Life for a writer living in France is very different from the UK or the US.
Here, every small, medium and large town has its own annual book festival. Writers from all over the country are invited to come and participate in debates and round tables, to meet readers and sign books.
The organisers, usually subsidised by Government arts money, pay all expenses.
The bookstores and libraries organise rencontres – events where writers are presented to readers by animateurs, like television presenters. Extracts from the books are read by professional or semi-professional readers.
Above all, writers are treated with a level of respect that is rarely found in the English-speaking world. You don’t have to be a bestseller to be recognised as having a unique talent.
I write thrillers, or crime books, a genre generally looked down upon by the sniffy literati in the UK. In France, polars as they are called, are regarded in the same way as any other work of literature. A book like “The Blackhouse” is described as a “roman noir” – literally a black novel – and is presented for literary prizes on the same level as any other novel.
“The Blackhouse” is one of ten European novels which have been shortlisted for a major national literary award called the CEZAM Prix Littéraire. It is a prize organised by committées d’entreprises in the country’s 22 regions. A commitée d’entreprise is similar to a British Chamber of Commerce. The ten books having been shortlisted, committees are formed in all the regions, and the nominated writers invited to talk to readers in local bookstores, town halls, and even prisons.
The books are read by nearly 5000 readers who mark each one according to predetermined criteria – story, character, quality of writing etc. Each region chooses its own winner, but the results are also aggregated, and a national winner will be announced this year in October at a prize-giving ceremony in Strasbourg.
In three short weeks I will embark on an intensive seven days of public appearances in two of those regions – Brittany and the Pay de la Loire – talking to readers who will be voting on my book.
Two of those appearances will take place behind bars, talking to groups of literate prisoners who are among those 5000 voters. Not my first time in a French penitentiary. I had to talk to prisoners in the north-west of France in 2007 when nominated for the unique Prix Intramuros (prize between the walls) which is determined solely by French convicts. On that occasion, I won. But the competition is, perhaps, much stiffer this time around.
Last year’s winner was the Booker-nominated Irish author, Sebastian Barry, with “The Secret Scripture”.
As I set off at the beginning of April to meet my schedule of events, I will blog and tweet my way through the kilometers to give a flavour of what it is like for a writer on the road in France. And those blogs and tweets are likely to be the only English passing through my head during those onerous early spring days. For I will be expected to speak only French.
I’m just heading off now to brush up on my French prison slang!