After a futile attempt to conform to English society by working for the Civil Service - an experience she describes as simply ‘disastrous’ - author Jane MacKenzie embarked on an exotic world adventure - first to The Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa, then Bahrain, then Papua New Guinea.
Luckily for ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ Jane’s round-the-world travels eventually landed her in France. In Collioure. A charming coastal town in Languedoc, about an hour’s drive from Prades where our week-long retreat begins this Monday.
That’s why we are delighted to announce that Jane will be a special guest speaker this coming week, talking about her adventures in far-flung, exotic places and her literary ‘Catalonia Trilogy’ - Daughter of Catalonia, Autumn in Catalonia and Mediterranean Summer - which combine intriguing history, melting of cultures, shifting frontiers, Spanish Civil War refugees, Franco, the Second World War, German occupation, the Resistance and secret escape routes to Spain.
Oh, and we should also mention, Jane worked at the leading-edge international scientific centre, CERN in Switzerland, as head of the UK Liaison Office there and is a close acquaintance of Nobel Prize winning scientist, Professor Peter Higgs, who through his research on subatomic particles - the aptly-named Higgs boson - helped discover what is commonly known as ‘the God particle, the origin of the universe.’
We interviewed Jane about her life and her work. Here is what she said.
Q: You have led an exciting international life having lived and worked in many different countries. Tell us about some of the colorful adventures you have experienced while working abroad.
A: My father flew for a living with BOAC (which later became British Airways). I learned the travel bug from him, and as a child I had some amazing long-haul holidays (Africa, the Middle East, Singapore, USA etc). I studied French at University, and my first experience of living abroad was a year of study in Aix-en-Provence, which confirmed in me a love both of France and of "hot" cultures, of people more open and exuberant than the average Brit I encountered in England. An attempt to conform after University, in a Civil Service job, was a disaster, so I followed a couple of friends to the Gambia, where I taught for two years in a local High School where kids often hadn't had breakfast. I loved the Gambia. I learned the local language, made lasting Gambian friends, learned to dance Ndaga, and without knowing it at the time I even taught a future Gambian President.
After the Gambia I spent three years running a Language School in Bahrain, where I met my husband, a Scot and a Master Mariner who himself had spent his life roaming the world. We came home for two years, but then the travel bug hit again and took us out to work in Papua New Guinea, a tropical paradise marred by revolution, which sadly drove us home to Scotland after a year. I was lucky, though, and used my experience in the Arabian Gulf to build a career in international student recruitment, first as Director of Commercial and International Affairs for a large College, then as a freelance for the whole UK University sector. My job meant I kept travelling throughout the Arab world and the Far East. Very fortunate, because otherwise I might have struggled to settle in Scotland.
Q: Then Collioure. Why this part of the world? How did you come to know the region? What attracted you to it?
A: I never lost my great love of France, but life elsewhere kept me very busy. I lost my husband when I was 45, and for the next few years I focused solely on my work and on my children. But when my daughter left for University I had more freedom and began hankering after my old French dream. I didn't have any strong idea of where I wanted a home, but I wanted to be by the sea. Because of my husband's job, the sea had become the background for my life. This region of France drew me because it has an incredibly rich history and culture, and is both more affordable and more "real" than further east, on the Côte d'Azur. Collioure is definitely the most beautiful place on this coastline, home of artists and colourful Catalan characters, full of life, yet small enough for me to have become integrated into the community. I've written three novels set in this region, such is its richness and history.
Q: From a Scottish village, Plockton, to a French one, Collioure. Are you a rural girl at heart and do you think there are advantages for a writer living in rural areas as opposed to dense urban ones?
A: My Scottish village, Plockton, chose me rather than the other way around, being the home of my husband. It is stunning, and when I arrived there it felt a bit like the Gambia, in that people walk in and out of each others houses, are both nosy and supportive, and love music and the "craic". It's very like parts of Ireland in that respect. Collioure is bigger, 4000 inhabitants instead of 400, but it is equally stunning and vibrant, and not too big to make friends, especially if you speak fluent French. I was choosing a base in France as a single woman, and an anonymous city life would never have worked for me. Besides, my dogs would never have forgiven me!
Q: What prompted you to embark on the challenging task of writing your first novel in 2006 and how difficult was it to choose the subject?
A: I began writing when my house emptied of my children and I had rather too much time alone. I was fulfilling a lifelong ambition, but with immense trepidation. I wrote a first novel about the Gambia, which engaged some interest, but not enough, and it was when I first spent time in Collioure that the region's history gave me the inspiration for Daughter of Catalonia, my first published novel. The subject was easy. Border regions always have colourful histories, melting of cultures, shifting frontiers. Add in the Spanish Civil War refugees, Franco, the war and German occupation, the Resistance and escape routes to Spain, and there was material for more than one novel.
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Q: Why a trilogy and did you decide this before writing your first book or did the idea develop later as you wrote?
A: When I started writing the novel it was as much as I could do to envisage that one story. But my agent says I spoke when I first met her about wanting to continue the story onwards. As I say, there was just so much material. I set the first novel in 1958, the second in 1963 and the third in 1968.
Q: CERN? Sounds exciting. It seems a far cry from being an educator. How did you come to take up a position there? Did working there change your view of life and its beginnings?
A: The post at CERN was actually totally linked to my career beforehand. The UK is a major partner in the ground-breaking research at CERN, and I was Head of the UK Liaison Office, working with our Universities who send hundreds of research scientists and PhD students to work at CERN. I was responsible for our budgets, and for a team managing accommodation and welfare for our people. The UK government was looking for someone with good French, who had managed teams abroad and had extensive knowledge of our Universities and experience managing students. My experience just fit.
Living in Geneva was a great experience, but the highlight of my time there was the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson, which had been the main focus of CERN's research for years. Future Nobel laureate Prof Peter Higgs came to CERN for the announcement, and the UK Liaison Office had a taste of managing celebrity and dealing with the paparazzi. Peter became a friend during that time, and even came to speak to Plockton High School for me after he won his Nobel prize. A lovely, simple, humble man.
Q: What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses in creative writing - for example, dialogue or landscape description - and how do you overcome your weaknesses?
A: Strengths and weaknesses? I think I capture place very well, and evoke historical moments too. A reader once told me that in my Catalonia trilogy she could smell the sun on the grapes. I wouldn't be good as a thriller writer. I want to explore my characters, and the extraordinary side of ordinary people. Which doesn't mean I don't care about plot. For characters to grow, things have to happen, and as a writer you have to tell a compelling story. If there's an area I have to work at, it's not overloading my readers with historical details that fascinate me. You have to be almost brutal with yourself, stripping out writing that you love for the sake of your story.
Q: Do you have a particular writing process, meaning do you ‘map out’ in detail each chapter and list the personality and physical attributes of each character before you even begin your story telling?
A: I don't plot out my books in detail, but I do know where they're going overall. My characters have identity for me before I write them, but again, I let them develop, and sometimes they surprise me. So, to answer your question, I'm somewhere in the middle in the whole plot or seat of your pants debate!
Q: What are you working on now in terms of your writing?
A: I’ve wanted to write something deeper, and not get fenced into a genre. This hasn't been very well received by my agent or publisher, as genre writing is the easiest sell. Times are tough in publishing! But our pandemic experience made me rethink, and I'm sticking to my guns. I'm two thirds of the way through a novel that follows the final years of the life of Charles de Gaulle.
Q: What writers do you admire most, and why?
A: Oof - a big question. There are so many! I love 20th century classics by William Golding, Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, John Irving, Albert Camus, Gide, Simone de Beauvoir, Daphne du Maurier. But I also love Jane Austen, and am an Ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. She stood out for her spare, acute observations in a time of more florid writing. And I love Dorothy L Sayers. She wrote such intelligent crime novels, where character is allowed to flourish. I think I envy all those writers of yesteryear who were allowed more freedom to be literary and to take their time in their writing. I am on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland, and have been privileged to be part of some fantastic writers' careers. A major new voice in Scotland is Merryn Glover, whose novel Of Stone and Sky is quite extraordinary.
Jane's latest novel, Tapestry of War, takes readers from the the arid deserts of North Africa to the surging waters of Scotland, and the lives of two women from two very different worlds, each dealing with hope and fear in face of war.