Just a short note to let you know the cover for my next novel, The Dark Petals of Provence, is finished and ready to go! It was created by designer Jessica Dionne who again expertly combined danger and beauty for a delicious atmosphere.
A Story Set in Provence
The book tells the story of April Pearce, an American photographer assigned to cover the countryside in Provence. On her first night, she sees a teenager running through a lavender field covered in blood. But when she investigates, the local town turns aggressive and threatening, making her job more and more difficult until the climax when April has nothing to lose and reveals the dark secret the village has kept hidden for years.
The Earliest Idea
I’ve always loved Marcel Pagnol’s books Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. They focus on a city family shunned by local country folks and their subsequent revenge. You may remember the movies, which starred Gerard Depardieu. They expertly captured the book’s tension and danger. Plus, you feel like you’re in the hot landscape of Provence. I love them. I thought it would be cool to write an updated version of that dynamic, of an outsider accidentally stumbling upon a local community’s nefarious nature and in effect blowing it all apart.
A Character Near to my Heart
I started with the image of a wounded teen boy running through a field as a photographer accidentally snapped photos of him from a distance. Almost like a Rear Window situation. Then a key character took on the personality traits of my daughter who’s the friendliest, most compassionate, cognitively delayed young person you’ll ever meet. And the plot unfolded from there.
An Alluring Setting
The book also grew out of my love of stories set in Provence. A few years back, I spent a bunch of time reading mysteries by Serena Kent and M.L. Longworth and others. They’re some of my favorite books in which to escape. So now, I offer my own mystery that combines my love of France, my wish to dream of Provence, and my urge to spin a compelling story. Plus, of course a unique plant! I hope you enjoy it. You can pre-order it through Amazon now.
Death in Avignon is another delightful mystery from British author Serena Kent (a.k.a. Deborah Lawrenson and husband Robert Rees). It’s an even tighter follow up to the fun Death in Provence. This time the murder takes place in the larger city of Avignon rather than Penny’s small village of St. Merlot, making for a rich puzzle of clues and evidence against the backdrop of the art world.
British divorcée Penelope Kite has been renovating her house and brushing up on her cello playing. When the handsome mayor, Laurent Millais, invites her to the opening of an exhibition by four famed Provençal artists, she happily accepts. Romantic tension between the two builds while Penny tries to tease out whether the mayor’s intentions are romantic. But that matters little when suddenly the most outlandish artist at the opening collapses. It looks like poisoning, maybe a heart attack, maybe an allergic reaction, and of course, Penelope slips into finding more out about the case.
Affairs and Liaisons
Without giving too much away, I’ll simply say Penelope starts to visit with those who knew the artist and uncovers clues as to what happened. The plot is believable and draws you in, making you suspect almost everyone and wonder at each little encounter and event. The story ambles along in a rapid but comfortable rhythm, the characters are crisply drawn and interesting. We see the return of her extroverted friend Frankie as well as the new mysterious character Gilles de Bourdan. But in addition to the beautiful sun, lavender fields, ancient villages, and French people, the true star of the show here is Kent’s wit.
It manifests again and again in Penny’s thoughts and conversational asides. So believably human, she’s a middle-aged woman struggling to look as chic and slim as the French women around her. She’s a mom whose adult step-kids can sometimes be annoying and a talented musician who knows her limits when it comes to practicing and performing. Penny moves through the world with sharp, self-deprecating prose. We get her observations about the absurd, about how envious she can be, how awkward she can be, all while we readers learn how elegant and relaxed and forgiving she truly is.
If you’re looking for a light fun mystery to read this summer, check out Death in Avignon. There’s nothing too disturbing, too upsetting, or too intense. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s an intriguing yet breezy novel that will put a smile on your face before you fall asleep at night.
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Deborah Lawrenson is a versatile author who can write humor, mystery, historical fiction, and even espionage. She specializes in secrets, lacing her stories with clues and danger that keeps readers turning pages and asking questions. Her first novels dealt in satire, Hot Gossip, Idol Chatter, and The Moonbathers, before she tackled more serious subjects like World War II and familial relationships in The Art of Falling and 300 Days of Sun. The Lantern is a wonderful retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, only set in the south of France. Her latest, Death in Provence, takes readers on a fun mystery romp. It features a divorced woman who buys a dream house in the French countryside but ends up investigating a murder. We chatted about Deborah’s early writing work, the highs and lows of publishing, her house in Provence, and what it’s like to collaborate with a spouse.
You started out as a journalist. Can you tell us how and why you transitioned from that to becoming a fiction writer?
The journalism, fun and fascinating as it was, was always the means to an end for me. I started out wanting to write books but knew I would have to get some experience and make some contacts first. My first novel was a shameless plundering of my experiences working on Fleet Street’s most famous gossip column, which I knew had a built-in marketing angle. In retrospect it all looks ridiculously easy: I had an agent and a publishing deal very quickly. But of course, it didn’t feel like that in the four months of waiting, when I had no idea of the realities of publishing.
You’ve also written satirical novels. I’d love to write humor but it seems difficult. Any thoughts on writing humor?
Editing is crucial. Write what makes you laugh – then be brutal with what you’ve written. Polish, polish and polish some more until it reads newly-minted and fresh. If you’re writing dialogue, make it snappy and above all, credible. The reader needs to “hear” the words pop off the page. Try to surprise and delight.
The Art of Falling seems like it was your breakout novel, at least in the UK, and it took you years to research and write. Then, after some false starts, you finally self-published it. It was a huge success. How was that journey and do you recommend self-publishing as a way for writers to start out?
At the time, it seemed the worst thing that had happened in my career, when my literary agent didn’t like it. I had put everything I had into that novel, alongside being a fairly new mother. I thought big and found a new agent, one of London’s finest, but though she loved it, after a year she couldn’t get a deal for me. The question then was, did I give up or did I try harder, on my own?
I tried harder. I had the novel professionally edited, and was heartened when the (very experienced) editor I chose said that she couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been taken up. I decided to self-publish, using a company that was producing good quality independent books, Troubador. They did all the work but allowed me to package The Art of Falling as published by a tiny new firm, Stamp. I commissioned my own expensive cover because I wanted the book to look like a mainstream-published literary novel.
With 2000 copies printed, I set off to persuade bookshops to stock it. I had some luck, including some fiction buyers who loved it and became great supporters of the book, and after eight months Random House UK bought the rights and republished.
Now, I think it was the best thing that could have happened, because I gained important insights into how the industry operates, from the marketing department to the shop shelves. I would recommend that route, with a big caveat: you have to be willing to work on the marketing every day, whether that’s speaking to bookshops (sadly there are ever fewer of the independents who were so crucial for me) or pushing for publicity.
I love your book The Lantern. It’s a retelling of the novel Rebecca, which is one of my all-time favorites. Did you have ideas of retelling the story for a while or was it an impulse?
Thank you, that’s lovely to hear! It was more of an impulse. I was re-reading Rebecca in Provence not long after we bought our property there. The renovations we wanted to do were daunting and the whole hamlet was in a pretty rundown state. Parts of it still seemed strange and eerie and redolent of other lives and events. The bright sunlight would flicker unnervingly through the trees just outside and make me jump. Was someone there, in the corner of my eye? I remember thinking how lucky I was that I was there with a husband I knew well. What would it have been like if I were embarking on it with a man who was keeping as many secrets as the house? That was the first glimmering of The Lantern.
Can you tell us a bit about the house you own in Provence? It looks amazing. When did you fall in love with that region?
It’s a magical place, more than just a house. It’s a cluster of buildings dating from the seventeenth century, originally a farm with dependencies. A path up the hillside becomes a tiny narrow street through its heart, and in a building at the top of this “ruelle” we found the remains of an old oven. Our French friends have suggested this was used to make bread for the travellers who made the journey on foot from the town in the valley to the village on the hilltop above. There are also three enormous trees at the entrance, which in Provençal folklore signify hospitality.
I first fell in love with the region when I went on holiday with my university boyfriend to his father’s house in a nearby village. Neither of us had the slightest idea that we would end up married and with our very own slice of paradise Provence-style.
Your latest book, under the pen name Serena Kent, is a fun mystery set in Provence. You collaborated with your husband on it. What was that experience like? Is he a writer too?
He’s more a musician and composer than a writer, though he has scripted stage shows. It all started off as a joke. I love reading detective fiction in the summer when we’re in Provence. One evening, we were drinking rosé and discussing what we’d like to do with the garden. Soon we were soon fantasising about cypress trees, new stone terracing and planting schemes involving lavender and olives, and I suggested trying to write a cozy mystery to pay for it.
Writing together was mainly a good experience, though not always. I enjoyed having someone else to chat through the plot with, though we often clashed over details. We’re each convinced that we’re right, most of the time! I am also a hundred times better on detail than he is, and naturally feel compelled to point this out at fraught moments. We have never argued so much as we did during the final edits of Death in Provence, but luckily we also laugh a lot and now think it’s hilarious the way we had to go through that learning curve.
What’s in the future for you? Will you be doing any readings in Europe or even America in the next few months? Do you have an idea for your next project?
We have a few events in prospect in England, and would love to come over to the USA to support publication in February. As for the future, we’re writing the sequel – Death in Avignon – and hoping that these two books will go well enough for our publishers to commission some more Penelope Kite mysteries.