Partners in Crime: Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Another installment today in our Partners in Crime series. Today I welcome Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen who write the Winemaker Detective Series.
Prize-winning author Jean-Pierre Alaux–a magazine, radio and television journalist and true Epicurean–teamed up with writer and musician Noël Balen to write the Winemaker Detective Series, which now has 20 books and is a hit on television in France. The series follows master winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his sidekick Virgile Lanssien in their adventures solving mysteries in vineyards throughout France and beyond. Together they explore the underworld of a global luxury industry, where there’s money, deceit, death, crime, inheritance, jealousy—all the ingredients needed to distill a fine detective series. The first of the series, Treachery in Bordeaux (www.treacheryinbordeaux.com) just came out in English from Le French Book. Here the authors discuss writing this series together.
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen:
It all began while we were sharing a meal, with a bottle of Château Gaudou 1996, a red wine from Cahors with smooth tannins and a balanced nose. During the dinner, our conversation heated up as we discussed fiction adapted for television. Quickly, we came to the realization that there were no series that mixed elements of France’s cultural heritage with a mystery plot, that there were no recurring characters that brought together terroir—local history and tradition and flavor—and a whodunit. What we needed was a fictional hero involved in the wine industry, one of the most renowned areas where the French excel. We needed a character that could be mobile, that could go from one region to another, could touch on all the various aspects of winemaking, from grape growing to bottling, and that it could be none other than a winemaker, an oenologist, an expert who in and of himself symbolizes both the knowledge and the way of life.
Two days later, in an afternoon of sitting in front a fire, with Armagnac and Havana cigars, we outlined the series, noting down the full, extremely detailed pedigree of our hero, the Franco-British Benjamin Cooker (the name was chosen due to the historical bonds and winemaking traditions that link Great Britain to France), with a precise table of his family and colleagues. Then we came up with a list of wines and wine regions that we dreamed about. Without worrying about future readers, we imagined the wines and the landscapes that made us want to push this adventure further. It turned out that readers had the same desires and expectations as we did.
Once we finished this initial work, we wrote ten summaries that covered several wines and a variety of plot lines. At that stage, the hard part was making a consistent and credible central character who was both a winemaking consultant and writer of a guide.
Then came the issue of writing it the two of us together. How were we going to work on it together and give our readers smooth-reading novels? Especially since one writes days, the other nights, one uses a Mac, the other a PC. We built complicity over time based on each of our personalities. We work together to outline the basic idea of each book, generally over a good meal with generous servings of wine. Our ideas come together and the story takes form. There is no miracle for working together. Each book brings together our complementary knowledge to serve the new plot. The main character Benjamin Cooker has necessarily part of both of us in him, what we are or what we would have liked to be. That’s the nature of fiction writing.
At first, we split up the on-site research based on our own affinities. For example, Jean-Pierre took Champagne, while Noël was more interested in Burgundy wines. Everything happens very naturally once we both agree on the plot lines. As we explore the regions, several aspects of the stories are modified based on the reality in each place (details concerning habitat, technical issues linked to specific wines, topography, historical anecdotes, and the like) and, above all, based on encounters we made. Real people from the various winemaking regions are often integrated with fictional characters.
Each one of us writes a first draft. Then we discuss our points of view on the manuscript, compare our reading and our opinions. We enrich each other and our stories with our individual knowledge about wine. Finally, the writing is harmonized based on a style guide we established to respect the specific feel of the series, which we want to be classic. I should also mention the attentive and very demanding read that our editor Claude Durand gives each manuscript.
We have established a pace that allows us to produce two novels a year. We are always happy to meet with our Winemaker Detective characters time and time again. The production schedule may seem intense (we are currently writing books twenty-one and twenty-two), but we now have to supply enough literary material for the screenwriters to adapt to the very successful, large-audience television series.
Every time we open a bottle, we raise a glass to Benjamin Cooker and his accomplices, who are now among our friends. Without this complicity, we would never have been able to write so many books together.