Bestselling novelist and essayist Emily Maguire was the Keesing Studio resident a year ago, and like Ursula Dubosarsky, experienced an event of great sadness to Paris, as she explains in this interview.
When were you resident in the Keesing Studio, and why did you decide to apply?
I was there August 2014 – January 2015. I applied in order to work on what I thought would be my fifth novel, a sprawling, multi-generational story with a strong French thread. As it happened, by the time I arrived I had put that idea aside and was working on a very different novel, An Isolated Incident, which I finished while in residence.
What were your first impressions of the studio, and its neighbourhood, and how did that evolve over your residency?
I had low expectations of the studio itself as I’d been warned it was very basic, so on arrival I was pleasantly surprised. Certainly it was basic, but I was delighted with how roomy it was (for central Paris) and how much natural light came through the wall of windows. I unpacked six months’ worth of stuff immediately and with my clothes hanging in the closet space, my books and photos on the shelves and my laptop on the table, the place felt far more welcoming and homey. My attachment to the studio grew powerfully over my time there to the point where I felt quite defensive about it. The exception was the bathroom which I grew to hate more and more with every water-spraying, floor-drenching, slow-draining shower.
My experience of the neighbourhood was similar, I think. I arrived on a sweltering Saturday at the beginning of August. Many locals had already fled for the summer holidays and so on my first walk around the area it seemed to be all red-faced tourists holding maps and shouting in English. Day by day as I walked and walked I discovered the back streets and connecting alleys, got lost and found my way over and over again. By la rentrée when the locals returned to the city and the school next door, the boulangerie on the corner and dozens of tiny shops and cafes that had been dark all month re-opened, I began the process of re-discovering the neighbourhood and soon fell deeply in love with it.
What were you working on when you were there, and did your original vision for it change over the course of your residency?
As mentioned above, I didn’t work on the novel I’d originally planned to write in Paris. I did, however, take copious notes and photos for that project, which I’m using to write the draft of that novel now, almost a year after I left Paris.
Were you there alone, or with a partner? In either case, what were your favourite things about living in Paris for six months, and your least favourite things?
My partner flew in for two short visits over the six months, but I was mostly alone. My favourite thing by far was being able to visit a different gallery, museum or theatre every other day. I spent many hours a week wandering the city’s art spaces and still didn’t see everything I would’ve liked to. There wasn’t anything I disliked about living in Paris, though the daily reminder that the French I had worked so hard on was gibberish to the locals was dispiriting.
What was it like as a writing/ideas environment?
Incredible. The studio itself – the light, the dancers across the lane, the church bells ringing out -the easy access to extraordinary works of art, the life of the streets and cafes where it’s entirely acceptable to spend hours over a single glass of wine and three lines scribbled on a notebook page, the heart-lifting wonder of walking through a city which, with all its history and relics could be a museum, but is instead living, breathing, ever moving. I barely slept, kept wide awake with inspiration and wonder.
Tell us about your favourite places in Paris–sites, culture, food.
So many! Musée Rodin and Musée de l’Orangerie were museums I returned to throughout my stay. I loved walking along la promenade plantée, which is a long stretch of parkland and path high above the 12th arrondissement. L’ Ebouillante is a sweet little restaurant serving divine galettes, tucked away on rue Barres, very close to the studio. I quickly became a regular there. I also loved just hanging outside the Hôtel de Ville and people watching. When I arrived in August the forecourt had been transformed into a beach volleyball court and I enjoyed drinking
icy cider and watching the action. By my last month, the same space was an ice-skating rink, the cider replaced by mulled wine.
What experiences stand out for you during the residency?
A terribly sad experience, the Charlie Hebdo murders and those at the Jewish supermarket a few days later, stands out, but so does the still sad but immensely heartening show of solidarity and love and peace that occurred the following Sunday. I hadn’t planned to attend as I am anxious in crowds at the best of times and had been deeply shaken by the week’s events. But heading back from the train station I was swept up by the enormous crowd – there seemed no street, no space in the city, that wasn’t part of the demonstration – and I’m so grateful for that. I’ve never felt so safe and so connected as I did while carried along in that ocean of grief-stricken, defiant humanity.
Has the residency had a continuing impact on your work, and if so, in what way?
Oh, yes. Apart from specific materials relating to the long-planned, finally-started novel I went there to write, the inspiration and comfort to be found in visual art was a revelation to me and something I’m working on incorporating into my practice now I’m home.
It’s not been terribly long since my residency, but I feel certain the impact will be long-lasting. And if not, well, I plan to return as soon as possible for a booster shot.