This week it is my pleasure to interview Catherine Berry. Would you please introduce yourself to my readers, Catherine and share something about your life.
Thanks Rita. Born in Australia, my first trip abroad was to Scotland at the age of 12 thanks to a sabbatical year for my maths professor father. Some would say that the Scottish lilt is akin to a different language but, thanks to May, my Scottish grandmother, I had that covered. Whilst I did not struggle through a second language, what that trip did give me was an awareness of the world that I would otherwise have taken longer to acquire. I cannot tell you the precise moment that my husband and I decided that we would take our three young children to France to live for a year (from which came my memoir But you are in France, Madame). Quite possibly the decision to pass on this gift had already been taken decades before in the mind of my twelve-year-old self.
When did you write your first book and how did it come about?
Returning to Australia after having lived French for so long (our one year turned into 3 1/2 and the purchase of a French village house) was hard. There is such a plethora of books in my genre that if I had thought about this before sitting down to write, I may have not started. Truthfully, though, the writing was for me. It helped me understand that I didn’t have to parcel up and shelve our adventure. I know now that I have left a gift for my children. They have each read the book and can treasure this period in their family life, dipping into it to help resurface the emotions.
Do you always write in the same genre or do you mix it up?
My pre-France life was in education. I wrote a lot then: reports, newsletter articles, letters, proposals, uni assignments and even some short stories and satirical pieces. Writing has always been a pleasure and I continue to look for opportunities to write.
When you write, do you start with an idea and sit down and let it evolve, or do you make notes and collect ideas on paper beforehand?
This story needed no imagination; nonetheless, the organisation of my writing did need some thought. Living now in Sydney means that I spend way too much time behind the wheel stuck in traffic jams. The only upside to this at the time of writing my book was that I had a lot of time alone to think. I placed pen and paper strategically near the gear stick to allow me to quickly capture the chapter headings, additional stories and rephrased sentences that were struggling to be identified. They were also useful for jotting down the marketing ideas that jumped into my head.
Would you like to give us a short excerpt from one of your books?
Sure. This comes from a chapter called ‘No Parking’ and took place a couple of months after our arrival in France.
Still struggling with many administrative issues, including how to change our driver’s licences over to French ones, I made the unorthodox step of contacting an Australian couple that we had heard about, who were running a Bed and Breakfast on the lake. I was hoping that they might have some advice that they would be willing to share with us about how they had managed their insertion into French living. There seemed to be plenty of Internet help for British ex-pats moving to, buying or travelling in France, but very little for Australians in the same situations. To my great surprise, my email, sent to their customer contact address, was answered straight away and I organised to meet one of the owners at a nearby coffee shop.
In fact, the term coffee shop had me bemused, as no premise that we had walked past, up until that point, had seemed to resemble the ubiquitous coffee shop of our Melbourne experiences. It turned out to be a small bar on the corner of a street, in a village that appeared deserted, despite the presence of a newsagency and a pharmacy, and signs to a bakery. The bar was an old stone building, pretty but not explicit. What was its main purpose – meals, drinks, rooms, gambling? Was it the domain of men, as had been the front bar, when I had lived in my small country town? Was I in the right place, or would I need to make an entrance, and a just-as-rapid exit, under the watchful eye of the few curious men at the bar?
A female bartender and some customers, at one of the few tables running the length of the counter, also observed my pause and momentary decision-making. A discreet entrance was never going to be possible, but, as it turned out, my whole morning was about to become very public.
I was in the right place. Greetings and initial formalities dispensed with, the conversation with my new Australian contact commenced in earnest; marked, from my end, by the speed and slight urgency of one who has missed the fluid pleasure of speaking in one’s own language. My list of questions was long. Several hours disappeared and, engrossed as I was in the meeting, it took a few seconds, before it registered that the sound emanating from my handbag was my mobile telephone ringing.
I did not like the telephone. Comprehension and conversation were much harder by phone. I did not have the support of gesture, facial expressions, lip movements, or any actual human vibes that come from dealing with someone face-to-face.
“Allô!” I answered, as I flipped open my phone.
“Oui. Allô. Est-ce que c’est le numéro de Mme Berry?”
“Ah, oui.” (with hesitation and growing unease)
“Est-ce que vous êtes la propriétaire du véhicule immatriculé ------?”
“Oui.” (with even more hesitation and much greater unease), wondering fleetingly why I was being asked if I was the owner of a car with the same licence plate number as mine?
Oh no, what has my husband done with the car, I thought next, before my heart nearly jolted out of my chest with the realisation that I had the car. It was I, who had driven it that morning, and it was I, who had parked it down the road, not far from where I was sitting.
Which of your books gave you the most pleasure to write?
I have only one to my name, but this one, despite it taking me back to France every day I wrote, helped me to turn the page and start to see beauty in my new Australian life. I don’t think that describes pleasure. That came after the writing.
What is the best marketing tip you have received?
To make contact with libraries and organisations that welcome guest speakers. I love to talk so to be able to revisit my precious memories with others is a privilege.
How would you describe yourself?
Restless. I have to reign myself in from trying to convince every person that I meet to turn their current life on its ear and set off into the unknown. Having done this time and again, I know the fulfillment that change can bring; I also know that it can lead to the rejection of what is ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ and I have to work hard to ‘trouver le juste equilibre’.
What do you do when you are not writing or reading?
The truth is that these days I spend very little time on both activities. The two years that I spent writing my book were a luxury that I can no longer really afford. Planning our next move is my current number one time consumer.
If you could holiday anywhere in the world, where would you choose and why?
Not surprisingly, for me it is first and foremost France. It has got under my skin and when I am not there, I picture myself being there. As it is a country with such wonderful variety, I get to imagine walking the custom officers’ lonely, windswept paths overlooking exposed muddy sea floors in Brittany, squeaking through the sandy coves of the Mediterranean, skiing down the slopes of the mountains near our home on a sunny winter’s day, refusing to give in to my Australian dress code and putting on heels to step impracticably through the cobblestone village streets, sitting down to my café allongé which gives me a few extra sips to become part of the ready-to-be-mass-produced clichéd postcard scene…and I could go on.
What is the biggest factor for you when selecting a book to read?
I like to read in French. It combines my love of stories and my fascination with the French language. When I was living in the Alps, one of my most favourite routines involved heading to the village libraries to make my selection. Now, each time I return to France, I head to the supermarkets and stock up on quick paperback reads. The rest of the time, I have to rely on whatever happens to be rotated through the one French shelf of my local Australian library. As mentioned above, though, I don’t read as often as I’d like so supply is generally not an issue.
Do you have your own website?
To get a more complete picture of our French life, I would invite your readers to hop over to my blog page http://butyouareinfrancemadame.blogspot.com.au or our house rental site at www.ourfrenchvillagehouse.com
Are you working on a new book at the moment?
My husband is of Italian descent. But you are in France, Madame would lead very nicely to a sequel But you are in Italy, Signora don’t you think!
Do you have any events or book promotions coming up that you would like to tell us about?
I love to talk at book clubs, libraries or any group interested in France, bilingual education or big family moves.