Displacement is a central theme of my novel ‘Le Chateau’. The heroine, Charlotte is an Australian, living as an expatriate in France.
But Charlotte is no ordinary expat, she has suffered an accident and cannot remember the past five years of her life. The life she returns to post hospital is very different to her earlier life in Australia. She finds herself left in an imposing and isolated French Chateau. The multiple layers of Charlotte’s displacement interested me as I wrote the novel while an expatriate living in France and then Ireland.
The idea for ‘Le Chateau’ came to me when I was feeling homesick in France. I had just given birth, in a French hospital (with French staff and having to communicate in French of a basic language level). It’s not something I’d advise anyone to do! As an expat I was new to the health system and the way everything worked / or didn’t work.
I had no one to explain it all to me really, everyone took the knowledge as given because they were immersed for life. The idea came from my adrift context: an Australian expat in France, a mother, with memory loss. Charlotte was the perfect vehicle for all the feelings of displacement, cultural difference, alienation an expat feels.
Creating Charlotte allowed me to release some of the frustrations of the expat experience, the need to communicate, but sometimes not being understood, or the layers of barriers to understanding and comprehension. How much difference even one letter in a word can mean in a conversation and how dramatic the difference could be.
All of this was able to be taken to another level with Charlotte and her memory loss, mysterious accident and eerie chateau. I began to identify with and feel for Charlotte more and more. ‘Le Chateau’ is my experiences of France heightened, made more Gothic and extreme. Meditations on the complexity of love – how it can break you or give you strength and help you pull through difficult times feature. Paradoxically, writing it made me feel more at home in France.
A book takes a long time to gestate and write and this one grew with my children. I really enjoyed entering Charlotte’s world as a respite from mine and arguing with France Telecom about the street being ‘complete’ and not being able to have any wifi. But other times I enjoyed leaving Charlotte’s world and returning to mine with its intact memories.
‘Le Chateau’ took many years to write, largely because we moved countries twice, and hemispheres once, while I wrote it. I also undertook my UCD Masters during the period. In France I was lucky enough to make close friends who were wine makers (some even biodynamique) and a few friends who owned and maintained chateau’s.
The conversations and daily exposure to the ambience of these circles informs ‘Le Chateau’ and in this sense my displacement aided me as did the occasional feelings of homesickness and isolation which allowed me to imagine Charlotte better.
Being displaced also made me curious and hungry for knowledge and understanding to make sense of the world and region I lived in. I did much research into the history, culture, regional specialities and the hidden past of France. I became fascinated by the Albigensian crusade period and its undeserved relegation in history.
I was in an unusual situation. Not many people find themselves trying to write a book in three countries. I developed contacts in each country and then left them behind which was difficult. I feel as though I have scattered pieces of my heart around the world and have a fantasy of getting all my friends together in the one place. Like Charlotte, I felt I was in a liminal space often on the threshold looking in, poised between worlds.
I was part of a writing group in France made up of a small group of expats. There were poets and prose writers, some hobby and some serious. I’m still good friends with one who has just returned to live in NYC after 15 years or more in France, another expert in displacement.
One of the reasons for my move to Dublin was so I could do the MA Creative Writing at UCD. That was great. I made wonderful writer friends there. They were the people who had the first glimpses of ‘Le Chateau’ before it was even a finished first draft.
Tony and BAFTA winning Frank McGuinness gave me a pep talk during a consultation at UCD and said of all the students I was in the most difficult situation publication wise because I was hard to fit in a box. I was an Australian who had written a book in English, set in France. I was studying creative writing in Ireland but wasn’t Irish and I was returning to Australia later. He predicted I would be hard for the conservative publishing industry to get their heads around.
After, back in Australia, I knew no one in the industry and it was really hard initially, proving Frank right. So displacement even followed me when I returned ‘home’ and sought publication. Thankfully my selection for the QWC / Hachette Manuscript Development program provided a pathway for ‘Le Chateau’ that was understandable for the industry and I found a wonderful home with Echo (Echo Publishing, Bonnier Publishing Australia).
There were further changes though, in Ireland and Australia my novel became less overtly French. The first draft had many more French words and descriptors. The character Henri, spoke more French than he does in the published novel but it was thought too hard for non French speaking readers and no one wants to read a novel for pleasure with a English / French dictionary in their lap.
I’m proud of the finished novel and I hope readers feel transported to another time and space when they delve into ‘Le Chateau’. That they’ll feel immersed in an exotic world and want to visit France to experience its rich culture, sense of community and warm people for themselves. I also hope people in cross cultural families will be more understanding and respectful of each other’s experiences and ways of doing things because these families are the way of the future and if they work can break down many barriers.
Sarah Ridout’s, ‘Le Chateau’, was selected for the QWC / Hachette Manuscript Development Program. Sarah appeared at the Brisbane Writers Festival 2016 and her book was released in September this year by Echo Publishing. It is available Australia wide through bookstores and Booktopia and internationally through the bookdepository. Sarah has a Masters in Creative Writing from UCD Dublin (First Class Honours) and ‘Le Chateau’ is her first novel.
Category: On Writing