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Talking fat dogs and French estates with Beth Haslam

Not so fat dogs in beautiful France

Beth Haslam is the author of the Fat Dogs and French Estates series of travelogue memoirs. She has a home and a 168 hectare wildlife domaine in the Tarn et Garonne region of France where she lives with her husband, Jack.

Beth’s memoirs tell of their adventures buying their French domaine and introduce a fabulous cast of characters, both human and animal, who share their lives as they attempt to renovate the house and repopulate the land of which they become guardians.

I simply adore Beth’s books which are written with so much heart that you can see and feel the characters, the beautiful area in which they live, and of course Beth’s gorgeous, titular Fat Dogs. I’m delighted she has agreed to meet today.

Beth! Welcome, welcome. It’s so good to talk to you. Can I start by asking about your life before you moved to France? Where did you live, what did you do and how has life changed since moving to France?

Hello Lisa, thanks so much for inviting me for a chat. These are great opening questions.

We lived in a sleepy English hamlet. Being busy with semi-retirement activities, Jack was juggling his time between board meetings and messing around with oily projects in the garden shed. (Mental note to anyone considering spending their life with a mechanical engineer. Prepare to have your home taken over by unidentified metal objects, cogs, springs and many, many lost washers.)

I spent my time trekking around the countryside with our beloved dogs, Sam, an Australian Shepherd and Biff, our hand-me-down Norfolk terrier. I faffed around with my teeny vegetable plot, dreaming about self-sufficiency, but the handful of peas and couple of lettuces I managed to produce didn’t have anyone fooled.

As a balance to my countryside activities, I also served as a Magistrate on our local county bench. The cases I worked on in the Adult criminal and Youth courts were fascinating and often challenging. I loved the work, which I found deeply humbling.

Life in France has similarities, but there are lots of differences too. Unlike in the Midlands, where city life is never overly far away, we are blessed to live in a genuinely rural area where life moves in rhythm with the changing seasons.

Beth's French house

Our cosy home is snuggled within our land. Nowadays, it’s the sound of singing cockerels (yes, in France, they sing), barking foxes, and cock pheasants we wake up to rather than the hum of traffic.

We share our fields and woodland with a rich variety of wildlife, including boar, roe deer, badgers, and hares the size of Labradors. Really, they are whoppers! We seem to accumulate endless waifs and strays too. For me, as a devoted animal lover, life doesn’t get much better than this.

We are privileged with the rare opportunity to interact with animals in a way I never dreamt possible. Tripod, our three-legged boar, whose story I share in Fat Dogs 5, is just one example. His tale is extraordinary. He taught us so much about respecting and nurturing wild animals in their natural habitat.

The handsome three legged boar, Tripod

We are blessed with a largish garden which is a labour of love. I also have a veggie plot. I’ll admit that my dream of becoming self-sufficient has not become a reality, but we’re not far off.

The first Fat Dogs and French Estates book, takes the reader on a journey through the French countryside searching for that elusive property and introduces us to one of my favourite characters, ‘ItsWill’. When you first bought your domaine, you were looking for a holiday home I believe? What went wrong (or went right!) that you ended up living there full time? Was leaving the comfort of home for foreign shores a difficult decision to make?

I know! I feel we ought to have ‘Sucker!’ signs above our heads. I’m so glad you were drawn to ItsWill. He was a gem, totally nutty, of course, but one of life’s characters. In fairness, we can’t blame him for our change in tack. Really, we should thank him.

I daren’t go into too much detail for fear of giving away spoilers, but you’re right. We did set out to buy a second home. My meticulously (or so I thought) researched spec made that clear. Yet despite my careful planning, almost every property we viewed turned out to be a spectacular disaster.

Horribly despondent at our failure, we considered throwing in the towel when ItsWill had an idea. In a flash of serendipity, he persuaded us to visit a country estate in a part of France we were unfamiliar with.

Part of Beth's stunning French estate

When we bought our home, we unknowingly entered into an unspoken contract with its history, land and animals. We became custodians of a place that deserved as much time and love as we could give.

There were many ups and downs, restoration work to exhaust the fittest of souls and expenditures that made our wallets wilt. During that period, home comforts were in short supply. But there was also a compelling magic, an inexplicable sense of being in the right place. And today? I wake up and still feel that magic. Our transition was gradual, unplanned, and felt entirely natural.

What a beautiful spot!

I know from your books and blogs, Beth, that you are a real animal person. Can you tell us a bit about your current menagerie at home, as I, and I’m sure other readers, love to hear about all animals you have rescued over the years?

Aw, thank you. I think we must have ‘animal rescuers’ painted across our backs! Little, big, or teeny-tiny, if we encounter an abandoned/injured animal, we will do our best to help.

As you know from my tales so far, our rescue headcount ebbs and flows. It’s because, where possible, we try to return the casualty to its owner, rehome, or return it to the wild as we did with little Junior. Here’s his story.

Junior ...who knew boars could be so tiny!

Last year we found an ailing baby boar in the forest. A scrawny lad, he was being bullied by his siblings and couldn’t get a decent meal. It’s a tough life for a little ’un out there.

For the next few days, we watched him dwindle, agonising over what to do. Knowing he would die if we did nothing, we took our hearts in our hands and caught him.

Little Junior spent the next few days in a dog crate. We built him up with lots of feeds and warmth, and he quickly improved. As soon as his tummy was bulging with goodies, we re-introduced our stripy patient to his mum. Much to our relief, she accepted him, seeming not to have noticed he had gone. He trotted back to his siblings, this time with a fighting chance of survival.

Part of the forest where Beth and Jack set up pheasant pens

Our current animal family includes the penned birds and Napoleon, our lovable and increasingly naughty pot-bellied pig. In-house residents are our ex-feral cats, also our two dogs, Aby and Max.

You adore animals, Beth but are there any creatures you don’t like? If so, why?

Ooh, that’s a tester, Lisa! Actually, there is, and it’s less to do with the species and more to do with the hassle they regularly cause. Rats. We have large aviaries for our ornamental pheasants and chickens. We breed from the game birds to release into our forest. Sadly, the birds have to be penned because we have a thriving population of buzzards and black kites. They love chicken dinners. :/

Rats are wily critters. They come in from the forest to forage in the pens. They make above and below ground nests, leave sentries on stake-outs, and when the coast is human-clear, they’ll scamper around scavenging. And they get into everything, including the most unlikely places.

Last summer, during a heatwave, I was on a water-dispenser refill mission in the pens. One of the types we use is a bucket design with a partially closed lid. The design allows the bucket to lie on the ground on a metal support. Supervised by Nap, I started to give the innards a good clean.

Beth and Napoleon, the pot-bellied pig

As I was hosing and scrubbing with my fingers, I felt something tingly on my fingertips. Whiskers. Surprised, I peered into the watery depths at a couple of beady eyes. With that, a soggy rat shot out of the hole up my arm and launched itself into the grapevines. I squawked, Nap oinked, and the cockerels started bawling. What a place to have a nap!

That would have given me the willies, Beth! What a fright!

Now, here’s a question close to your heart, and I give you permission to go on at length 😊. Your two current dogs, Aby and Max are Australian Shepherds as was Sam, one of the original ‘fat dogs’. What is it about the breed that makes it so special and how do they differ from good old English sheep dogs?

Haha, you’ve asked for it this time, my friend! Hmm, now, where to begin…

I love all dogs, but there is something very special about Aussies. The first time I saw one was when I was playing a round of golf. I stopped, instantly entranced by its grace, its multi-coloured splodgy coat, and intelligent countenance. I knew I had to learn more about this dog that danced from that moment. The rest is history.

Aby with that lovely 'splodgy' coat

Three Aussies later and destined to have more, their characteristics are a perfect match for me

Aussies are athletic trek-loving funsters. They are unbelievably loyal and want to be with you all the time. Jack calls them strips of canine Velcro. It’s a fair description.

While Aussies thrive on an action-packed schedule, if there’s nothing else going on, they’re just as happy napping in the sun. So long as you’re close by! Being shepherding types, they have an in-built come back-ability. This is a very handy trait, especially with a dog like our Max. One whiff of a wild boar, and he’s off, but like it or not, he’ll just have to return to make sure I haven’t fallen down an imaginary sinkhole.

Add to these traits the gorgeous Aussie coats and looks and that incredible problem-solving brainpower. For me, they are the perfect doggy package. Oh, and did I mention their adorable toothy grins? Aussies are the best smilers!

Max's toothy grin

I was brought up on a farm with lots of Border Collies. They are gorgeous dogs too. And although I’m no expert, my impression is that they tend to be hardwired for work and can be somewhat highly strung. In my experience, Aussies are more relaxed dogs with an easier ability to chill out. But, you know, each to their own. And if an abandoned Collie turned up on our doorstep, we would welcome it into our family without question.

Yup, that’s pretty much covered everything,😊. As I’ve said, I adore your books, Beth. Your character descriptions are some of the best I’ve read. I feel as if I actually know the people (and animals) who fill your pages. How do you paint such vivid pictures? And have any of your friends, neighbours or family commented on their portrayal?

Anton is one of the many wonderful characters in Beth's books

Gosh, what kind comments, thank you very much, Lisa. I am a descriptive storyteller. I aim to write in such a way that enables the reader to feel the fun, excitement, drama, and, yes, sadness too that Jack and I have experienced in our adventures. Banal though it probably sounds, I want folks to understand why we love our way of life here in France. I want everyone to love it too.

I spend lots of time trying to ensure my detail is accurate and precise. As for friends and neighbours mentioned in the books, I’ll share excerpts that involve the English speakers to make sure they are happy with my representation.

The feedback I receive is generally lots of giggles and comments such as, ‘Just do not mention that I swore!’ and ‘Oh, we were much worse than that!’ or in my sister’s case, ‘It was your fault that we got ourselves in that fix!’

Not banal at all, Beth. I understand exactly where you are coming from. Your husband, Jack, aka Mr Grumpy, is one of the stars of your books. You describe him as a grump, but I get the feeling he is a big softie at heart. I’d love to know how the two of you met. And how he feels about being a star😉

Definitely a big softie!

Your hunch is correct, Lisa. There is lots of hot air when it comes to Jack’s grumps. Point him at someone or something in distress, though, and he’ll drop everything to help. And sit him in front of a soppy movie, and he’ll sob pathetically from beginning to end.

We met by accident in probably the least romantic setting one might imagine. A factory canteen. I’ll give you the backstory on that one day. J

As for the star bit, teehee, very funny! Jack would never associate himself with being a celebrated person in any context. When I’m writing, I’ll often show him snippets that include his dialogue. He will moan about being portrayed as ‘that grumpy bloke’, so I’ll tell him to edit the bits he doesn’t like. And what happens? His version is far worse, so I have to water it down again!

I shall look forward to that story, Beth. I’d love to know what the catalyst was for writing Fat Dogs & French Estates? And had you any experience of writing prior to starting the series?

When we set out, I had no intention of writing about our trip. Our wacky adventures were the catalyst. The things we saw, the unbelievable situations we found ourselves in, and the constant doggy dramas changed all that. Jack, musing over a gin and tonic one evening, made a telling remark. “Our experiences are so far-fetched you should write a book about them.” So I did.

Before writing the Fat Dogs series, I wrote several articles for a couple of nature magazines and had two published books, both in different genres.

Some of the wildlife seen near Beth's home

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start the journey to becoming an author? Is there anything you would have done differently with hindsight?

Gosh, that’s a tricky question. I certainly don’t feel qualified to give expert advice. However, here’s what I can offer.

Be brave, follow your heart and persevere. Don’t get hung up on detail such as grammar. That can be fixed. Focus on producing the story in your words. Develop broad shoulders but never lose your grounding. Listen to, and learn from constructive comments, and never give up hope. After all, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected twelve times.

All good advice, Beth. I’m pretty devastated at the moment as I have just finished Fat Dogs 5, currently the last in the series. Are more Fat Dogs adventures planned and what are you working on right now?

You are very kind to follow my Fat Dogs series, Lisa, thank you! Never fear. I have plenty more stories stacked up waiting to be told. I can’t wait to start work on Fat Dogs Part 6. However, my current project is slightly different.

I am working on a prequel to share stories about my upbringing in Wales. And no prizes for guessing, that a central theme is my young life with our animals. Myths, castles, druids and dragons, they’re in there too. All being well, the book will be published later this year

That is good news, and I shall look forward to seeing what comes out of your pen next, Beth.

Finally, if you had to choose one song as the soundtrack to your life, what would it be?

Gaah! This is an impossible question. I have incredibly eclectic taste in music. It ranges from Bach’s choral works to Verdi’s operas and Queen’s rock. I guess there is one song that always resonates for the message it conveys. It’s simple, it’s fun, it’s ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams. And here’s the song on Youtube. Listen to the lyrics to help you understand why.

Thanks again, so much, for inviting me here for a chat. I loved your questions!

Brilliant! I think ‘happy’ sums you up perfectly, Beth.

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