As promised earlier, here is Vivienne Vermes to tell you, in her own words, what inspired her to write The Barefoot Road.
I didn’t choose to write my novel. It chose me. It was like a bird landing on my shoulder that kept pecking at my ear until I began my story. Let me explain. . .
I am on a very gruelling hike in Transylvania. Night is falling. We’re in the Valley of the Wolves (actually, not in the valley, but high on the hillside, in a forest). Way below, I can see the lights of the farmhouse where our group will be staying tonight. The woods are full of shadows and silence. If I stay very quiet, I feel the trees will start whispering to me. I let the group go on ahead. Our guide warns me not to linger too long, as the owner of the farm where we are staying is a dragon lady by the name of Paraschiva. I assure him I won’t stay long. But I do. For some reason, I’m totally unafraid. There is something haunting and magical about this place. As if it connects the depths of the earth with the stars overhead. It is so strong, so beyond human comprehension, that it effaces my petty human fears. I stay in this place until it gets dark.
Then I scramble down the mountain track. Anxiety returns. I am very late. I will get scolded. I will be unpopular with the group.
The farmhouse gets closer. Then I see it. The image will stay with me, and will be the beginning of the novel. A huge wooden gate, the entrance to the farm. Above the gate, the portal, with the shape of bats’ wings stencilled out of the wood. The stars glitter through the empty spaces. Underneath, a smaller door is encased in the big gate. It is open. A figure is silhouetted against the light coming from the farmhouse yard behind. It is Paraschiva. She is old, and bent. Her hands look like black claws. I am afraid. When I approach, she opens her arms and hugs me in a warm embrace. After a meal, we sit down over a glass of palinka (the local apricot brandy) and talk, in broken German, into the night. Her eyes are bright blue-green and shine out of her old face.
I have never met this woman before. Yet I feel I have come home.
Long after I have returned to my normal city life, I learn from the guide, with whom I have kept in touch, that sadly Paraschiva has died; that on her deathbed she revealed that her real name was Anna Schwarz*, and that she was born in Budapest, a Hungarian Jew. My father’s family was Hungarian Jewish. Their name, before they changed it to Vermes, was Schwarz. A common enough name. An uncommon experience. I began to write about Paraschiva, making up story after story about this woman who lived in the Valley of the Wolves, and had bright turquoise eyes.
Later, on the same hike, up in the Maramures, we trudge wearily into a long straggling village. We are exhausted. It has been a very hard climb over a mountain ridge, where we were caught in a fierce summer storm. I have a sore throat and my feet are dragging on the ground. We come to a farmhouse on the edge of the village. I lie down on a hard bed. Flies buzz around my nose. I vow never to go on an arduous hike again. Then I hear the music. A group of local musicians have arrived in a beat-up car with no windscreen but with the windscreen wipers working furiously. Soon we are all out drinking palinka and dancing on the uneven grass. The musicians are talented. Our spirits are raised by the magic of their songs. Yet we notice the violins are out of tune. Someone asks why. “Oh, the people who used to tune and repair the violins left the village long ago”. I sense a discomfort around the answers. Later, I discover they are talking about the Rrom and the Jews. They “left” during the 2nd World War. Deported, often with unimaginable brutality. The metaphor is strident. How simply “out of tune” we become when we stamp out racial diversity, when we retreat into fear of the “other”, the outsider, or even of the unknown – the mystery beyond our small human understanding. How we diminish the music of our existence when we try to limit it to our own worldview. “I’m right, you’re dead.” We do like certainty. A comfortable cop-out. A village – a country, a continent? – out of tune.
That’s when the story chose me.
My father was one of the last Hungarian Jews to escape Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1940. He managed to flee to Northern Ireland. To do so, he had to renounce his Jewish faith and declare himself a Catholic. In Northern Ireland, it would have been fine to be a Jew (there were too few of them to pose a problem) but to be a Catholic! Then he wanted to marry my Northern Irish mother, who was Protestant, and who had to convert to Catholicism to marry a Jew! In the end, they got married in a non-denominational church in Belfast, and spent their lives on a spiritual quest for a way of life that would transcend religious and political divides and prejudices.
Coming from such a family, and in today’s Europe, so torn apart by intolerance, the rise of nationalism, the refugee crisis, how could I not listen to the bird that landed on my shoulder? How could I not write the story, “The Barefoot Road”?
* Not Paraschiva’s real name nor our family’s. I have changed it to protect privacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vivienne Vermes is a writer and actress of Irish and Hungarian descent who divides her time between Paris and London. She has published four collections of poetry: Sand Woman, Metamorphoses, Passages and When the World Stops Spinning, and has performed her work in festivals throughout Europe. She is winner of the Piccadilly Poets’ award, the Mail on Sunday’s Best Opening of a Novel competition, as well as Flash 500s prize for short prose and the Paragram national competition for best poem and “petite prose”. She has taught creative writing in universities in Transylvania, and runs a writers’ workshop in Paris.
As an actress, she has played roles in a number of French films, including Les Trois Frères, Le Retour and in Les Profs 2 in which she portrayed Queen Elizabeth II. Her voice also warns passengers on the Paris metro to “Mind the gap”.
The Barefoot Road is her first novel.
You can follow Vivienne on Twitter.