Paris literary studio 9: Marion Halligan

Today, Marion Halligan, distinguished author of novels, creative non fiction and short stories, recounts her experience of a Keesing Studio residency.

When were you in the Keesing Studio? Why did you decide to apply?

I was there in 1991. I decided to apply because I had lived for several years in Paris, and love it, and wanted to go again. I think I didn’t get offered it, but then somebody pulled out and I did.

What were your first impressions of the studio, and its neighbourhood,and how did that evolve over your residency?

They were wonderful. I understood what a glorious address it was; put your head out the window and there was the Seine, in the other direction was the Marais. The people were a bit grumpy and the space exigent, but that’s Paris. There was only one table for working and meals and I hate having to clear my work away, but Jean-Paul Delamotte lent us a small wooden one which was terrific. In my

Marion, husband Graham, and a friend in the studio, 1991

Marion, husband Graham, and a friend in the studio, 1991

novel I had my heroine tie the two singled beds together with ropes of plastic bags but I didn’t think of that at the time and they had a tendency to skate apart and interleaving the single sized sheets and blankets wasn’t hugely successful. But I never lost my sense of what a fabulous place it was to live.

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 first of all working on the proofs of Lovers’ Knots. It has the most expensive phrase of any of my books. The editor queried the chronology of ‘hippies in Nimbin’, she was afraid the novel was set too early. It took a number of long distance phone calls to clarify (before the days of Google) and I finally came up with ‘people living on a disused dairy farm near Murwillumbah’. Then I started writing The Golden Dress, which I conceived there and wrote quite a bit of; it began with the clochard (tramp, homeless person, there’s no real good translation) who at that time was sleeping in the underground parking station opposite (the Cîté building hadn’t been started then) and wandering Paris in the day. Jean Kent was there shortly after me and she has some poems on the same subject; an interesting comparison. I found myself torn: if I was home working I thought, I should be out experiencing Paris, if I was out experiencing Paris I thought I should be home working. I got to know a visual artist, Ron McBride, who had none of these worries, he was out and about all day, in galleries and just looking at the city, and I finally did more of that. I worked very well on the book; since I thought of it there it developed out of that and I finished it when I got back.

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 husband was there most of the time. I used to say, the only thing worse than having him there would have been not having him there, which of course was true but simple-minded. He was a French scholar and had his own connections with Paris, he’d been a student at the Ecole Normale Superieure and could work there. And he was on long service leave and didn’t feel a need to work too hard. He did a lot of the housework, the shopping, went to the Laundromat, washed the floor. As it dried you could see that dust already sifting down on to it. We got on well, the space wasn’t really a problem, though I know other people found it so. Tim Winton with wife and two children hated it (see The Riders) and didn’t speak French; it is hard for a writer not to be fluent in the language of his surroundings. I think I turned the perception of the place round; before me people complained a lot. I pointed out that for that address in Paris the space was to be expected, that it was a wonderful area to live. That the whole thing was a fantastic privilege.

In my day you only got the studio, no money to live on. Mme Bruneau the director whose husband had built the place was very fierce; she wouldn’t speak English, made you work on your French. When Brian Matthews who was chair of the Literature Board at the time came to see her he asked Graham along to translate. Wonders: she could speak excellent English. She was trying to persuade him to buy another apartment; the King of Morocco had just acquired a second. I think the Board thought one was enough. She told me I could come and stay anytime if there was a vacancy; I would have to pay rent of course. But when I wrote and asked she didn’t answer.

What was it like as a writing/ideas environment?

Full of stimulus. I looked out of the window and ideas came. So much to see: the clochard, the sculptors welding in the courtyards opposite, people coming for Jewish ceremonies in the centre next door. Music, classical, and haunting delicate Arab songs. And of course none of the usual responsibilities of home, garden, family.

Tell us about your favourite places in Paris–sites, culture,food.

As I say, the address was marvellous. I loved going along the river, crossing the bridge to the Ile St Louis, calling in to Notre Dame, walking down the rue de Rivoli, shopping for food. Sometimes I caught the metro to the rue Monge which had a fabulous market. Shopping and eating in France is a great pleasure to me, and even the skimpy kitchen sort of worked. I made Christmas dinner for five; Graham spent all morning shucking five dozen oysters, friends brought venison which we pot roasted in the lovely le Creuset pot. Slight disaster: I bought a Bertillon ice cream the night before and put it in the freezer. It fitted, and it didn’t occur to me that the freezer didn’t actually freeze. It ended up a runny cream, not very nice, it was so rich it needed to be cold and firm to be palatable. I bought a little tree and covered it with red ribbon bows, and it is still happily growing in a village garden near Fontainebleau.

Twelfth Night celebration at the flat with friends.

Twelfth Night celebration at the flat with friends.

I loved the buses, I mostly went places by bus because of the scenery. On Sundays we went to free music concerts in churches, St Merri, St Louis de l’Isle, the chapel of the Salpetrière Hospital. Loved St Eustache, the market church in Les Halles, and St Gervais-St Proté just at the back. There was a sign on our nearest cross street saying Couperin had lived there. We ate delicious meals in modest restaurants. Called in to cafes for glasses of wine from time to time. Wandered in the Luxembourg Gardens and the Palais Royale. Graham rang up the Louvre every day for a fortnight to find out when the cabinets of Flemish old masters would be open. We’d hired a phone from a shop in the rue de Rivoli which was a very good idea. We had lots of interesting visitors; they couldn’t stay with us of course but we could go out for meals. One night we were walking home from a restaurant with Robert Dessaix and he stood and laughed his head off while I ratted round in a large box full of coathangers put out for the rubbish, on the pavement in front of an elegant dress shop. I got a number of fine wood and metal ones; I wonder are they still there? Robert said, Wait till I get home and tell people about Marion Halligan scavenging in the rubbish in Paris. I used to scavenge a lot, people put out things useful for me, like a stout herring box I used as a bedside table and outside a florist some long twigs very handy for stopping the shower curtain billowing in and clammily embracing the bather. It was all a great adventure.

What experiences stand out for you during the residency?

I think the main thing was simply living there. I have always liked doing that when I travel, living like a local. Walking round the quartier, going into churches and museums (like the Picasso museum) and we had a card to get in free which was wonderful. I like the simple domestic life. We had a Green Guide to Paris and wandered around – I suppose we were flaneurs. Writing for me is a lot about contemplation, and there was space to do that.

Has the residency had a continuing impact on your work, and if so, in what way?

I think so. The Golden Dress (I wanted to call it Shagreen) was an important book for me, short-listed for the Miles Franklin, I learned a lot from writing it which has stayed with me. I have spent quite a lot of time in Paris since, but that time was very special. I was offered an extra month since somebody had to postpone coming but I refused it, I was ready to go home after my allotted time. The thing about being somewhere like Paris for me is the perspective it gives on my own country; the distant view is very useful. The Golden Dress has lots of scenes in Paris but it is a book about Australians and a lot of it is set in Australia. It is not really about the clochard but about an Australian painter who becomes himself the clochard he sees out the window. For me writing about a painter is a way of writing about a writer. Everything a writer does feeds into being a writer; when I was doing my tax I used to say that my whole life should be a tax deduction, since that was where the work came from.

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