Cumberland News Interview 3rd March 2017
Marie-Elsa was interviewed by the Cumberland News a week before the Words By The Water Literary Festival in Keswick where she was interviewed by Peter Stanford.
CUMBERLAND NEWS 03/03/2017
Picture of Marie-Elsa Bragg with two Westminster Abbey marshals
You might expect someone who is a priest in the High Church, a therapist who helps people deal with dark personal crises and who has suffered a childhood tragedy to be stern, serious and even frosty.
The Rev Marie-Elsa Bragg is serious, but in a thoughtful, rather than a humourless way.She picks her words carefully, but there is lots of laughter and plenty of giggles as she recalls her younger self growing up in Cumbria.
She is warm and open and funny, with a ready laugh that makes you want to join in with her.The voice is soft and easy-going, perfect for radio and with tell-tale catches of Cumbrian to remind you of her ‘home’.
Though she went to Oxford and has lived and worked in that city and in London for much of her life, Marie-Elsa is still firmly and happily rooted to the county.
Her mother, the French artist and writer Marie-Elisabeth Roche, committed suicide in 1971 when Marie-Elsa was six. Much of her childhood was spent in Wigton with her father’s parents, Mary and Stanley, and great aunts and uncles. She remembers the time with them with huge affection and returns to Cumbria regularly to stay at the family cottage in a nearby village.
Crummock Water is her favourite area and the landscape of her debut novel.
Picture of Marie-Elsa Bragg
Towards Mellbreak pays tribute to those who work the land and also to Cumbrians generally.
The book was written as a release. It started three summers ago. It had been a tough time, Marie-Elsa has been working on women’s rights in the church.
She needed to regroup and recuperate and went on a spiritual retreat.
“I needed to collect myself and needed to do something creative to think things through,” she explains. “The natural thing to do was to go home in my mind.”
The retreat was in Stroud, Gloucestershire. ‘Home’ was a 250 mile journey by road, but just a blink of the eye away in her mind. Her thoughts turned into a story of a man’s struggle to keep his farm and maintain the traditional ways.
The novel starts in 1971 as Harold inherits the family farm from his father.
He hopes that with the help of his grandmother and his Uncle Joe will be able to take the farm forward and prosper. But farming is undergoing huge change and increasingly harmful intervention.
The farm is under Ard Crags, near Crummock Water.”The book goes from Ard Craggs, or Sail, down through Rannerdale, down the side to Crummock around the lake and to Mellbreak. It’s a walk really,” says Marie-Elsa.
How many times has she done the walk? Too many to remember.
“Crummock is my favourite lake, I can’t count how many times I’ve been there, or how many times I’ve gone out on a boat. As a kid I would take flowers or things on the lake and throw them in,” a giggle ripples out from her. “There’s a bizarre collection of memorabilia at the bottom of the lake,” the giggle is now a wave of laughter. She surfs the wave and thinks her relatives allowed her to do it “to keep me quiet”.
The book is also a return to a time of happiness conjured from tragedy and grief. “When my mum died, my grandma became my second mother. I spent holidays and sometimes a lot longer in Wigton,” she says. “They had a sweetshop and I used to get paid with Midget Gems for serving in the shop.
“The silver lining of my life is that I was really taken into my grandparents’ life.
“I was very close to great aunties and uncles, very close to a generation of Cumbrian tradition long gone. “I really miss them, they were so creative and community-oriented, there were so many songs and games.”
She aimed to portray those traditional ways and those who are so close to the land that there is a spiritual link with it.
Picture of Melvyn Bragg
“That is something we have in Cumbria and that was an inspiration to write. I was brought up that if there was anything on your mind, to go walk in the fells.”
“I started creative writing about the fells and felt it was really helpful. It is a wonderful way to think things through. Later I thought ‘this might be a novel’. To write about the fells was very natural, to just write about what I know.
“Different sections poured out at different times. It was only after I stepped back that I thought ‘I’m quite attracted to these characters now, I could arrange it into a book’.”
She took a part-time MA in prose fiction at the University of East Anglia and landed an agent. “They quite liked the story and said ‘have you got any more?’.”
A second is due to be published next year and a third is also planned.
She had written before, but just for herself, as a way of “working things out”.
She adds: “Having both parents as writers, I was taught to write things down to think things through. I have never attempted a novel. I shied away from that. Both parents were writers, also, I felt called to be a priest.”
She will be previewing the book at the Words by the Water festival where she will be in conversation with Peter Stanford about ‘A Cumbrian Way of Life’ and then at the Hay festival in May where she will be interviewed by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. She is wary of the attention her novel will bring. Celebrity does not appeal, though that doorway to a shiny and often harsh world is now ajar. Certainly the idea of following the footsteps of her famous author and broadcaster father does not appeal, though she has had a taste of broadcasting.
She was invited to present Prayer for the Day on Radio 4 during Valentine’s Week and enjoyed it.”I’m not sure I’m a TV person, Radio did feel more intimate, gentle and very human. I have seen celebrity and I’m not interested.”
The writing has to fit in around her work.
The Rev Bragg lives in London and is duty chaplain of Westminster Abbey.
She has been a Spiritual Director for over 20 years, a retreat leader for 18 of those years and a therapist and coach for 10 years, advising and counselling people of all faiths and none.That has involved talking with women of orthodox religions who have suffered domestic violence.
It must be grim.
Picture of Novel cover Towards Mellbreak
“Not grim,” she says quickly. “Never grim. It is painful to see that side of life. But if you can do something that makes a difference, or if someone wants to let you in, it is always an honour and a privilege.”
Towards Mellbreak is an accidental book, born out of Marie-Elsa’s desire to recharge and refind herself. She showed the finished novel to her tutor and to her agent - but her acclaimed novelist father still has not seen it.
“Poor dad still has not read it,” she confesses.
“I think it was important. I’m the next generation down of Cumbrian writers, he does things his way and I need to be clear it is absolutely my voice. I want to do well by Cumbria and express my Cumbrian heritage the best way I can.
“He understood I just needed to do my own thing.”
And if, on a misty morning, you see a boat rowing out into the middle of Crummock and a book being launched over the side into the dark waters…
Towards Mellbreak is published on Thursday, April 6.
Words by the Water book festival runs from Friday, March 3 to Sunday, March 12 at Theatre by the Lake. Visit www.theatrebythelake.com for the programme and to book.
Marie-Elsa will be talking to Peter Stanford about ‘A Cumbrian Way of Life’ at 2.30pm on Saturday, March 11. Tickets £10. Call 017687 74411.