‘Home isn’t just where your heart is. It’s also where your books are’

2015-05-21 10:09
Marita van der Vyver with her daughter Mia and husband Alain Claisse.

Marita van der Vyver with her daughter Mia and husband Alain Claisse. (Supplied)

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MARITA van der Vyver is just as warm and charming as you expect her to be from reading her books.

The author, who first came to prominence thanks to her book Griet Skryf ’n Sprokie (Entertaining Angels in English), has been living in France on and off for the past 20 years.

More than a decade ago, she married Alain Claisse, a Frenchman, and settled in the scenic countryside of Provence and together they have raised four children, Thomas, Hugo, Daniel and Mia.

She says it was her version of a fairy tale, the difference being that her frog became her Prince Charming.

I caught up with South African-born Van der Vyver during a whistlestop tour of her home country to promote A Fountain in France (Penguin) — the second book about her French life with her family, who have made happy homes in two rambling old houses.

A follow-up to Where the Heart Is, published by Tafelberg in 2010, this is a book of stories about moving house the way the French do it; about breaking ties and creating new ones in a village called Place of Frogs; and about what we simply cannot leave behind when we move on.

For this Franco-South African family that means shelves and shelves of books. As she says in the chapter What is a Home …?: “After all, as any passionate reader knows, home isn’t just where your heart is. It is also where your books are.”

Asked which authors she loves to read, Van der Vyver says she is a fan of Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author of The Handmaid’s Tale.

“She is very versatile and writes intelligently and accessibly,” she adds. “I also love Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books [Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies]. She is a real storyteller and pulls you into a story.”

Returning to her latest release, Van der Vyver says she hopes A Fountain In France will help to dispel some of the misconceptions people have about her life in France.

“I am always amused by the picture of my life that my readers have about my life. They think it’s terribly idyllic. In reality things break down, kids get ill and you don’t have domestic help,” she adds.

Those disasters, like a washing machine flooding the house, and her family’s dramas around the dinner table are retold in a way that makes you laugh out loud.

Among the many stories she shares is how her daughter has discovered her wardrobe.

“It’s something many mums can relate to. Mia is 15 now and every day is a fashion parade … she even raids her dad’s cupboards for his shirts to pretend she has a boyfriend!” Van de Vyver says, laughing.

Another key element is the importance she and her husband place on the family sitting down together to enjoy a meal.

“If I lived in South Africa it probably wouldn’t be as important, but in France we still have a strong tradition of sitting down and having a drawn-out meal and I love it,” she adds.

“We very rarely go out to restaurants because we can eat really well at home. My favourite dish is chocolate mousse. It’s a simple recipe that anyone can do. It’s always a hit with people … and you can lick the bowl afterwards!”

A Fountain in France also offers experiences of life in a country far from home that many ex-pats will find familiar. As Van der Vyver says: “Whether you are based in Provence or Perth, Bath or Beijing, you quickly learn that a good sense of humour might be the most important qualification if you want to survive being the eternal outsider.”

Food figures large in many of her literary efforts, including two cookbooks she wrote with her husband, who is, she says, much better in the kitchen than she is.

Speaking about Winter Food in Provence (Tafelberg, 2014) and Summer Food in Provence (Tafelberg, 2010) Van der Vyver says: “We prefer to cook according to the seasons, to save time, money and effort — and to ensure the freshest flavours. But in winter we have to be that bit more innovative because of the limited variety available.”

Both books are filled with fabulous pictures, culinary stories, recipes and ideas that can replicated here in South Africa without too much effort or expense.

Fans longing for a new novel from Van der Vyver, however, will have to wait a bit longer.

“I love writing long adult novels but they usually take me about three years to write,” she says. “You need time to write, to get your teeth into the stories and to live with your characters for a few years. I love all that but you can’t survive doing it.

“And that is what I always wanted to do, to be able to survive on my writing, not to get rich. Luckily I have been able to do that.”

In the meantime, readers can console themselves with A Fountain in France or the new children’s book, Rhinocephants on the roof, which she co-write with Dale Blankenaar (Tafelberg).

“It has beautiful illustrations and a contemporary twist. I think it is really something special,” she says of the book, which tells the story of a young boy who hears strange noises when he stays over at his grandparent’s house.

Van der Vyver is also working on a film script to adapt her book Just Dessert, Dear for the big screen.

“I am working with Deon Meyer, an old friend,” she says of the project. “I told him I would give it a go, but I’ve never done anything like this, so I may need a script doctor to help me!”

• If you would like to keep in touch with Marita van der Vyver like her Facebook page: Marita-van-der-Vyver or go to her website: http://maritavandervyver.info/

MARITA van der Vyver was born in Cape Town and holds a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Stellenbosch.

She published three novels for adolescents before her first adult novel, Griet Skryf ’n Sprokie (Entertaining Angels in English), became a best-seller, winning the M-Net, Eugène Marais and ATKV Prizes in 1992.

Since then she has been a full-time writer of fiction for readers of all ages.

Her books include: Die ongelooflike avonture van Hanna Hoekom; Forget-Me-Not-Blues; Just Dessert, Dear; Time Out; the book of short stories Short Circuits; There is a Season; Travelling Light; Breathing Space and Childish Things.

All her adult novels are translated from the original Afrikaans into English, Dutch and German, while Griet Skryf ‘n Sprokie has been translated into a dozen languages including Chinese and Icelandic.

In 2011 Summer Food in Provence won a World Cookbook Award as best South African cookbook in the category French cuisine. It was also included in Edouard Cointreau’s prestigous Cookbook Collection: France.

Van de Vyver has won several awards as well as a bursary for international study from the SA Foundation for Creative Arts, and was invited to take part in the renowned writers’ programme of the University of Iowa in the United States

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