Writer’s Block With Carol Drinkwater

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author and actress CAROL DRINKWATER about SHOWBIZ MEMORIES, the OLIVE FARM book series and finding her HOUSE BY THE SEA

Photograph by David Hartley

London-born Carol Drinkwater is a renowned actress of the stage and screen, and a successful author. As a thespian, Carol is perhaps best known for her role as Helen Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small (1978-85), one of Britain’s most treasured television programmes. Carol previously appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shout (1978) with the late John Hurt. Her other credits include parts in Casualty and Peak Practice. As a writer, Carol has published no less than twenty-two fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Using her acting expertise to her advantage, Carol has narrated all of her novels on audiotape, giving listeners a truly magical experience.

It was during a screen adaptation of Carol’s first book The Haunted School (1986) in Australia, that she met her television producer husband Michel Noll. They eventually discovered their dream home in the South of France, which became the subject of Carol’s breathtaking series of memoirs, starting with The Olive Farm in 2001. Appassionata, their stunning Provençal oasis, has been a story of true love – in more ways than one. It now produces over 500 litres of organic olive oil per year, and has received France’s highest benchmark of quality.

More recently, Carol has penned two epic novels, The Forgotten Summer (2016, Michael Joseph) and The Lost Girl (2017). Her newest title brings us on an unforgettable journey of family, romance, regret and renewal. The story is mainly set in Paris and Provence, moving between the 1940s post-war period and the 2015 terror attacks. One becomes fully engaged in the intertwined lives of two extraordinary women and the decisions that shape their destinies.

Carol Drinkwater lives with her husband Michel in Provence, France.

The Lost Girl (€11.20) is published by Michael Joseph and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

We live on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. Olive trees surround us. In the closest village I have my hairdresser and a small supermarket (I hate big shops and shopping). There’s a marvellous bakery. We grow many of our own veggies. Press our own olive oil. Terraces of fruit trees gift us with glorious blossom in spring and delicious fruits in summer. My day begins with coffee, salads for lunch and when Michel is here, an evening meal usually cooked by him. I work all day. To refresh my mind I go out onto the land, walk with the dogs, weed, or swim in the pool. I am surrounded by nature.

Love brought me here. I met a Frenchman, Michel, when I was in Australia, the producer of the film I was shooting there. He invited me to dinner and asked me to marry him on our first date. I didn’t say yes, not then, but when we were both back in Europe he invited me to attend the Cannes TV Festival with him. During that time, I – we – began to look for a house by the sea. I had been dreaming of My House by the Sea for a decade and had looked all over the world (including Ireland). We found our Olive Farm, a dilapidated beauty, on our first morning. It was love at first.

What I have learned about myself is that I am more courageous than I would have guessed and that I have staying power.

The Olive Farm series of six books tell this story and much more. Real life in an idyllic setting. I think their success is due to the fact they are a true story full of challenges but also imbued with love and optimism.

On childhood memories

We lived in London only till I was two or three, so my memories are hazy. Cooking smells, stairs to the very top of a five storey house. Cigarette smoke. A school yard with raucous children playing across the street.

We moved to Kent, to Sundridge Park near Bromley, London outskirts. Our lane was unmade. Stones rolled as I trudged home from the convent in the falling light. It’s autumn I remember most clearly. Wood smoke. A neighbour with a bald head always mowing his velveteen grass. A magnificent magnolia tree. Its skirt of fallen blossoms. It was never a happy time though. I frequently dreamed of running away, of the bright lights and stardom. I used to play truant from school, take the train to London (occasionally with David Jones, later Bowie) and go to the theatre, or for drama lessons on Saturdays. Such adventures. Dreaming in the darkness of being up on the stage. High heels. Optimism. Raw emotions.

Later, after drama school, I lived in a big old flat in Kentish Town for a while, but I was travelling most of the time.

On Ireland

I have a small base in Offaly, fifteen minutes to where my mother was born in Coolrain, Laois. I am back regularly. Ireland is my heart’s home, the roots. I’d never return to live in England but I ache for Ireland. I remember going to the river with my uncle Jo when I was small, looking out for the salmon, leaning over the crooked bridge and squealing with delight. I thought Jo was a king of a man, so handsome, striding through the corn fields and I running to keep up. My grandmother used to hug me so tight when we arrived from England and I was always afraid she’d crush me. My mother seemed happier in Ireland than England but she was very elegant, too elegant for the Laois farm.

I loved the chickens and the livestock and the washing – Granddad’s shirts and Nanny’s huge knickers, all made bigger by the wind puffing them up – hanging on the line in the scruffy backyard. Everywhere smelt smoky but there was an air of freedom about the place. I could slip off and muck to my heart’s content. I missed my father though. He never came with us and I never understood why. Mummy encouraged me to write him letters about my days. I can see my child’s handwriting now. I always asked him to come and join us, but he never did.

On creating

I work in my library. To be surrounded by books was always a dream. It looks out onto a lovely courtyard with terracotta tiles, pots of geraniums and lavender, iron table and chairs and olive trees beyond. My work chair is blue, hand-painted and hand-woven. My desk a big old pine table. There is little else there besides the chaos of papers on my ‘desk’ and the books all around me. I have candles alight when I write. No music. I need silence. The dogs sleep beyond the French doors waiting for me to rouse myself and join them. There’s a Montblanc pen, a Panama hat and sunglasses on my desk.

On bookshops

I am cheering for Dubray Books at present. They get behind authors. Look at their support of Emma Hannigan.

In London, I like Daunt’s in Marylebone High Street. In Paris, Shakespeare and Co, but that’s a bit of a cliché too. Bon Marché on the Left Bank, the luxury store, has an excellent bookshop on its top floor and Italian café alongside it. It’s where I head to first. I like to read in French. Sometimes, the language is too complex for me to get through an entire novel but I spend hours there, browsing.

There are some excellent independent bookshops in England where I get invited to read or launch one of my books. I am fond of them all. Theirs is a tough struggle in the present climate.

On her nightstand

I get sent a fair supply of books by publishers to give a quote. So that pile is dauntingly high. For myself, I have just finished Heat and Dust, which I had never read before. It is seductively good, so elegantly written. I am reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. I am new to her work. The Complete Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald is always close to hand. Next up will be An Equal Stillness, Francesca Kay. I have several books by male writers on my TBR pile but for the moment I am concentrating on female voices. After Kay will probably be Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, a reflection on fairy stories, by Katherine Langrish. Katherine and I both blog for the fabulous website www.the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk.

On escapes

When I am really stuck, blank page syndrome, I go to the sea. Lonely beaches, pebbles turning beneath the waves. Solitary folk walking, ruminating. The scent of seaweed soothes me, quietens my concern. If I am really stuck I drive to the Camargue, to the bird sanctuary, the long wild beaches. I watch the horses and bulls grazing, egrets dancing on their backs. I sit in the cafés, stare out at the sand dunes. During certain months, the gypsies congregate in Saintes-Maries, one of the seaside towns there, for their festivals. Then the streets are loud with music, guitars and the clop of horses. I love it.

And it reminds me of Ireland from long ago. Of my family and the horses.

On showbiz memories

Those that stand out are not necessarily the most famous. Stanley Kubrick was exceptional but I didn’t spend sufficient time in his company for him to be a part of my longer journey, except for the fact that I played a tiny role in A Clockwork Orange. It was my first job after drama school and it cannot be taken from me. Alan Rickman’s kindness to fellow actors was legendary. I must have been one of the only women in the world who did not fancy him. David Bowie, but it is in retrospect because when I knew him he was dreaming of his glittering future, as I was. His dreams were braver, more audacious than mine. I grieve his loss. Gone far too soon. John Hurt made quite an impact, I was a little in love with him though it was not mutual. Max von Sydow was one of the most generous actors I have worked with and a man of great integrity. I spent three months in Australia playing his daughter in a film, called Father, and I learnt so much from him.

I spent two days in my early twenties working with Tennessee Williams. He was trying to cast a male role in one of his plays and I read the female for him. He was like a man on fire, such energy and theatrical vision.

On The Lost Girl

The Lost Girl is my favourite of my books to date.

It is an epic story. Epic in time-span and emotions, about women with two, even three, leading female characters.

It is set in modern-day Paris and the post-war perfume fields of Provence.

The Paris chapters take place over the weekend of Friday November 13 2015 when the capital was hit by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks.

Kurtiz, an Englishwoman, whose daughter has been missing for four years, believes she is finally about to be reunited with Lizzie. She is in a café, waiting for news. Into that same café-bistro enters a very glamorous older lady, once a famous French film star. Kurtiz and she are seated alongside one another. They begin to make conversation, sharing memories, intimacies that you might only reveal to a stranger. As the tragic events, the atrocities of that night unfold, they are drawn together, supporting one another.

The book is full of drama and longing and regrets. Ultimately, it is about forgiveness and regeneration. It is a story with a miracle at its heart.

On what’s next

Books, more books and a desire to return to the cinema both as an actress and with my own written work. I am putting some energy into that right now.

@SophieGrenham

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