Thriller set around the mouth of the Saint Lawrence river – QUEBEC
Talking Location With Phoebe Wynne – CÔTE d’AZUR
12th July 2022
TalkingLocationWith… Phoebe Wynne. author of The Ruins set on the Côte d’Azur.
Location is essential when you’re writing gothic fiction. My first novel took place on the eastern coast of Scotland, in a castle-like boarding school set on a peninsula battered by wind, rain, and suspicious goings on – perfectly fitting for the gothic creeps. My second novel takes a risk by setting a gothic novel in a crumbling French chateau amidst the blistering heat of the Côte d’Azur. Can it be done?
I think so. Mainly because that dense heat and that crumbling house are things I’ve been familiar with from a young age during holidays in France – these are places and feelings I’ve inhaled and absorbed so intensely that I can conjure them up in the novel. It was fun to dig deep and try to recapture traditional French moments like the Brocante antiques markets, the summer fête evenings, dinners out in a big party. And yet my charming and childish memories slipped into something else – because beautiful summers in the Côte d’Azur can scorch your memory when they go wrong. What seems idealistic and luxurious – wealthy Brits holidaying with their friends in a château on the Riviera – can mask the truth: the loud and overbearing upper class colonisers that descend and take over, blustering and sweating through the summer, with the sense of entitlement, pomposity, and great carelessness.
In The Ruins, I broke apart this dream of a holiday and spilled its guts out into my pages.
I’m not the first writer to be compelled to write about the Côte d’Azur, It’s a location ripe for storytelling, and the South of France I know is lit up by 60s films starring Brigitte Bardot, or the books of Françoise Sagan and F Scott Fitzgerald. The glamour, the decadence, the long dark summer nights promise great and tragic stories. The location I’ve created in The Ruins is an amalgamation of two Provençal villages I know dearly. Anyone who knows either town might get recognition whiplash as they read it: from the café waitress, to the layout of the church and the religious statues within it, to the slant of the vineyards, to the particular meander of a village street.
The first is Cassis, a bustling seaside town with a delightful harbour and lines of overcrowded houses and restaurants stacked along the bay. The second is Cotignac, a small village further inland whose heart beats throughout the winter without suffering the usual death of other towns outside the tourist season. I am lucky to know these places – my mother’s French family hailed from the area, so we often spent many long weeks in Cotignac, and visited Cassis for days out at the sea. My memories vary from a sandstorm soiling the box of chips I held in my hands, to swimming so far out to sea that my father had to come and get me, to running across the village square chasing my errant bouncing ball. It’s no mistake that my protagonist in The Ruins starts out as a blissfully ignorant 12 year old girl who is yet to discover what could lie beyond these deceptively beautiful places. When I revisit these towns today I can still see my young self, a speck, a ghost passing through time, re-remembering memories. Here we are, always, again.
And yet every year there is a shift away from the usual Jean de Florette zeitgeist. There are more cars, and fewer French voices. This year, the fountains have been switched off early June, the river and the waterfalls stutter instead of gush, the fruit trees shrivel up before their bear fruit. The forest fires drift closer, burning further and faster. Something is lost every year. Something devastating and perfectly ripe for gothic fiction.
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© photos Phoebe Wynne