Friday, 6 February 2015

An interview with Vanessa Couchman!

My series of guest interviews continues with Vanessa Couchman.

I'm delighted to have a return visit from Vanessa who popped in last July (2014) to tell us about her debut novel - The House at Zaronza. However, today, she's here to share her other writing experiences with us: those skills being varied and very well honed.

Hello again, Vanessa! We’ll start the interview with one of those nosey questions. Are you a creature of habit in that you have tasks that you do routinely every day?
Hi, Nancy. Thank you for inviting me again! I am partially a creature of habit, yes. But sometimes it’s hard to schedule in all the different things I’m involved in. I have to fit my fiction writing around my freelance writing work. And some of the latter is on short deadlines, so I have to drop everything to attend to it. I work as a copywriter and also write magazine articles, which sometimes involves going to interview people. In addition, there’s marketing my novel, contributing to online ex-pat writers’ group Writers Abroad, and keeping up my two blogs – one on life in SW France and the other on writing. So I couldn’t say that any two days are the same. But I like the variety.

How much of your day is spent on your freelance wrtiting, compared to the time you spend on the writing of new fiction?
This depends on the type of commissions I have. I try to devote Mondays solely to freelance writing and Fridays solely to fiction writing. What happens in between rather depends on what work I have to do and how urgent it is. I also use gloomy weekend winter afternoons to catch up with my fiction.

I know from your bio that you've lived in France for many years now. Did you move into being a freelance writer as a result of your relocation to France, or was it due to some other reason?
That’s how it started. Before I moved to France in 1997, I worked in public sector audit and research. When we moved, I started out as a freelance management consultant with my public sector contacts, but this involved a lot of travelling. I gradually changed to freelance writing, which is easier to accomplish from home. Writing was always a part of my career before moving here. I worked in academic publishing for 10 years and at the Audit Commission I wrote reports and was later in charge of press and PR.

That's a very sound writing background, Vanessa. Putting aside non fiction writing tasks, do you feel more comfortable writing short stories or longer novels?
I’ve written only one novel so far, so it might be a bit early to give a considered response! I started out writing short stories, and I still do, but I feel that novels provide the opportunity to develop plot and character in a more sustained way. So, on balance I think longer novels reflect better the sort of things I want to write.

Are you like me in that you like to sneak in a bit of history into your contemporary writing?
I am a history nut and I’m fascinated by French and Corsican history. As a result, many of my stories are set in the past. However, when I write about modern times, I do insert bits of history in the way of flashbacks or references to past happenings.  

Have your short stories needed the same degree of research that was needed for your debut novel ‘The House at Zaronza’?
Not to the same extent. For The House at Zaronza, I had to research how it was to live in early 20th-century Corsica, and specifically how it was to be a woman. I also had to mug up on World War I and about nursing on the French side, since my main character, Maria, becomes a military nurse on the Western Front. The sources are sometimes scarce and often in French, so it was a challenge.

Individual short stories do need some research. For example, “Bertie’s Buttons” was published in Writers Abroad’s anthology Foreign Encounters. It’s set at Christmas 1914, and concerns a meeting in no-man’s-land between British and German soldiers. There’s a mass of material on this topic, which explodes the myth that these encounters were all about football matches. I learned that buttons were sometimes exchanged as souvenirs, as in my story – hence the title. 

Can you tell my readers if there were any particular incidents which triggered the ideas for your novel ‘The House at Zaronza’?
I was handed a gift on a plate when we were on holiday in Corsica. We stayed in a B&B where the owners had unearthed some love letters hidden in a niche in the attic. They were from the local schoolmaster to the daughter of the house in the 1890s. They met and corresponded in secret, since her parents would not have approved of their relationship. She had to marry someone else in the end. I took this as the basis of my story and developed it from there.

That was a wonderful impetus to write. I love adding really nice locations to my novels - do you tend to do that with your short stories as well as using Corsica in your debut novel?
A lot of my stories are set in France or Corsica. Location and a sense of place are very important in my writing – and to me personally. Corsica is almost a character in its own right in The House at Zaronza and a lot of people have remarked that it comes over strongly. I ought to be getting commission from the Corsica Tourist Board!

Did your work as a freelance writer help you in any way with the continuing mammoth task of promoting your novel?
Working as a copywriter means that you know, in theory at least, the value of words in appealing to prospective customers. I was already reasonably media savvy, but nothing prepared me for the extent to which you have to use social media to promote books nowadays. Or the relentless job of doing so. That has been a revelation.

Are you easily distracted by anything during your writing sessions?
The internet! I spend far too much time on Facebook, Twitter, checking my sales stats, etc. I think this is a function of being a debut novelist. I am starting to let go to focus more deeply on my writing, but the web is a great time waster.

Also, I share a partner’s desk with my husband (you can sit either side). He is retired and sometimes forgets that I’m not! However, he was very supportive when I was writing The House at Zaronza and I think it’s true to say that he is my biggest fan.

How did you find out about Crooked Cat Publishing before submitting ‘the House at Zaronza’ to them?
I entered the Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition, run by Lorraine Mace, in 2013. The judges were Crooked Cat’s senior editors. Although I didn’t win the competition, they asked to see the full manuscript (which posed me a few problems, since I had to finish it fast). The rest, as they say, is history.

What is your writing plan for the first half of 2015?
Simple. Finish novel #2, which is a sequel to The House at Zaronza. I don’t find the process of writing all that difficult. For me, it’s the planning and ironing out the plot wrinkles that take the time.

For fun:
What’s your favourite French meal?
Moules marinières (mussels in a white wine and cream sauce), which is a shame since we don’t live anywhere near the sea. Like all seafood, they are best consumed fresh from the waves.
What’s your favourite leisure pursuit?
Singing. I belong to several choirs. It’s very therapeutic and is a great team effort, a corrective to the solitariness of writing.

A little more about Vanessa:
Vanessa, who lives in southwest France, is passionate about French and Corsican history and culture, from which she draws inspiration for much of her fiction. The House at Zaronza, set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front during World War I, is her debut novel. She is currently working on a sequel, based in World War II.

She describes herself as a "young" author, having been writing fiction since 2010. During that time, her short stories have won, been placed and shortlisted in creative writing competitions. They have also been published in anthologies and on websites.

Vanessa runs a copywriting business. She also writes magazine articles on French life, having lived in France since 1997, and the art of writing. She is a member of online, ex-pat writing group Writers Abroad and the Parisot Writing Group in southwest France. She has also been a Writers Bureau tutor.

Find Vanessa at:
Twitter: @Vanessainfrance

Thanks for being a great guest today, Vanessa. Good luck with writing #2 novel and best wishes for success with your other writerly tasks.  



  1. The House at Zaronza is high up on my list of books to read - what inspired you to write it (the love letters) has me even more intrigued now! Great post ladies, thank you.

  2. another winner of an interview ... it’s great getting to know the Cats a bit more ...:) #iamcat

    1. You'll soon know all of our secrets! ;-)

  3. Thanks for inviting me onto the blog again, Nancy!


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