Jacquie Bloese is a friend of the BPA family and worked with our editors Sara Sarre and Frances Merivale on her debut novel, The French House. We were delighted to hear that Jacquie has signed a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton and decided to ask her some questions about writing historical fiction and her journey to finding a publisher.
Where did you find the initial inspiration for The French House?
I grew up on Guernsey and the legacy of the German Occupation lives on, both in the bunkers and artillery towers which are dotted around the cliffs, and the stories from those who lived through it. My late grandparents shared many anecdotes with me, which provided the first seeds of inspiration for the novel.
The inspiration for the setting – the ‘French House’ of the title – came from a summer job I had as a student, working as a guide at literary exile Victor Hugo’s former residence, Hauteville House. Hugo’s life-long muse and mistress, Juliette Drouet, famously lived across the street from him, and it occurred to me that with such a legacy, Hauteville House was the perfect setting for another rather different kind of love story.
At the novel’s centre is a deaf man, Émile, whose ambitions for a new life in Canada come to an abrupt end, when he suffers permanent hearing loss after falling down an unlit elevator shaft. Tragically my great-grandfather became deaf in this way after emigrating to Vancouver from Guernsey, as a young man. His experience has always haunted me, and so I decided to write part of the novel from the point of view of someone whose deafness allows him to see what others can’t, but whose voice, for too many years, has remained unheard.
How did feedback from your writers group and other readers, including BPA editors Sara and Frances, help you to shape the novel?
Back in 2013, I did the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course, where I met a great group of writers, including Sara and Fran. Sharing your writing can feel incredibly exposing but it’s worth the pain, not just because it becomes easier to do over time, but for the strong bonds you establish as a group.
‘Sharing your writing can feel incredibly exposing but it’s worth the pain, not just because it becomes easier to do over time, but for the strong bonds you establish as a group.’
After the course ended, the majority of us stayed in touch and kept writing, moving on to our next novels in many cases, as I did. I remember presenting the group with two possible openings to The French House which would have led to quite different stories – one a love story, the other where a father-daughter relationship took centre stage. The love story won through, which looking back now, was absolutely the right way to go.
Sara and Fran were my first editors on The French House. They both read the second draft and gave me detailed comments, which I printed out and kept referring to as I was re-drafting. In the same way that we all recognise a well-told story, you know quality feedback when you see it! Their comments ranged from “Something needs to happen and it needs to happen soon!” (Sara) to “Not everyone has to have a happy ending” (Fran). I trust them both implicitly and there is no doubt that they have made The French House a better, more publishable book.
You’re represented by Giles Milburn – what were the key attributes you looked for in a literary agent?
Someone dynamic who understood my book and where it should be placed. Also – and I didn’t realise this until I’d found an agent – someone who genuinely loves what you’ve written. Often writers get frustrated when agents reject their work on the grounds that they just ‘didn’t love it enough’ or ‘didn’t feel passionate enough about it’ etc. I’ve had this response myself and it is difficult as it doesn’t help you move forwards. But you really don’t want someone who is half-hearted about your novel; you need someone who is as invested in it as you are so that they can champion it, over and over again!
Any advice for writers who are thinking of writing historical fiction for the first time?
You have to actively enjoy doing research, rather than seeing it as a necessary evil. I found Emma Darwin’s book Writing Historical Fiction very helpful, as it also serves as a useful reminder on the principles of structure, voice and plotting. There are good exercises if you’re feeling blocked too. Another recent discovery is Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn which covers everything from correctly addressing the aristocracy to how women from different classes dealt with their periods. It’s also the funniest book I’ve read in a while!
‘You have to actively enjoy doing research, rather than seeing it as a necessary evil.’
Was it an easy decision to sign a two-book deal, and could you tell us a little about book two?
Very easy – it feels great if publishers are invested in your writing, particularly when book two is just a first page and a synopsis! The flipside to this, of course, is that it can also feel pressured and daunting. My next novel has a working title of The Pier and is set in 1890s Brighton. It’s about a young woman Ellen and her twin brother Reynold who run a seemingly respectable seaside photography business, which is not all it appears to be.…
I can’t say much more than that at the moment but it focuses on three women from different backgrounds fighting against the restraints of the era with themes of freedom and desire, class and power, and reality and illusion.
What are your next steps now you’ve signed a deal?
I’ve been working with my editor on the edits. They’ve been light – line edits, more than anything structural so we got through them quickly. She helped me rid my manuscript of its infestation of semi-colons too! My next task is to get some book club questions together.
Jacquie grew up on Guernsey. She first saw her words in print at the age of 16, in an anthology of teenage lives, published by Virago Press. She is an alumna of the Curtis Brown Creative six-month novel writing course, where she met BPA founder Sara Sarre. Her debut novel The French House was shortlisted for the 2020 Caledonia Novel Award and placed as a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Award 2019. Jacquie lives in Brighton, where she combines writing with her work as a freelance ELT writer, editor and consultant.