You were born Simone Changeaux. When did you become known as Anne?
I had about four or five pen names before Anne Golon.
So today, do you think of yourself as Anne, or Simone?
Most of my family call me Joelle, which is from my first pen name. My husband Serge called me Joelle. When I wrote the first Angélique book, as I’d taken my husband’s name (Goloubinoff), I rather stupidly also took his pen name, Golon, which he’d used when he wrote a book of memories he had written with the help of another French writer. At this time everyone was starting from zero.
You were 18 when you had your first book published, but it was also the year that the war started. In the preview of one of your books you said you cycled through occupied France to Spain.
That’s correct. During the war when the Germans were occupying France, the French were privileged because the Germans had orders not to be as they were in other countries. That’s why I was allowed to go.
It was very difficult in Paris. I wanted to leave, and I was painting the countryside as I went. I wanted to see other places, and I wanted to cross France from one side to another.
In 1941 I made a tour of Poitou on my cycle, and I asked for hospitality each night in convents. That’s why I know this area well, and the atmosphere of the convents.
Maybe that’s why I saw at that time a trace of the past, because there were no cars, only horse and carts, and the people were still in the original and traditional costumes. There was no leather, so I wore traditional clogs on my cycle. It was difficult, but I couldn’t find modern shoes so I kept them on. I went to the authorities and told them I was collecting paintings and material for a book and asked permission to buy some clothes, but you couldn’t find anything at this time, because the Germans were taking everything.
I wanted to go to Britain or Spain, but if I’d tried they would have shot me. Instead I headed for the Spanish frontier, just to put my foot into free territory. I cycled from Versailles to Poitou, and got to know and like the area, then I pedalled down the coast to La Rochelle through the occupied area.
On the way to the Spanish frontier there was a free area, but it was forbidden to cross it. The Germans wouldn’t go in the free zone in uniform until 1942, when they took over everywhere. I was between the sea and the forbidden area when I was arrested by the Germans. I was taken into a castle, questioned and put in jail with another woman. They hoped we would speak and give things away. I told the commandant I just wanted to put one foot in Spain because it was a free country. I said: “I’m young, I want adventure, and I want to write a book on the beauty of my country.” He saw my paintings and believed my story.
He told me there was still a very beautiful place to see, the Basque country – the area where Louis XIV was married. So he let me go free with a paper after seeing my paintings.
And when he let me go he said if you are doing it for aesthetic reasons, go and look at that sculpture and this church. So he believed me, and he said oh, you French women!
It was like a small miracle in the middle of the war, because the war was horrible.
And all the soldiers didn’t shoot me, a young woman, because I had these papers, and without them I wouldn’t have been able to go. And so I reached the Spanish border, put my foot into Spain, and cycled back.
What did your parents think of you going off like that as a young girl?
My father was a navy officer and he flew, and I helped him during the war. I told him I would only do a few miles every day and I would sleep in convents so I would be safe. Everyone used cycles to go to the countryside to get eggs and so on, then went home. For me, it was just another step to keep going.
It was beautiful – no cars, no tourists. It was very important for me because I got the impression for the future.
Was the idea for the Angélique books growing even then?
I was writing already, but I didn’t specially think I would write about that area. But I thought it could have been like the 17th century because there were few people, and castles – and people were living like in old times. The rest of Europe was living in horror, and I was lucky, and I thought I can’t relive my youth.
After the war you won a literary prize and used the money to go to Africa in 1949. Why Africa?
To get out of Europe, where we had been in jail for five years during the war. I wanted to go the furthest I could, but I couldn’t speak English, so I chose somewhere where people spoke French. It was called Equatorial Africa – part of the Congo.
I wanted to write articles on people living there and people building things for Africa there. I had a list of names of people there, contacts to look up, and Serge Goloubinoff was there working on various projects. Every country has its own adventures.
Were you married in Africa?
Yes. I went into the jungle some months after I arrived and made a big tour with a doctor who was treating people for sleeping sickness. By the time I returned we were in love, but we never said “Let’s get married.”
When we wanted to return to France we decided to get married so we could come back together.
When did you get the ideal about writing about Versailles and Angélique?
When I returned to France. It was the end of the colony and my husband was very ill from colonial disease and I had to find work because he couldn’t find any because he didn’t have a licence. Maybe it was because he was out of France for too long, or maybe it because he was on the side of De Gaulle. It was very difficult. So we began to work together.
The only thing we had was my pen, so, with his help, I wrote some scientific articles and some memories because he lived in many strange situations and saw a lot of things. I was writing, and when he recovered he was selling the articles to newspapers.
I always loved history. ‘Gone with the Wind’ inspired me. During the war people were trying to escape through books, and this was a time when books helped people to live. I hadn’t read any French historical novels. It’s only recently that I read Notre Dame de Paris.
And how did it affect your lives when Angélique became a big success?
We were saved! We could eat, and we could escape to a more healthy climate in Switzerland, and could buy a house. Then Serge could buy a ticket for travelling in Africa again.
And when the book became a success you must have become well-known in Paris. Did you meet many new people?
No, not at all. Anyhow, I had no interest in that, it was in my nature to let him be on the front page. I was always writing, writing, writing, and our life was quite nice then. It was beautiful. It was good to know we could bring up our children and sustain them.
Would it be true to say you wrote to support your family but also because you love writing?
Yes. I had written a lot of books before the Angélique books, under other pen names. Every book has a different background, a different psychological problem. I always enjoy writing.
You talk about psychology. You obviously have a great knowledge of human psychology. Where did you discover that?
It’s part of the talent. Some people learn it from people outside – and some don’t have to learn it, they have a personal feeling for it, a talent.
If I didn’t have a psychological sense I couldn’t use it in my writing. But you have to have lived it. That’s why there is less of it in the early Angélique books. After the action came the psychological parts. I sometimes see something, then think it is superficial and not like real life. But Angélique was not like that.
So how much of Angélique is there in you?
She expresses what I couldn’t be. If I had lived an idyllic adventure like Angélique I could never have been an author. Angélique is more outer, and I am more inner, quiet.
Angélique interests me because she has all the reactions of a woman of impulse that has never been described before. And all this opportunity that I had in the war – which of course was not as dramatic as it was for Angélique – nobody helping me. I felt I hadn’t lived so much until then.
That is what happens to a human being who is totally abandoned by her close family or friends. I always had the feeling when I was writing something new, that there would be some readers that would find some help in the things I was writing.
For instance, during the war, it was the Jews. I saw how they were treated, and in Angélique in Revolt a similar thing is happening to the Protestants. All these people were not of a ‘good’ religion and were persecuted for it.
And how proud do you feel of having created Angélique?
Very happy. It’s mine. It’s a reality. Nobody, nothing can stop that or change it.
Before, I read a lot, and I had a vision – to be able to write – and it all came together. Writing has always bee a pleasure, whatever the moment. It’s like a movie. I’m meeting people and hearing them, and I don’t have time to take notes because I’m hearing them. My dream is to have a way to write faster.
Do you have any regrets?
I have no regrets about my writing. It helped me live and it was a very satisfying life.
Do you still have the ideas?
I know what will happen to them, but I won’t tell. I’ll wait to write it.
In 50 years time, how would you like to be remembered?
I don’t care. The work will speak for me. I believe the readers will rediscover it.
One of my wishes is to see the film made the way Angélique was. In the first films, Michelle Mercier was chosen because she was the girlfriend of the director and in those films Angélique is written to be like Michelle Mercier is, not like she really is. So I would like to see a film with the real Angélique. ‘Gone with the Wind’ was an example of a good movie done by good people, close to the book.
There is a lot of talk on the internet about which of the actors and actors today would be good for the different roles, and which actress today would be a good Angélique. But we haven’t been able to think of anyone.
It should be done by people who love it and understand it.
What is your greatest wish for the future?
To recover Angélique – not only the book, but the movie project, and soon to have the machine for working in the way of the new age! It will save much time. I want to work faster. I want to finish the 14th book. And, by the way, there will be a 15th.