Sophie Beaumont is a French-Australian author who has just published her first book under this nom de plume. You may know her by her real name, Sophie Masson AM, under which she has published some fifty books. We talk to Sophie about her, the new book The Paris Cooking School, and much more. Read our interview with Sophie Beaumont below.
Sophie Beaumont, starting with you, I’ve read that you were born in Indonesia to French parents and have grown up in France and Australia. Is this true?
Yes, it’s absolutely true.
And you grew up spending time in France and in Australia?
Because my parents were expatriates, working for a big French construction company called CITRA, mainly on major airport projects, government projects, huge commercial projects too. They left France when they were I don’t know 25, and they already had two daughters, my older sisters, who were born in France.
They went to Africa, to Togo and Uganda, initially for 2 years. My father worked on the building site. My mother was a secretary working in the office, not on the building site, and then they were transferred to Indonesia, which is where I was born, and Camille, who is 2 years younger than me. She was born in Jakarta, I was born in Surabaya.
But when I was 9 months old, I had severe dysentery and they thought I was going to die if I stayed in Indonesia. There were just so many diseases everywhere, but there were many, many problems. There were even (extremist) Islamists, Darul Islam, at the time who carried out terrorist attacks and there was a lot of unrest.
My parents loved Indonesia. They learned the language and were very well integrated into Indonesia. My mother took me back to France, leaving me with my paternal grandmother in Toulouse, and she returned to Indonesia with my father and sisters. I stayed with my grandmother and my aunts, who were teenagers at the time. I stayed there until I was 4 without seeing my parents or my sisters.
That must have been hard as a child.
It was a bit special. And then they came back and said, well, we’ve been transferred to Australia, and they said Sophie can come because it’s stable and not at all risky in Australia. So, in the same month that I met my parents, and my sisters, we came to Australia, a country on the other side of the world. We only spoke French at my grandmother’s house, and then we had to learn English. So for the first year at school I was a bit lost, but little kids learn very quickly. From then on, I was bilingual. We had to speak French at home – my parents didn’t want us to speak English – but as other brothers and sisters arrived, we spoke a mixture of the two languages.
But also because my parents were expatriates, their contract included a trip to France every two or three years, paid for by the company, and then we had a house in France. That’s why we went all the time. It wasn’t really the experience of many migrants. It was more like a diplomatic experience, as we always went back to Australia and France, and to France and Australia.
You spent a few months in France at a time?
Sometimes they even sent us to school, so we were living in Sydney and then in France we were deep in the countryside, 35 km from Toulouse, in a small village school that wasn’t at all the same as the school on the Pacific Highway in Sydney!
It must have been a bit of a shock!
But you know kids so they find what they have normal.
How do you think living in these two countries has informed your writing?
Because I started writing a lot at school and discovered I had a talent for it. I knew how to tell stories, just with the right threads.
Even as a child, I used to tell stories to my brothers and sisters, and then my mother would sometimes say to me, “Go on, tell them a story, because I need a bit of a rest”. At one point, she had 5 children under the age of 7. The company put us in houses in Sydney. They often changed every time we came back from France. In one house in particular, there was a very large dining room and there was a huge table. You could put a curtain over this table and go under it like a kind of tent. I used to tell stories to my little brothers and sisters [under there].
So it was a very natural thing for me and even when I was with my grandmother she told me that when you were little you told lots of stories because she told me stories too. She read to me a lot and so it was a very natural thing for me. It wasn’t something I looked for at all, if you like. It was something that was really part of my life. I was mostly at school in Australia because once I was at secondary school, they didn’t send me to school in France so it was mostly during the holidays that we went there. I wrote in French, but also in English. Little by little, English won out over French, because I wanted to send stuff to magazines, newspapers and so on. And of course in Australia, you had to write in English.
Of course! Do you think your experience in France has changed the way you write?
Oh absolutely! Absolutely! That is to say! I think that maybe being bilingual does exactly that, because when you’re in two worlds, and two languages, you can go from one to the other pretty easily. But we also find ways of building bridges that perhaps others who don’t have two languages won’t find, or which would be more difficult for them. So there are turns of phrase, the things I know, they’re very influenced by French. There are even things like semi-colons that I use a lot and that are found in France a lot. But here, people think it’s weird. But it doesn’t matter – I do it anyway, I want to because I find it very useful for punctuation.
I hadn’t noticed that we don’t actually do that here.
No, I like it a lot, and I like it a lot more in French than in English, because people often say “no, you should put a comma instead of that”, but I don’t think so, because it’s not quite the right thing for the comma.
So there are things like that, but also turns of phrase. I import, if you like, French words into English but at the same time make it accessible so that it’s not weird or cheesy or anything?
You said that as a child you were already telling stories. Was it obvious at a certain age that you wanted to become a writer?
Yes and no. I mean, I loved writing. I used to make little books, little comic strips for my friends, for my parents, et cetera, and so I loved it. But I wasn’t really aware that you could be a writer. We had a lot of books at home, a lot of picture books and stuff, but I had no idea how to make a living. They had appeared how they were produced. nothing at all to it. I knew a book had pages, you had an opening, you had this, that and the rest; so I knew a bit about the format and all that but I wasn’t at all aware of the literary world, if you like.
Well, there were no writers in the family – they’re all storytellers, but they’re not writers. My mother wrote very well. You know, she was very interested in other countries – their customs – all that kind of stuff, but she wouldn’t have written fiction. It wasn’t her thing, although she read many, many novels. So I was aware of writing books and reading, but not at all of the literary world, because I didn’t know anything about it, and it was only in high school that one of my teachers told me “You know, you can send in texts for magazines and stuff”, and that’s how I got started. And then there were some authors we studied at school, mostly poets, and I still like poetry. There were some Australian poets we studied who I liked a lot, and then I discovered that you could write to them via their publishers, and I sent them letters.
And some of them wrote back to me very kindly and very generously for a very, very young aspiring writer. And so that’s how it really started, without any real confidence at first. But now you know, I often go into schools and talk to children. Kids now, they have a lot more idea of what an author is, that it’s a real person, that it’s not just someone you find in books, who appears by magic. But back then, we didn’t really have that. I didn’t know the Australian literary world or the French literary world. I knew the books
Have you had any profession other than writer?
No. Not at all because once I realized I could do that, no way, I wasn’t at all interested in doing anything else. I went to university, I got a degree and now I’ve got a PhD and everything, but I wasn’t attracted at all to the world of the academia – I didn’t want to – I didn’t want to teach in the University. I don’t like to be pigeonholed in things. At one point, when I was 14 or 15, I said to myself I’d like to be an actress but I did a lot of plays in my early teens but I got a lot of stage fright and then I said I didn’t want to do that at all. And then I preferred to concentrate on writing, I was always writing. It was a great pleasure and I had no problem with it at all.
My mother could be very critical. She was a very intelligent person, very analytical, even though I’m her daughter. She’d say, “You know, Sophie, this is crap.” But when she complimented me, she’d say “Oh yes, it’s well executed. I like that. As for my father, he really liked romantic novels, the great novels of the 19th century. He didn’t analyse things. Later he started reading my books and he liked them, but when I was a child he was more like. “Ah yes, you’re writing something again!” But they weren’t discouraging at all. They didn’t say, “You absolutely have to get another job.
Because it’s not easy.
No, it’s not that easy. Not many parents would be like that. They wanted us to be happy, to be fulfilled, and so they accepted what we did.
So far you’ve published a lot of books for children and teenagers, I think, and they’re a bit in the fantasy genre?
Yes, but a lot of other things too, I’ve written mysteries, I’ve written family stories, I’ve written historical novels. I write a lot of genres in children’s literature for teenagers because I like it and yes, a lot of fantasy too because I like it a lot. And as a kid, I read that all the time. I loved stuff about other worlds with possibilities, you know, you could fly like a bird, you could understand the language of animals, that kind of stuff, and fairy tales and all that. And so yes, I’ve written a lot, but in several genres, especially for children and teenagers, but I’ve written other novels for adults before this one.
This is the first under your synonym Sophie Beaumont. Why did you choose to use a nom de plume for this book?
It’s for two reasons. One reason is to really distinguish it from all my teen novels for booksellers and libraries.
The other reason is because I’m hoping to write a series of books set in Paris, but around different things, and that would also distinguish the kind of novel I’m going to write, which is what they call Adult Contemporary Fiction, sometimes they call Women’s’ Fiction, but there are a lot of men [who read my books], so it’s a little about putting myself in a certain position for this kind of book.
You mentioned that you tend to write in English; your books in Australia are published in English rather than French, of course. Have you published any books in French as well?
Not that I’ve written myself. Well, there was a translation of one of my novels, but I don’t write books in French because then I’d need a publisher, I’d need a lot of stuff and then it’d be a bit too difficult for me. I could write the book, but to place it…
So, it’s everything that comes after the writing that makes that more difficult. And you’ve been awarded the Order of Australia for your services to literature. Congratulations on that. How did that come about?
It was a complete surprise. I think it’s wonderful. To get this kind of honour you have to be nominated. I had no idea. I’d never thought about it. I have a lot of friends from the literary world who thought I deserved one.
And that’s how it happened. So I really was over the moon, I had no idea. I didn’t expect it at all. It’s something very touching, because it told me not only that there are people who think I deserve this, but that I have so many generous friends in the literary world, because that’s not what you get if you have enemies. So it’s really a very good, very generous compliment. I think Australia is a very generous country, a very open country, and I think it was a great pleasure to receive it and to go to the ceremony at Government House in Sydney. It’s the governor of each state who presents the award, and so it was a magnificent setting. A splendid house and a lot of ceremony. But you’ve got this Australian ceremony, which is at the same time it’s formal, it respects the codes, the uniforms and all that, the beautiful things, but it’s very pleasant at the same time and so it’s very good because you feel at ease. You don’t feel like, “Oh, I’m stuck. I’m afraid of making a faux pas. Not at all, not at all. They were super nice and then we had some great champagne and the governor talked to us.
It was really lovely, but also really beautiful, so I was able to invite three members of the family. My husband, my brother and my daughter came. It was really a wonderful day.
When was it?
It was in 2019. Before COVID fortunately because it was in May 2019. And in the same month, I received my doctorat so it was quite special.
You were granted a 6-month residency in Paris by the Australia Council. What did this residency involve?
It was 6 months in an apartment in La Cité des Arts, in the 4th arrondissement, near the Seine, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame etcetera. I went with my husband. It was in a 40 m² apartment, in a wonderful place, then to write, to do the research, I really immersed myself in Paris, in these neighbourhoods.
It’s been extraordinary. I’ve been to Paris many times because my sister lives there and we go every time we go to France, but this time it was 6 months of really getting to know Paris. We went all over Paris, to all the markets, to all the little corners everywhere, and then I realised at that moment what Paris truly was, and how to evoke this extraordinary city. So that really stayed with me, and several books came out of that, but not everything that was set in Paris.
But for The Paris Cooking School, it was truly an extraordinary experience.
Yes, I was going to ask if this book was informed by that experience.
Oh yes, absolutely.
So now to discuss the novel for a moment, can you tell us a bit about the creative process behind The Paris Cooking School?
Yes, I can. So, as I said, my experiences in Paris had a big impact on me. I really had so many impressions. I used to write diaries, all kinds of notes, and I’ve still got some here, I’ve kept pictures, things cut out of newspapers, lots of things like that, let’s say scrapbooks. I love scrapbooks.
So I had all that here. I’d already written two or three children’s books based on that experience in Paris. But I always had it in the back of my mind that maybe one day I’d write something contemporary for adults, but I’d started to write a different novel. And my agent Margaret Connolly showed it to a publisher, Alex Craig at Ultimo Press, who really liked the way I write but didn’t think the novel’s concept was quite there. And then we talked and talked about it–and at first I was thinking of setting it around a writing school. But then the cooking school idea emerged from those discussions and that was so much better!
And that’s where it came from, but the characters themselves came to me straight away. These characters were alive right away, it was really extraordinary. So from that I wrote a little thing, a little outline saying such and such does this and that. That’s the story, but then I was able to take them and go for a walk in Paris with them. It was a real eye-opener.
It was a novel that practically wrote itself. It really was a wonderful experience, something very out of the ordinary and then it was as if it was the novel I always had to write that came out at that moment and then with these characters who were so alive. I had little conferences with my agent and my publisher they too thought that these characters were so alive! thought about those characters all the time. My poor husband, we were at the dinner table and I would say something to him [about the characters] without a preface – and he’d say “Wait, wait, we’re talking about your book, right?” I do this a lot, but he knows me well. I have to remember to say sometimes, “Look, I’m talking about a character, not someone I’ve met“.
It went really well. I even finished the first draft long before deadline and because of that we were able to get the book out much earlier than planned and in time for Christmas this year, which is great because it’s absolutely perfect for Christmas. My publisher Alex Craig, she’s fantastic, and the whole Ultimo Press team are great too. They’re so attentive, they’re very meticulous and they have a lot of imagination too. And when it came to creating the cover and all sorts of other things, they did some amazing things. It was a real pleasure working with them.
I think everyone asks authors this question. Do any of the characters in the book resemble you?
There are aspects of the characters that resemble me. That’s for sure. For example, Gaby Picabea, so the artist, on her father’s side, she’s Basque and for me too, my mother is from the Basque country. Her mother was Basque and Spanish, but she was born in France. And then Mum’s father was Portuguese so it’s very Iberian but we know the Basque country really well, we have lots of family there, including three of my sisters. So it’s something I know well so I wanted to put that in there.
And then there are other little things: the artist also has certain ways of working that are a bit like mine, but also like one of my sisters who’s also in the Basque country, who’s an artist and works a lot in conceptual art. So I know a bit about the ways of acting, of creating, this kind of art.
And then there are lots of little things too, like dishes, desserts, things that I make. My children are reading the book and my son texted me the other day saying, “Mum, I’ve read it, I love it, it’s fantastic and it’s incredible because I see so much of you in it and also of what we’ve been through too.” My husband and I are very keen on good food. We’ve got a vegetable garden, and we make lots of things from very good, very simple ingredients. That’s what our children have grown up with, and they continue to do it with their own families. So when it comes to cooking and all that, it’s really exactly what I experienced as a child and later as a family. But some bits and pieces are mine. But otherwise I really wanted to create people who were different from me.
You said at the beginning that up until the age of 4 you lived in France with your grandmother, so that’s a bit like Max, you could say?
So, yes, it’s true, so that thing with Max, of being a bit distant, you know, from the rest of the family, but much closer to his grandmother; like Max, that’s a bit like my experience, though I’m actually close to the rest of my family, unlike him.
Yes, that’s it! Yes, exactly. It’s true. Except my grandmother wasn’t at all dry like that. No, my grandmother was much softer. Physically she was very chic, she was very pretty, and she was a blonde, whereas I’m a brunette. She was really super elegant but at the same time, she really loved children and she knew how to be with children.
So yes, there are certain things, but in the book I’m writing, which is the second Sophie Beaumont for me, there’s another grandmother. She’s much closer to the character of my grandmother because I adored her. She was almost like a mother to me because from a young age, it was her that I knew, not my mother.
Have you ever been to a cookery school?
No, never! And that’s why I had to imagine what I’d like to do if I went to cookery school. It’s not just about being in the kitchen all the time measuring quantities for recipes. I really wanted to be immersed in a world, in a culture, in stories, so I had to imagine how things could unfold and it was really enjoyable afterwards, so I said, “That could work!” I don’t want to do it, not at all, but I thought to myself it wouldn’t be bad.
At the start of our conversation, you said you were originally thinking of doing a story about a writing school. And now that I know that, I understand a little better the fact that in these cookery school courses, the students have to invent stories around the dishes.
Yes, that’s absolutely true. It’s a bit of a mixture of the two things, because often the cooking is about the table. It’s really the site of the story, it’s the site of things to tell, impressions, all sorts of things. It’s like writing, we want to communicate stories. You want to communicate impressions as an experience and so here, yes, I was able to combine the two.
The book has three narratives, you might say, because the book tells the stories of the three main characters. Did you write them in the order we read them? Did you write separating the chapters of each character’s story?
No, I wrote it chronologically. So I knew I wanted to write one chapter from Gaby’s point of view and then one chapter from Sylvie’s point of view, and one chapter from Kate’s point of view.
And then, at the beginning, so in the first chapter, you’re introduced to the 3 characters, they’re in the same chapter, but then they each have a chapter until the end when they all come back together. I always write chronologically. I know there are writers who write a chapter here, a chapter there and then they put it all together. But I can’t.
I can’t because my experience is almost like watching a film and it has to unfold chronologically. I can’t simply make a flash here, a flash there and then put them together to make an image. I have to follow the story and so I say, OK, today I’m going to write the chapter from Gaby’s or Kate’s point of view and that’s it, that’s where it’s going to happen.
Often what I do is, I’ll go for a little 5-minute walk or something. It’s just to start the first paragraph of the chapter I’m going to write that day and then there it is, so Gaby does this, or Kate does that. I even talk to myself about everything. It’s a good thing there aren’t too many people passing by, otherwise they’d think I’d lost my mind!
Or else there’s the local author!
Yes, that’s it. These authors are weird!
And I’m in the process of doing the same thing. I think it’s a format that suits me very well and that I find very interesting because that way I can write the chapter from, say, Gaby’s point of view and then I say, OK, I’m going to move on to Kate now because I want to see things in a different way. It’s refreshing for the writing instead of always being stuck in the same head. You can do a bit here and a bit there, but at the same time you have these characters that really stick and you can spend time with.
I really liked the way Gaby, her mother, and Sylvie live and have lived through much the same thing, but from different perspectives. So we have Gaby, who is mistreated by Max’s grandmother. And that in turn makes her think of how her mother was treated by her father’s parents. And then we have Sylvie who, instead of being angry and not being welcoming of her son’s fiancée in Australia, decides to do the opposite.. Did you always intend to have this link?
No, that is to say, I thought that this – it’s because this is family stuff that can be very difficult and we’ve had a lot of drama in my family, a lot of history, a lot of what have you. And I’ve observed a lot of this kind of thing and so it comes into the books without me even being aware of it.
When I thought, for example, of Gaby and how she’s mistreated by Max’s grandmother and then she thinks of her mother and her grandmother who wasn’t very nice to her, so it came to mind when I was writing, so I was writing Gaby on the train and so on and then she was thinking about that, of course it’s when you start thinking about that because I’ve seen that it can happen in families too.
But as for Sylvie, she knows she doesn’t want to do that. So there are a number of things in the family, in life, where you say to yourself, we’re not going to do this again. In this case, you consciously do something different or you’re unaware of what you’ve done and then you reproduce it without even knowing it.
Now to talk about writing in general, how do the characters in your novels come to life? Do you have specific methods for developing them?
That is to say, I make a lot of notes first. I’ve got a little notebook where I write a lot of stuff down. No-one could possibly understand what I’m saying in it because it’s all over the place. For example. I wanted to write Gaby, I say here she is, she’s like this, she’s got black hair, she walks a certain way. She knows what she likes to do, that’s her background. So I make little notes but then afterwards these notes are a bit like, you know, meeting someone for the first time, so you see the physical aspects, how they look, how they talk, their voice, the way they walk, any little tics you might notice. But after that, once you get to know them better, you get to know a bit of their family history and then you get to know a bit of what’s in their heart too when you get to know them on a deeper level and become a real friend.
So what you need is for your characters to come alive, to become good friends with you. So that’s something you build on, so how do you do it with the notes, with the little walks I tell you about when I talk and walk a bit. And then I make little dialogues and everything about these characters who talk. I look at the reader’s landscape a bit like that. And sometimes they comment on it. And then afterwards, so you start writing, it develops through the writing itself.
I generally write one chapter a day. And then the next day, I revisit that chapter and then I reread it and see if there are any things wrong with it that I need to change. But sometimes I think just before I go to sleep or when I wake up, “I’ve got to change this” because she’d never say that, or she wouldn’t do that, or that moment wouldn’t work at that moment. So the characters start with this little outline at the beginning and then little by little, it’s as if you have a drawing that becomes a painting.
You can still see lots of aspects of the character. There are still a lot of aspects that I didn’t even put in the book but that helped inform me about the character, little things that really helped me build someone solid and believable.
You said that you become friends with the characters to get to know them well. How do you go about writing an evil character?
Oh yes, that’s difficult because you don’t want to become their friend. But you have to get to know them all the same. You also have to see the sides that may not be exactly nice but are somewhat understandable. So, for example, there are some we don’t like at all in the book, for example Claude, but he’s weak, he’s a coward, he was arrogant, lots of things we wouldn’t like in his life and at the same time we need to understand why Sylvie is attracted to him.
So you have to have certain things that might be understandable. There are certain characters I could never write. Really perverse people, really cruel people, murderers, that sort of thing I could never write, I couldn’t because it would scare me and then it would disgust me. I couldn’t do it.
So even when I write villains or losers, I have to come up with something a bit understandable. Why a character who’s nice connects with that person, for example.
And how do you see your writing style has evolved over the years?
You become more and more adept, more and more flexible. You have more and more confidence in what you do. Personally, I’ve always really enjoyed writing. A great deal. I would never say “It’s torture for me” because it’s not.
It’s not that I don’t work hard. And it’s not that sometimes I’ve suffered from certain things about certain characters, especially because I’m very attached to certain characters and it breaks my heart to see them suffer. And sometimes it’s a bit frustrating because you want to write exactly the right sentence and it eludes you.
But I was very, very happy from the start and I’m not ashamed of any of my books. I’m very happy with all my books. In other words, I know that I write better now than I did when I wrote my first book. But at the same time I know that it’s me. It’s the same voice and so I think this joy has become even more striking than it was at the beginning, because at first I was a bit anxious about how people would receive it and so on.
I loved writing anyway so I would have written even if no-one had published me. Of course it’s much better to be published. But joy evolves a lot. Now, with this book, I feel it’s a book I’ve always had inside me but which hadn’t come out before. And it’s a book that’s really close to my heart, because it seems to me that in this book, I’ve managed to bring together a lot of things from my childhood, my life now, from France, Australia, Paris, other places; a way of life … a lot of things.
It’s very personal, but at the same time, it’s very open because I know that readers have already reacted enormously, of course. It’s a huge pleasure too. I know that it brings people joy, pleasure and that’s really great. I don’t think I could have written this book before now.
You needed time…
Yes, it’s interesting because it’s a book that I didn’t know I needed to write. Because I spoke to my agent, and my publisher and then all of a sudden it was like love at first sight.
And you said you were going to do other novels based in Paris. So they will be about other characters.
Yes, other characters now because it’s not going to be a sequel. It’s what’s called a Companion Volume, so I’m writing one at the moment that the publisher has already taken on, so it’s a bit about the gardens of Paris. So, public gardens, private gardens, secret gardens, but also around the pleasure that plants, flowers and all that always bring.
So I found a very nice quote from Claudel about flowers and it talks a bit about that too, so it’s also about joy, pleasure and consolation, because there are a lot of things that happen between girls that are very difficult but that will also work out well, as in The Paris Cooking School, but as in The Paris Cooking School there are some very difficult situations that change because of the month they spend in Paris.
And in this book, too, there are some things that are going to be resolved. It’s through the pleasure that people experience, like they do from cooking. It’s not just a French pleasure, it’s universal. Lots of people love gardening and lots of writers have written about it. There’s a very long history of garden literature, so there you go. This book is also a great pleasure and I’m also obsessed with it, as I am with The Paris Cooking School.
Just to finish, you said earlier that several books have come out of your Paris residency. What are the others for people who want to read them?
Well, there’s one for teenagers called Jake of Spades. It’s a novel set in 1910 in Paris, at the time of the anarchists, the great Paris floods and just after. It’s a novel with a touch of espionage, mystery and so on.
There is another which is called My Father’s War. You knw in The Paris Cooking School, there’s a short interlude where Noah and Kate go to Amiens in the Somme. The book My Father’s War is set in Amiens in the Somme during the First World War. So when we were in Paris, we had to make a little trip to Amiens. We spent 2 days there and then we also went to the hortillonnage where they went.
And then there is the very Australian book called Ned Kelly’s Secret. The boy meets Ned Kelly as a teenager. The main character lives in Paris. He helps Jules Verne with his research. It starts in Paris and then he goes to Australia, because he is doing research for Jules Verne, who has never travelled anywhere.
And then there is a book which is called Pop Princess that I wrote under the nom de plume Isabelle Merlin. And Pop Princess is also set in Paris. It’s a romantic-thriller for teenagers and it’s set in the music world, and there’s a character called Max, a name I really like. But he’s nothing like the Max from The Paris Cooking School.
All these books are very different.
We thank Sophie Beaumont for this interview. You can purchase her book « The Paris Cooking School » at Booktopia and from other bookstores. You can find more information about the book on the publisher Ultimo Press’ website
If you’d like to read more interviews with authors, book reviews and the people who have set up bookstores selling French books in Australia, we suggest you read the following: