Who hasn’t fantasized about living in the south of France for part of the year? And what writer has not dreamed of getting that novel published? Constance Leisure has had both those dreams fulfilled.
Some twenty years ago Leisure’s husband Steve Landers, a lawyer, got a job offer in France – an offer, as they say, they couldn’t refuse.
“I was then in my late 30s,” Leisure said. “We had two children who were five and three, I was doing freelance writing. It seemed like a great time to go, so we moved to Pairs and Steve was much happier. I had to learn to speak French. I had been so used to dealing with people and being verbal, I wasn’t used to not being able to converse and I didn’t get the jokes. I studied away but I can’t say that even today I get all the jokes.”
During their time in Paris Leisure and Landers traveled to Burgundy to look for a house. They were hoping to duplicate their home in Litchfield, a charming period house that had once belonged to Leisure’s grandmother.
“We couldn’t find anything we liked or could afford,” Leisure explained. “But on a holiday to the south, where we had simply gone to buy wine from local vintners, we found something we liked. It was a falling-down, 17th century farmhouse, but it had this enchanting garden and I fell in love with it.” The house itself needed a tremendous amount of repair and the couple decided they didn’t want to take on such a project. But, upon returning south a few months later, they discovered that the price had been reduced — so they bought it.
“It was fate,” Leisure said, “and we’ve been there ever since. Living in the French countryside is very different from living in New York City where I grew up and even Paris, where we lived for twelve years. Life is much simpler there. I don’t feel pulled in so many different directions as I did when I lived in a big city. Social life is more relaxed. You run into people, you talk, you have a coffee together. There is no pressure to see and be seen in the latest restaurant or to wear the latest fashion. It’s very informal. People come by and knock on your door to say hello. They see our shutters open and that means we are at home and available. Our village only has 700 people. And everyone knows everyone and everyone’s business!”
The contrast between Litchfield and the south of France certainly affects the way in which Leisure and Landers live. “We eat differently and drink more wine in France,” she said. “And we travel a lot more because there are so many places that are only a few hours away. When we are in Litchfield, we generally stay close to home except for trips into New York City to go to the theater.”
Wherever she is, though, Leisure devotes time to her writing, which she has been practicing since she was a teenager.
“I wrote a lot of poetry,” she recalled, “which I also illustrated. As I got older, I switched to short stories and took writing classes in the evening. I was a psychology major in college but decided that publishing would be more interesting for me.”
In the 1970s, when Leisure went job-hunting, it was a much easier time. There were many jobs to be had in publishing and the procurement of one was not difficult.
“I just walked into Condé Nast, who published all the most prestigious magazines, asked if there were any openings and I was hired. The job was in the art department, which wasn’t my cup of tea, so I moved on after a while.”
Leisure has since had an impressive career working for various magazines, from Book Digest to Family Circle, and Ladies Home Journal, where she was an editor. All the while she kept up with her own writing.
“When we lived in Paris, I wrote a short story that was published in a literary magazine. But after that I never wrote about France except for nonfiction articles. When we moved south I started up with fiction again and began a story about a young man who was not getting along with his father. As soon as I started the piece, it just began flowing and eventually became a novel.”
That novel Amour Provence hits the stores in mid-June and is shaping up to be the perfect summer read. Leisure describes it as a contemporary novel about the drama of daily life in a small wine village in the south of France. Certainly there have been many books about that part of France, beginning with Peter Mayle who brought attention to Provence in the first place. But having lived there for over twenty years, Leisure has more of an insider’s view, presenting life as it really is and giving the reader a ringside seat from which to observe and become absorbed with the fascinating characters the author has created.
While much of the action and story take place in the present time, there are flashbacks to the Nazi occupation as experienced through the lives of some of the characters.
“I read quite a lot about the Second World War,” Leisure explained. “And certain facts sparked my imagination. For example, at the end of the war five young American aviators were shot down not far from where I live. There’s a very discreet memorial that I never would have known about except that a vintner’s daughter whose land abuts it showed me. So that inspired me and I found that I could anchor my characters in time by referring to real events.”
It is Leisure’s ability to weave several threads of narrative seamlessly that makes the book so readable. There is a sense of being able to relate to the characters and their environment. She has managed to have the dialogue flow as if the characters themselves had written it. And that is what makes a successful novel.
It took Leisure three years to write and fine-tune the book to its published form. During that time, she wrote every day and listened as her characters developed the story.
“I had my own idea about the characters when I started, but as I wrote about them that completely changed and my characters began to let me know who they were, not who I thought they were.”
Amour Provence has the advantage of being written by someone who knows Provence but who also has the ability to be an observer. For people who know the South of France the book may deepen their understanding of the area and may add to their knowledge. Those unfamiliar with the south of France will find themselves wanting to plan a trip, to discover more about this beautiful but complex area of France.
Leisure spent three years writing Amour Provence and unlike the frustration that most writers experience in trying to get published, she had an easy time.
“I had been showing my agent pieces I had written and she had been encouraging me for years,” said Leisure. “When I showed her the novel she thought it would work and gave me some suggestions. After some rewriting, she sent it out to several publishing houses at the same time (known as a multiple submission) and within three days one answered and made a preemptive bid.”
Now ensconced in her Litchfield home where she will be until September, Leisure feels blessed with her life and her career, as one has nurtured the other. Here she will continue her writing, cook wonderful French meals, tend her garden, and resume her American country life.
“In France I have teeny stone garden behind our house. Here I have an endless garden that extends into a forest that I am always trying to tame. It’s a great contrast and I love the challenge. I love being here but when Fall approaches I will anticipate the move back to France and my other life.”
As they say – it’s the best of both worlds.