Hazel Manuel is a UK-born writer who spent many years climbing the corporate ladder before becoming a full-time writer. In her words, she “enjoyed the cut and thrust of the business world” but decided to make the move from the corporate world into writing when her first novel Kanyakumari, which is set in India, won the Cinnamon Press Debut Novel award and she was offered a publishing contract.
Hazel approaches writing in much the same way as she did business – setting goals, creating strategies, innovating – but it was the powerful sense of place and intimate portrayal of female friendships in her stories that caught our eye.
Here, Hazel tells us about the people and places that inspire her.
Tell us about your life in travel!
I’ve been travelling for many years, both solo and with others. I’ve been to India five times so far and have travelled alone there on many occasions both in the north and in the south. Deserts fascinate me and I’ve trekked in the Sahara (without a guide – just a GPS!), I’ve taken a four-wheel drive across the Kalahari and Namib deserts in South Africa and Namibia, I’ve driven across Monument Valley and Death Valley in the USA and I’ve been dune-bashing in the Arabian Desert in Dubai. I’ve also travelled in China, South America (I rode a horse across the Andes Mountains – that was an adventure!) the Middle East – I’m very grateful to have been to Syria before the war – Eastern Europe, Iceland, Africa…
“Deserts fascinate me and I’ve trekked in the Sahara (without a guide – just a GPS!)… I’m very grateful to have been to Syria before the war.”
I’ve loved all the travelling I’ve done – new places and cultures fascinate me and I like adventurous travel. Kenya and Tanzania stand out as being incredibly beautiful – Mount Kilimanjaro in the morning mist was stunning. I’ll never forget the stars in the Sahara at night. The first time I saw the Southern Cross in Argentina was a special moment. The full moon rising behind a lake in Kashmir as the call to prayer drifted across the water…India calls me back time and again.
But there is still a lot of world to explore. I haven’t yet seen the Gobi Desert, I’d like to visit some of the Central Asian Countries and I’ve seen very little of South East Asia other than India…
As well as writing fiction, what else do you?
I spend a lot of time writing – often at my Loire Valley farmhouse where I can seclude myself and do nothing but write. But I always say that the job of a writer involves four things: writing, reading, thinking and marketing. My working life is spent doing all of these.
I give talks and take part in literary panel discussions, including in the past at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival in India, the London Welsh Literature Festival and Zestfest in the UK. I deliver workshops and author talks at writing retreats, festivals and bookshops in France, the UK and in India. I am currently the Writer-in-Residence for Your Writeful Place, which is an organisation that runs writing retreats in France and the UK, and I’ve also been Writer-in-Residence at the Sivananda Ashram in Southern India where I was commissioned to write a book about Ashram life.
When I’m in Paris I host a literary salon for aspiring writers, and I also run my own writers retreats at my farmhouse which is close to Saumur in the French Loire Valley. My current focus (other than working on my new novel) is organising a writing retreat in Kerala, south India. I’m teaming up with another writer, Anjana Chowdhury, to put together an exciting programme of writing workshops and cultural experiences which will take place in and around a beautiful Indian house in early 2018. People are already registering interest via my website.
In addition to all that, I am also the host of the radio show ‘Writers Salon’ on Expat Radio where I interview other writers.
“It’s a busy life – I certainly don’t have time to miss my corporate career!”
Why have you decided to settle in Paris and the Loire Valley?
I came to live in France four years ago having fallen in love with a French man I met in South India. We were both doing volunteer work, me as a journalist and him as a teacher. Both of us were divorced and happily single but our attraction was strong and after two years of world travel together to test the relationship, we decided to take the plunge and set up home together. We now live between Paris and the Loire Valley where I write full time. The offer of a full-time publishing contract happened to coincide with my decision to move to France so it seemed logical to focus on writing as my new career.
“Paris is just wonderful for writers.”
There is such a vibrant writing community of both resident and visiting writers and it really was the logical place to settle having decided to move to France. The Loire Valley is beautiful and my farm is in an isolated and tranquil spot. It’s the perfect place to hide away and write – and also to run writing retreats.
How much do the women you have crossed paths with influence your characters?
I think that as a writer, all the interesting people and places I encounter have their place in inspiring my novels. I don’t base my characters on actual people, but sometimes they can be composites.
The relationship between Rachel and Gina in Kanyakumari is sure to strike a chord with Thelma & Louise members. What has been your experience of travel buddies?
I had a wonderful female travelling companion some years back and we explored Africa and India together. We were both similarly adventurous and we had some unforgettable experiences. When I’ve travelled solo, I’ve sometimes hooked up with other women for a time – that for me is a really nice aspect of travelling alone and I’ve kept in touch with some of those women. I do travel a lot with my partner and I love that too, it’s very bonding and creates wonderful memories which are sustaining and inspiring. But travelling with other women or alone is an experience I value and I still travel solo sometimes. My partner is completely at one with that and I love him for it.
“Travelling with other women or alone is an experience I value.”
You make some interesting observations about travel buddy compatibility in Kanyakumari. What factors do you think are important when it comes to finding a great travel buddy?
I think that depends on whether you are taking a whole trip with someone or hooking up for a time while you are travelling solo. If it’s the former – I’d say it’s important to know each other pretty well. Talk about what you want from the trip, how you like to travel, what you like doing, what you can’t tolerate. If it’s a long trip, build in some alone time. Be open and accepting and willing to push your own limits. But be clear about what can and can’t work for you. Talk, communicate, be kind, be adventurous!
Without giving too much away, Sandrine’s journey in Kanyakumari is intriguing. What does it tell us about the transformative powers of travel, and have you ever experienced something on a par with Sandrine’s transformation?
I loved writing Sandrine. I actually wrote most of her journey while I was in India myself. I think that in literature as in life, no one end ups exactly where they start – even if we don’t travel. Life changes us. And I don’t think life is a steady march of progress. There are inevitable ups and downs, we lose our way, we get hurt, we make bad decisions. And sometimes we learn, we enjoy, we give, we move on.
I visit an Ashram in Kerala, South India regularly. I’ve been the writer in residence there and I was commissioned to write a book about Ashram life – it’s called (appropriately enough) Ashram. I spent time learning about the way of life, the religion and the philosophy and talking with the people who were staying there. The people I met were very open with me about how they’d come to be there. Some had stories of great loss and trauma, some were spiritual devotees, others where simply curious. I myself visit the Ashram in order to ‘press the spiritual reset button.’ Travelling often has a similar effect. Taking ourselves out of our everyday concerns, plunging into something new and different, watching, learning, reflecting, experiencing – if we are open it can change us for the better, help us to gain perspective, understanding, tolerance, acceptance.
“Taking ourselves out of our everyday concerns, plunging into something new and different, if we are open it can change us for the better, help us to gain perspective, understanding, tolerance, acceptance.”
A sense of place plays an important role in your books. How much are the places in your novels based on your own experience?
I was asked to contribute to an anthology of writing on this theme once, because apparently my books create a powerful sense of place. I’m pleased that people think that. For me, writing a novel is about taking the reader somewhere else. Of course it’s about telling an intriguing story but it’s also about plunging the reader so deeply into the setting that they feel like they are there – or that want to go there! India was a wonderful setting for a story – so vibrant and alive. I loved the challenge of translating the sensual power of it all onto the page.
What does India mean to you?
When I was a child I had an idea for a story. It began with a quest. I saw a dark path winding off into some undefined future and I knew that what lay at its end was profound, vast in its import, that if I reached it, I would be forever changed. Perhaps the quest was about coming of age, becoming the adult I’d eventually be, finding wholeness, or finding home. I don’t know. I called it ‘The Search for the Big Orange Poetry Flower.’ I knew that the instant I laid my eyes on its petals, breathed its perfume, that at once all the poetry, all the music, all the creative intoxication of the universe would be released, and my soul, unable to resist, would follow it out of my body and into the vastness that lies beyond time, merging, becoming one with the great unity on which true reality is built. The quest would be over and I would be complete. It was a pretty cool story, I thought! One more thing I knew: That my search would end in India.
Why did you place your first novel in Kanyakumari?
It was partly because of the story I talked about above, and partly because I’d had some really special moments there – I found my metaphorical ‘Big Orange Poetry Flower’ in Kanyakumari I hadn’t intended Kanyakumari to be a novel. On that first trip, I found myself overflowing with emotions, impressions and questions and I began writing in my journal as a way to process what I felt. I didn’t stop writing and over the coming weeks and months, characters began to emerge, the beginnings of a plot, an intrigue. Like my old quest, I didn’t know how the story would end, but I trusted my intuition and I trusted India. And it began to dawn on me that I was writing a book. I went back to India twice more to immerse myself and my story in the colours, the smells, the sounds and to complete the story.
What have been your own experiences in an ashram, and do you recommend the experience?
For me it’s about pressing the spiritual reset button. Ashrams are closed, spiritual environments and the life is highly disciplined. We are up at 5.30 in the morning, we meditate, we attend lectures, we eat a strict vegetarian diet, we chant, we attend pujas and we do yoga. It isn’t for everyone. But if you are interested in finding a deeper connection, a more spiritual dimension to life, then the experience can be incredibly enriching.
What advice do you have for women who want to write about their travels?
I would say travel with your mind and your senses wide open. Write everywhere – on the train, on the beach, in the temple…write your impressions, your observations, your experiences – but don’t feel you always need to explain them. And write more than simply a diary. Use all your senses and try to commit to paper those things you might otherwise forget – the feel of your wet flip flops in the monsoon rain, the way the mountains change colour at sunset, the sound of the call to prayer…
Please recommend a few of your favourite travel books!
I love Moon Morocco by Lucas Peters. It’s a standard travel guide but much more personal than the big names. The writer lived and worked there for years so knows the country really well.
Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy was such an inspiration for me. The author - an Irish woman - travelled solo from the UK to India by bicycle in the 1960’s. It’s a fabulous read and it makes you want to grab your backpack and go!
I read The Healing Land by Rupert Isaacson when I was travelling in the Kalahari. It’s a wonderful account of the author’s travels in the south of Africa and his mission to get to know the San people – the indigenous people of the Kalahari desert.