petite anglaise

April 10, 2008

post mortem

Filed under: book stuff — petiteanglaiseparis @ 9:32 am

Reading the various reviews of “petite anglaise”, a few things have given me pause for thought.

One is that many readers are judging the book against everything I’ve previously written here, rather than on its merits as a book, full stop. This was inevitable. I do have a huge body of ‘work’ already out there. When I put together my book proposal – in haste – I had to make choices. Choices about which strands of my story I wanted to use. Choices about which material would appeal most to the publishers circling around me. Choices about who I wanted the book to appeal to most: my blog readers, or a wider audience? Or both?

I stand by my choices, but invariably some people would have preferred me to do everything differently. ‘I didn’t want to know about X.’ ‘I wish she’d written more about Y.’ I’m reminded of opinions aired in my comments box, along the lines of ‘I liked it better in the old days when you wrote more about Paris.’ There is something about the participative nature of blogging that gives readers a sense of ownership. Some feel entitled to tell me what they think I ought to write – as if a blog were like some sort of online ‘request show’. I reserve the right to politely disagree.

But I’ve realised there is no sense in worrying about not pleasing everyone. That would have been mission impossible: my book can’t be all things to all people. The quirk(e)y reviewer in the New Statesman wishes I’d shown more of my ‘disturbo’ side, whereas glimpses of the compulsive blogger in me made others deeply uncomfortable.

A charge levelled against the book (particularly on Amazon – a place I only go when I’m feeling masochistic) is that petite anglaise is too ‘mememe’, and that some of the secondary characters are rather one-dimensional. To the mememe charge, I’d say that when a story is narrated in the first person, you necessarily see events from a single perspective; you are only permitted a view inside one person’s head. Other characters, although they can explain themselves through their words and gestures, necessarily remain enigmatic to a greater or lesser degree. ‘Petite’ is a true story, taken from a personal blog and I didn’t have an ‘access all areas’ backstage pass into James’s or Mr Frog’s heads. If I had, many of the twists and turns of the story would have been robbed of the power to surprise and shock. As for my ‘secondary characters’, they are real people whose identities and sensibilities I had to protect. I was telling my story, from my perspective and left many of their stories out of the final cut, robbing the reader of extra insights which would, no doubt, have rounded out their characters. But I didn’t feel I had the right to go further.

I learnt a lot while writing ‘petite’. I learnt that a book is finished when you simply can’t bear to look at it any more; not when it’s ‘perfect’. I learnt that once it is written, the author has to let it go, leave the marketing people to their jobs, let them package it, add their cover blurb, and send it out into the world to fend for itself. There no point in me agonising over whether ‘petite’ should be shelved next to the latest Jordan autobiography, or in the travel section next to Peter Mayle. Or neither. In the words of Vicomte de Valmont: it’s beyond my control.

The main thing the experience of writing a personal story and laying myself open to personal criticisms has taught me is that I don’t necessarily want to do it again. No matter how many lovely emails and comments I’ve received from people who have read the book compulsively, finished it in one sitting, laughed and cried and empathised along with me and felt sad when they reached the end, at 4 am, because they wanted more.

So there will be no petite anglaise II. There will be a novel, in which I can draw on my own experiences as much or as little as I wish, fill out the secondary characters to my heart’s content and take on board the constructive criticism I’ve received and try and do better. I’m proud of what I achieved and convinced I wrote the best book I possibly could at the time.

But I hope the best is yet to come.

March 25, 2008

Madame Bovary on the métro…

Filed under: book stuff — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:26 pm

Petite Anglaise garnered a couple more (rather tardy) reviews in the British press this weekend. The first was in The Independent, last Friday, and gave me cause to wonder whether I shouldn’t have reinvented Mr Frog as a non smoker or extolled the virtues of Lipton yellow tea in the interests of avoiding clichéd representations of the French.

The second, in the weekend edition of the FT, references Madame Bovary (on the métro to the childminder’s). I really liked this piece – the reviewer seemed to really “get” the book.

And of course I drew no small amount of satisfaction from remembering that my former employer not only subscribed to the FT, but displayed it prominently on the glass coffee table in reception…

March 21, 2008


Filed under: book stuff — petiteanglaiseparis @ 9:45 am

I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who turned out (in the freezing cold) to listen to me read at WH Smiths last night. It was somewhat unnerving giving a reading in front of so many people (120! Wow!) but I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself and I’m eternally grateful to you all for laughing in the right places.

For those who couldn’t make it, I signed a sizeable stack of copies before I left and these may be procured from WH Smiths at your leisure (and possibly posted to you if you live elsewhere in France).

Sadly, my camera was on the blink and I’m gutted I forgot to ask The Boy to bring his and play the role of official snapper.

But I did happen to notice a few flashbulbs going off, so if you have photographic evidence you’re willing to share, I’d love to see it. You can mail snaps to the usual address, or add photos to my facebook page. I’ll pop anything I receive up on flickr and link to it from here.

And was it just my imagination, or did my accent start off BBC posh and gradually veer off in a northern direction?

March 14, 2008


Filed under: book stuff — petiteanglaiseparis @ 10:15 am

Until last week, I was terrified at the prospect of giving a reading. Recording a blog post for Woman’s Hour was one thing (I’m going to keep on mentioning that for ages, yes, because I’m still reeling from the shock of saying “ring sting” on air), reading from petite anglaise was another thing entirely.

A few months ago, I happened to be in London on the very day that a Society of Authors seminar on “Giving a Reading” was held. I decided to sign up – thinking it would be interesting to check out their offices and meet a few people, if nothing else – and found myself in a room filled with twenty or so other authors. Some had penned fiction, others memoirs, history books or film scripts. Their ages ranged from twenty-five to eighty. We were united, however, by our collective fear of public speaking.

That day the speaker gave us lots of very good advice. Instead of reading one long passage (which might send your audience to sleep), you can pick several short ones, she suggested. That way you can give people a taste of different types of writing: some description, some dialogue, some action. Several amuse-bouche appetisers instead of one large entrée: a good way to whet people’s appetites. She also pointed out that if there’s a word or phrase you cringe at when reading aloud, or a sentence which simply doesn’t work when read out of its context, you can cross it out. It’s your book. You can do whatever you like.

There followed an excruciating hour where each participant read a short passage aloud and the rest of the group gave some constructive criticism about what could be done to improve things. There were those who swayed from side to side, those who buried their heads in their books, never daring to glance up. Those who mumbled, and those who read at fifty miles an hour in voices flattened by nerves to an expressionless monotone. I made the mistake of choosing a highly emotional passage – the book’s prologue – and lost my voice halfway through, soldiering on to the end in a stage whisper. The stunned silence at the end of my reading I put down to the fact that it must have been quite unsettling for my audience to see me reading on the verge of tears.

So when I gave my first public reading at York library, ten days ago, I’d given quite a lot of thought to how to avoid repeating that disastrous performance. I was stomach-churningly nervous – my ravaged cuticles and peeling bottom lip bore witness – but, having spent most of that day running from photo session to interview to photo session to TV studio, before leaping onto a train (Leeds-York) just an hour before my reading was due to start, I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my fear, let alone practise my spiel. I arrived at the library with only twenty minutes to spare, and allowed the organiser to pour me a large glass of wine (Arrogant Frog – an inspired choice) in an attempt to calm my nerves.

Once everyone had filed in and taken a seat, I gave a brief introduction then read four short passages from the light-hearted opening chapters of the book, introducing my love affair with all things French, the character of Mr Frog and the birth of the blog. It went pretty well, I thought, even if I found it tricky to raise my eyes from my book (the sight of my grandma, beaming on the front row, was a little off-putting). I even managed to get a few laughs – the scene where I meet Mr Frog was a lot of fun to read – and the consensus seemed to be that it had gone rather well. Once the questions from the floor had been dispensed with, I took out my special signing pen and had fun writing little messages in people’s books.

I did however decline my first ever request to sign a pair of white buttocks.


If you happen to be in Paris next Thursday (March 20th) and can make it to WH Smiths on rue de Rivoli at 7.30 pm, you will be able to see me give a repeat performance.

To enable the organisers to make adequate provision of alcoholic beverages, I urge you to sign up by sending an RSVP email. The event is free, and if you have already got a copy of the book, you are welcome to bring it along. If you’d like to purchase a book on the night, WH Smiths have ordered in copies of the proper UK hardback version especially (instead of the oversized export paperback some of you may have seen in Paris), which is much much lovelier, in my opinion.

Once I’ve got the reading bit out of the way (it will be mercifully short, as there are in excess of 80 people signed up, and therefore there will be no room for chairs) I will be free to answer questions, scribble inanely in books, drink wine and mingle until about 9.30pm. If you can’t make it to the first part, feel free to pop along afterwards.

See you there?

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