Well done on writing and getting the book out. Was it a labour of love or a more tricky proposition along with kids, work, and house refurbishments.
It was a labour of love in that I always wanted to have a go at writing a book but it was also a tricky proposition in lots of ways. I really enjoyed the writing process. I’m happy to be alone with my thoughts and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to get a story into print, but finding the time to write was a major challenge. I was still working full-time, we also had to contend with the maintenance of a large property and property renovations, and we had two young children, so I didn’t have a lot of spare time.
I tried to keep Saturday mornings free for writing but this didn’t always work out either, and then if there a break of two or three weeks it was very difficult just to pick up from where I left off. I got through it eventually, but as a novice I would have liked to have had more time for trial and error and to develop my style, but it just wasn’t possible. But I’m happy I managed to complete it and I learned a huge amount from the process, so hopefully this is just a starting point!
Did you feel you would always end up making it to France, or is it that you still ‘can’t quite believe it’?
I have always been drawn to France, ever since I was a teenager. There was something appealing about French culture and the visual image I had of France (the landscape, the architecture, the people). I also liked the idea that it was still a relatively rural country, not unlike Ireland, but it also had the added attraction of a nice climate, great wine, and a beautiful and diverse landscape and coastline. It was always my ambition to live in France one day but I was never quite sure how I was going to make it happen, especially as I didn’t speak fluent French.
Then we had children and everything changed. At this point my wife Tanya and I were living in Brussels, we were in our later thirties and maybe suffering a little from career fatigue, or maybe we just had enough of the thread mill. We were ready for a change and the kids were the catalyst. The decision to move was quite an easy one in the end. We wanted a change, we wanted to bring the kids up in a different environment, my work was becoming more mobile, and we now had a reasonable level of French. It just seemed like the obvious next step.
There have been quite a few books about English people moving to France, but, as you mentioned lots of friends and family were supportive about hearing about your plans and trials and tribulations. Of course there is also the Irish aspect to it too which gives it a different feel. Question, did you write the book first and then find a publisher or have one on board before writing it?
I wrote the book first. In fact, in the beginning it was more of a diary of events and happenings, which I then tried to bring together in a book. The catalyst was an incident that I describe in the book, which happened on the day before we were due to move to France, when we were clearing out our house in Brussels. I was rushing to drop back a Sky box when I mistakenly drove the car into a huge manhole on the side of the street, as you do! This was just a few hours before we were due to sign on the sale of our house in Brussels. The signing had to be postponed until later that evening, to give me time to try to get the car, our sole source of transport, out of the hole. After this incident, I had the feeling that it was going to be an eventful experience and I decided I would try to keep a record. And I wasn’t disappointed. In the end I probably had material for several books.
We were in France about a year before I actually started to write the book. The process was one of taking the notes I had been keeping and then trying to bring them together into a cohesive story. It took quite a while as I was trying to fit this in between several other activities, including full-time work. Mainly I was restricted to working on weekends and early mornings. About a year later I had a first draft of the book. This was a very rough draft, with lots of inconsistencies, so I then started a first edit, which probably took about another six months. It was at this point that I started to look into the possibility of finding a publisher.
I wasn’t that hopeful to be honest. The accepted view is that the odds are stacked against first time authors, so in the back of mind I was already thinking about self-publishing, but I felt it was worth a try. I did some more tidying up on the first three chapter, wrote up a cover letter and sent everything off to about 20 publishers. Within a week or two I already started to get replies, which was already a surprise, as I half expected not to get any reaction. The initial responses were all polite ‘no’s’ but then one of them came back requesting more information. There were a few further exchange in the following weeks and then, just before Christmas 2013 I received an offer. I was ecstatic!
Are you, thinking about writing a sequel?
I am thinking about it, but I haven’t started on anything yet. Time is still an issue, but on top of that I don’t really want to write the same kind of book again. It would be nice to write something that picks up on the story but I’d like to change the format if I was to do it again. Rather than write about events in a chronological order, as I did in the first book, as the material was mostly based on diary entries, next time I might try to explore different aspects of life her in more depth, without worrying too much about the sequence. I’d also like to have a go at writing some fiction. I like the idea of just letting my imagination run wild, and not having to worry about offending people.
Is there anything that you wish you had included in the first edition?
Not really. There were lots of things in the original version that did not make it to the final published version, mainly because I had written way too much and the publisher asked me to shorten it. There was also some stuff in the original version that I decided to leave out once I knew the book was going to be published. I remember the night I got the offer from the publisher, I woke up in a cold sweat worrying about all the things I had written about the neighbours, so I though, I really need to look at this again. I went back and cut some parts, rewrote others and generally tried to ensure that there was nothing in there that was too offensive. I wanted to tell it as it was, but at the same time, we had to live with these people so I had to find a balance.
Overall, I’m reasonably happy with the content but there are things about the structure and style that I think could be improved. This was my first attempt at writing anything like this and I learned a lot as I went along, so if I was to write the same book again I think it would look different next time.
[For some readers it might have been good to have a map of the region in relation to where it is sited in France, and / or some photos too].
True, but I didn’t really want to draw too much attention to the area where we live, as I really wanted to preserve as much anonymity as possible, not so much for myself but for the other people mentioned in the book. If people are really interested they can find out, and of course it’s impossible to avoid a certain amount of recognition, but I didn’t want to make to too easy.
How was 2014? What were your big successes?
The book getting published was definitely a high point, and then there were some book signings, in Brussels (Waterstones) and in Ireland, which was a great experience. Two other highlights of 2014 were the establishment of an international association, and the setting up of a local community café. The association is called ECOLISE and it brings together all the main organisations involved in supporting community-led action on climate change and sustainability in Europe. I have been working on this idea since 2009 and things finally came together in 2014 when we officially registered the new association. In 2014, Tanya (my wife) and I were also at the forefront of setting up a community café in the village where we live here in France.
We had been discussing the idea for a while among ourselves (mostly over a beer on a Friday evening, as we lamented not having a nice snug little local pub to go to). At the beginning of 2014 we decided to take it a step further and we shared the idea with three local French people and asked them if they would like to get involved. They were all really enthusiastic and a couple of months later we had established a new association and negotiated the use of the local community hall and bar with the local mayor. We officially opened the doors in April 2014 and on the first night we had over 100 people – not bad in a commune of only 160 people. Since then it has gone really well. We open on the first and third Friday of every month and the locals have really got behind it. In a small rural village that has gradually lost everything – school, shops, post-office – the café has really helped to re-energise the community.
Thanks. I’d love to do more of it but I just cant seem to find the time at the moment. I still need to focus on my day job and making a living, and with a big property, the business and two young children there are also lots of other demands on my time. In the back of my mind I’m probably also a bit hesitant about spending a lot of time on it. I don’t have that many followers so, while its interesting and enjoyable, I’m not convinced of the value of it. I know it’s a chicken and egg thing, and that the only way to attract followers is to keep publishing good content, but I suppose I am doubtful that the return will be commensurate with the investment needed in terms of time. I could be wrong. I’m not very techie so I don’t really have a good feel for the potential of this kind of technology.
Twitter, have you found it of use? In what ways? @
A bit like the blogging, I find it interesting: it’s nice to be able to publish material in such a simple way, but I sometimes wonder about its utility. The fact that it is so simple means that anybody can publish just about anything. There is no limit, which makes it very difficult to be seen unless you are already well known. There also seems to be an obsession with quantity rather than quality – people believe that they have to publish regularly in order to keep and attract followers. Before I published the book I was advised by a friend to set up a Twitter account and to aim for two or three posts per day, on anything: the weather, pictures of the dog, what I was having for dinner. Personally, I’m not comfortable with this kind of thing, it’s just not me, and I’m not really convinced that this is what people want to read.
Having said that, I think Twitter has potential and could be a useful technology, but I think there needs to be more structure and better ways to filter information. When I open my Twitter account now it’s a bit like opening a magazine of over a million pages and no structure. Where do you start? It’s head-wrecking, and because of this I tend not to open it too often. The odd time I do, I find myself getting drawn into it, wading through hundreds of tweets, mostly about nothing very interesting. You can do this for hours, but its mind numbing and I would prefer to spend my time doing other, more productive, things.
Do you use skype to stay in touch with family back here in Ireland?
I use Skype on a daily basis for work and I find it really good although mainly just voice calls, without the video. I think many people, including myself are a bit uncomfortable with the video chat. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s probably a generational thing. I grew up with the telephone and I’m just not used to, or that interested in, looking at an image of the person I’m speaking to. I don’t use Skype so much to communicate with family and friends in Ireland, partly because some of them just don’t use it, but also for one-to-one calls I find it easier to just use the phone, especially when you are not using the video chat.
What gadgets / tech tools do you find useful in your daily work?
As I said, I’m not a big techie person, so I’m not really into gadgets. I tend to use technology on a needs basis. In fact, and I’m pretty sure 99.9% of your readers will totally disagree with this, but I find a lot of technology is pretty useless. In many cases it seems like the technology is developed first and then some marketing people try to dream up a use for it. I would prefer if it was the other way around, if the technology was designed to meet needs or to solve problems.
The mainstays of my work are e-mail and Skype. I recently bough a MacBook Air, which I am using now, but I am a little disappointed so far. I expected it to be more user-friendly. It looks better than my old PC but for now, that seems to be all I’m getting for the extra 600 euros it cost me.
Any tech you wish existed?
Some kind of technology or adviser would be nice. To show you how to get the most from what’s available and inform you of new developments and innovations relevant to you.
How is the broadband where you are based. You mentioned it in the book, is it good enough for your needs?
It’s quite good, better than I expected, and more than adequate for my needs.There is a very poor mobile phone signal but this doesn’t bother me too much as I can get by without it. I just advise people to use my landline number or Skype. In fact it has kind of worked out well that the people I work with don’t expect me to be accessible by mobile phone all the time. It means that when I leave the office I can leave work behind. It gives me some breathing space, which is important when you work from home.
Your tweeted about the book doing well on Amazon, do you get more sales of hardcopies or ebooks?
In the first couple of months it was more hardcopies but now I would say it’s pretty even, and maybe slightly more ebooks. Price is obviously a big factor and, for now at least, the ebook is considerably less expensive than the printed version.
What has the reception been to the book back here in Ireland?
It’s been great. Sales have gone well and the feedback has been really positive. In some cases the response has been quite emotional, especially among people we know. They felt they knew and understood us better after reading the book, and empathised better with our situation. I wasn’t really expecting this kind of emotional response, but I think it’s nice that people feel like this. You’re letting people in on some personal aspects of your life, and I was a slightly nervous about this in the beginning, but I see it differently now. It’s kind of liberating to share this kind of information with other people. During the writing process you have the chance to reflect on events and put things in perspective and when you share this with others it’s a bit like having the opportunity to explain your version of yourself, which is a nice feeling.
There’s also been some good feedback from people I don’t know, especially on Amazon. In general, I think readers appreciate the honesty, the suspense (almost everyone who has read it has described it as “a page-turner”) and the humour. I didn’t set out to write a funny book, and many of the situations we found ourselves in were far from funny at the time, but like many Irish people, I try not to take life or myself too seriously and generally look for humour wherever I can find it and I think this comes across in the book.
How would you compare the French to the Irish? Pros and cons?
The Irish drink more, fight more, laugh more, cry more and are generally more emotionally charged, which makes us interesting and engaging, maybe even lovable, but also a bit unpredictable. The French are also emotional people, but it’s more controlled.They tend not to let their emotions bubble over. They are more private and mostly keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves until they are fully formed. Once they are they are less likely to be swayed.
Of course I am generalising here, and there are some Irish people who might be closer to the French stereotype and visa versa. In fact, I am probably one such Irish person, so I get along well with the French. But having said that, I miss the jovial and gregarious side of the Irish. We are reminded of this every time we go back to Ireland, whether its in a shop or just meeting someone on the street. Irish people are friendly and chatty and outgoing. The French are more reserved. They generally keep to themselves and leave you to yourself unless there is a specific arrangement.