Stephanie Dagg has had 30 books published, the majority translated into four languages. The France-based author tells Jeremy Hobson about her career and why she thinks poultry are under-represented in literature
How did you first become interested in chicken keeping? After moving to our new house in the wilds of County Cork in Ireland 15 years ago, our farming neighbours asked us to chicken-sit their small flock when they went on holiday. A week of tending these characterful birds and enjoying newly-laid eggs made us want our own. We had a big garden that was perfect for a few free-ranging birds. The minute the neighbour had returned from holiday, I obtained the address of her chicken supplier. The next day my youngest son and I, equipped with a cardboard box, headed off into the even wilder wilds of County Cork to find the supplier. The lady in question led us out to a barn, opened the door and, in one swift movement, grabbed two of the occupants by the legs. These indignant, upside-down birds were now mine and I haven’t looked back since.
What breed were those early birds and what do you keep now? Those first two, called Lady Egg and Princess Layla, were brown hybrids. They were excellent egg layers and half a dozen of Lady’s won the egg class at the Bandon Show one year. The local breed here in Creuse in Nouvelle Aquitaine is the striking grey Limousin, and I have had plenty of those. I’ve also had Sussex, Rhode Island Reds, Marans and Silkies. Currently I have a small flock of home-bred hybrids and six beautiful Brahmas. This breed is without doubt my favourite. They are so good natured and I love their feathery trousers. I call them my doorstep chickens as that’s where they can usually to be found.
What is it about poultry — as you also have turkeys, quail, ducks and a goose — that you love so much? They are such interesting, positive and active creatures. They are intelligent (well, maybe not the turkeys), tolerant, useful in so many ways and also beautiful. They bring a garden to life. I couldn’t be without them. I have quite an array of exotic birds, too.
Your latest novel, Haircuts, Hens and Homicide, has been described as being “the perfect warm, feel-good read, with plenty of humour, mayhem, mystery and hens”. Is this your usual style? I started out as a children’s author and my first two books were published 20 years ago. I’ve had another 30 published since then and they have been translated into four languages. I’ve written and self-published two accounts of my experiences as an expat in France (where I moved in 2006) — Heads Above Water and Total Immersion — that give a spattered-by-mud view of France rather than a rose-tinted one. My poultry get plenty of mentions in those books.
I also write light-hearted fiction, of which my latest is one example. It’s a cosy mystery, a genre I really enjoy. And since I’m also a llama farmer, llamas feature in my other books. In my opinion, hens and llamas are under represented in literature, so I am trying to do something about it.
My latest book includes a flock of wandering Vorweks, a breed I have always admired but never owned, and a flock of four that the book’s heroine, Megan, inherits from her gran. Edith, one of the four, is entirely based on Cynthia, a sturdy Sussex I had for six years. She was a bossy old bird, full of character. It was a sad day when she died.
How do you manage to combine your writing career, llamas, chicken-keeping, running a 75-acre farm and a carp fishery? Life is certainly busy, but interesting, and if ever things start to pile up then I take my lead from the hens: I keep my pecker up and tackle them one at a time with chicken-like determination.
To find out more about Stephanie, her chickens and life in France, see her blog: www.bloginfrance.com/about.