Life in France inspires a novel about rural childhood

Claire King
Claire King
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To have your first book taken on by a major publisher is quite a coup. Yvette Huddleston spoke to new writer Claire King.

These days it is rare for first-time authors to be picked up by a major publisher so when one is, the book is guaranteed to be something quite special and Claire King’s debut novel, The Night Rainbow published by Bloomsbury, is exactly that.

Written from the perspective of Peony (known as Pea), a five-and-a-half-year-old girl living in rural France with her sad English mother and her little sister Margot, The Night Rainbow explores adult behaviour and its consequences through a child’s eyes. Pea’s mother has recently lost both a baby and her husband and the book is a moving account of a child’s resilience and optimism in difficult circumstances as Pea tries to deal with her own grief at losing her father, while attempting to understand the changes in her mother who is sliding into a deep depression that causes her to neglect her children’s needs. Lonely and deprived of affection, Pea and Margot befriend local farmer Claude who works in the meadow where they play. He lives alone and has his own tragic secret – and as their relationship develops, Pea begins to wonder whether he could become their new papa.

King, who was born and brought up in Mexborough in south Yorkshire but now lives near Perpignan in southern France, graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Economics and worked in business for twenty years before turning to writing.

Her book was partly inspired by the beautiful location in which she now lives with her husband and two young daughters. “It is a really beautiful part of France,” she says. “It’s quite wild and just stunning to look at. It raises your spirits and I wondered how sad or upset you would have to be not to feel touched by this beauty, so I started writing the story of the mother but it was just so miserable I had to change it.”

Pea is a lovely creation, a wholly believable character with an authentic voice and King acknowledges that her daughters – aged five and three – helped her to find that voice. “Their spirit is really alive in both Pea and in Margot,” she says. “They are both very articulate, much more than you would expect for their age. They are so chatty – and lots of their little expressions turn up in the book.” She also drew on her own childhood dreams. “Mine was a very different kind of childhood from theirs but I used to imagine I could go out and pick flowers in the meadow,” she says. “In my head I thought that would be a wonderful thing to do.”

King and her husband moved to France ten years ago “to have an adventure before we had children” and she took the opportunity to change her working life at that point too. “I had had really good jobs and I was doing well but I had always wanted to write,” she says. She is currently finishing her second novel – also set in France. “The main character is a man who lives on a canal boat,” she explains. “It’s an existential love story; it’s about the pursuit of happiness. There are some dark aspects where people are tested but they have to choose hope. I want to write hopeful novels.” She already has the idea for her third novel – an exploration of the British class system, set in Yorkshire. “My father was a miner and I come from a very working class background. My husband’s family is from Ripon and they have upper class roots. So the novel is about a meeting of different classes.”

King will be back in Yorkshire next month when she takes part in a new writers’ event at the York Festival of Ideas. “I have waited until I am 40 to launch myself as a writer,” she says. “It’s such a delight to finally be in the world of literature.”

The Night Rainbow, published by Bloomsbury, £12.99. Claire King will be at the York Festival of Ideas on June 15.

York Festival of Ideas

The York Festival of Ideas takes place from June 13-29 with a diverse programme of mostly free events across the city and the University of York campus. The festival was launched in 2011 and last year attracted audiences of more than 20,000. Even bigger crowds are expected at this year’s event. The theme for 2013 is North and South. Headline speakers include Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, broadcaster and writer Melvyn Bragg, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and journalists and commentators Peter Hitchens, Paul Morley and Zoe Williams. The programme includes an Economy and Equality day, a discussion on global health issues and an exploration of ‘Northern Villains’ including Richard III and Dick Turpin.