In March of 2015, Annick and I first sat down together over a cup of tea at Wakefield's beloved coffee shop, Molo’s, to discuss her novel, Back to Maxwell. A year and half later, and after quite a few teas at Molo’s, we celebrated the completion of Back to Maxwell and talked about how it all began. Read on for our discussion, and read further on for an excerpt of the book.
What is Back to Maxwell about?
A young French girl travels to Scotland to become the French teacher’s assistant in a country school and meets the people who will change her life.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The idea came from Penelope Lively, an English writer who wrote many books, including one called Making It Up. The premise of the book was to start with a lived experience and then at a certain point switch to fiction. I was inspired by this concept. She calls it an anti-memoir. It explores the path not taken, the “what if” question. In the end, my novel took on a life of its own and didn’t follow that pattern, but that was the starting point. Actually, I gave that idea to John, my husband, to use as an exercise in his writing group. I ended up trying it on my own and got a bit carried away.
Is the book at all autobiographical?
Not autobiographical, though I am using my knowledge of Scottish culture and geography. Like the heroine of the book, I did spend some time teaching French and travelling extensively in Scotland. Scotland left a really big impression on me, and even though I only lived there for brief amounts of time I feel very close to the country.
Some of the characters are composite images of people I have met throughout my life and some are totally fictitious.
Had you always wanted to write a novel?
No, this came as a complete surprise to me! I’ve always enjoyed writing letters and keeping diaries while travelling, but I never thought I would write a novel.
Because I’ve always lived away from family and friends in France, letter writing has always been an important part of my life. I guess it is no accident that letters play an important part in this book.
Let’s talk about your experience writing this book.
I became obsessed by the whole process. The hardest part about writing the book was finding time for the rest of my life: my family, my friends, and my other activities!
I found out that once I had the general idea about the plot and put pen to paper (or, in this case, fingers to laptop keys), the story took charge and led me to new developments and sometimes away from my original plot.
Did you ever feel like writing this in French since that is your mother tongue?
No. I have lived in an English-speaking environment for over two-thirds of my life, and this book is about Scotland, so it felt natural to write it in English. French culture does feature in the book, though. At this stage I’m more comfortable writing in English than in French. This could also be because I read more in English than in French.
What books/writers inspire you?
Penelope Lively, whom I mentioned before, and Jane Gardam are two excellent British writers. Closer to home, there’s Francis Itani, Mary Lawson, Carol Shields, Isabel Huggan. Many more and not exclusively women writers. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I am a people person so I love to read about people's lives, relationships, whether fictional or biographical.
Did you do any research for this book?
I used my Scottish contacts extensively, both locally and back in Scotland, to check my facts, anything from schooling, to Celtic jewelry, music, rugby matches, even the British railway system. Diaries I kept over the years were a great help, and it doesn’t do any harm being married to a Scot for the past 47 years. A recent trip to the Hebrides was the inspiration for one of the chapters. I even had two Gaelic lessons there: a very lively one in the kitchen of a Lewis hotel and a more structured one in a community centre on the Isle of Uist. Gaelic is beautiful, but it has to be one of the trickiest languages on earth!
What will you do with the proceeds of the book?
One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to La Maison des Collines, a project that means a lot to me. I lost both of my parents recently and realized how valuable a palliative care centre like La Maison Des Collines would have been for my family.
The launch for Back to Maxwell will take place at Centre Wakefield La Pêche on Saturday, November 26, from 3:00-5:00 p.m. There will be a reception with cash bar, snacks, and Scottish music by Alisdair and Duncan Gillis. The wearing of kilts and tartan is strongly encouraged. All proceeds from book sales go to La Maison des Collines.
To order a copy of the book, please email Annick: firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Chapter one of Back to Maxwell
Rickety tick, rickety tick. Michèle’s body is rocking slightly with the motion of the train as she stares at the ceiling of her upper berth. It is past midnight. The old lady on the berth below has drawn the heavy curtains and is already snoring gently, but Michèle is not tired, just relaxing now that she does not have to make any decisions for the next seven hours. The brand-new green metal trunk is somewhere else on the train. It has already accompanied her on the ferry across the Channel, a first train to London, and a long taxi ride to Euston Station, strapped in the open compartment beside the driver of one of those old-fashioned black London cabs. The cockney accent was a challenge, but here they are, Michèle and her trunk, on their way to Scotland.
The train stops and she peers on the side of the closed blind to see a harsh cold, bluish light illuminating a sign for Crewe Junction. She vaguely remembers the on-board steward mention a twenty-minute stop for manoeuvres as some of the carriages will be detached for another destination. She hopes her trunk is still on the right portion of the train, the one going with her to Edinburgh.
There is a knock on the door. Two trays, each with a china cup, a teapot, sugar, a tiny milk jug, and digestive biscuits.
“Waverley Station in fifty minutes, dearies.”
The old lady is already dressed. She takes both trays from the steward, settles them on the narrow table by the window, and calls up to Michèle.
“Come and sit down here if you want; it will be more comfortable. I don’t know about you, but I think early morning tea gets one going for the day.”
“I’m not sure it will get me going for the day, but it will be enough till I arrive in Edinburgh,” Michèle calls back. “I’m meeting somebody at nine thirty. I’ll have time for breakfast at the station. I’d better get dressed first.”
Michèle ties her hair back and wrestles with her clothes in the confined space of the berth before climbing down the ladder. She sits on the edge of the bottom berth beside the old lady, who has already folded her blanket and stacked the pillows against the wall. She stares at Michèle and nods.
“You’re not from around here, then. I thought you might be from the continent with that tan of yours! First time in Scotland? Coming to do a bit of tourism?”
“Non—I mean, yes. It is my first time in Scotland. But I am not a tourist, really, though I hope to see a lot of the country. I am going to teach French in a school. I am studying English in a French university.”
“Oh, the French Mademoiselle!” the old lady says, pouring them both a cup of tea. “My daughters had one in their school. Very nice she was, too. So, where in Edinburgh will you be?”
“I will not be in Edinburgh. My school is north of the Borders. Maxwell Secondary School, in the country. Do you know it?”
“No, I’m just visiting family. I’m from Inverness. We have the purest accent,” she announces proudly. “You might find it a bit tricky at first around here. Edinburgh is bad enough, but wait till you go to Glasgow!”
Michèle tells her about her struggle with the cockney driver in London and they both laugh.
Michèle lifts the blind and sees the soft contours of hills in grading shades of russet and green. Finally! It was not easy convincing her father that spending a year here would be a real asset before she sits her last exams. She is fluent in English already, and this year overseas is not compulsory, only recommended by her professors. “But how can I teach English if I have never set foot in the country?” she asked her father. “And anyway, I need to get rid of this awful accent.” In the end, her father relented. It is 1966 and she is twenty-one after all; she should be in charge of her own life.
“You will love it here. We Scots are very welcoming.”
"I’m sure I will. I’m looking forward to it very much. Scotland is such a romantic country.”
She looks out the window again: remote, misty hills and, she assumes, wonderful boys in kilts, playing the bagpipes. Maybe she will meet one of those boys and, if he wears a kilt and plays the bagpipes, all the better. She has been studying her guidebook all summer; she started as soon as she received confirmation of her application. There were choices: England, Wales, Scotland, or Ireland. Both she and her best friend, Colette, chose Scotland. They have been plotting this ever since they entered university. Colette’s school is in Edinburgh. Talk about luck, only thirty miles away from each other.
“Let me help you.” Michèle hands over the old lady’s suitcase and they say goodbye on the platform. As for her luggage, there was no need to panic. The green trunk is hauled on a trolley and wheeled to the luggage counter.