Paula Read was born in 1953 in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Her facility with languages led to a first degree in French with German from King's College, London University. Unable to relinquish the student life, she headed for eastern Canada where she gained an MA in French from the University of New Brunswick. Her thesis, written in French, was on the work of medieval poet Christine de Pisan, reputed to be the first woman known to have earned her own living through writing.
Paula took a job as a French/English interpreter for the New Brunswick provincial government but was always writing articles and reviews for the local paper. Back in London, she started working as a full-time reporter for a trade magazine, a tough apprenticeship in the absurdly sexist world of metals trading, and subsequently spent several years in New York as a news agency reporter. Her sideline was producing articles for the nuclear disarmament newsletter put out by a local group based in the Chelsea district, one of whose founders was renowned writer and activist V, formerly known as Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues, The Apology).
Back in London, Paula worked for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, then turned to freelance writing and editing. Much to her surprise, she became a languages teacher in her forties and found it much, much harder than anything she had done before.
Paula continued to write stories, some of which have been published, but wanted to put herself to the test of writing a full-length book. By the time children and dogs had become more independent and time more available, Paula signed up in 2016 for an MA in creative writing (non-fiction) at City, University of London, and wrote her first non-fiction book, The Hazelnut Grove, under excellent guidance.
If Only it Hadn't Rained is Paula's second non-fiction book. It is based on the memoir by Frenchman Roland Chopard of his brutal experience as a forced labourer in Germany in the Second World War. Annie is his daughter. The memoir lay unread among a bunch of other papers in the family house in Villeneuve-sur-Lot until after Roland's death in 2006. Some years later, back in London, Annie asked friend and neighbour Paula to translate the memoir into English.
This proved to be a propitious moment. Paula spends much time at the family's house in Normandy where you can't escape reminders of the Second World War. She was ready for the challenge. And Roland's memoir became the starting point for a book exploring the times in which Roland lived.
The road to publication of If Only it Hadn't Rained started with the discovery of a small rabbit-skin jacket. It was found by Alex as he was rummaging among his father's belongings after Roland's death.
It was so small, it looked more like a child's jacket, says daughter Annie.
It had always been kept in a trunk in the garage at the family home in Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Roland had been given the jacket when Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945 by US forces, although he could not remember whether it was given to him by the Red Cross or by the Americans. Annie took the jacket and kept it, also in the garage, in her house in England.
Five years later, in 2011, it was Annie's husband, Nathan, who became curious about the jacket. What would become of it once they died? Would it simply be thrown into a skip this small piece of history? They decided to contact the Imperial War Museum in London, ultimately donating the jacket and Roland's papers to the museum.
Not all the papers, however. Annie is hoping to complete this long dreamt of project by handing over the rest of Roland's writings to the IWM. They will be kept in the Chopard dossier, another small indelible testimony.
If the jacket was the start of what was to become Annie's mission to enable her father to speak, then the relinquishing of his papers to the IWM will complete that mission. Along with the publication of Roland's memoir, this will enable her to feel finally that she has found answers to those questions that should have been asked during his lifetime, and allow Annie to reassure herself that she has done all she can to honour him and his suffering.
The Hazelnut Grove is a travel book with a difference - and an antidote to Brexit.
Published in October 2020 by independent publisher Cinnamon Press under its imprint Leaf by Leaf (https://www.cinnamonpress.com), The Hazelnut Grove is part memoir, part tale of survival. It is based on the story of Paula's cousin and his wife who moved some 20 years ago from the comfort of a two-bedroom cottage in southern England to a mountain-top ruin in northwest Italy.
Who has not fantasised about moving to another country and reinventing their life? Luke and Sarah did just that, but they hadn't expected the house next door to be sold to a man who chose to fight them over a two-metre strip of land, the desolate hazelnut grove.
Wine and food also flow through this story, happy emollients, in contrast to the scratchy underside of the tale - the menacing neighbour, the deaths of beloved animals and the loneliness of getting to grips with an unfamiliar language and a complex culture.