Born and brought up in the north of Scotland, Lorna Fergusson studied English at Aberdeen and Oxford Universities. She now runs Fictionfire Literary Consultancy. In addition to her own workshops, she teaches creative writing at the University of Winchester’s Writers’ Festival and for various Oxford University writing programmes. Her novel The Chase was originally published by Bloomsbury and is now published under her own imprint, Fictionfire Press. Her stories have won an Ian St James Award, been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and long listed for the Fish Short Story Prize. Her unpublished children’s novel Hinterland reached the shortlist of four for Pan Macmillan’s Write Now prize. Her chapter on Pre-Writing appears in Studying Creative Writing, in the Creative Writing Series published by The Professional and Higher Partnership. Her story ‘Reputation’, longlisted in the Historical Novel Society’s short story award 2012, appears in the e-anthology TheBeggar at the Gate. She is working on a collection of historical short stories and a novel, the opening of which has recently won Words with Jam magazine’s First Page Competition. She has just won the Historical Novel Society’s London 2014 Conference Short Story Award with her story ‘Salt’.
Stephanie: I am so delighted to be interviewing Author Lorna Fergusson about her book, The Chase.
Hello, Lorna! It is truly a pleasure to be chatting with you today.
Lorna: Thanks Stephanie! I’m delighted to be here – thank you so much for inviting me.
Stephanie: Congratulations on the HNS Short Story Award. That is absolutely wonderful! Before we officially start this interview about your book, The Chase, could you tell me a little about ‘Salt’?
Lorna: I come from the north of Scotland and the story is inspired by memories of my grandmother, who was a ‘herring lassie’ at the time when the herring trade was huge. The fish were known as ‘the silver darlings’. The men went out to sea and the women followed the fishing fleet to gut the catch and pack it in barrels. Incredibly hard work and not in the least bit glamorous! My grandmother was working in Great Yarmouth, on the east coast of England, at the start of World War 1 and something she said about that experience when I was a little girl is what triggered the story.
Stephanie: How wonderful to have such amazing memories and to share them. I would love to hear more about your grandmother sometime…
Your story, The Chase, sounds amazing! I love stories like this and I have lots of questions and I MUST read your story soon. Please tell your audience a little about it and what genre it falls under.
Lorna: The story is about an English couple, Netty and Gerald Feldwick, who move to the Dordogne region of France. Gerald has fallen in love with a house there, deep in the woods near the village of Malignac. Netty is less happy about the move and is soon oppressed by the house, which is imbued with an almost supernatural sense of the past. We learn that their real reason for leaving England is to try to escape memories of a traumatic loss. They need to heal their marriage.
In France, they meet a range of characters, some English like themselves, some French, including the wealthy owner of a nearby château and a local wine farmer. Netty becomes friendly with a Cambridge professor who has retired to a cottage nearby. Gerald returns temporarily to England – and while he’s there he does something that will only add to Netty’s pain.
As the shadows close in and Netty learns the truth about her husband, her state of long-suffering passivity is about to change …
As for genre, well, that’s always been a tricky question to answer! It’s ‘literary fiction’, I suppose, though that can be an off-putting description. It has thriller, suspense and mystery aspects, along with satire of the English expatriate community and the social class system. The Chase has been compared to Daphne du Maurier – who famously wrote Rebecca – because the atmosphere of place and the sinister brooding quality is there, and also to Joanne Harris, who wrote Chocolat, because of the descriptions of the sensory pleasure of living in France. It’s Chocolat, with a darker bite!
Stephanie: Why did you choose the Dordogne region of south western France in 1989 for your period and setting? And please tell me, if it won’t give anything away, how the past is revealed to Gerald Feldwick and his wife Netty?
Lorna: I chose the Dordogne region because for several years my husband and I part-owned a house there. Le Périer stood on a hillside overlooking a vineyard – that’s the view I had when I flung open the shutters and sat at my desk to write! We grew to know the area very well, and I was fascinated by the rich layers of history all around, from prehistoric caves to Roman ruins, to medieval castles. Our house had an old bread oven built into the back wall of the kitchen and we were told the German soldiers used to get their bread there during the occupation of the region in World War II. I wanted to celebrate the richness of the location from its natural beauties to the pleasures of its food and drink. 1989 was a time when even more English people than usual were choosing to have holiday homes there or even move out there permanently, so there were villages which were like little England. The English and French have had a long-term relationship in that part of France, going back to the Middle Ages. There are castles there which changed hands repeatedly during the Hundred Years’ War.
In the novel, it’s Netty who is more sensitive to the echoes of the past, when she converses with the Professor or visits Claudine Bellenger, the châtelaine of Bel Arbre. She senses the dark memories of Le Sanglier – is almost haunted by them, you might say …
Stephanie: What is an example of the house’s history they live in and how old is the house?
Lorna: Le Sanglier, we learn, was built as a hunting lodge just prior to the French Revolution, by the Comte de Saint Eymet – and he got up to fairly nefarious activities there. What Netty and Gerald don’t know is that the location has been the site of dramatic events for centuries. The novel opens with the caves beneath it being painted with images of the animals of the hunt, like the famous cave at Lascaux. Only the reader knows those caves are there.
Stephanie: The past covers a pretty wide range of history from the Roman period, through the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution period, to the early nineteenth century and the Second World War. Was there extensive research involved for you to cover these periods? Or were some of them mentioned briefly in your story? And what is one of the ways the past affects the people living on the land in the modern period of your story?
Lorna: I did quite a lot of research, especially on the Roman aspect and the French Revolution, partly by reading, partly by visiting places such as the Roman Tour de Vésone in Périgueux and the museum there. Each of these periods features as an inset narrative, a self-contained short story – but I enjoyed relating those periods to the modern era by showing the ruin of a Roman temple, the descendants of a character featured in the Revolutionary period – and even the consequences of what happens in the World War II episode. I wanted to show that everything is connected and everything repeats itself.
Stephanie: Please describe Gerald and Netty’s relationship. And what are their strengths and weaknesses?
Lorna: Their relationship is in serious trouble, even though they’ve loved one another for a long time. I wanted to explore the effects of trauma – how individuals deal with loss, plus the paradox that grief can tear people apart rather than bring them together. Netty and Gerald have very different ways of handling their situation. Gerald is a doer and a talker – he has energy and drive but is self-pitying and lacks dignity, Netty feels. Netty is buttoned-up and passive – but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. She has a lot of anger brewing. She is also sensitive and creative; during the course of the story she learns a lot about who she really is – and she doesn’t always like that person.
Stephanie: Could you give an example of what their relationship is like with their children?
Lorna: I don’t want to go into too much detail, but alienation and secrets play their parts!
Stephanie: Please introduce me to Professor Rutherford Appleby. What is he a professor of and what is his role in the story? And does he know the history of the land?
Lorna: Professor Rutherford Appleby is genial and sensible and he understands Netty better than her husband does. He’s a kind of wise old uncle figure – but Netty has to learn he isn’t perfect either. He’s a Professor of Comparative Mythology and understands not only the history of place but the history of beliefs about place. He’s particularly expert in the Gallo-Roman history of that part of France and has chosen to retire there because he knows it so well.
Stephanie: In my questionnaire to you, you told me beautifully how you came to write your story and I absolutely love what you said. Could you please tell your audience what that is?
Lorna: The Chase is, first of all, an expression of love for France and for a special time in my life. The story came to me out there, via a vision of its ending. I started to explore what would bring the characters I visualised to such a pass, and the whole novel developed from there. I incorporated images of hunting and of tapestry to illustrate the tension between death and life, between destruction and creation. I focussed on how hard it is for people who love each other to handle loss – how people cope, or don’t cope, in different ways. My characters question the very notion of a benign order to the world and they demonstrate that even when you try to escape your past, the past is always with you.
Stephanie: Who are your influences? And what are you currently reading?
Lorna: My influences are probably too many to mention! I love writers who create a sense of place, definitely. I studied English Literature and specialised in Medieval English, so have an affinity with that, which meant I loved writing the Hundred Years’ War vignette in The Chase! Currently I’m reading an excellent non-fiction work, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground, which is about the search for the spirit of place and why places are so important to us and have been throughout history. He lives in Cornwall and describes it so well – and Cornwall is one of my favourite places in the world.
Stephanie: How much time do you spend writing and where in your home do you like to write?
Lorna: I write in my study upstairs, which is a lovely room fast disappearing behind ramparts of books and piles of paper! It’s painted ivory white and a Greek island blue, which I find both restful and stimulating. As for time, well, there’s never enough. I run a literary consultancy so spend much of my time thinking about, editing and responding to other people’s fiction! When I do write, it tends to be in the middle of the night, because I’m quite an owl. It’s usually past 3 a.m. before I go to bed.
Stephanie: How has writing played an important role in your life?
Lorna: Writing is central – it’s central to my sense of who I am and what I’m here for. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer and even when I’m not being productive, I think like a writer – I notice things, formulate things in my head, jot notes and phrases on scraps of paper which then get lost, and wonder ‘What if …?’ all the time!
Stephanie: Thank you, Lorna! Your story sounds absolutely wonderful and I look forward to reading it soon!
‘Lorna Fergusson weaves a vivid but dark tale set in the beautiful Dordogne, where past and present fuse in a page-turning mystery. I could go back to this again and again.’ Alison Weir, novelist and historian
‘Superbly written, ambitious in scope, morally complex, emotionally challenging, this is a real page-turner.’ Linda Gillard
‘Steeped in the atmosphere, history and excitement of France … It is definitely the sort of book that is difficult to put down.’ Living France magazine
‘Lorna Fergusson has a natural gift for telling a story – think of Daphne du Maurier.’ Scotsman newspaper