The accidental novelist
Award-winning journalist Fiona Barton reveals she planned to put writing on the backburner when she and her husband moved to France
Moving to France to write a novel in the heart of the countryside is a dream many aspire to but for ex-Fleet Street journalist Fiona Barton it has become a reality, even though the initial plan when she moved to rural Dordogne with her husband was to open a Bed and Breakfast.
Her second book, The Child, was published in June, after her first, The Widow hit the bestseller lists in the USA and the UK and it has been translated into 36 languages including French.
The renovated house that Fiona and husband Gary live in overlooks two lakes where he enjoys fishing. It is so peaceful there that deer pass close to him as he sits there with his rod.
It is a far cry from their previous existence in London when Gary worked as a builder and Fiona was a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where she won Reporter of the year at the National Press Awards.
In 2008, when Fiona was 51, the couple decided to change lifestyle and work for Voluntary Services Overseas. They were posted to Sri Lanka where she trained journalists in a country press freedom was almost unheard of and he taught carpentry in a home for the disabled. Then, Fiona trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world. A return to London seemed impossible after such an experience, so they decided to move to France:
“I didn’t come to France to write. My husband and I came here because we love France and we were able to afford a house where we had some land and some space. My husband loves gardening and fishing and being outside, so it is perfect for him. And for me the wonders of technology meant it didn’t matter where I was in deepest France I could still carry on my job, which at the time was teaching journalism. We thought we’d do a bed and breakfast - and we did the first year - but my teaching took over so I travelled a lot away from France and it was wonderful to have this as a base.”
Then her first book was published and was an immediate success and she found herself with a new career: “It’s a strange thing becoming a writer at my age. I was a new face for 2016 and you think, 'blimey to be a new face in my fifties is hilarious'. I love writing which is lucky even though it is really hard work and I’m easily distracted. I have to write in the morning. I stay in bed. It’s a bit Dame Barbara but if I get up I’ll find something else to do.
"I stay in bed with my laptop and I write until I stop, really. You’re fresh from dreams and you can just go. And it is so quiet here. Birds tweeting. It is a good place to write. As a journalist I wrote everywhere, noisy pubs, trains and planes because you had to when there was a deadline. But the ideal circumstances are in bed with my laptop and a steady stream of cups of tea coming up the stairs.”
In her novels, she revisits her life as a journalist. The Widow is the story of a woman whose husband is accused of the murder. It is told from the wife’s point of view as well as that of the investigating police officer and the journalist who persuades her to tell her story. When Fiona was covering crime stories, she says she always wondered what was going on in the head of the accused’s partner: “I would go and interview someone who was the centre of a story and but I was always aware of the people on the peripheries. The wife who would make us a cup of coffee in the next room or someone in a courtroom watching what was happening - and I always wondered what they knew and whether they were hearing something for the first time.
"I’m sure you’ve been in court where the facts are absolutely laid bare for examination. I always wondered what it felt like to hear those facts told in a very brutal matter-of-fact way about someone you thought you knew and you loved. And so that idea cooked in my head a bit. There were famous cases that I followed like the case of Dr Harold Shipman. Everyone wondered what his wife, Primrose, knew because she not only lived with him, she also worked with him. But she never spoke. She maintained that he was innocent all the way through, even after his suicide, and it was just endlessly fascinating.”
The journalist in The Widow, Kate Waters, is the central character in her second book, The Child, because Fiona was pleased to find that readers were interested in how journalists work and she is happy to talk about the controversial and often criticised methods journalists use to get a story:
“Kate is drawn from my experience. I’ve been everywhere that she has been. I’ve been on doorsteps, I’ve taken people away to hotels to do interviews - but she’s not me and my colleagues say she’s not me. But there are bits of me in her, I suppose.”
She goes on to defend these practices: “Door-stepping and knocking on doors is how journalists work. That’s how you get stories. I wanted to start a conversation about it because I feel that there is so much stereotyping of journalists: that they are the baddies, they are people who lie. Somebody said to me, somebody who came to dinner here said 'But journalists make it up', as if it was a universal truth. I’ve never made up a story, I mean why would you? Why would you need to?”
The Child is another story that intrigued her as a journalist.
It is about the discovery of an infant skeleton on a building site and Kate Waters turns investigator: “It is quite handy to have a journalist as an investigator because they’re not bound by the rules that the police are.
"So I’ve kept her and she is fed up with being stuck in the office and doing picture captions and celebrity news and she sees this one story, just one paragraph and she wonders why this infant would be buried there and who knew. Then there are three other stories from the point of view of three women connected with this discovery.”
Fiona is now working on a third Kate Waters book and says it will be a different look at the role of a journalist: “The working title at the moment is The Son. I’m just at the beginning, fiddling about, writing lots of notes-to-self and thinking what would happen if… But I’ve got an idea, a strong idea, I think, about what’s going to happen.”
She says there may be other books in the future though she doesn’t think they will be set in France: “I don’t really think I could because I really don’t have that insight into the structure of the different societies and communities.”
When she is not writing, she enjoys the lifestyle here: “I like to travel, eat, and see the countryside. Easy travelling round here is lovely. Being here has lived up to my expectations, moreso in fact. We weren’t sure whether it would work as it is difficult moving to a new place but we gave ourselves six months over a winter to make sure we wouldn’t kill each other, or get bored and we have realised that it is a wonderful way of life here.”
- August's issue of Connexion features an interview with Languedoc-based author and columnist Helena Frith Powell. It is the latest in a series of interviews with France-based writers, which has included Douglas Kennedy, Eddy L Harris and Bruno, Chief of Police creator Martin Walker. Future interviews include Kristin Espinasse and Jonathan Meades