Festival Notes: an interview with Travel Writer Susie Kelly by the Charroux Litfest team

Apologies for the erratic line-spacing in this post – WordPress is throwing a wobbly and refuses to let me edit. I’ll keep trying, though. 🙂 


Charroux LitFest: Can you tell me a bit about what you are writing at the moment?

Last year we went on a safari to Kenya, and just now I’m writing about that.

As well as visiting game parks all over the country we also had an opportunity to see different aspects of life in Kenya today, from supreme luxury to extreme poverty, and to meet people living and working at both ends of the scale and in between.

I had a set idea in advance of how the book would evolve, but it all changed during our visit and I’m trying to adjust my original concept to take into account those changes that have taken place, and my feelings about them, forty years after I left the country. It’s a digression from my usual style, and something I haven’t completely mastered so far. It’s still a work in progress.

Charroux LitFest: Can you tell me a bit about your writing/working day e.g. place/time/treats/special mementos you have in your writing space?

I’m a slow starter, more of an owl than a lark, and begin my day with coffee while reading emails, checking on Facebook and doing the Guardian quick crossword on-line. Then I deal with paperwork, shopping, cooking – all those chores for which a wife would be really useful, although my husband Terry does a lot to help.

My office is a small room facing onto the garden, where we have set up a bird-feeding table. During the winter I make up large bowls of food for them, melting vegetable fat and adding cooked pasta, sunflower seeds and mixed grains, which go into the fridge to set. These very large pieces allow many small birds to comfortably feed at the same time, without risk of catching their claws in the nylon netting on those small balls you can buy. They have also attracted several great spotted woodpeckers this year, so rather a lot of my time has been spent watching them. While I’m doing so, thoughts, phrases and ideas are running through my mind, so although I’m not physically writing, it’s all going on in my head.

Once I start writing the least interruption can kill my train of thought, so I wait until the dogs have settled down for the night and Terry is reading, and the telephone has stopped ringing. When I get going I’ll carry on for as long as the words flow, so am often still writing at midnight.

Try as I may to keep my working space neat and tidy, it is invariably cluttered with paperwork, photos, empty cups, rubber bands, pens and notebooks, but the one thing that is always there is a Swiss cheese plant on my desk. She is called Ethel and is my confidante, guardian of my secrets and a good listener.


Charroux LitFest: Of all the places you have visited in your books, where do you want to return to most and why?


Kenya, where I grew up and which I wrote about in my memoir, is where in my heart I will always think of as home and where I would choose to live under the right circumstances.

However, I love France, where we have lived for over twenty years. Having travelled around and across it, there are so many places I’d like to go back to, but if I had to choose, it would be one of the first places we visited on our trip in the camping car which I wrote about in Travels with Tinkerbelle, the Pointe du Van in Brittany, on a summer day.


Pointe du Van, Finisterre, Brittany

Although I am not a lover of the sea, there is something about that tip of land that is so majestic and other-wordly. On a perfect day the shades of blue of the sea blend seamlessly into the blue of sky, so you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and it feels as if you are standing on the very edge of the world. But during the winter, storms can whip that same sea into a terrifying cauldron of towering grey waves. Nature here is at her most unspoilt and invincible.

The Brittany coastline, for me, is the most beautiful natural area of France. I’d like to go back there.

Charroux LitFest: What Novelists /novels have influenced you in your reading life, and why:how?

That’s a hard one! I read so much in several genres by so many writers.

As far as travel writing goes, Bill Bryson has to be my number one favourite. Paul Theroux is up there too. Both of them always make me laugh. Although I enjoy most travel literature, I enjoy it far more when it involves mishaps and nothing goes according to plan. That certainly encourages me when writing about our travels, because they invariably go wrong from day one.

For thrillers, Gerald Seymour is my pick. The lines between good and evil are blurred, with no stereotypical goodies and baddies; each character is a human being with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. His story lines are gripping and from his career as a front line journalist in war zones around the world, he knows exactly what he’s talking about. Something that instantly puts me off a book is when there is a factual error, and it is something I am very conscious of when writing. I check, double-check and check my facts again to try to ensure they are correct. If in doubt, I’d sooner leave something out.

Historical fiction – Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, C J Sansom and newcomer Tony Riches are among my favourites in this genre. History was one of my least favourite subjects at school, it was all dry facts and dates, whereas well-written historical fiction brings it to life. I’ve learned far more about the evolution of Europe than I ever did from lessons at school, and doing so sparked my interest in learning about the history of those places we visit.

My greatest regret is that if I live to be 150, there still won’t be time to read all the books I’d like to. As well as those from the mainstream publishers, there is so much quality writing being published now by small presses and people who choose to self-publish. These are often overlooked, but are worth investigating because there is some really, really great writing to be found, particularly memoirs and biographies of ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives and often prove that fact is indeed stranger than fiction..

For enthusiastic readers who like to explore beyond the book club choices and newspaper reviews, I’d recommend signing up to one of the services like BookBub, which hand pick books in your chosen genres and send you daily emails when they are on special offer – often free, or reduced to 99 cts. It is quick and easy way to discover new writers.

Charroux LitFest: Other than writing, what is your idea of your perfect day here in South West France?

The temperature is exactly 24ºC. There are tiny smudges of cloud high up in the blueness of the sky. A warm, gentle breeze tinkles the wind chimes.

We breakfast in the garden, beside the pond, in the shade of the tri-colour maple. The lawn is perfectly mowed, the wisteria in bloom, the scent of roses in the air, and there’s not a weed to be seen. A jug of freshly-squeezed orange juice, a pot of strong coffee, a small jug of cream and a plate of buttery croissants and black cherry jam are laid out on the table. Our dogs lie beside us enjoying the sunshine. There are no flies.

All around the birds are singing, bees burrow into the hearts of the lavender, and I smile knowing somebody is cleaning the house for me.

After breakfast I shower and pamper myself for half an hour, then flick through my extensive wardrobe to choose something to wear. All the clothes are size 10, and they all fit comfortably.

We take the dogs for a long walk through the fields, and then it is almost mid-day, time to meet friends for lunch at our favourite restaurant, Le Bouton d’Or, a fifteen minute stroll from our house. Chef Francis welcomes us with his permanent smile and joke, and serves a superb 4-course meal with a bottle of crisp, light rose wine.

During the afternoon we retire to the garden to read and doze, with the dogs beside us. They take us for another walk before supper, which is served in the garden. We have a simple, light meal – Vichyssoise followed by fresh Gariguette strawberries, and a glass of something fizzy, probably a Vouvray.

We sit in the warm evening until the stars came out, and the nightingales begin to sing. It has been a perfect day.

CLFT: Thank you Susie

The second Charroux Literary Festival will take place from 24 – 26 August 2017 in the historic town of Charroux in south-west France. Author lunches and other  literary events will take place throughout the months leading up to the festival. To find out more like us on  Facebook.com/Charrouxlitfest  or contact us at charrouxlitfest@gmail.com

10 thoughts on “Festival Notes: an interview with Travel Writer Susie Kelly by the Charroux Litfest team

  1. Fascinating insight Susie. I am looking forward to your new book on Kenya, it must be quite a challenge. A country that has changed over 40 years and an author who has also grown and inevitably changed over 40 years too! Thank goodness for the wise counsel of Ethel! I too love the Brittany coast and need to spend more time there and need more time to read even more books. Whilst I enjoy a lot of the’ Book Club’ books, because of how the publishers and the large retailers operate, we don’t get to hear about so many “gems”. I shall be looking up Bookbub. Your perfect day sounds perfect to me too! My PS. I didn’t recognise the name Gerald Seymour and have just looked him up to find he is the author of Harry’s Game. Whilst I haven’t read the book, the TV series is one I always cite as being “television” at it’s absolute best. I bought it on DVD just a few years ago so that my family (who were too young then to watch it “live” )- could enjoy it. I shall add him to my reading list. I need to reach 150+ too!!

  2. I hope you’ll enjoy Gerald Seymour as much as I do, Lisa. I wish he’d write faster because I think I’ve read all his books now.

    Ethel is a constant source of wisdom and encouragement. 🙂

  3. I loved your perfect day especially while sitting having my lunch in the garden with some lovely sunshine here in Switzerland,sadly I have no doggies sitting under my chair,we can all dream.

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