[Interview] Wendy Mewes

Wendy Mewes lives and works in Finistere and has been teaching and writing about history for more than 25 years.

Her non-fiction books include Crossing Brittany (2008); The Nantes-Brest Canal: a Guide (2007) and Discovering the History of Brittany (2006) -- which focus on the history and attractions of Brittany.

She has also written and published two novels, Moon Garden (2004), a novel of love, growth and natural magic, and, The Five of Cups (2006), which explores explores love, loss and renewal.

In this email interview, Wendy Mewes talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was eight. It was about ancient Greece and I still have the faded pages of careful handwriting tied together with cotton. I remember consulting many books in the library and my father’s collection and enjoying the process of selecting information and telling things in my own words.

Since childhood I intended to be a writer, recognising it as a fundamental part of my nature. I thought then, however, that I would be a poet. Through my teens I wrote poetry and ran a poetry club at my school. I won prizes for poetry but it was not exactly an option for a profession.

I studied ancient history at university and wrote a serial set in ancient Rome. A very popular teen magazine said they liked the style but the story was too complicated for their readers and would I write a short story? Life got in the way and I didn’t follow up this opportunity. First mistake!

I worked seriously at my poetry during my twenties and submitted a collection for a major award at the age of thirty. Again, it was well-received, but I’d misread the rules and was six months too old. After this I was seriously ill and gave up writing for nearly ten years. Then, in a good phase of my life, I suddenly started a crime novel, set in England and Poland, which had a female heroine and a humorous tone. I was very confident that at last I’d found my niche and decided to give up my teaching career in London, move to the country and concentrate on writing. A reputable agent took on the novel and assured me I’d be a millionaire. The first editor rejected the book despite saying that I ‘had really got something’. After that the agent lost interest and I wasted 18 months, trying to write a sequel, but without any advice or encouragement. I could not even get the manuscript back from the agent.

I began writing articles for the editor of a local magazine who was also a publisher. We later married and together wrote a little walking book which was a sell-out locally. I then joined a professional writers’ group in Glastonbury, where I learnt a lot and benefited from serious criticism of my work from established writers.

I wrote another crime novel, rather dark this time, which I still think is one of the best things I’ve done, even though it has not been published. Another agent took it on, but did even less for me than the first. Second mistake -- bothering with agents!

I began writing a light-hearted novel about natural magic. Although my husband specialised in publishing transport and local interest books, he said he’d try publishing the novel. So Moon Garden came into the world and has in fact done well over the last few years, without any advertising or publicity. It is a bit of a cult book in pagan circles and has enjoyed many excellent reviews on the internet.

Next we moved to Brittany, north-west France, and my husband set up a new publishing company Red Dog Books, and I began to write guidebooks, walking books and a history of Brittany, coming back to my training and teaching experience. In the last few years I have written seven books about Brittany, including another novel set in the wild landscape where we live. All have been good sellers.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

In my non-fiction work I am trying to make the landscape and history of Brittany accessible to readers and visitors who may not speak French well. Many of my readers actually live here and want to discover the background of their adopted country in a language they can read easily. I try to write concisely but with clarity and good organisation of material. Simplifying the complexities of history is a challenge, but my skills seem to lie in this area.

As far as novels go, I write about making choices and hope to inspire people to move forward in their lives. The two published novels have a ‘feel-good’ factor, but I think the next may be something else altogether. It is true that I had the pagan world in mind when I began Moon Garden, but in fact it has been enjoyed equally by readers of all backgrounds.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

This is a hard one! In non-fiction I don’t feel I have models, but in fiction I admire enormously the fizzy skills of Janet Evanovich with her unique combination of humour and menace, especially in the earlier Stephanie Plum books. But I think the writers I most admire in serious fiction, such as Hilary Mantel, are doing something quite different from me. Maybe I consciously choose to read the opposite of what I write! When I read Thierry Guidet’s short account of his walk along the Nantes-Brest canal in French I thought I’d like to do the same and write about that journey myself, but my perspective as a foreigner and historian is completely different.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

In non-fiction I have always been motivated by producing quality work that is accessible to the general public but also academically sound. I am not interested in sensationalising history or sacrificing evidence to the demands of a good story. I believe that reality is just riveting as fantasy!

In fiction, so far I have thought about being entertaining and amusing in my characterisation and dialogue. I think in my next novel I want to explore my own emotional experience and understanding more deeply.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

In fiction I have drawn on events and people from my own life but circumstantially rather than profoundly. I was astonished to get a letter from a reader who met me years ago saying how easily he could see me in one of the characters in Moon Garden. In fact I had based this person on someone I knew and didn’t like very much! I’m not sure if there’s a lesson here or not!

The Five of Cups was a novel from my experience of coming to live in a foreign country with all the emotional upheaval that can bring, but the actual story is very different from my own. I found this book painful to write because it brought home to me many unsatisfactory aspects of my life. Since then I have not been able to ignore them!

In the novel I have just begun, Walking for the Broken-Hearted, I intend to draw much more closely on my own psychological experience. I feel the time has come for that and in a way I’ve been holding back up until now.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

I suffer from too many ideas and too little time! I also find it difficult to reconcile the demands of writing fiction and non-fiction. I often feel I’d like to be free of the demands of constantly writing books and just concentrate on getting back to poetry. But financially I have to produce guidebooks. My novels take a huge effort and a lot of time to produce but do not have great financial returns, although I’m quite pleased with making a small profit from them. If there was no commercial imperative, sometimes I wonder if I’d write at all -- in many ways when it becomes simply work, the magic can ebb and flow.

Do you write everyday?

No, not every day. I am often out for days of walking or doing researching for historical books or having meetings with tourist organisations. (I also run an association here in Brittany for walks and visits to interesting places guided in English, and this takes up a lot of time).

For fiction, I am always reluctant to get started because there is not the easy agenda of a non-fiction book. The latter can be planned and then worked through in an orderly fashion. I don’t feel like that about fiction -- it churns me up emotionally and I often have to force myself to write. The Five of Cups only met its deadline by a strict 1,000 words a day which nearly drove me insane (but I always keep to deadlines)! Because I see the business from my husband’s point of view as a publisher, and how the delays of other writers cause him problems, I’m strict with myself about getting stuff in on time. Generally I am well-organised and disciplined as long as it’s non-fiction. Here I start work in my study at 9 am and make notes or write up all morning. My favoured method is to get something down one day and then review and refine it the next day before going on with a draft.

Afternoons are not good work times for me but I often come back to writing in the evenings. But nothing after 10 pm!

What is your latest book about?

In my most recent book, Crossing Brittany I describe a walk of 365 kilometres along the Nantes-Brest at a time when I was thinking a lot about the meaning of identity in my own life, so it’s both historical, personal and a bit of a nature study! It has taken me two years to write, despite being a short book, because it has been fitted in around other publications.

It is published with Red Dog Books as usual because they specialise in books about Brittany. The main problem has been over the title. I have always called it "The Long Thought", a theme of the book, but the publisher and representatives/distributors in the U.K. did not find that a very inviting prospect to publicise so at the last minute after a lot of soul-searching and arguing, I have agreed to change the title to Crossing Brittany (or as I think of it to myself, "Cross in Brittany"!).

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

This book is the most personal one I have written and it caused me to reflect deeply and often painfully on my life. I wrote it during a difficult time in my personal circumstances but not all of this can be easily exposed in the text, so I’ve had to make many compromises. It is also challenging to integrate a personal narrative with historical details and the description of my physical journey on this long walk.

I wanted to get a good balance between history, nature, walking, identity and observations about living in a foreign country. Constant reworking of the material was necessary to get this and, as the agreed length was quite short, I had to be extremely selective of material gathered over two years of research.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I liked the actual walk, which I did over four seasons, bit by bit. Sometimes I walked for several days, staying in accommodation overnight and carrying all my gear; other times I did a day’s stint of about 25 kilometres. My method of composition was to make notes in a dictaphone as I went along, as well as taking photos and talking to people on the way. So the research was great!

What sets the book apart from the other things you've written?

The personal tone is quite different from my objective historical voice, and the discipline and descriptive powers required in a travelogue to keep the reader interested poses new demands. I wanted them to be able to see what I saw but also to recognise my individual reactions during the trip.

In what way is it similar?

The subject matter -- the landscape and history of Brittany -- is my normal sphere of work. But both are so varied that I rarely find myself writing about the same things twice.

What will your next book be about?

My next project (for 2010) is Britons in Brittany, a book about links between Great Britain and Brittany through the centuries.

Also, not quite out of nowhere but very suddenly, a new novel has jumped into my head, and Walking for the Broken-Hearted is progressing slowly. I shall be looking for a main-stream publisher for this book.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Helping British people living in Brittany to feel a sense of connection and understanding with their chosen place of settlement in a foreign country even if they find the language barrier an insurmountable one. Making history a subject with life and energy has been very satisfying.

I am also proud of the fact that so many people have enjoyed my two novels and written to me about the sense of encouragement for change and growth in their lives that they got from the books.

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