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Novel set in the Napa Valley, California plus we chat with author Colette Dartford

15th July 2016

Learning to Speak American by Colette Dartford, novel set in the Napa Valley (and Bristol).

Can the purchase of a house fill the gaping hole in a couple relationship, mourning the loss of a young daughter? Lola and Duncan  Drummond are struggling, their marriage is in the depth of despond. Duncan takes the reins and organises a holiday in California to lift the spirits of his wife.

novel set in the napa valley

A spontaneous visit to an estate agent (or realtor, it being California) and they find themselves viewing a house in the Napa Valley, a property that needs considerable tender loving care. Could this project of restoration prove to be the healing that they both need? The neighbours are more than welcoming, the countryside is wonderful and the Treehouse itself is so full of potential which interior designer Birdie will modify and rebuild to form the perfect home for Lola – and Duncan. Cain, the handsome young realtor is on hand to support Lola in her house renovation ventures. Wine is in abundance and lubricates the social interactions.

Duncan – committed now to the purchase – suddenly finds that his work situation is precarious and he has to jet off around the world to try and close deals. Although wealthy on paper he is reliant on commissions that should come from his business deals and as money floods into the renovations, his relationship with Lola continues to struggle.

Novel set in the napa valley

Colette Dartford’s own house under renovation

It is extremely common that a traumatic event places huge pressure on a couple relationship. Partners often mourn losses in different ways which can distance them from each other even more. A big, all-consuming project – like a house build – is often the unconscious couple choice to bridge the widening gap in the relationship, and as in this story, it serves as a vehicle to move the focus away from the fractured relationship.

I really enjoyed reading the novel, the relationship difficulties felt real, and I felt transported to the Napa Valley and California. The ending seemed to me to slot together perhaps just a little too easily. Recommended.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

TF: This is a perceptive description of a relationship that is under severe stress. Lola and Duncan choose to renovate a house, which is a very common and often unconscious strategy that couples adopt to divert themselves from issues in the relationship. What particularly drew you to portray a couple’s relationship under stress at the heart of the book?

novel set in the napa valley

Colette’s house after renovation

CD: What interests me most are relationships and Learning To Speak American is essentially about a relationship in crisis. The central characters, Duncan and Lola Drummond, have lived an enviable and affluent life and I wanted to explore what would happen if they lost the one thing they loved most – their only child, Clarissa. I think we learn who we really are when tested in extremis. It is then that our true character is revealed.

TF: I understand you gained inspiration for the book from your own experiences of house renovation in the Napa Valley? Why did you yourself choose a house there? What particular difficulties did you encounter?

CD: My husband and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in the Napa Valley and quickly fell under its spell. It’s an idyllic place with warm welcoming people, abundant sunshine and delicious wine, so when we stumbled across a derelict house for sale, we couldn’t resist snapping it up. Renovating a house from five-thousand miles away isn’t something I’d recommend and California has many ‘codes’ (regulations) that are strictly enforced. Top of the list are environmental concerns and ensuring everything can withstand a sizeable earthquake. Luckily we had a great project manager but it was still a fractious and expensive two years before our house was finished.

TF: What top tips do you have for any visitors to California? 

CD: Relax and enjoy! It really is a beautiful state but it can take quite a while to see it all. California covers over 163,000 miles, making it almost twice the size of the UK. I would recommend hiring a car and driving North to South, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, along the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s incredibly dramatic with many amazing places along the way, like Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur and Santa Barbara. Just bear in mind that even though California is blessed with stunning sandy beaches, the Pacific Ocean is too cold for swimming, even for a hardy Brit like me.

TF: In the book you mention several different wines – are you a keen wine connoisseur and what wine do you yourself choose to drink?

CD: Wine production is at the very heart of the Napa Valley. Everyone is connected to the wine business in one way or another and people are very knowledgeable. Sadly I wasn’t, something quickly rectified by taking a viticulture and oenology course at UC Davis. Understanding the process of making good quality wine certainly made me appreciate it more, and it was no coincidence that many local wines found their way into Learning To Speak American. My personal favourite is Chardonnay, a grape ideally suited to the Napa Valley climate. The heat of the day abates significantly at night and the drop in temperature allows grapes to rest and their flavour to intensify. Ageing in toasted oak barrels produces a rich, buttery wine that is simply a pleasure to drink.

TF: What is next for you in terms of writing and travel?

CD: I’m currently finishing the final edits of my second novel, An Unsuitable Marriage, and writing my third novel, set in the Languedoc region of France. I’ve been there quite a few times and am going again at the end of the month to do a bit more research, and some wine tasting of course. I travel a lot, not least because two of my children live abroad – one in Dubai and one in China. We are a very international family with a good deal of air miles between us!

TF: How did you first get into writing and what was your personal journey to publication?

CD: Writing had been a hobby for me, something I fitted in around family and career, but with an American visa that prevented me from working, and my children all grown up, I had both the time and inspiration to write a novel. An early draft of Learning To Speak American was shortlisted for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, an unexpected success that prompted me to work on my nascent skills. Impartial constructive criticism is crucial if you’re serious about getting published, and it was a freelance editorial consultant who referred me to a literary agent. Six months later I had a two book deal with exciting new publisher, Bonnier Zaffre.

TF: What is your typical writing day and how do you unwind?

CD: I don’t really have a typical writing day, although I admire authors that do. My mornings tend to be taken up with walking the dogs, exercising and coffee with friends, so it’s usually midday before I get down to work. That having been said, my work in progress is never far from my mind – developing characters, resolving plotlines, rethinking structure etcetera. Being a writer means creating entire imaginary worlds in your head and it’s important to have a release valve. It won’t surprise you hear that I wind down with a glass of wine, a good book and a cuddle with my dogs.

Thank you to Colette for answering our question!

You can connect with her via Twitter, Facebook and via her own website

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