The View From Here Interview: Carol Drinkwater
Best known for award-winning portrayal of Helen Herriot in the television adaptation of the James Herriot books, All Creatures Great and Small(1978–85), Carol is a popular and acclaimed author as well, with nineteen books to her name. Her series of memoirs about her experiences (The Olive Farm, The Olive Season, The Olive Harvest, and Return to the Olive Farm) have become bestsellers. Carol's fascination with the olive tree extended to a solo 17-month Mediterranean journey in search of its mythical secrets. The resulting travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, have inspired a recently completed five-part documentary film series entitled The Olive Route. “Like the Silk Road and the Spice Route, the Olive Route – stretching 2,200 miles from Gibraltar to northern Syria – encompasses not just a journey, but an epic adventure involving the age-old transportation of a precious commodity.”
You have written four books in the Scholastic YA ‘My Story’ series, have a fifth due to be published in the spring of 2014 and have been invited to record a selection of titles from the entire series. Which is your favourite of your My Stories or which you get most reader response from, and why?
I think I would have to say The Hunger because it was my first and therefore holds a special place in my heart, also it is an Irish story so from my homeland and it is probably the title I receive the most mail about. It is also taught in schools in various parts of the world, which is very pleasing.
When you write for YA do you write differently than you would for adults and what do you enjoy about it?
I don't write differently but I am a different person. As an actress I sink myself into the heart and soul of my characters. It is a natural instinct that I suppose works for all writers too. I don't know. What it means is that when I am writing for the YA market and my leading character is, let's say fourteen or fifteen, well so am I. I live life through that girl's eyes and emotions. It is an age range and a market that I love. Perhaps I have never 'grown up', I don't know, but I find it such an exciting, such a painful time. Life at full tilt. It is a hinge period in the process of maturing, a turning point, chrysalis, call it what you will but adulthood is about to be stepped into. All life is there. A young person is about to blossom, to encounter love, desire, work and taking control of their destiny. It couldn't be more exciting.
Does your writing process differ much for memoir and fiction?
I don't know. I am about to run a workshop in Bantry at the wonderful Cork Literary Festival in July and I will be talking about writing memoirs and non-fiction so it will be very interesting to see what I learn. I will be a pupil as much as those who have signed up for the week. It is always about a form of honesty, whether fictional or not and, again because I am an actress, my Self and emotions are central to the writing process.
How much historical research do you need for the My Story books and when do you know whether you have the balance of fiction and historical fact correct?
Interesting question. I research very thoroughly. In fact I always research whether for this series or for my memoirs. I love to research. It is a journey of discovery and from there I find my way into a story. 'Oh, I want that in the plot', I say to myself, 'and that'. Time spent in research is a gift. It never fails to reveal goodies, jewels. The historical facts embroider the story but they cannot be the story. I think that is the difference.
You have a contract for an adult WWI novel. Tell me a little more about it and when is it coming out, with whom, and is all your work agented by Curtis Brown?
The WW1 story is a My Story but with a twist. Scholastic is looking to shift the emphasis for several books to a slightly older age range, attracting their readers through love stories. So, I have been given the very thrilling challenging of writing a love story set in WW1 (My choice of period) for a teenage and late teen market. What is fabulous about this is that the young soldiers who went into battle, to the Somme, for instance, were teenagers themselves. My young soldier is a Londoner who is posted to France, (never been out of England before) witnesses the horrors of the trenches and the appalling losses and then is sent off with his mates, his fellow soldiers, to recuperate for a couple of weeks back from the line in a French village where he meets a girl...
Jonathan Lloyd at Curtis Brown is my agent. I have no other for my writing work. Acting is another matter but JL handles my books. I am also at work on an adult book that has a period setting but I am not ready to say any more about that now.
You have worked with a wide variety of personalities and in renowned acting circles on stage and screen. You were a member of the National Theatre Company under the leadership of Laurence Olivier for example and most recently on your Olive Route, a ten-part documentary series based on The Olive Farm which has been commissioned by ZDF in Germany and French and Italian Arte. Have you seen the industry change in significant ways, and in particular the playwrights or screenwriters role for stage or screen?
When I was working as an actress, I spent all my off-camera time watching, observing what went on. I always knew I wanted a slice of the behind-the-camera action although I had thought it would be as a director. I studied film direction on a short course specially created for professionals at the National Film School in Beaconsfield, England. I LOVE directing and were I embarking on my entire career all over again, that is the path I would take. To be a writer/director or auteur as the French describe it is very satisfying. As an actress, I still focused on the actor's side of things so I could not really say how it was for the screenwriter back then. I knew Alf Wight (James Herriot) had much influence at the BBC and could insist that his story lines were adhered to, but generally speaking the lot of the screenwriter was not one that I paid attention to. Once I began to write for screen, I saw the challenge and miseries. It is a very hard role to play within a team and I could write reams on the subject. One might say that poor Scott Fitzgerald, for example, met his end in Hollywood! As a writer, books are far more pleasing because, particularly when you have fine editors such as those I have been fortunate to work with, your work is respected and not torn to shreds. Have I seen the industry change? YES. Television is on the whole a far less pleasing medium to work in than it was twenty or so years ago. However, I work so little as an actress now - a pity - that I probably cannot assess all aspects fairly.
Four of the Olive books are about to be published for Amazon Kindle in the States: The Olive Harvest, The Olive Route, The Olive Tree and Return to the Olive Farm. Together with your website partner Bart Hulley, you designed the jackets. Do you have the same input on print covers, because the kindle images are stunning.
Yes, these e-books have now been published. The Kindle images are photographs from my own work. Bart and I spent a couple of days together in Paris after a couple of weeks working by email, exchanging images, ideas etc, composing visual pictures that told stories. The reason I chose to create my own jackets was because I wanted the director's role. I wanted to put the visuals together and, because I was at that time deeply immersed in The Olive Route films, it seemed a good moment to take on the challenge. I think we have created some very lovely jackets and I am very proud of them. Bart is hugely talented and we work very well together. My book publishers always ask my opinion of the jackets they are proposing but I have never designed them although I have occasionally thrown in suggestions.
Between writing for print, novels, non-fiction and screen, you have a huge amount of traveling with appearances at environmental panels, trade events and literary festivals, as well as all your screen time. And not to forget the fabulous farm in France and special people in your life. What percentage of your time is split where and however do you manage to write?
I am very behind on my writing at this moment and I am aware of that. I have to learn now to say No to certain events. I have no assistant and I run two Facebook pages and personally answer all the queries and messages. I am regularly juggling approximately 300-500 emails and messages a day etc so it takes time out of my daily schedule. I now realise that something will have to give. I love to meet my readers and fans and I think that personal contact is very much part of twenty-first-century marketing, so it is hard to refuse offers. There is huge reward in spending time with readers. Many have become friends, part of the ship I sail in. I am also passionate about the environment and have just set up my first petition which takes huge amounts of energy to get it read and signed. I have been fighting for the wellbeing and future of the honeybee for about ten years now and during these last four years, this issue has really taken off and I am proud of my very tiny part in this first step towards a change, BUT it all takes time.
Your Olive books series, tell your journey from the find and purchase to the production of top quality olive oil on, your farm overlooking the Bay of Cannes in France, and much more besides. Is this where your heart is, or do you hold more passion for another aspect of your work?
The Olive Farm has been where my heart lies for over two decades. The man in my life is my husband, Michel, who built this dream with me. It is a love story that has blossomed in so many more directions than I could ever have envisaged. The joy of it is that like a plant, the story keeps growing and blossoming and fruiting. There seems to be no end to it. One ruined house has changed the entire direction of my life, led me all over the world and given me a personal love story that I am very grateful to have found...
You have been invited to work with UNESCO to help found an Olive Heritage Trail around the Mediterranean basin, with the dual goals of creating peace in the region and honoring the ancient heritage of the olive tree. What a task! How will it begin?
It has begun! This is an extension of the love story I mention above. The five Olive Route films are part of this UNESCO vision. When I first climbed aboard my Olive Quest I took the idea to the Cultural Director at UNESCO and she, Katerina, after an initial rejection, has encouraged me to bring my creative energies to the Mediterranean story, to the cultures who have this tree at the heart of their lives, and so I created these books, these films, travelled these journeys. I take them out into the world and it gives a glimpse to others into the heart of the Olive Story, to the Mediterranean and its tapestry of stories. Encounters that people elsewhere in the world might not have otherwise have known or thought about. The feedback so far has been tremendous.
We have a beekeeper who works with us, who tends the hives because I have NO time. If someone wants to take on the very special joy of keeping bees then you must be properly trained. Our farm is organic and I shop for the bees as I shop for us. I buy and plant the plants that will feed them, will give them a diversity of choice, of nectars and pollens. I spend time finding out abut what they need. And they pollinate our fruit trees.
Now, if you had to choose....
Apricots. Your favourite recipe?
My own homemade organic apricot compote, eaten with natural yoghurt for breakfast, it cannot be beaten. I use honey in the making rather than sugar.
Painter or sculptor? Who is your favourite and if you do not already, which would you like to do yourself and why?
I do neither, alas, I am hopeless. I can only paint with words. But if I could have been Matisse or Picasso...
To be twenty- or fifty-something forever, and why?
Never twenty again. I was too anguished, too uncertain, still very bruised from a dysfunctional past. Uncertain, even ashamed of my sexuality. Fifty..? OK, but give me my late thirties or early forties again.. now you are talking! I met my husband in my mid-thirties and life has really rocked since then. I love the age I am now too, in the sense that I am so busy and less afraid of others' opinions. I don't like the thought of losing my faculties though and I hate the fact that as I get older, my friends have been fighting sicknesses, others have died.. Mortality comes knocking..
One thing people don’t know I’m good at is…
I am a fine swimmer and a great hostess. I am also discovering that I have a certain flair for architecture or rather for telling others what I want!!
When you are away from home, which scents do you miss the most?
Lavender, basil, jasmine, orange and lemon blossom and the scent of my husband sleeping at my side.
Exciting to see that in July 2013, you are taking part in the West Cork Literary Festival in memoir/non-fiction as well as on how to bring written word to the screen. (http://www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival/programme) Will we see you at more writing events in the coming future?
I sincerely hope so. I am thrilled to be participating in several events at this year's West Cork Lit Fest. Bantry is a real buzz and half my Irish family will be coming along. I am really looking forward to it.
Do you own an e-reading device or stick with paper? What’s currently at the top of your ‘To Be Read’ pile?
I have an iPad which I use for reading when travelling and a Kindle. I have about twenty-five books downloaded and I had intended to read them while I was in the States but had no spare time. I have just finished Instructions for a Heatwave and The Great Gatsby (for about the twentieth time) and am about to begin Levels of Life. I am also reading (for the first time, I am ashamed to say) The Balkan Trilogy.
Personally, I would enjoy seeing you back on small screen TV. With all your experience and historical fiction knowledge, British and US appeal, perhaps a role in Downton Abbey. What would you think?
I really want to do some acting again For the first time in years, I am really missing it, aching to get back out there. I think my recent visit to Hollywood set me going. Well, ask to Julian to write me a role!
Thank you to Carol, who is just back from an American tour, and was widely acclaimed. I am delighted she was able to take the time for our interview and wish her every continued success.
Her website covers her work as writer, as well as an actress and filmmaker. And includes all sorts of fascinating info on bee awareness. To follow Carol on Facebook, see https://www.facebook.com/olive.farm or follow her blog. And many of her own beautiful photographs can be found on pinterest.
- Carol’s children's books include The Haunted School, which was produced as a television mini-series and a Disney film, which won the Chicago Film Festival Gold Award for Children's Films.
- Variety Club Television Personality of the Year award in 1985
- Critics’ Circle Best Screen Actress award for role in the feature film Father playing opposite Max von Sydow.