Beth Haslam grew up on a farm estate in Wales and was mostly seen messing around with her beloved animals or out sailing on the treacherous Menai Strait.
When she and her husband, Jack, bought a second home in France, their lives changed forever. Computers and mobile phones swapped places with understanding French customs and wrestling with the local dialect.
These days, Beth is occupied as never before, raising and saving animals, writing, and embracing life in their corner of rural France. And she loves it!
Time to chat with Beth!
Welcome, Beth! I just finished reading your new book, Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates: Series Prequel. I loved it! Congratulations!
One of the first things that came to my mind as I read was how much work you had to have put into such an undertaking. Such a labor of love. I’m curious, how much research, consulting with others, and thinking did you have to do before you began the actual writing? How long did the entire process take?
Hello Lisette, thanks so much for inviting me to chat with you here at your Writers’ Chateau. With such an evocative title, I feel wonderfully at home!
You ask such a pertinent question about Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates. On several occasions, I have been asked to write about my childhood. I initially rejected the idea. Ironically, for someone who writes memoirs, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would be remotely interested in a book focused on my upbringing. Added to this, writing solely about me makes my toes curl. Finally, a workable solution popped into my head.
The book needed lots of fun tales about my youth, but there was more. I decided to try and convey the extraordinary beauty of my rugged, enchanting homeland. I wanted to describe what it means to be Welsh, our mannerisms and our passions. To achieve this with a level of integrity needed research. Lots of research.
I sought advice from castle custodians, Welsh historians, the world’s leading authority on Mabinogion (a collection of ancient Welsh myths), sailing experts, professional Welsh chefs and more. Their advice was freely offered and unbelievably helpful. Totally absorbed, I wrote sections as I learnt, adding new knowledge and depth to my experiences. Eventually, after more than a year, the book was written.
I’ve read the first book in your Fat Dogs and French Estates series. (And I want to read them all!) How did writing a memoir of your childhood compare, in addition to going back much further in time to gather the information, with the writing of your wonderful series?
Thank you for being so kind about my French books. Writing about my childhood was very different. Intensely personal. At the outset, I worried about not remembering situations accurately. Fortunately, once I started reflecting on the key moments in my young life, detailed anecdotes began tumbling out of my brain with vivid clarity.
It was fascinating to learn about your childhood in Wales. I think the book has great historical value as well as being delightfully entertaining. What would you most like readers to learn about your native country?
I’m thrilled that you found the historical elements interesting. An early revelation for me was finding out that many people, particularly those outside the UK, thought Wales was a region of England. They assumed it was a chunk of land filled with stinky sheep, crumbly castles, and quaint people speaking a weird language. A bit Hobbity. I was determined to set that right.
I have tried to show readers that whilst it may be little, Wales is a multi-faceted country. From the craggy mountains to endless moors, sweeping valleys and patchwork fields, and the ocean that bathes our western shores, the topography is exceptional. I have introduced readers to our culture, language, song and history. And through anecdotes, I have tried to express the depth of Welsh emotions that course through our veins.
Throughout my writing journey, the advice of Welsh leaders in their fields added value to the historical content, which often extended beyond the remit of my book. Because of this, I decided to include a Reference section.
Everyone has different tastes, so the Reference section enables readers to cherry-pick, discovering more about a particular subject they found interesting. Although it isn’t the entire bibliography, several people have told me how much they’re enjoying following the links, so I’m glad I went ahead.
One thing I loved was reading about all of the different professions you imagined yourself doing as a child. You write so beautifully. Was writing ever a consideration?
Ah, yes, I had several convictions about my ideal vocation. As you’ll have noticed, I became a devoted animal lover at an early age, so most of my ‘brilliant’ career ideas revolved around creatures, great and small.
As for becoming an author, I loved writing stories, but at that stage, I was too much of a tomboy to consider life with a pen.
What was the most difficult part of writing this book? The easiest?
Ooh, another great question. It was probably accuracy. Once I’d decided to produce a piece with snippets of social history, I worked endlessly to provide precise information. As you’ll guess, it was often highly challenging as opinions differed on the same event. This was when I became hopelessly engrossed in my research, but I got there in the end.
Ironically, the easiest bits were recounting anecdotes about our family animals, dismal sailing efforts (I was a remarkably untalented sailor), boarding school, and living in a castle full of ghosts, all of which are etched on my brain.
When did you first decide to take your life adventures in France and write about them? Do you take notes now as you move through life?
The decision was made by accident. Jack, my husband, and I were sitting one evening in our local French auberge. Covered in cement dust as usual, it was the end of yet another tough day. We’d been working our socks off on our new home renovations whilst trying to calm Jean-Luc, our nutty artisan decorator.
Jean-Luc is neurotic. He had abruptly downed tools and refused to work with the tiler. Why? Nobody knew. It was a regular occurrence. Reflecting on this latest tantrum, Jack took a sip of his gin and tonic and sighed. “The things that have happened to us with this bloody project are so unbelievable,” he said, “you should write a book about it.” So I did.
Nowadays, I have a notebook that sits on my desk. If an event occurs that I think readers might enjoy, I’ll write a couple of bullet points and the date. I’ll take a selection to develop into written material for a future book.
What advice would you offer to someone who wants to write a memoir?
Gosh, that’s tricky. I certainly don’t feel qualified to give expert advice. Here’s what I can offer.
Be brave, follow your heart and persevere. Don’t get hung up on detail such as grammar. That can be fixed. Focus on producing the story in your words. Develop broad shoulders but never lose your grounding. Listen to, and learn from constructive comments, and never give up hope. After all, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected twelve times.
Do you know what your next book will be?
Actually, yes, I do. Whilst I’ve been in Wales (at least in my head) for the past 14 months, stories here in France have been stacking up. Tales about our deliciously nutty neighbours, trips to wondrous places and always animals. They will become the foundations for Fat Dogs and French Estates Part VI. I’ll start chapter planning next month.
Is your recent book part of a series?
Yes. Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates is the prequel to my Fat Dogs and French Estates books.
Have you ever collaborated with another writer on a project? If so, what insights about the process can you share with us?
I have. A friend and I are crazy cat ladies who habitually take in abandoned cats. Instead of chatting inanely about our kitties daily, we decided to use our skills to help cats in need. Zoe is an editor, and I write, which turned out to be a great collaboration combo.
We appealed to cat slaves worldwide to share their stories and produced an anthology about felines. Zoe and I added our own. The contributed narratives were gems and most needed tweaking. We worked together, though Zoe had the final say on editing. Wise decision. I’m hopeless with grammar.
Entitled, Completely Cats – Stories with Cattitude, we’re proud of our book. Proceeds from each sale go to International Cat Care, a fantastic cat charity. We run active pages on Facebook and Twitter, spreading the word about helping cats in need and the fabulous work of cat charities worldwide.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I have a couple of long-suffering friends who allow me to inflict early ideas on them. It might be a paragraph, a particular dialogue, a description, or a passage that doesn’t seem right. They will immediately tell me to ditch it or offer helpful suggestions.
Are you a fast typist? Does your typing speed (or lack of it) affect your writing?
Yes, I’m a reasonably poor touch-typist. Ridiculously picky though it sounds, I prefer using a full-size keyboard. I find the compact tablet versions with squashed-together keys distracting. They slow me down, threatening to steal the words dancing around in my head.
If I’m ‘in the zone’ with a particular thought/scene, I’ll fly over my desktop computer keyboard, bashing out my story as quickly as possible. There will be lots of errors, but it’s there. That literary kernel has been safely recorded.
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
Thank you. Answering this question allows me to give a shout to my illustrator, the stupendously talented Maggie Raynor.
Maggie is a trained Royal Academy of Arts (London) artist and extraordinarily gifted. I have been lucky to work with her on all my Fat Dogs books. Maggie’s interpretations are spot on, needing very few alterations.
I take great care over the design of my book covers and chapter head illustrations. I will inflict my first scruffy draft on Maggie, along with ideas of what I think will work and then leave her to it.
Actually, Maggie had such fun creating baby dragons for my latest book I had to stop her. They were so good I decided to make the chapter head illustrations bigger to try and enhance readers’ overall enjoyment. Many lovely comments about them have been forthcoming, so it was the right decision. Maggie’s happy, too!
How would you define your style of writing?
I’m a descriptive storyteller. I try hard to create mental pictures in the reader’s mind so they can visualise each scene. My style is lighthearted, so there’s lots of humour, but since I share tales from life, there are serious points, and sadness, too. My ambition with every book is for readers to smile, laugh, perhaps shed a tear and sense drama, just as I did when experiencing each of the scenes described.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
I’d be beheaded if any of my French friends read this! I confess that my favourite comfort food is chilli con carne. It’s piquant, easy to make, and seriously yummy.
As for my least favourite? That’s easy. Tripe and onions. Slippery, bobbly – it’s seriously dreadful stuff.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
Gosh, this is a tricky question. Probably Hercules, my little ginger ninja, an abandoned kitten. You met him in my Welsh tales.
What are the most important traits you look for in a friend?
Loyalty, sense of humour, stickability – through thick and thin, and empathy. And since we’re on the subject of friendship, thank you so much for these super, considered questions, Lisette. I have loved chatting with you here.
Thanks so very much, Beth! It’s been an honor for me to have you at my chateau. And lastly, I want to say that in putting this interview together, I noticed the number plate on the car in the French Estates series: OMG 123! Very funny and as delightful as all of your books.
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