Prize-winning novelist and journalist Matthew Condon looks back on his time at the Keesing studio.
When were you resident in the Keesing studio? And why did you decide to apply?
I was lucky enough to secure the Keesing studio in early 1993, and spent a wonderful seven to eight months there in the Marais. I had applied without a thought that I’d actually secure a spot at the studio, and was stunned when I did. I had published my second novel in 1991 and wasn’t getting any traction on the third, so I had hoped a period in Paris, a completely new environment, might kick-start the book. It did.
What were your first impressions of the studio, and its neighbourhood,and how did that evolve over your residency?
I loved the sparseness of the studio, stripped down to the bare essentials so that work was the priority. Outside, you stepped straight into the thick of the Marais, or could walk a short distance to the Left Bank. It was so rich outside that the workspace demanded simplicity.
What were you working on when you were there, and did your original vision for it change over the course of your residency?
I was working on a novel, The Ancient Guild of Tycoons, which was a satiric parable about Australia and colonialism and all the rest. The book was set on an island literally built out of the garbage of Empire. The leader of the island was a game show host. It was a spoof on Australian history and contemporary life, and I think that satire was sharpened because I was writing it out of the country.
During my time in Paris, I read through pretty much all of Patrick White. His brilliant eye and sharp tongue, I think, kept me on my toes.
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?
I had only been married to my first wife for less than a year when I secured the studio, and she left a relatively high-paying position to join me in Paris. I had a book to write and I think she found the experience at times lonely and disempowering, which was fair enough, although in hindsight it was ultimately an extraordinary experience for both of us, both good and bad.
We made a handful or brilliant friends while we were there. Other expatriates. Artists, writers and photographers from all over the world. A quiet dinner might end in a wild car ride around the Arc de Triomphe at 3am.
I loved settling into a routine. Coffee, a baguette and the International Herald Tribune for breakfast. The excellent table wine in litre bottles from the supermarket. And pre-emails, actually finding letters from home tucked into the studio pigeon-hole.
What was it like as a writing/ideas environment?
It was one of the best environments I’ve worked in. I had a strong idea for the book when I arrived, and I worked pretty much seven days a week on it during my time at the studio. My aim was to produce a first draft by the time my tenure came to an end, and I achieved that. I saw the scholarship as a singular opportunity to get the job done.
Tell us about your favourite places in Paris–sites, culture,food.
It was wonderful that the studio was just a relative short walk to the Louvre, the Picasso Museum, the Seine and Notre Dame, and the Left Bank, which we explored as much as we could. We did, quite literally, count our Francs on a daily basis.
At the time, also, Frank Moorhouse was writing Grand Days in Besancon, in southern France, and we visited one weekend and had one of the most memorable times of our lives.
After six months in Paris we’d made friends with locals and shopkeepers in the neighbourhood, had a small network of literary friends, both French and otherwise across the city, were eking out poor but understandable French sentences, and I at least felt I had made another home.
Then we had to return to Australia.
What experiences stand out for you during the residency?
I was only 31 at the time and even though I’d travelled throughout Europe and the United States etc. to that point, and had lived in Germany and the U.K.for my journalism work, I had never had the luxury of writing fiction full time, let alone in one of the world’s great cities.
It gave me a better understanding of the potential life of the writer. It was the first time I had been granted absolute freedom in my writing life, albeit for just six months.
I have never since replicated the excitement, the energy, the eagerness to begin a day’s work writing fiction.
Another thing. I learned very quickly that the French valued, indeed treasured, artistic pursuit, especially writing. No matter how lowly, obscure, or indeed completely unknown you were, they lit up when you told them you were a writer.
The other great experience was befriending a beautiful young French couple with a small child who lived on the Left Bank. They were sophisticated, worldly, sublime. Then one day, while I went out for a jog, I saw the man in that relationship leaving a hotel arm in arm with another beautiful woman, this time on the Right Bank.
He caught my eye and smiled and winked, and kept walking. The wink said: a wife on the Left bank and a mistress on the Right; this if Paris.
I’m not sure if the marriage lasted.
Has the residency had a continuing impact on your work, and if so, in what way?
Only in the sense that I’ve wondered ever since how my work might have been different through the years if I’d been able to sustain, both financially and creatively, that freedom the studio gifted me.
It also gave me some sort of validation as a writer (something we seem to look for, permanently and forever, form wherever), and that I was on my way. At the time, it was one of the most important things to happen to my career. I still cherish the memories of it.
The book I completed there sold a handful of copies when published in Australia and has never been reprinted, but it remains one of my favourites, if one can have a favourite, because of the extraordinary context in which it was created.
I only need to pull if off the shelf and hold it, and I’m back in the studio, at my desk, looking out onto cobbled streets, watching the yellow street lamps glow at dusk, hearing the street symphonies of Paris, and I’d give almost anything to be back there again, blissful in the knowledge that with just a third novel I still didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was having a hell of a time doing it.