Author interview with self-published author Helen Ducal
Helen, what to say about Helen? She leads the most fascinating life you can imagine and writes about it in a humourous way. This is what she says about it in her own words:
“The only life worth living is the one you create for yourself.
I was determined to be a writer ever since being asked to leave the Brownies for chalking on the benches. Had my first business at 19, married at 20, divorced at 30, ditched the 9-5 at 40 to work as a live-in carer, working in Europe, travelling to Australia and writing in between. Got a first in Media Writing at 50, moved to France, where I recharge my batteries and write and eat and sleep. But still have to return to Blighty every 2 weeks to earn my rent, until I can write full time!”
I very much enjoyed the sample I read of All Expenses Paid, a beautifully composed, light read and before you know it, you’re absorbed in Laura’s trip to France to meet her new employer Betty. Other reviewers have pointed out Helen’s remarkable powers of observation and she does – indeed – possess that quality so indispensable to a good writer. She paints her characters with caring detail and loving humour. Also in her futuristic Shelf Life we recognise the light breeze, the keen eye, the warm style. Helen Ducal is definitely a writer pur sang and you will not regret picking up one of her books and finding yourself back a couple of hours later with a smile on your face.
Where do you live (town, country)? Were you born and bred there?
A beautiful, French, mediaeval, hill top village in the South of France, called Tourrettes-sur-Loup. To answer the next part of your question, this is my 30th move, so no. I was born in the Midlands, UK but always felt more at home in France
What kind of food do you like? Are you a good cook? How important is food to you?
I love trying new foods. I like food that not only looks and tastes good; I like it to affect all my five senses. Yes even hearing. The sound of fresh langoustine sizzling on a barbecue or ice tinkling in a glass, waiting for glorious thick mango juice to disturb the cubes. I like everything but not everything likes me. Sadly I am lactose
intolerant. Less of a problem these days with the plethora of soya products.
I am a good cook. A friend will tell you I once made a wonderful lamb tagine, bursting with flavour but now I can’t recall the exact ingredients. I am naturally creative but not methodical. I get very dispirited by the lack of choice of good, seasonal food in some parts of the UK. I joke (with a sad face) that when I cross the channel, I seem to leave my taste buds behind. I now understand why tomato ketchup has become so popular. So much food…so little flavour. My heart dropped recently when told the job I was taking over Christmas and the New Year, in England, involved food shopping, once every two weeks! Food is very important to me, it’s not just a means of staying alive and I love the rhythm of life here in France. The day revolves around meal times. I always stop, often going to a nearby cafe, for a proper meal between 12.30 and 2pm. I loathe the way meals and meal times are so random in many parts of England. I always put on weight in the UK and lose it in France.
Do you do any sports? How often? What does exercise mean to you? Any other hobbies?
I am nearly sixty and I have still, yet, to find any sport I like. I used to run for the bus. Now I get there early. Seriously though, nothing has ever really appealed. It all reminds me too much of school, being forced in mid winter to run around a netball field in just navy knickers and tee shirt. Ugh. I do walk every day, especially now that I really enjoy my surroundings. I appreciate nature and the ever changing sky. I can see for 20 kms down to the Mediterranean. I have tried yoga and enjoyed that but since I have a spine shaped like the letter S I am hesitant to do much…I had trapped nerves between C2-6 last year. Not something I want to repeat.
I am passionate about architecture and photography. Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Renee Macintosh, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Doisneau being some favourites. Oh and Gaudi.
Of course my overwhelming passion is writing, when I am not eating, reading or lying in the bath. Don’t laugh; I have had some of my most brilliant ideas in that warm fragrant water that is my haven. When it comes to music I love Jimmy Somerville and Mahler and pretty much everything in between.
Do you have kids/grandkids? If so, please tell us a little about them?
In my twenties, when I was married, at least two children were on the ‘list’. It wasn’t to be. In my thirties and newly divorced, I desperately wanted them. When the chance arose, in my forties, I knew it was ‘too late’ for me. I don’t mean physically, it’s just that my independent life was something I was 100% sure about. Motherhood terrified me. I am sure I would have been of the, Enid Blyton/Colette variety mother…Oh, you still here? I need to write…can you go and play? I love my friend’s children…in small doses. I am a sprinter, not a long distance runner. Some things are just too important not to be honest about.
Do you like travelling? Where do you go then?
You know the saying…Is the Pope catholic? In other words. Yes. I love airports, railway stations, ports, roads in small towns and villages but dislike driving in large towns and Cities. Always have. One of my favourite films is The Station Agent about a man who inherits a disused train depot and his need to be left alone.
So far I have been to. France, Spain, Italy, Canaries, Belgium, Holland, Tunisia, Morocco, Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok, Perth WA, Sydney, Brisbane, LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York and probably some more. If we only have one life I want to see as much of this planet as possible. My ideal scenario is 6 months in Europe and 6 months in Australia, environ. I can happily live the rest of my life without another winter.
I have been travelling alone since I got divorced in 1983. I love the freedom of it. I have quite literally trained myself into realising that a spectacular view or a delicious meal is no less so, enjoyed alone. There is a certain mindset that many people don’t seem to question, about needing to share things. I am very much of the Sartre school of thinking. Question everything. Especially your own thoughts and frame of reference.
Do you have another job apart from writing? For how many hours? How do you feel about the ‘other’ job?
Oh yes. In England I say am a live-in carer, who writes. In France I say I am writer, who works as a live-in carer to pay the rent. I would like to stay in France and write full time. The unemployment situation here is dire (in almost every field). There is
plenty of live-in care work in the UK so I commute. Since the exchange rate between the £ and the € has changed drastically over the last 5 years I now need to work 3 weeks out of 4 to make ends meet. In reality I often work 2 weeks so I can have 2 weeks writing. The car went years ago and I don’t buy clothes, drink or smoke. If you are determined enough you can ‘buy time’. However, looking after people in their own homes is wonderful for a writer not to mention a worthwhile job but I won’t cry when I can stop.
How do your family/friends react to you being a writer? Have their opinions changed since you became a published author? Which remark from your surroundings has stuck most with you?
The first words that came to mind in answer this question were…amused indifference. So as my new year’s resolution was to be totally honest and stop worrying about other opinions, I will stick with it. Some make the right noises but the majority humour me. It is an uphill struggle. But negativity simply spurs me on. The occasional genuine encouragement is greatly appreciated. As I have self published, little has changed other than recognising the fact that I have seen a project through. I am well known for starting and not completing things.
A recent review by a stranger, commenting that All Expenses Paid was less smug and not cutesy, than she first imagined, pleased me no end. I know the aforementioned is not literature but it is not chic lit either. Mission accomplished.
Would you call yourself a social human being? Do you have time for going out and spending time away from the writing desk?
Others would call me a social human being. This comes from years of hairdressing, running my own business and now the care work. I am a people person but I am (2012, the year of truth happiest alone. Again, it is this sprinter analogy that I come back to. I enjoy meeting people, going to concerts, out for meals etc but I much prefer going to the cinema alone. I find others interfere with my experience. It
could be that as a carer, I try to give it 100% and empathy is a vital skill, but this means you never really relax.
I am happiest at my desk with my characters.
Which character trait do you like best about yourself and why? Which trait would you rather do without?
People almost always say what a warm person I am. That coupled with integrity are what please me most. My philosophy is; strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. Plus, the adage: Do as you would be done by, serves me well.
Without a doubt I wish I could be quicker AND more accurate with everything I do. The phrase more haste less speed has always been my downfall. And I hate the fact that I get impatient with things that don’t work out the way I planned them. On the plus side, I always have Plan B.
Can you describe the place where you write + the view?
I now have the most wonderful view. When I am home, I write at my desk by the window. When I am away, I write anywhere and everywhere, buses, trains, park bench, in the bath, note pad on the bedside table. When I go for a walk around my new village I always have a scrap of paper and pen in my pocket. Ideas never stop. I would write in my sleep if I could. I dream every night. Usually 2-3 different dreams. Very detailed, very colourful, very useful but unfortunately, exhausting.
Is there something you always need to have near you when you work (beverage, cigarette, mascot, music, quote, etc)?
I don’t smoke and I keep liquids well away from my computer. Also it makes me move, to get a drink; otherwise I could get rooted to my chair. Depending on what I am writing I can have a ‘mood board’. A pin-board with relevant photos, quotes etc. Music is a not for me when I am writing. I like to create my other world without interruption. I do have a photo of Colette and of Alan Bennett by my desk. What an unlikely couple. But they have both inspired me over the years.
What genre(s) do you write in? How did that develop?
A well meaning friend told me I should stick to one genre. Not going to happen. That would be like asking me to live in one place, stay in one relationship or never travel. I can feel a panic attack coming on…Kidding. My first publication is a travel/ biography with lots of humour. My second, Shelf Life just available on Amazon, is speculative fiction. Some will say science fiction. I want to call it a futuristic documentary. I have a nonfiction book in progress. A mouse in the vinaigrette. A screenplay, two stage plays, three more novels and two television dramas in the pipeline. One of which I am hoping, the proceeds will go to NSPCC or Childline.
I read widely from an early age and this has no doubt influenced my writing.
My A-Z of books can be seen on my blogsite: helenducal.worpress.com
At some point you decided to self-publish. Can you tell us how that process developed?
After years of pitching to agents, publishers, entering competitions and completing a media writing degree, age 50, I thought, I am going to be published posthumously at this rate. I often joked that as Mary Wesley had her first book published age 70, I still had some way to go. Then reading her biography, it turned out she self published before she was taken on by a mainstream publisher. And the most influential book in my life, so far, You can heal your life by Louise L Hay, was self published before going on to sell millions worldwide.
Then I visited to London Book Fair and was totally overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the production machines that are the main publishers. Plus, a well known author recently lamented that her latest book cover bore no resemblance to its contents. Another bemoaned the fact that her book would not be available in Australia, where she lived and worked for years. What I was hearing from many was that they relinquish control once they hand over the manuscript.
Not good news to a control freak, comme moi.
I looked at vanity publishing. Mega bucks, no guarantees, lack of control.
To be fair, I hadn’t heard the Amanda Hocking story before I started down the Amazon, kindle road but I had a notion that if you want something enough, it will happen. It has been true about my life so far. You have to stay focused on your goal and ignore the obstacles.
How do you feel about self-publishing now? What are the advantages, disadvantages, pitfalls, etc.?
Self publishing is ideal for me. The element of control is key. I can ask whoever I want to do my covers. Once I can afford it, I can get professional proof reading. This is the disadvantage at the moment. All Expenses Paid is now available in paperback but still has some typos. They can be rectified but any books sold between now and the next, up to 6 weeks, will still be less than perfect. The kindle version can be altered very quickly, usually less than 24 hrs.
The royalties have been very small so far but since Christmas I am selling an average of 2 books per day. Not bad considering I have not started my ad campaign yet!
Are you in a network of Indie authors? How do you market your own book?
I still have my work up (first few chapters) on authonomy.com this was a great help when I first considered self publishing. It was a good sounding board, even allowing for the, you back my book and I’ll back yours, scenario that still exists today. But it was really encouraging to see my work on the screen and have others comment on it. Since then I seem to be joining author groups on a daily basis. But so far my
sales have been generated through Facebook, twitter and my own contacts plus my
Now that I have two books on Amazon I intend to start marketing through my own website. Helenducal.com . Oh and friends who are kind enough to invite me on their blogs.
When was your first book released and how did that make you feel?
My first book hit the screens back in May 2011 and I felt like a kidat Christmas. The first paperback copy with cover by yours truly with an out of focus photo and had been badly photo-shopped, but I was beside myself with joy. Friends just stared and said But it’s…awful. I know, I said but it’s my first book. Hilarious. Happily the current version has a wonderful, professional cover and looks great. Thanks to Simon Birch.
Can you tell us some background information on the book? (How did you get the idea, how long did it
take you to write and edit it, is it part of a sequel, how does the published book make you feel now?)
All Expenses Paid really is fact meets fiction. I worked for six months between Marseilles and Martigues in 1995. I was looking after a little boy. So, I took him out of the equation and replaced him with 82 year old Betty. She is my best imaginary friend to date.
It is impossible to say how long it has taken me to write as it started with my diaries and concluded last year with adding the fiction. It was great fun but also something of a nightmare getting the chronology right. Once Simon had read the book, he then did a water colour painting for the cover, I was so happy to finally ‘meet’ Betty. AEP is a fun read and just the beginning of far more serious work. I would like to write a sequel or sequels. I have plans for one for each year taking us from 1996 to 2013. But I can’t see how I will have time with all my other projects.
It then progressed to a screenplay. I would like to leave it as that but I know I will reach a far wider audience with a novella. It has taken me ten years to make the adaptation. The day job has been getting in the way…
There is definitely a sequel. The idea for Shelf
Life came about due to two things. I had a dream where I was cleansing my face and vertical lines appeared on my forehead, a little like, hieroglyphs. Then I thought of a barcode. And we all know what they are used for. At about the same time in 2001, I received a missed call on my new Nokia mobile. It read Time and date: 23.53.10 31/12/2048.
I thought, hmm I missed a call in the future. Maybe my expiry date. Seems logical to me. But Shelf Life is also a vehicle for something I fell passionate about. Stem cells. Umbilical stem cells. Our very own repair pipeline and we throw it away at birth. Criminal. Shelf Life starts to explore the future and how the next generations will be able to repair themselves.
It has only just gone up on Amazon and it will be available in kindle only for a while.
What are your writing habits? (every day, number of words, etc.?)
No two days are the same. I do write every day. It seems as necessary to me as eating and sleeping. Some days, it is a few lines or like today I have just written 3033 words in one go.
Who’s been your biggest inspiration and why? Since when?
Inspiration to write comes from a very early age. It has always been a way of being heard. I was an avid Enid Blyton fan. Just William was also a favourite. I loved so called boys books about smuggling and got into science fiction in my early teens. Colette has been an inspiration for as long as I can remember. At school we read Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. When I finally met him, I told him he had made school bearable. I am very proud of my copy of his famous book which he signed for me. With long distance love from Laurie Lee. In recent years I have become a devotee of Janet Evanovich. Her first book One for the money has just been made into a film. There have been 18 books in
the series since then. When I had to go to hospital last year, I took one Ms Eavanovich’s books with me. I needed a friend.
My only wish is that one day someone will feel the same about one of my books.
Where do you see yourself in 5-years’ time?
I will be in this village but in my own house with my own garden and writing the sequel to Shelf Life now that it has won the Oscar for best original screenplay.
You are all invited to the party.
THANK YOU SO MUCH, Helen!!!