Carlie, congratulations on this delightful book!
- Children love reading rhymes and rhymes help lines to stay in their minds. Is that why you decided to write The Sisters Saint-Claire in rhyme?
It is absolutely why I decided to write in rhyme. I loved reading good rhyming stories with my children – in particular the Hairy Maclary series. My children loved predicting the next rhyming words, and they would be in fits of laughter making up silly alternatives. I also feel that a good rhyme is like a song. There is such joy in the melody, and I feel that children are more engaged with the story and remember the lines like they do with their favourite songs.
- What were the joys and difficulties of writing in this style?
They joy was undoubtedly when a rhyme worked perfectly. And the difficulty was when it didn’t.
The opening paragraph is still one of my favourites. Getting the character names to work in harmony with the rhyming pattern was a challenge, but one I’m really happy to say worked well.
I agonised over the beat and melody of every single line. It took me around twelve months to write the story, because I was so particular. In fact, I was probably obsessive about it.
- Where you a fan of the Madeline stories when you were little?
You know…to this day I still haven’t read the Madeline stories! Lots of people have told me The Sisters Saint-Claire reminds them of the experiences they had with Madeline. I’ll have to find out for myself!
I want to visit the marketplace you have created in this story! Have you spent time in French villages? What inspired you to give the story this setting?
When I was 21, my husband and I (my then boyfriend) lived and travelled in Europe for a year and a half. We drove all through Belgium, Italy, Germany and France. We spent a lot of time in towns and cities that were part of the Western Front, because my great great uncle fought and died near Ypres in Belgium.
I was captivated by the French countryside, and the beautiful cobblestone villages, which seemed to have one foot in the past and one foot in the present.
I love the fact that food unites people – and the kitchen is the heart of the home. My family always sat down together whenever we ate, and while our meals were simple to accommodate a big family, it was the one time of day when we all came together and talked to each other.
For me, a French village bought all the things I loved together in one place, and created a charming scene where each character could find their own identity, and explore their love of food.
- Darling little Cecile is as talented as she is lovely. Can you tell us where she came from in your imagination?
Cecile is inspired by my baby sister, Kieron. She is fun, fearless and adventurous and has rarely been deterred by other people’s opinions, and spent her early years trying to keep up with her four older sisters (and not be left behind!). She is also a fantastic cook who can whip up an amazing dish at a moment’s notice, without ever getting flustered.
Cecile is the hero for anyone who has ever felt small, or underestimated. And I guess in a way, that’s probably been all of us at some stage in our life.
- Do you bake? What are your favourite pies?
I love baking. My absolutely favourite (and my children’s) would have to be Banoffee Pie. England has given us many things, but I think the Banoffee Pie would have to be up there with the best – after The Goodies…maybe.
It’s a dreamy combination of shortcrust pastry, caramel, bananas and cream. With a sprinkling of chocolate on top.
When I have time, the kids help me make it. And my youngest (Beau) has renamed it Beau-noffee Pie. Much to the horror of his two older siblings, who have not found a pie that can incorporate their names.
- Your story and Tamsin Ainslie’s illustrations seem to be the perfect fit. Can you give us any insights into how you worked together? Or was it mainly via your publisher?
I had the opportunity to meet with Tamsin, and some wonderful ladies from Allen & Unwin, before she started working on the illustrations. We all put forward some ideas, and I was able to talk about my vision for each of the characters.
Tamsin went away and bought the characters to life – and I was very conscious of stepping back at that point and completely trusting that they were in safe hands. I could never have imagined just how delicate and beautiful every character would become. She exceeded all of my expectations.
I had one request – that Harriet be dressed in a red velvet coat (I bought one at a second hand shop many years ago, and treasure it to this day).
I was lucky enough to receive rough illustrations along the way, and Tamsin would check in now and again and let me know where she was up to. She’s an amazing woman, and we have a great connection that just seems to work for some strange reason. I feel like I’ve known her for years.
- Thank you for the Croque Monsieur recipe at the end of the book. If you were planning a summer picnic, what would you bake, cook, prepare or simply pack for it?
I tend to overthink absolutely everything, and food is no exception. But with three children to consider, I’d try to keep it fresh and simple.
I’d probably take fresh fruit and chocolate dip, Turkish bread to serve with pear and camembert, salami and olives or ham and apple coleslaw, and maybe an Impossible Pie for dessert (more or less baked custard that looks like a pie and is almost fool-proof). Oh, and a bottle of Pinot Gris.
My kids have a strangely broad palette and love most foods (especially all of the above), which makes cooking and preparing food so much more enjoyable.
The Sisters Saint-Claire is published by Allen & Unwin and is an October Book of the Month at BCB Clubhouse