"It was a mad, wonderful experiment for my family," says Wellington writer Damien Wilkins of his new novel, Somebody Loves Us All. Experiment? Images spring to mind of Wilkins, his public servant wife Maree, and their two daughters, 15-year-old Geraldine and 10-year-old Greta, turned into human guinea-pigs in the name of literary research. But no, Wilkins is talking about his sojourn in France last year as the New Zealand Post Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow.

"Before we left, we felt the fellowship was going to be challenging. My grasp of French was stuck in 5th form and, as for the girls, we enrolled them in the Alliance Francaise in Wellington for three weeks, so at least they could say 'bonjour' and 'au revoir'.

Once we arrived in Menton, though, they picked up the language quickly, and because they attended schools there, they pulled us into the life of the community. We got around to people's homes and became actively involved in school life. We loved it so much we stayed on beyond the nine months of the residency. In the end, we were very sad to leave. Every day there was an adventure."

In truth, Wilkins' life has always had the frisson of adventure about it. As a child, his passion was reading - the Biggles series and classic boyhood thrillers by Hammond Innes - rather than writing. Becoming an author only came after stints playing football, acting (he just missed out on the lead in Ian Mune's 1976 film adaptation of The God Boy) and joining punk bands.

When Wilkins did pick up the pen in the 1980s, he did so with characteristic elan, so much so that today, in his late 40s, he can lay claim to an extensive literary output, including six novels, two short story collections, a book of poetry, a play, editing a Montana Award winning anthology, writing several episodes of hit television series The Insider's Guide to Happiness, and teaching the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University.

Along the way he has won the 1991 Heinemann Reed Fiction Award, the 1994 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and been awarded the 2000 University of Victoria Writing Fellowship. Still, the sense of discovery in writing remains. Take the plot of Somebody Loves Us All. It's about speech therapist Paddy Thompson's exploits with various problem clients, his sudden passion for cycling and turmoil over his mother Teresa's strange speech impediment. "The act of writing the novel turned into a journey," Wilkins explains.

"To begin with, I didn't have anything specific that I wanted to work on in Menton. All I took with me was a small newspaper cutting from the Evening Post, published 10 years ago, which told of how a black South African woman had woken up one day with a thick Scottish brogue. I worried whether it had enough dramatic potential. I only found that out once I arrived in France when, literally, I had to begin writing the book from page one.

"That might sound like an impulsive way of writing a novel, but it proved very useful. The idea I took with me was about speech, accent, language and communication. And there I suddenly was in France, living in a non-English speaking country while trying to write prose in English, which brought an intensity to bear upon language for me. "The ways in which we communicate; our means of communicating beyond language; what an accent does to people's perception of you: every idea about communication came to the forefront of my thinking. It showed me how accidental and adventurous writing can be sometimes."

The same was true of another of the novel's themes: cycling. "I've done a little bit of biking, but I'm not obsessed with my bike like Paddy is. For him, getting a bike is a life-decision, almost like buying a sports car, a mid-life thing that men do. So cycling became a way for me to understand him. Having my characters on cycles also got them moving around inside the novel. And it led me to develop echoes to Teresa's past. It was another of those fortuitous aspects of writing this novel."

Now Somebody Loves Us All is finished, Wilkins' life is a mix of exhilaration and anxiety. "I've finished my second play, based on Thomas Hardy's death. I started it in Menton. It's quite a thrill to be engaged with actors and watch the words I've written come out of the mouths of live bodies. Apart from that though, there's nothing else on the horizon. That's a bit scary. But I've learnt to accept that presently I'm in a slight fallow period, looking round for new inspiration for work and hoping something might pop into my brain soon."

For the time being, Wilkins' focus isn't literary but familial. "Our year in France continues to affect us," he says. "Beyond the language, there's been a change, too, in the girls' views of themselves. They now know about the wider world beyond New Zealand and their place in it."

A novel, a play and noticing your children's maturity: it shows how exciting a year in France can be.

* Somebody Loves Us All (VUP $38)