A quote from Hazel’s website:
“I write books that explore living life in a way that doesn't make me want to scream."
We are so excited to have this talented writer as our guest this week. Hazel has agreed to a 4Q Interview and is sharing an excerpt from her novel - Undressing Stone.
Hazel Manuel is a UK born novelist whose writing follows a career in education, first as a teacher/lecturer and after as a business leader within the education sector. Having fallen in love with a French man she met in India, Hazel now lives and writes in Paris. Hazel’s route into writing was an unusual one, which draws on her time as CEO and MD of two successful education companies. Having moved from the corporate world into full-time writing, Hazel enjoys exploring those deeper aspects of what it means to be living and striving in our modern world. Through themes of uncertainty, loss, obsession, power, change and fear, and of questioning life and the self, the reader travels with her characters through an archetypical inner journey that is fundamentally satisfying because it could equally be their own. Since becoming a full-time writer, Hazel’s books have received international attention. She travels often, giving talks and running workshops at literary festivals and writing retreats. Hazel has been Writer in Residence for Your Writeful Place in France and the UK and at the Sivananda Ashram in Southern India where she was commissioned to write a book about Ashram life. She runs a writer’s group for aspiring novelists in Paris and one for prisoners at Styal Women’s prison in the UK.
4Q: Undressing Stone sounds like an intriguing story. Can you tell us about it and what inspired it.
HM: I loved writing Undressing Stone. It is an often quoted cliché that when we are old we will regret what we didn’t do more than what we did. I wanted to explore the idea of completely reimagining your life. The main character, Sian is asked by her therapist ‘if you were able, how would you redesign your life?’ I wanted to take a women who people would generally describe as ‘ordinary’ on a journey of transformation – both in terms of her life situation and psychologically – and to see where that would lead her.
Secondly, I wanted to examine the idea that despite the fact that we are taught that work is paramount in terms of our success, that for many people it can be difficult to find fulfillment in the usual 9 – 5 grind. I wanted to explore the notion that what we do to earn money is not necessarily the most fulfilling or defining part of our lives.
And thirdly, I wanted to write an ode to introverts. I believe that the ways in which we measure success are inherently geared towards more extrovert qualities – being ‘go-getting,’ forceful, flamboyant are often synonyms for being ambitious, confident and assertive. Undressing Stone challenges this idea and explores some of the ways that introverts often struggle in a world that ignores or devalues the ways in which they express themselves and engage with the world.
4Q: Our writing is like our children and asking you to pick your favorite is difficult, but backed into a corner, which novel was the most fun to write and why?
HM: A difficult question indeed! I believe that our first novel is like our first love – it will always hold a special place in the writer’s heart. Kanyakumari is very special for me for so many reasons. It opened the way for me to make a life as a writer. It is set in India which is a country that has called me back time and time again. And it explores themes which remain interesting to me – not least of which, what is ‘home?’
The Geranium Woman was hugely satisfying to write. It explores female leadership, and whether or not business can be a force for good. Both of great interest to me, and so pertinent themes in today’s world. Plus it was fun writing a woman with two lovers
And of course, a writer should always love their most current book. I felt such a sense of loss when I finished writing Undressing Stone. I felt so at home in Sian’s world. And I loved writing the gothic-mystery element of the story.
4Q: Please share a childhood anecdote or memory with our readers.
HM: I was eight years old when I first became aware of a dream. It wasn’t an actual dream, but rather an image or an idea. A sense of story began to form in my imagination. I don’t know where it came from – perhaps from fairy-tales or from myths and legends. Or maybe it was just an eight-year-old’s expression of the mysteries inherent in growing up. In any case, the story began with a quest - a dark path winding off into some undefined future with something deeply profound – transformational even - at its end. Perhaps the quest was about becoming the adult I’d eventually be; finding wholeness, or finding home. I don’t know. I called it ‘The Search for the Big Orange Poetry Flower.’ I knew that I had to look for this flower and that my search would end in India. I like to think that this strange dream is why I set my first novel there – that Kanyakumari - the first book I wrote – was the flower that lay at the end of my quest.
4Q: Please tell us about your writing habits. What works best for you?
HM: I always say that the job of a writer involves four things – writing, reading, thinking and marketing. I’m lucky enough to be able to write full-time. I don’t write every day but I do one or more of these four activities every weekday. I’ve always been a daydreamer and If I didn’t take the time to dream, to engage with ideas and themes, to explore, then I wouldn’t have stories to write. I see reading as integral to the job of a writer. To learn about what works and what doesn’t, to be inspired, to be surprised, to learn and grow as a writer. And of course marketing is important because I want people to read my stories, so I spend time networking, developing my social media platform, engaging with my readers.
When I write it is in long blocks of time – full days and often weeks at a time. I start with a theme that I want to explore and the story develops from there. I don’t usually know the ending of my books when I start writing them and this keeps me excited by the story. Often I like to immerse myself in one character – if I am writing a multi-viewpoint book I spend weeks – sometimes more - in just one point of view so that I can fully realize that particular character. And I spend a lot of time editing – I really enjoy that part of the process.
An Excerpt from Undressing Stone
Prologue - Saint Vey, Rural France
‘Never let the internet make a decision for you.’ I can’t remember now what Arwel had been talking about, but not wanting to do his bidding, that’s exactly what I did. I, Sian Evans, a fifty-something divorcee moved from Cardiff to Saint Vay - a four-house hamlet tucked away in a forgotten corner of ancient France, perfect for farmers, old people and escapees. I went because the internet told me to. And I loved the fact that Arwel was furious
‘Good grief Sian, how can you possibly move there?!’ He had been adamant that living alone in rural France I’d immediately overdose or be eaten by French savages. At least there was no chance of the first occurrence, since I’d stopped taking my medication a month before and had no plans to resume. I didn’t tell Arwel that of course. My dear ex-husband, for reasons he would insist are motivated by my own good, would have been unimpressed. My shrink might have been less troubled - after all it’s partly his fault I went.
‘Where is home?’ That was the title of the on-line quiz that sent me here eleven months, three weeks and two days ago. The answer apparently, was France. “You’re chic and sophisticated,” the quiz proclaimed once I’d answered questions such
Home. A small word but so cavernous. Home just now is my little cottage, the garden and the field behind. I’m sitting on an old wooden bench sipping a glass of wine as I typically do at sunset, the scent of wet leaves and wood-smoke suffusing the usual tirade of buzzings, twitterings and rustlings. The meadow as ever is a restless sea of live things: Crickets, gendarmes, chaffinches, pigeons, a little cat grey with a bent leg. Two big hares lope past occasionally cocking their long ears at the slightest sound, but I haven’t seen them tonight. And there are bats, small ones that fly out of the shadows at the turn of the day. All this life makes it impossible to be alone. I don’t feel restless though. It’s as though I’m at the still centre of it all. Or something like that.
The sun is setting. That isn’t a metaphor, it actually is setting. It’s that time of the evening when the trees turn black and spikey and the world takes on that melancholic sort of air, like it regrets the futility of the day’s exertions and wants to wallow in self-pity for a while. I like this time of day. Especially here. Strange to think it’s always sunset somewhere. When I first arrived, I used to try to work out when the sun would set in Wales. And in India. I don’t do that anymore. One sunset is all we can have at a time and it makes no sense to go chasing someone else’s. Mine, this evening is rather a dull affair, cold and not very colourful at all. ‘A glorious sunset,’ people say. Since I arrived I’ve been hoping for one worthy of the term, the kind that people who write and sometimes those who don’t, try to be poetic about by using too many adjectives. In any case, my sun has probably sunk behind the horizon now, it’s hard to tell because it’s cloudy. Again, not a metaphor although, being post-menopausal I can see how some might say I protest too much on that front.
Eleven months is more than long enough to acquire habits. I’ve acquired plenty since I arrived. And they’re not a French re-packaging of those I had in Cardiff. Back then, the first thing I’d do each morning was to dredge the night. Depending on how busy I’d been, this could take some time. Dreams, wakefulness, fears, worries, all the night time dwellers of an overactive mind would be excavated and picked over. I’d consider my discoveries, wary, mistrustful – whatever we try to suppress will come out in our dreams. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t need to. These days, either on waking, or on the now rare occasion that sleep has eluded me, on hearing the dawn chorus - the countryside is so noisy - I note my mind’s nocturnal output, and simply acknowledge it.
|Photo by Robert Shortall|
This morning, I woke with the birds, having left the shutters of my little cottage open. I lay in bed listening to amorous pigeons and twittery little things that were probably martins of some sort, competing with enthusiastic chaffinches whose elaborate warbling ends with the proclamation ‘it’s reeeeeal!’ Truth birds. I stretched languidly enjoying the warmth of my duvet in the early morning chill, and thought about coffee. It’s then that it occurred to me. I don’t think I dreamt it, not that I remember anyhow. It wasn’t a flash of inspiration either. Some residue from the shifting images of my recent sojourn in my head - or wherever we go when we sleep - something made me realize: I was finally naked under my clothes.
To discover more about Hazel and her novels, please follow these links.
Thank you Hazel for being our guest this week. All the best with your writing.
HM: Thank you so much for featuring me and my work, your questions were so interesting – I loved thinking about them and how to answer.
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