Friday, July 6, 2012

Fools, Boules et Moules

Apologies for missing my slot last week. It was purely unintentional. I was travelling to France for the first day of the Frontignan Roman Noir Festival and I was under the illusion that after my table ronde I would have time to go back to the hotel and blog about my initial experiences.  I was wrong. That illusion was created by the festivals I'd attended in the US and UK, where authors have a lot of downtime. In France, I'm delighted to say, they do things differently. So after my panel, and then some signing, I had a drink with my translator, who had very sweetly driven two hours from Toulouse just to meet me (Jean-René, I hope it was worth it...), did some more signing, and then it was the festival inauguration, and then there was a meal on the get the picture.

I enjoyed every hectic second. As my discussion, N'oublions pas, which translates as Don't Forget, took place less than two hours after I landed in Montpellier, I was somewhat apprehensive. Frontignan is a beautiful little town on the Mediterranean, an hour or so from the airport, so no sooner had I arrived than I was sat in front of an audience. Thankfully my interpreter Phil, who turned out to have a nice line in filthy jokes, helped me relax and it went as well as a panel can do in a sweltering tent when you don't speak the language, haven't eaten since breakfast and are nervous as hell. My fellow panellists were very generous, or at least I think they were, though the show was stolen by Spanish writer, Marc Pastor. Marc is a cop, a forensic investigator in fact. He said he has always written and 'stumbled' in to police work. As you do. Afterwards, he shamed us all by not only signing books, but sketching in them perfect caricatures of the people who bought them.

Marc Pastor takes book signing to a whole new level
It swiftly became clear that it was like no other festival I had been to. That evening we ate mussels beside the sea. I don't remember doing that at Crimefest. I'm not even sure I remember eating at Crimefest. Then armed with bottles of Muscat (I can see what inspired America to write 'Muscat Love' now - it's delicious) we decamped to the beach to chat, to drink, to smoke, and to play pétanque. In my case, badly (the pétanque that is - I managed OK at the drinking and smoking and chatting.)

A pile of books

The next morning I was back at the village square where the main festival was held, nursing less of a hangover than I deserved. It was then I realised that at these festivals the authors are expected to sit at their designated tables for most of the day and sign books for those interested. The tight-arsed Englishman in me quivered with horror. But what if no one comes? What do I do then? But I gave it a go. At first no one came. Then a few did. Then some more. In between I chatted with my fellow writers. The day went by in a flash. It was clear that the French respect and cherish their authors - another refreshing change, because in the UK and US, in some publishing houses, that certainly isn't the case - but they expect you to work hard and to be prepared to meet the public. Even, as happened, when the public run a website which features pictures of writers holding toy cows and ask to take one of you (of the three on offer, I chose the mad cow, seeing as we English invited the disease of that name.)

Shhh, genius at work: Oliver Harris works on the follow-up to The Hollow Man

It also became clear that the French love ideas as well as plots. This was a festival of Roman Noir, which is more than just crime fiction. The French don't pigeonhole as rigidly as we do. Roman Noir novels don't have to have a detective, or even a crime. Instead, as Jake Lamar, a fascinating, exiled New York novelist and playwright who has been living in Paris for 19 years, told me, there merely must be some form of transgression, and a dark heart to the book. Again this allows for authors of different type, background and interests to meet and mix. Meanwhile, readers are fascinated by the themes of your work. The ones in my crime novels, of the weight of the past, of how it leaves an imprint on the present, of how the sins of the past seep to the surface like blood through sand, which I have barely spoken of elsewhere, seemed to fascinate people.

That Saturday evening there was more outdoor eating, this time outside the local cinema, more wine and talking, but thankfully no pétanque. Then the next day, more signing and talking. I felt at home, not least because of the incessant rain which I appeared to have brought with me in London. As the day, and the festival, drew to a close, I felt a palpable sense of sadness. I had met so many interesting people, and my head was whirling with so many stories and conversations, that when it was done, and my fellow Brit author Oliver Harris and I slurped a few beers at the hotel while Spain pounded Italy into submission in the Euro 2012 final, I felt empty but also strangely content. Sometimes it is easy for authors to become sucked into moaning about the industry, the state of publishing, airheaded publicists and distant editors. I am guilty of this myself. But then a festival like this, attended by publishers and writers and readers who genuinely love books, comes along and restores your faith, and reminds you how lucky you are that one little book, or two in my case, can take you of out London to another land to meet the kind of people you'd only dreamed of meeting. It really is the best of jobs.

I hope a few of those people I met will make an appearance on this blog in the near future. Marc Pastor, the aforementioned accidental cop; Jake Lamar, who gave me a reality check when I started dreaming of moving to Paris and learning French in 6 months (it took him ten years...); Oliver Harris, whose London-set book, The Hollow Man, I can't wait to read; Tony O'Neill, the Blackburn-born New Yorker, a musician turned novelist who writes about the seamier side of New York and London life; the amazing Vamba Sherif, whose stories drawing on his experiences as Liberian who left his homeland, spent time in a Syrian prison, before he found a home in Holland, must surely find an English and US publisher if there is a modicum of sense in the business. I hope to entice them all.

In the meantime, enthused by the weekend, I'm determined to write more Nigel Barnes novels. Not least to get me back to festivals like Frontignan.


Dan - Friday


  1. I must say, Dan, barring hearing that you missed your slot because you were having a baby, this is perhaps the most glorious reason there could be: you were too busy living the fabled side of the writing life!

    Sounds like a terrific event and I look forward to hearing from you new buddies on MIE.

  2. I liked this, and I am looking forward to more of Nigel Barnes for selfish reasons-I like them. If that means you have more fun, that's great.

  3. Jeff, this was slightly less tiring than having a baby. Though the muscat did take its toll...

    Lil - I like them too, which is the real reason why I keep writing them...

  4. If you don't remember eating at Crimefest, you must have missed Yrsa's pickled shark!

  5. Sounds gorgeous - wish I'd known about it, but I hope to be there in the audience next year.

  6. It's been a pleasure, Dan!

    (I'm Marc)