Well-known children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky is the current resident of the Keesing Studio in Paris, having started her residency in August 2015, and finishing in February 2016. Today, I’m featuring an interview with her about her experiences and observations during her stay so far.
Ursula, what made you decide to apply for the Paris residency?
Once I heard about it many years ago I guess it was always there in the back of my mind – a flat in Paris! What a wonderful thought, why wouldn’t I apply? But I had to wait for my children to grow up (you can only have one child under seven in the flat) and then they did grow up and one of them (daughter Maisie) moved to Paris. Then we noticed my husband Avi was owed six months long service leave, I had an idea for a novel brewing – so it all made sense and I applied.
What were your first impressions of the Keesing studio and its neighbourhood,and what are your impressions now?
The impression of the neighbourhood is – marvellous historic area, minutes’ walk across the bridge to Notre Dame – beautiful old streets, houses, museums, galleries, churches, cakes, tourists, restaurants, wine, traffic, soldiers, sirens, graffiti, rain and sun, beautiful clouds, street music, dogs, late nights and late starting mornings. These impressions have remained from the beginning – I suppose now obviously I know the streets a little better and am a tiny bit more aware of all the depths beneath the surface.
Our impression of the Keesing studio is also the same as at the beginning – clean, warm and functional. (more about the Cité itself at the end)
What are you working on there? And have you found your plans for it have changed since you arrived?
I’m working on a novel – I don’t know if my plans have exactly changed, but you can’t help but being changed by what you see and hear. I would find it hard to put into words though (hopefully in the book!)
Both for yourself and for Avi, what are your favourite things so far about living in Paris for six months–and the least favourite?
Well there’s no getting away from it, Paris is astonishing. The amount of cultural activity is staggering. Museums, galleries, parks, gardens, theatre, music – there is just so so so much, all the time. The beauty of Paris too is ceaselessly impressive. Avi roams around Paris on his motor scooter, whereas I prefer to walk. I walk for miles. Most of Paris is flat, you can walk anywhere with little physical effort.
Because we know we are only here for a short time, there is an undercurrent of urgency about seeing and doing as much as we can and there is so so so very very much. So daily life is quite exhausting. But I find it hard to think of negatives about Paris, obviously they exist, but the positives are just so brilliantly shiny…
What do you think of it in terms of a writing/ideas environment? What are the pleasures, and the challenges? What influence do you think you think your residency will have on your writing?
I have been writing, although perhaps not as much as I thought I would. The flat has a certain sterility, which makes you want to go out. People write in cafes, but I find it hard to sit still. I’m constantly walking and writing in my head, constantly thinking. The experiences here will persist all my life and inevitably influence what I write.
Tell us about some of your favourite places in Paris–sites, culture, food, places,etc.
I think most of all I have loved going to the theatre. There is just SO much. So many small (indeed tiny) independent theatres as well as the larger theatres. You could go to something different every night of the week, classic and contemporary – in fact you could go to several different things every night of the week if only it were possible. It’s like being at a non-stop theatrical festival. The theatre is also very affordable – you can get tickets to most things for about 15 euros.
Other things? I love the church that is only a few minutes from the flat, St Gervais. Beautiful mysterious and so old. I love the Petit Palais. I love the Rue des Rosiers. I love Notre Dame especially at night. I loved going out to Giverny, and the Orangerie. The weekend of the “patriomoine” (in September) was absolutely fantastic, when they open up hundreds of culturally significant buildings for you to wander into, with fantastic guides. Talking of guided
tours, they can be so good too, accept every offer. I recently went on a a brilliant one of Truffaut’s Paris for example.
I love the cemeteries of Paris. Completely beautiful.
There’s just so many things. Too many. I loved the squares and the gardens. The architecture. The cafe life. The sense of things constantly being created and recreated.
I have also loved improving my French. That has been a real and deep pleasure.
Now you are heading towards the end of your residency, what stands out for you in what you have experienced?
Well our daughter Maisie got married while we were here (not anticipated when I applied for the residency) – that was obviously a wonderful thing for us to be there. On the down side were the November terrorist attacks which were a couple of kilometres from the flat.
I went to a very memorable and exciting annual festival of children’s books in Montreuil, the Salon du Livre de la Jeunesse. Met some great people – writers, illustrators, publishers, and foreign rights agents etc.
It has also been such a pleasure having people we know from Australia and elsewhere drop by to visit, wandering, talking, eating and drinking together.
What are your top tips for writers and illustrators planning to apply for the residency?
That’s a hard one! I can only say, apply apply!
I would learn as much French as you can before you come – then you can enjoy so many more things, like the theatre, guided tours, television, newspapers, public talks etc etc as well as enjoying yourself more in shops and restaurants. The Cité (the institution where the flat is) does offer French lessons twice a week for a charge, but the class is so composite (complete beginners to advanced all in the same large class) we did not find it very helpful. We both found other places for French classes – Avi goes to the local council which have very good almost free classes and he also goes to a private college. I go to a small private group on Boulevard St Germain.
Finally, just a word about the Cité Internationale des Arts: I think it’s important to be aware that the institution itself is not a community, but rather a building full of artists and musicians (very few writers), most of whom you will never see.
There is no common room or library, or outdoor area for people to gather and meet informally. The hallways are long, dark and empty and without decoration. (There is also a strange absence of a sense of history – hundreds, perhaps thousands of artists have lived here since the 1970s but they seem to leave not a single trace.) There is some communication between residents via email etc, alerting you to performances or invitations to visit their work in progress in their studio, and there is an occasional free lunch party in the car park for all residents, but these are fairly sticky occasions. So it is not an artists’ community as might be imagined, but more an accommodation facility. Worth remembering before you go