As her debut novel is published, Gillian Harvey reflects on how life in rural France gave her the career she always wanted while also preparing her for lockdown
I had to miss my own book launch – but I’m glad I’m locked down in France
May 2020 has been highlighted in my calendar for the past 18 months. Ripping off every page, feeling the time pass has been magical. I longed for the 28th when my debut novel would be finally published and I’d be able to toast it with champagne, surrounded by my nearest and dearest.
The phrase ‘careful what you wish for’ seems apt here. As instead of visiting my folks back in Blighty and seeing my book for the first time on the shelves, I’m still stuck in France under a slightly eased lockdown, looking after five children and sitting in the car on my front drive to do interviews (the only place I can lock myself away from the chaos).
That said, although I’m 500 miles away from where I thought I’d be at this point in time, if I had to be locked down anywhere, I’d definitely choose to be in my little French town, Eymoutiers. Moving here meant that for the first time in my life I was relaxed and properly happy.
For starters, here we can afford a house big enough for our five children and all the chaos that they leave in their wake. Our six-bed detached house came for the sort of money that might get you a one up, one down in Bedfordshire. If you’re lucky. We’ve also got a pretty decent garden, sufficient for a trampoline, swing set, sandpit and two paddling pools – one half deflated, the other still hanging in there. With five kids, we need all the entertainment options we can get!
It’s pretty rural here too, which makes keeping a sensible distance from others during lockdown a cinch. The air in Limousin is reportedly one of the best in Europe and the sun’s been shining. Amazingly, too, the mairie of our small town invested in high-grade cloth masks for all residents – free of charge – delivered through our letterbox before lockdown eased.
Plus, we were already prepared for lockdown life in ways we never could have predicted. In rural France, there’s very little to do unless you want to drive to a distant town. The fact that shops are closed after 7pm, and on Sundays, and sometimes on Mondays seemed bizarre when we first moved over. Now we’re used to having to put our shopping on hold. We’re used to ‘making our own fun,’ or coping with the fact we can’t get exactly what we want in the supermarkets. In many ways, we’ve been training for lockdown for years!
We’re also used to seeing relatives via zoom or skype, and only getting together in person a couple of times a year. We’ve been through the pain of missing our loved-ones – I struggled terribly when we first moved out – and although I’m sad I won’t get to hug my siblings or cuddle my parents as I’d planned on our trip, life ticks on in more or less the usual way as long as I pay no attention to the scribbled out plans in my diary.
New start – new opportunities
Moving to France also meant I was able to change careers – from teacher to writer. When I made the move to France back in 2009, it was with the hope of finding a more peaceful way of life. Life in the UK was hectic – my husband, Ray, 69, and I were both teachers and barely had the chance to spend any time together.
Ray was 59 at the time and was able to take his teacher’s pension early, and we moved to France when I was 20 weeks pregnant with our first child, Lily, now 10. We had vague plans of supplementing our income by running a gîte or B&B, but those soon fell by the wayside when we found out how much it would cost to convert our tumbledown barn. Instead, I did a bit of online tutoring to help make ends meet, leaving Ray free to carry out renovations.
I’ve always written, but never had the time to really hone my skills. I’d managed to complete a novel before we moved, but sadly it never made it to publication. Living as a writer was still a distant dream, but I was able to dedicate more time to my hobby and set up a small writers’ group in the nearby town of Aubusson (in Creuse, Limousin) in 2010.
A dream career
There I met Peter, who had previously taken an online course for writers. I’d never thought of doing this before but decided it could be useful. After my twins, Tim and Joe, were born in 2012, I decided to give it a go. One of the modules of the course led me down a whole, previously unexplored, path – non-fiction writing and journalism. I began pitching ideas to editors and to my surprise, some of these were accepted. In fact, one of my first opportunities was with Living France magazine!
I began to build the career I’d never thought I’d have – freelancing for national titles, producing researched features, real-life stories and even short fiction. When I began to write my latest novel, I was in a different mindset. Time spent with Ray and the children rather than fractious colleagues, against a backdrop of beautiful scenery had helped to shift my mood. Now, instead of writing psychological thrillers, I tried my hand at humorous prose. And it was this new genre that became the catalyst for success. My novel, once completed, was snapped up by an agent and taken on by a big publishing house.
I’ve now had the pleasure of hitting peak irony. My novel is a humorous take on the ridiculousness of social media. But with bookshops closed and real-life events on hold, I’ve had to Tweet more than ever to promote it.
A weird new normal
Filling in attestations to go out – and being restricted to an hour out of the house – has been a bit of a nightmare. Until recently, everyone I saw was wearing a mask, which was both alarming and reassuring inequal measure. On my first trip to our local supermarket in March the atmosphere seemed so threatening and sombre that I nearly burst into tears at the till.
But like everyone, everywhere, I’m now used to this weird normal – and as lockdown has relaxed have enjoyed watched my sleepy town come back to life. The little market’s started up; the same faces mill around as before – people take the time to stop and chat, from a safe distance. There are no bises (kisses) exchanged and I’m sure to natives this must feel alien, but if I’m honest for me – as a socially awkward Brit – it’s quite a relief. Driving through town, it’s nice to see locals strolling, baguettes under their arm (although I’m still a little shy of boulangerie queues and have yet to bite into a post-pandemic Pain au Chocolat).
The world is in chaos, the news is frightening, and we worry of course about family, friends and pretty much everyone. But in terms of our day-to-day lives we feel we’re in a good place.
Don’t get me wrong: the moment it’s safe to do so, I’m nipping over the channel to see my folks and hopefully get to glimpse my poor neglected novel on the shelves of a socially distanced bookshop.
But on balance, when it comes to lockdown, I’m definitely one of the lucky ones and I feel incredibly lucky that my novel is being published. I still have to pinch myself regularly. As someone I met said to me recently, ‘everyone wants to be a writer, living in France’. While that might not be strictly true, it’s certainly my dream. And I can’t believe I’m actually living it.
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