Thanks to the hospitality of the Perry family of Toronto, Nicole and I were able to spend a week in their very cool old house in Cotignac, in the south of France, in August of 2000. (Thanks to my overactive imagination and the sheer oldness of the house I enjoyed several terrified nights there, but that's not really relevant here.)
Others might have simply eaten cheese
After I first read about Marshal Ney in The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes I decided that Empress of Asia could use a character who, like me, thought the marshal was incredibly cool, and it followed that such a character, like Ney, would be French. Nicole and I had only ended up in France because the Perrys had offered us such a great place to stay, but all the same I was keyed up to compile local details that might flesh the character out -- the details of home that Michel could dwell on in a Southeast Asian prison camp.
A journal excerpt (the original of which is incredibly hard to read)
"August 28. Packed up the green bag with water, camera, Let's Go, cookies, sunscreen for proposed trip by car to Brignoles, 20km/30 minutes away, and possibly by train from there to Aix/Arles/
"There's a station in Brignoles but we had no idea of schedules. On the road by 8:45, a beautiful morning, vineyards, farms, hillsides, tawny-coloured brick. In Brignoles we found the station on a strangely-deserted tree-lined boulevard. I asked the lady haltingly if there were any trains to Marseilles or Aix and she said there weren't any trains from there, period, and I tended to believe her since there was no way to get from the office to the platform.
"We went home, and as we drove up the cours the village fire alarm was sounding from up on the hill and the same spaniel as yesterday was standing on the corner howling along with it. N. took a nap and I did some research business in town, copied out names from the WWI monument and some epitaphs from the cemetery as possible background stuff for the novel.
"There's a pump beside the gate to the cemetery where ladies fill their jars for watering plants on graves. Mostly family plots; saw a lady carefully tending one where the last burial was 1978. Also a few plots where the plants are dead and dried, like somebody tried and gave up. On the way home I made day's purchases of a baguette, camembert and a bottle of wine. All came to 26F, 16 of which was cheese."
The waxed moustache
So it was only because no trains left from Brignoles that I ended up going to the Cotignac cemetery. The back of my journal contains three scrawled pages of gravestone inscriptions -- most notable for the fictional Michel Ney:
A mon Epoux bien-aimé
décésé le 6 Avril 1895
des suites des maladies
contractées en Chine
âgé de 31 ans
(photo set in stone shows sailor w. waxed moustache & low hairline)
I figured that for the young Michel, growing up in an isolated French village, this image of a sailor coming home to die of maladies contracted in distant, mysterious China would've been about the most romantic thing possible. So poor Henri Mallet was conscripted to be Michel Ney's maternal grandfather; Michel needed one, after all.