One of the most wonderful experiences of my writing life was when I was awarded a six-month residency at the Keesing Studio in Paris from February-August 2010. The Keesing Studio is a flat whose residencies are administered by the Australia Council, but which is part of the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, a massive complex housing lots of studios where artists from all disciplines from across the world can live and work for residencies of specific time limits. (Incidentally, the Keesing Studio and other artist residency locations, including in the Cité, feature in some interesting research done by the Australia Council recently, which you can read here.)
As the Australia Council’s website indicates, the Keesing Studio was generously leased in 1985 for 75 years by the late author Nancy Keesing ‘to provide Australian writers with the opportunity to live and write in a new and stimulating environment.’ It’s certainly that! The flat itself is small (40 sq m altogether, comprising of one main room–living, sleeping and working space–with separate but very small kitchen, bathroom and store-room) but it’s clean, warm and functional, and set in an unbeatable location, in the buzzy, bustling Marais neighbourhood on the Right Bank, full of interesting little shops and restaurants. It’s only a few steps away from the Seine, and very close to Notre Dame and many other places.
I went with my husband David (you pay a minimal monthly fee to the Cité for partners to stay) and we both had the best time there, getting to know Paris really well, walking kilometres across it, looking at everything, shopping in local shops and markets, eating wonderful food, both at home and in little local restaurants, going to the theatre, visiting friends and family and feeling like we were really part of life there, not just passing tourists.
The residency was also intensely inspirational: at least three books came out of that six-month stay, though my actual time there was taken up not so much with writing manuscripts as soaking up atmosphere, doing heaps of research, visiting lots of museums, galleries, and sites of interest in Paris, but also outside of it including not only other parts of France, but also Russia, Malta and Italy! And what was more, during the time I was there, the first–yes, the first of my books to be published in French–Three Wishes, written under the pen-name of Isabelle Merlin, and retitled in France as ‘Paul, Charlie et Rose’– was actually released in March 2010 and I got to see it in Paris bookshops and at the wonderful Salon Du Livre(a huge event which is a combination of book trade expo, literary festival and rights fair), as well as having to meet the lovely publishers at Albin Michel.
It was an absolutely wonderful time whose influence continues to inspire me. And I’m not the only writer to feel that. So I thought I’d start this new year with a new series, Paris literary studio, interviewing Australian writers who have been residents in the Keesing Studio, and finding out what their experiences have been. Later in the week I’ll be interviewing the current resident, Ursula Dubosarsky, and later still authors who were there at various times over the years, but today, I’d like to post a short extract from a piece I wrote after coming back from the residency, which was published in Australian Author, back in December 2010. You can get the full article here. (Free to ASA members, tiny price to non-members!)
Despite my French background I did not set foot in Paris till adulthood, because of my father’s Southern dislike of it. Whenever we were back in France, Dad would delight in saying, as our flight circled over Paris on its way to Toulouse, ‘That’s exactly where it belongs—under us.’
‘Parisien, tete de chien’ (Parisians are dogs) has always been the vengeful, wounded cry of provincials. For of course Paris adds insult to injury by ignoring the feelings of the innumerable ‘ploucs’ who have converged on it, whether eagerly or resentfully, from all corners of France over the centuries. Plouc is a bogan, a hick, an unsophisticated person–and shorthand for a provincial, as far as Parisians are concerned—an attitude with a very long lineage, for plouc derives from an ancient Gaulish word meaning someone outside the territory of the Parisii, the tribe which ended up giving the city its name.
But I’m Australian, too. I might carry the ingrained Southern prickliness in my genes, but I’ve been brought up in a culture which still regards the City of Light as a romantic dream, witness the many ‘I was in Paris and fell in love’ memoirs which have populated bestseller lists. So the opportunity to cast off my double plouc-ness as Australian and Southern French and immerse myself in Paris living and writing there for six months was irresistible, even though part of me was scared, wondering if I wouldn’t just end up hating the place. Months into my time here, I was still discovering just how disconcertingly wrong I’d been.
Thing is, nobody, not even a vengeful plouc, told me that the big city of big cities is actually not that at all, but rather a collection of villages….