those unheated antechambers that they might as well have been fridges. In the ‘park’ we ran riot, screaming, running, climbing the fruit trees to gorge ourselves on cherries, greengages, figs..And sometimes we’d take our bikes and go off for hours exploring, in a freedom that we never had in our Sydney suburb. 
As my mother still says, that house had a soul. The soul of a good fairy, despite the many terrible stories associated with it. It was a house that welcomed its people, which did them good, especially children. Grown up now, we regret it greatly—for our parents sold it in the late 1990’s—but nevertheless our memories are not bitter, but rather filled with the joy of having known so well a house which so enchanted our childhood. And for myself, I know that not only did La Nouvelle Terrebonne greatly enrich my childhood memories, it has forever become a part of my imaginative DNA as a writer.

Windmills: a poem for children

Inspired by seeing so many windmills in Europe–in Germany, France, and the UK–I wrote this little poem–for children, but I hope enjoyable for everyone!


by Sophie Masson

The giants on the hill paddle in bright air,
Eddies of fine cloud flying everywhere.
A gust of wind excites them as they gather in the crop;
A sunny stillness quiets them, their arms go slow, then stop.
In humming rows they stand,
White giants across the land,
Waiting for a breeze to blow,
Waiting for a chance to show
They thresh the wind without a care,
And harvest and mill the breath of air,
To turn into heat and light,
Far away and out of sight.
In humming rows they stand,
White giants across the land,
Looking across the seas,
Waiting for the breeze.

Copyright Sophie Masson, 2015.

An adventurous life and a notorious true crime in Faversham, Kent

Michael-Greenwood-plaqueVisited Faversham in Kent recently and whilst on a walk through this very historic town, came across two very interesting stories, literally plastered on the walls of two ancient houses. One told the story of Michael Greenwood, who at the age of 17 in 1748, was press-ganged into the Navy, then his ship, the Litchfield, was wrecked off the Barbary Coast, and he and his shipmates were captured by Moors, and enslaved for 17 months till they were ransomed. After that he returned to Faversham where he worked as an oyster dredger, but during his captivity he kept an extensive diary which is apparently still in existence and is owned by his descendants in Queensland! Would love to read it..

The other story is of a notorious crime in Tudor times–the murder of a man named Thomas Arden by his wife Alice and her lover Mosby. This was a bungled affair–several attempts were made which failed until finally the murderous pair hired two hitmen, returned English soldiers from Calais known amazingly as Black Will and Loosebag, who killed Arden but bungled it so badly that the murderers, all of them, were quickly discovered and executed, except for Loosebag, who managed to get away. Not surprisingly, this gruesome and bizarre crime was not only the talk of the country but it inspired a play, Arden of Faversham, which though anonymously published, is thought variously to have been written by Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and William Shakespeare–either solely or collaboratively. The play has been produced many times over the centuries–the latest of which was last year, when it was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, updated to modern times. ardens_house

Such great stories! Am sure they will find their way somehow into my writing, somewhere..

Guest post: Elisabeth Storrs on Etruscan love

Today I’m delighted to welcome Elisabeth Storrs to my blog. Elisabeth is the author of The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice, the first two books in the Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy set in early Republican Rome and Etruria. The final book, Call to Juno, will be released in April 2016.Storrs-WeddingShroud-20148-CV-FT

00 ElisabethStorrsColor300Elisabeth has long held a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in Arts Law having studied Classics along the way. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two sons and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and governance consultant. She is the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, and the Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Warding off Evil: The Power of A Loving Embrace.

by Elisabeth Storrs
I was inspired to write The Wedding Shroud and its sequel, The Golden Dice, when I found a photo of a C6th BCE sarcophagus of a man and women lying on their bed in a tender embrace. The casket (known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple) was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone depicted in such a pose of affection. The image of the lovers remained with me. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men? Discovering the answer led me to the Etruscans, a society that existed from before archaic times in Italy and was mainly situated in the areas we now know as Tuscany and Lazio.

Married Couple                                              Sarcophagus of the Married Couple
                                                            Late C6th BCE

Etruscan women were afforded education, high status and independence. As a result they were often described as ‘wicked’ by Greek and Roman historians and travellers whose cultures repressed women. Etruscan women dined with their husbands at banquets and drank wine. In such commentators’ eyes, this liberal behaviour may well have equated with depravity. One famous account claims that wives indulged in orgies. And so modern historians continue to debate the contradictory depictions of Etruscan women –were they promiscuous adulterers or faithful wives?
Etruscan society clearly celebrated both marriage and sex. The image of men and women embracing is a constant theme in their tomb art and ranges from being demure, as in the case of the Married Couple, to the strongly erotic (Tomb of the Bulls) and even pornographic (Tomb of the Whippings.) The latter illustrations seem to confirm the more prurient view of Etruscan women but the symplegma or ‘sexual embrace’ was not a gratuitous portrayal of abandon but instead was an atropaic symbol invoking the forces of fertility against evil and death.
No better example of this is a particularly striking double sarcophagus found in Vulci in Italy and which is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wrought in fine white limestone, the man and woman lie entwined in each other’s arms. However, unlike the anonymous Married Couple, this husband and wife can be identified. They are Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai. The very fact that Tanchvil has two names is evidence of the status of Etruscan women. In early Rome, females only had one name – that of their father’s in feminine form. In Etruria, the bloodlines of both sides of a woman’s family were often recorded on their casket.

Tetnies Younger                                                       Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai
                                                         Late C4th early 3rd BCE
The image of the couple is both intimate and yet openly erotic. The spouses are not young but are nevertheless beautiful. Tanchvil gently clasps the nape of Larth’s neck as the lovers gaze into each other’s eyes. They are naked, the outline of their limbs evident beneath the sculpted folds of the mantle that covers them. However nudity cannot hide their status. Their luxurious hairstyles and elegant jewellery declare their wealth, as does the wide, decorated double bed upon which they lie.
There was a second sarcophagus found in the sepulchre at Vulci. It is narrow and only held the remains of a woman, Ramtha Visnai, but its lid depicts her embracing her husband, Arnth Tetnies. They are the parents of Larth. This coffin is made of rough nenfro stone. Wrapped in their shroud, the figures embrace each other on their bed. Unlike the sexually charged younger couple, the older pair is more contemplative as they face each other although the sight of their feet peeping from beneath the covers hints at the relaxed familiarity of their marriage.

Tetnies Elder                                                  Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies
                                                          C450-400 BCE

The Married Couple inspired me to write my trilgy, but the two caskets in the Tetnies tomb were the inspiration for the title of The Wedding Shroud. For both couples lie beneath mantles that I came to understand could symbolise the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom stood when they took their vows. In effect the spouses were swathed in their wedding shroud for eternity, their union protecting them from the dark forces that lay beyond the grave.
As for the conflicting views of Etruscan women, it is clear from studying this society’s art that they celebrated life. Many worshipped the religion of Fufluns (the Greek Dionysus and Roman Bacchus) whose later cult adherents were famous for indulging in debauchery but in its purest form was a belief in the power of regeneration. So which version is correct? Sinners indulging in group sex or steadfast wives? Perhaps both, because the concept of a culture that condones female promiscuity while also honouring wives and mothers is not necessarily contradictory. For while it can be erroneous to compare modern societies with ancient ones, it could be argued that this attitude to females occurs in many present-day Western cultures today.
Either way, the erotic and sensual image of an embrace transcends any moralising in which historians might indulge. Ultimately I believe that the symplegma is not just an atropaic symbol but something more powerful. Whether sculpted in stone, moulded in terracotta or painted in a mural, the embrace of two lovers remains, above all, an eternal celebration of abiding love.

Tetnies Sarcophagi photographs © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Married Couple courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Storrs-GoldenDice-20146-CV-FT

Elisabeth’s website
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Land of the Black Douglas

In Scotland at the moment and in that green forested part of it known as Galloway,which despite its romantically bucolic appearance has a history of fierce raiding lords like the Black Douglas,whose stronghold was at Castle Douglas,only a few kilometres away. Eventually he was brought to heel by James II of Scotland(this was in 15th century) and his land redistributed amongst other lords. We went to one of those places, at Orchardton–the very fortified tower showed the area wasn’t quite pacified!