By: Shahnaz Radjy
Reconnecting with Claude Forthomme
Claude Forthomme and I crossed paths when I was the Head of Communications for the Women’s Brain Project, and we collaborated on a piece on brain health for Impakter, where she is a Senior Editor. A few years later, after I finally read her book “Crimson Clouds” (yes, I have a monster TBR pile), I reached out to interview her.
One of the things I find fascinating about her is that she has done so many different things, and yet one of the red threads throughout the years has been her love of the written word.
Once a Writer, Always a Writer
Technically, Claude started her writing career when she was eight years old. She published a newsletter for her parents, an 8-10 page booklet complete with clippings, drawings, and articles on what she considered the big news of the day.
By the time she was 15, she had written her first novel: a murder story set in Colombia, among the mountain rebels. It’s one of many pieces that sit in literal or digital drawers, gathering dust.
A Citizen of the World
Born in Brussels, Claude’s father was a diplomat. She spent her childhood in Sweden, Egypt, Columbia, and Russia before graduating from Columbia University with a degree in Economics. After graduation, she worked in banking and publishing before teaching at the college level.
In 1979, Claude joined the United Nations, stationed at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, Italy.
Claude went on to direct the UN/FAO Office for Europe and Central Asia, with US$ 35 million in aid projects aimed at aiding the transition of Eastern Europe to a free market system. She also put food safety on the global agenda, organizing 48 countries at a transcontinental meeting in Budapest.
What’s in a (Pen) Name?
In 2009, when she started her blog, Claude decided to publish under the pen name “Claude Nougat.” It was an inside joke, dating back to her teenage years. One day, her father mused aloud about nougat, wondering why it existed in two such extremes: soft and gooey and dry and crisp. Claude said she had the answer. Then, she explained that eggs were integrated differently in each – an explanation she’d made up on the spot.
Since that day, whenever she offered up one of her theories to explain something, Claude was told she “nougatized” it. An appropriate pseudonym, therefore, for a fiction writer.
Today, Claude considers the use of a pen name a mistake. “There is no need to hide behind a pseudonym, and Nougat was not the best choice as it does not reflect my personality. It would have been more appropriate for someone writing humor. I encourage people to be themselves online.”
Shifting Perspectives and the Challenge of a Male POV
Claude always wrote, whether it’s fiction, articles, essays, or anything in-between, and her writing is highly instinctive for Claude. Even that very first novel she wrote when she was 15 was from a male point of view (POV). She tends to stick to such a perspective because she enjoys the challenge of “getting outside herself” and observing men to understand them better to do them justice on the page.
While the female POV would be easier, Claude has at least one novel written in the female POV that will never see the light of day. It’s all part of her journey as a writer, experimenting and exploring more.
One of Claude’s works in progress is from a female POV – a children’s book.
Although Claude writes fiction, she points out that “Interpersonal communication is critical in life, so it inevitably becomes part of any novel I write. I consider fiction not ‘fiction’ but a mirror held up to contemporary life. A mirror that reflects life should be as close to reality as possible and hopefully give readers insights into their own lives.”
This attention to detail is one of the things I appreciated the most in “Crimson Clouds” – the realistic depiction of relationships and the role communication plays in how two people relate to each other. Claude provides us with some of her artwork in the trailer for her book.
Self-publishing and the Importance of Marketing
Initially, Claude tried the traditional route. She sent dozens of query letters to literary agents from 2003 to 2010. Then, with the Kindle revolution, there was a sudden enthusiasm for self-publishing to bypass some industry hurdles and make even more money, thanks to Amazon. Unfortunately, as far as Claude is concerned, it was a trap.
There are two reasons why she regrets self-publishing.
First, her novels don’t fall into the two categories she deems best suited to Amazon, notably romance and thrillers. Crossover genres, which she tends to write, are more challenging to sell online.
Second, Claude learned that she is not good at digital marketing and finds it tedious and boring. Which, as a self-published author, is an issue.
As she puts it, “Self-publishing cuts you off from those who can help you get your book out there and get it out in its best possible form. I don’t think any young writer should self-publish unless they only aim to make money through work that fits the mold of best-selling genres such as romance, sci-fi, and thrillers.”
A Love of Language(s) and Children’s Stories
With French as her mother tongue, Claude considers English a close second and her preferred writing language as she studied and worked primarily in English throughout her career. But living in Rome since 1974 and married to an Italian man, Claude speaks only Italian at home.
She authored two books in Italian, traditionally published in 1991. Both books were a critical success, winning numerous prizes, including the Premio Mediterraneo, but the publisher went bankrupt and never distributed the books.
Claude is revisiting one of the books in English, with a POV that evolved from first-person dog to third-person, and now back to first-person. However, the main characters are a plucky 12-year-old girl and a six-foot blue elf named Triskel.
Writing Resources that Make a Difference
Claude agrees with other authors I’ve interviewed that finding a supportive group of writers or a writing community is crucial. She has two groups she connects with: the “Brussels Writers” (they organize weekly Zoom calls) and her classmates from a Curtis Brown course she signed up for years ago to help writers with their pitch package (they stay in touch via Zoom and a Slack channel).
Claude notes that most major literary agencies offer courses nowadays. A few other resources she recommends include:
- Reedsy: a platform that provides authors and publishers access to talented professionals, tools, and free educational content to change the way books are published
- Jericho Writers: offering writers expert editorial assistance to help authors write, edit, and get their books published
- Book Baby: offers self-publishing services for every step of your journey.
Advice to Writers About Writing
With an inherent and continuing fascination with the world around you and a desire to put everything down into words, writers and journalists share common challenges, too.
One is to figure out what works for the writer for note-taking. Ideally the system needs to be readily accessible, making it easy to capture ideas whenever they appear. And we all get ideas in the middle of the night, navigating online, or when we’re on the move.
Claude’s approach combines a pen and paper on her bedside table with Google Docs. She creates a document per idea or topic, later adding subheadings to create a table of contents for more straightforward navigation.
Beyond that, Claude says, “Write, write, write, and read, read, read! The two go together because your writing gets stuck in a rut if you don’t read.”
Old Favorites and Current Reading
Some of her favorite reads include:
- Russian writers, from Tolstoy to Solgenytsin
- Portuguese writers, including Saramago and Pexeito
- French writer Jean-Paul Dubois with his “extraordinary approach to novel writing, heavily mixed with a journalistic style”
- Recent bestsellers such as “Where the Crawdads Sing” reflects a growing trend of “crossover genres,” in Claude’s opinion
What’s in the Pipeline
Claude is currently juggling three book projects:
- “Triskel”, about kids going down into the Mount Etna volcano and getting lost in an alternate world, is the first of a potential series
- Historical fiction for adults set during the great siege of Malta by Suleiman the Ottoman Sultan
- Historical fiction about Lievin Bauwens, one of Napoleon’s favorite businessmen who stole the spinning jenny, a multi-spindle spinning frame, and one of the key developments in the industrialization of textile manufacturing
Bio: Shahnaz Radjy
Shahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project.
Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania, Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.
http://casabeatrix.pt/ shows the adventurous spirit of Shahnaz and her husband, François. First, they traveled the world working on farms to hone their skills, and since 2017 have been in Portugal. They bought an old farm in 2018, and are turning their biggest dream into an unforgettable farm / nature / disconnect-to-reconnect experience they would love to share with you.
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