Paris literary studio 4: John Foulcher

John at work in the studio

John at work in the studio

Today I am featuring an interview with distinguished poet John Foulcher, who was the Keesing Studio resident right after me.

When were you the Keesing studio resident? And why did you decide to apply for the residency?

I was resident in the Keesing studio in the latter part of 2010 and the January of 2011. I applied for the studio because I felt my writing was stagnating a little and I felt I needed some time and stimulus to give it a kick start. I couldn’t imagine a better place for this than Paris, which is my favourite city. I also didn’t think I had a hope of getting it; I was over the moon when I did.

What did you work on while you were there, and did it change from your original conception as a result of the residency?

This sounds terribly pretentious, but I wanted to write poems about the relationship between the physical and the spiritual while I was in Paris – a sort of dialogue between body and soul. Also, I’d been reading a lot about French history, particularly the revolutionary past of Paris. So many of our roots are there, and I wanted to see this up close. I remember standing in the Pere Lachaise cemetery at the wall when the last communards were lined up and shot in 1870. The bullet holes are still there. I remember finding Robespierre’s last residence on the rue St Honore, a very chic clothing shop now. There were many other such times.

The concept didn’t change much but the way I explored it did. I realised when I got to Paris that I really didn’t know much. The final book of poetry, called The Sunset Assumption was very different to the one I thought I’d write.

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

I loved the studio and the neighbourhood from the moment I arrived. Yes, the studio is only small and very basic, but it’s in such a good spot and the rue Geoffroy L’Asnier is wonderful. As soon as we arrived, I went for a walk by myself – within five minutes I found myself on the Ile de la Cite standing in front of Notre Dame de Paris. In the coming months, that became our nightly walk – I had to keep reminding myself to be astonished! I loved the Ile St Louis, and the Marais is terrific. And there are three Metro stops which will take you just about anywhere in Paris.

Walking to the local boulangerie, summer

Walking to the local boulangerie, summer

Through the course of the residency, I explored the area deeper and deeper. I found the best days weren’t the ones where you were going to the Louvre and so on, but the ones where you were just ‘hanging around’ buying groceries, having a coffee in a street café or wandering down to the Seine with a book.

A close friend once said to me that, of all the cities he’d visited, Paris is the one which makes you feel most alive. I found that to be true.

Your wife Jane came with you on the residency. Thinking of it in terms of both of you, what were your favourite things about living in Paris for six months–and your least favourite things?

Strange as it may sound, I loved the churches of Paris most. Not just Notre Dame, but others as well – St Severin in the 5th, for example, or St Eustache in the 3rd. No matter what one believes, Paris wouldn’t be the same without its churches. They take you back into history and beyond into another space. I hate it when people call barbaric practices ‘medieval’; ‘Go and spend some time in Notre Dame,’ I feel like saying, ‘or Chartres Cathedral – then tell me things were barbaric in medieval times.’ We’re too fond of caricaturing the past, of pretending our age is superior.

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St Gervais-St Protais

As the residency went on, we found ourselves going to vespers at St Gervais-St Protais, just around the corner from the Cite, every night. There was a working community of nuns and monks there called the Fraternities of Jerusalem, most of them quite young, and their chanting and the almost physical silences there were among the most deeply moving experiences of my life. The last time I went there on a cold January evening, I left in tears. It’s left a gap in my life I haven’t been able to fill. I often say, since then, that I believe all church services should be conducted in a language the congregation doesn’t understand; words, in the end, just get in the way.

Evening strolls by the Seine were also sublime, as is the Place des Vosges.

My least favourite things were my own inadequacies – I have a very good French accent and I would practise interactions with shop-keepers and so on, but they talked so fast in return I found myself completely lost. I felt like such a fool. Even ordering a coffee was a traumatic experience. By the time the residency was coming to an end, though, Jane and I remarked that Parisians were starting to speak a lot slower. How considerate of them!

The number of homeless people and refugees in the centre of Paris was also deeply unsettling. In his novel, The City & the City, British author China Mieville explores the notion of interlocking cities and the idea of perception. In that novel, the premise is that two cities are built on precisely the same spot but one chooses to ‘unsee’ the other. There are many cities in Paris, and we choose daily to see only one of them, the ‘prettiest’ one.

What did you think of it as a writing/ideas environment?

My publisher said to me on my return that if one can’t be inspired to write in Paris, one can’t be inspired anywhere. Every day poems would come tumbling in the window in Paris. It rejuvenated my writing at a time when I thought I was about to stop. It’s all sensory and intellectual overload.

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

Too many to mention. As I said before, I loved the churches, the Place des Vosges. There were other places – the Rodin Museum, the George Pompidou centre, the Albert Khan gardens in the 16th, the Luxembourg Gardens, which William Faulkner described as the most civilised natural space in the world. I loved a wonderful little restaurant we found in the 7th called Le Timbre. The markets were terrific as well, and the boulangeries.

walking to the local boulangerie, winter

walking to the local boulangerie, winter

What experiences stand out for you in those six months in Paris?

I think I’ve just about covered that. The only thing I’d say, finally, is that I thought my stay in Paris would be quite a solitary one, like a retreat. It wasn’t. I met so many people, particularly through the Cite – I met people at French lessons and in the laundromat. Not many of them were French, mind you, but I met artists and writers from all over the world. I made good friends with a Swiss artist, Judit Villiger, who did the illustrations for the hardcover edition of The Sunset Assumption.

The most significant single event for me was 2010 New Year’s Eve – we went for drinks on the Ile de la Cite with Judit and her husband Cristophe, then we all went to midnight mass at St Gervais (it went for two hours; it was fabulous – but it was also freezing!) and then we drank champagne in our studio with them until 3.30 in the morning. One December morning, also, I woke to find it snowing heavily – I rushed up to the Place des Vosges, which was deserted. In the snow, it was breathtaking.

I also found Parisians, by and large, to be helpful and friendly, if a little brusque and formal. It’s a cliché, I know, but if you try to communicate to them in French rather than expecting them to decipher your English, they were always so much warmer. I would be too.le timbre

Do you think the residency has had a lasting impact on your work? In what way?

Yes, I think it’s had a huge impact on my work. I think I’m now writing better than I ever have. As well as simply the visceral, vivid nature of the experience, I think that operating in a culture where you struggle with language is good your writing poetry – it forces you to think about the nature of language in quite a minute way. Words become particular things –  wonderful, intricate things.

I’m so grateful for the residency. It was one of the most richly fulfilling experiences of my life.

I remember walking by the Seine one morning, absorbed in it all. I remember thinking: ‘Someone is paying me to be a writer in Paris. Could it get any better than this?’

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Paris literary studio 3: Tony Maniaty

Tony Maniaty in Keesing Studio Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

Tony Maniaty in Keesing Studio Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

Today I’m interviewing award-winning author, journalist, reviewer and screenwriter Tony Maniaty, who was resident at the Keesing Studio only four years after its lease was gifted to the Australia Council’s Literature Board by Nancy Keesing. (All photos © Tony Maniaty 2015)

When were you the Keesing Studio resident? And why did you decide to apply for it?

I was the Keesing Studio occupant for the first six months of 1989. I wanted to spend some time in Paris writing a novel, a long-held dream, so I figured six months would cure me. As it happened, I ended up staying in Paris for three years. I actually didn’t get the residency first time around, I applied but missed out – and then the person who was to go pulled out, and the Australia Council rang me and said, ‘Can you go?’ I was pretty much on the next plane, although the flight itself turned into a nightmare. As we approached Europe, the captain informed us that violent snowstorms were blanketing all major airports. We would have to divert to either Brussels or London; in line with French democracy, the passengers all took a vote, and Brussels won. We then took a bus through blizzard conditions down to Paris, where I discovered my luggage was lost. So I spent the first two days in Paris running around buying fresh underwear. But I was in Paris and that was all that mattered.

What did you work on when you were there, and did it change from your original vision as a result of the residency?

I had two projects. I was editing my second novel ‘Smyrna’, so had the very enjoyable task of sitting with my Penguin editor Bruce Sims in the studio fixing the book line by line. Since it was Paris, we also consumed a fair amount of wine. (I maintain the novel was the better for it, and I’m sure Bruce agrees.) Then I moved onto what was to be my third novel, titled ‘The Conduct of Arrows’, set in Brazil in the early 1960s. I’d been to Brazil for research in 1986 and brought copious notes and files to Paris, ready to crack ‘the big one’, the one that would really launch my career. I started writing about the tropics of Brazil in the depths of a miserable European winter, and by spring I had a first draft. Penguin wanted to publish but I wasn’t happy with it. My six months was up, and, out of cash, I returned to Sydney to work as a producer on the SBS World News desk, which quickly saw me turned around and sent back to Paris as ‘Dateline’s’ European correspondent, a gig that lasted until 1992. Paris again had me in its wonderful grip. Little did I know that the Brazilian novel would sit in a drawer for another twenty years or more before I tackled it again, with a new title, ‘The Fish Will Swim in Thy Dark Streets’. I’m just polishing what I hope will be the final draft now, but you never know…

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

Kitchen, Keesing Studio 1989

Kitchen, Keesing Studio 1989 Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

When I walked into the studio it was pretty bare, there was virtually no kitchen bench space, and being of a practical bent, I immediately took the Metro to  the nearest timber yard, bought some wooden planks, discovered the location of the BHV store (a kind of Parisian Bunnings) and bought nails and cheap tools and got to work. For the first day or so I was building, not writing. I prowled the surrounding Marais streets by night and found some leftover furniture and set myself up in the studio like a second-hand king. I built a kind of folding screen to make a separate office space. The only thing that irked me was the single bed (since I was single) but the notorious Madame Bruneau – fierce moral guardian of the Cite des Arts – would not countenance swapping it for a double. There was a tiny TV set, black and white. Once I’d set up the kitchen I was cooking my beloved pasta and happy as Larry.

Did you go 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 went alone but a strange thing happened: I met a French woman. This turned into a torrid affair, complicated by the fact that (a) she was married to an Englishman, and (b) she had an 18-month-old daughter. It was further complicated by the fact that their best friends in Australia had asked me to deliver a present for the girl, which I duly did. One thing led to another and I had to write back to my Australian friends to inform them that not only had I delivered the present for the baby girl but that I had run off with the mother. (The husband, I discovered to my relief, had recently left her.) So my Paris sojourn began to resemble a Feydeau farce. As spring came, Paris turned into the great outdoor city it is, and I came to love almost everything about it. The food, the markets, the bookstores, the art stores, the cafes,

Tony's desk, Keesing Studio 1989

Tony’s desk, Keesing Studio 1989 Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

even now I struggle to think of anything I didn’t like in that city.

What did you think about it as a writing/ideas environment?

The Keesing studio was a good place to work at night, but by day I found it gloomy; it was a relatively new concrete building in a wonderful old neighbourhood, the worst combination, and whenever I could I escaped to write in libraries and cafes, or along the quays if the weather was fine. But I wasn’t complaining; the studio was in perhaps the best location in Paris, it was clean and rat-free, and best of all, it was free. I did all my manuscript typing there. (This was in an era where typewriters were still considered practical tools, not curiosities.) I should mention that when I was awarded the residency, there was no living stipend attached; I explained to the Australia Council that I couldn’t live in Paris on love alone, and they agreed and came up with $10,000 for the six months, which thereafter became a fixture of the residency.

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

I loved the Jewish restaurants in the Marais, which back then was not trendy by any means; there were still plenty of trades and working class people around, and the odd derro lying on the footpath, although by the time I returned to Paris, it was already starting to show signs of gentrification, and now I find the area insufferably self-conscious. Bars and cafes: my regular haunts were the La Tartine on rue de Rivoli in the Marais, said to be where Trotsky had written his radical texts (and where the toilets had not been renovated since) and La Palette on rue de Seine, filled with the bartered artworks of students from the the Beaux-Arts across the street. Food: my favourite restaurant when I could afford it was the Balzar, in rue des Ecoles near the Sorbonne, where the dry old waiter got to know my order: cold lamb with green salad and fresh mayonnaise, and a glass of Morgon rouge. I loved the Metro too, and prided myself on knowing the shortest ‘correspondences’ between stations. Notre Dame did nothing at all for me, nor the Louvre very much, but the Musee Quay d’Osay housed possibly my favourite painting in all the world, Van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Doctor Gachet’. It was always incredible to see it hanging there.

What experiences stand out for you in the time you spent in Paris?

I was invited by a new-found friend to her parent’s place one afternoon, they were ‘having a few people over’ for drinks. The ‘place’ turned out to be the entire top floor of a building in Saint Germain du Pres, an apartment of about twenty rooms, and the 200 or so people there quaffing Bollinger were attending the Paris Air Show, and were aircraft dealers, i.e. people who bought and sold Jumbos to airlines and fighter planes to African dictatorships. For a boy from Brisbane, even for a journalist and author from Sydney, this was a heavy crowd. Paris, behind its charming facades and lanes, was home to some of the richest people on the planet. At the other end of the spectrum, I loved sharpening my HB pencils in the Cafe Select and drinking my coffee and being left alone to create for hours on end. The fact that everyone in Paris saw this as normal adult behaviour was enlightening.

Do you think the residency has had a lasting impact on your work,and in what way?

Keesing Studio, 1989

Keesing Studio, 1989 Photo © Tony Maniaty 2015

Paris taught me the value of literature, and its social standing in a civilised society. I had in early 1989 had only one novel published by Penguin, and another about to be released, but the words ‘Penguin’ and ‘novel’ seemed to create some magical ether that opened doors at all levels. I met the head of the French equivalent of the Literature Board, and asked him if they had negative front-page stories in France about writers getting grants from the taxpayers funds – as we did at the time in Australia. He looked at me, just a little baffled, and asked how much money was involved. I had no idea, but I think I said something wildly extravagant like $5 million a year, hoping at least to impress him. He shook his head, unbelieving. ‘But merde,’ he said, searching for a metaphor. ‘That’s just… that’s just… the wing tip of a fighter plane!’ My time among the Parisians gave me enormous respect for French cultural values, not to mention their sense of theatre.

Paris literary studio 2: Ursula Dubosarsky

The street outside the studio--Rue Geoffrey l'Asnier, looking towards the Seine

The street outside studio–Rue Geoffrey l’Asnier, looking towards the Seine, December 2015

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.

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Part of main living area, Keesing Studio, 2015

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?

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Keesing Studio kitchen, 2015

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?

Ursula and daughter Maisie on Truffaut rail in Paris

Ursula and daughter Maisie on Truffaut trail in Paris

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.  

Petit Palais

Petit Palais

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

Rue des Rosiers

Rue des Rosiers

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. 

Ursula in Paris Salon du LivreI 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.

Ursula at pet cemetery in Paris(grave of Rin Tin Tin)

Ursula at pet cemetery in Paris(grave of Rin Tin Tin, canine star of many films!)

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

Paris literary studio 1: Introduction

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Working in the Keesing Studio, February 2010

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.

Living area in 2010(our decorations!)

Living area in 2010(our decorations!)

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.

our favourite local restaurant, the Louis-Philippe

our favourite local restaurant, the Louis-Philippe

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.

My book in a Paris bookshop

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!)

amazing ceiling in my favourite Paris museum--Musee de la Chasse et Nature

amazing ceiling in my favourite Paris museum–Musee de la Chasse et Nature

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.’

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Seafood display, markets 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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.

Paris street art(by Nemo) Belleville, Paris

Paris street art(by Nemo) Belleville, Paris

Luxembourg Gardens, spring 2010

Luxembourg Gardens, spring 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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….

Night walk, 2010

Night walk, 2010

Lovely review of The Tyrant’s Nephew

Lovely to read a great new review of a book I wrote quite some time ago: The Tyrant’s Nephew. Here’s an extract of the review, by fabulous musician and fairy folklore expert, Louisa John-Krol.

A guild of Carpet-Enchantresses, a Jinn Cat born of smokeless flame, Suloowa (murderous mermaids), werewolf clans, Shadow Walkers… what more do we need? This is the fantasy I love, set in exotic magic-realist landscapes where cars and gasmasks are interspersed with flying rugs and rituals to separate souls from bodies. Yay! There is even a gold crystal ball with an opal sphere within, like an eyeball, set on a stand, glittering and glowing, emitting a sinister hum: invidious spyware. Yes, my kind of book.

You can read the full review here.

Authors’ pick 24: Matthew Thompson

Ted Hughes Bestiary coverToday’s authors’ pick–and the final one in this series–has been chosen by Matthew Thompson.

A Ted Hughes Bestiary, poems selected by Alice Oswald.

The revelation of Ted Hughes and his exquisitely poised and powerful animal poetry was a long time coming. For decades a clear, open-hearted view appreciation of the crow poems and other work was not possible for me, due to the grip of Sylvia Plath’s fierce and tragic legend.

I did glance at Hughes’ poems now and then but my sight was displaced and distorted by the mythos of sadistic, maddening selfishness – even more so when I learned of how the woman that displaced Plath in Hughes’ affections, AssiaWevill, murdered their daughter and killed herself (and how quadruply weird to consider that Hughes and Plath’s son, Nicholas, eventually hanged himself in Alaska).

Age has taught me to let complexity be, even complexity of torment, instead of pruning it back to ready-understandability or by gripping isolated strands of it in order to haul oneself up to a fake height of mind.

So, a few months ago, decades after first reading Hughes, and while in Melbourne researching the life of a long-term recidivist prisoner for a book I’m writing, I slid from a bookstore shelf the slim hardback of A Ted Hughes Bestiary, Alice Oswald’s selection of Hughes’ animal poems.

Amidst the stark and ruthless crowscapes sat “The Jaguar”, a glimpse of a zoo-held beast seething with itself. I couldn’t help but think of my writing subject, a man who in his younger years could not be tamed, could not be contained, whose will was harder than the bars and walls around him.

…there’s no cage to him

His stride is wildernesses of freedom:

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the horizons come.

But the prisoner’s jaguar days are gone.Sentenced again, this time to so long in isolation that even the judge said it would damage his mind, the man now sits spiritually detached from, but physically within spitting distance of, the predatory world of crime and jail. So attuned, he can sense when someone who, unlike battered old him, still hungers for prey: someone whosegrimacing face has not yet been smoothed. A blood-thirsty hunter in a moment that brings to mind the opening of Hughes’ “And Owl”:

Floats, a masked soul listening for death.

Death listening for a soul.

Yet it would be too limiting to keep relating these poems to men, to humans. Their centre is not anthropomorphic and in reading them, in handling them, DH Lawrence’s poem, “Fish”, comes to mind: specifically, its message that other beings inhabit their own universes, have not gods or not the same gods, are sometimes older and more purpose-made than we can comprehend. Lawrence’s narrator marvels at his witnessing of fish:

Loveless, and so lively!
Born before God was love,
Or life knew loving.
Beautifully beforehand with it all.

Joyce Carol Oates uses that line about a time “before God was love” to describe the severe and profound world of boxing, a world for its enthusiasts that remains beautifully before today’s widespread cringing avoidance of harm. The animals are not emotional about their pain or plight. They are clarity of instinct.

And over it all, unblinking in their exactitude, are not just Hughes’ famous crows but his hawk, who in “Hawk Roosting”, flies up to:

…revolve it all slowly –

I kill where I please because it is all mine.

Of course, there is so much more, including tales of animals lower on the food chain, but you’ll have to read them yourself. I have too much work to do.

 

Based in the small NSW town of Dungog, Matthew Thompson is the author of Running with the Blood God and My Colombian Death and a journalist whose recent work has focused on the violent intrigues of the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. For more information, see www.matthewthompsonwriting.com

Matthew Thompson

Authors’ pick 23: Sharon Rundle

asylum palaverToday’s authors’ pick has been chosen by Sharon Rundle.

Asylum,  Channa Wickremesekera, Published by Palaver.

For the purpose of my research, I’ve been reading a lot of novels by South Asian-Australian authors with ties to Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. I’ve read marvellous narratives from established and emerging writers. To choose one novel from this amazing array of fiction, is an enormous challenge. After long and difficult deliberation, I plumped for one that provided a new perspective, was surprisingly enjoyable, beautifully structured and written in a page-turning style.

Sometimes the best way to encourage discussion and provoke deeper thinking is through humour. Ideas that may seem simple on the surface havewider ripples and deeper currents than appear at first. So it is with Asylum by Channa Wickremesekera.

A young prison escapee decides to break into a home and take hostages,after the news that he is on the run with a gun is broadcast through media and police reports. The house he chooses is the home of Afghanis of Muslim faith. The mother wears a niqab, while her sometimes sullen, sometimes giggling young daughter, Aisha,wears a hijab. The mother understands English but prefers to speak in her Dari language.Through her family, she is the main negotiator with their captor. Khalid, the male teenage narrator with typical ‘attitude’, “I’ve seen bigger guns than that in Afghanistan with kids half his size” (p 23), is the perfect choice as the cynical observer. He is also a main player in the drama that unfolds as police surround the house. Negotiators are brought in to help, with mixed and sometimes hilarious results.

What could be a disaster turns into a tragi-comedy as the actions of the police and young man on the run with a gun become farcical when faced with this unexpected turn of events.

The Afghani family face another even deeper dilemma. Should they offer asylum to this person seeking refuge, as they believe they should? Should they lie to the police for the greater good? Which would give lesser offence to God? What to do in such an impossible situation? He is only a scared, tired, hungry, delinquent boy, after all. Khalid has heard it all before, “How you should look after people who take refuge with you, even if they are your worst enemies. Even if they had killed your own mother and father. I always thought that sort of thing happened only a long time ago and if it happened now it was only in the movies. Never thought we will have to practise it.”(p 40).

While the family debate the best plan, mum keeps cooking and feeding them all, including their captor Rusty.

This novel has impact and lingers in the mind long after it’s read. To my mind, ‘Asylum” should be on the HSC reading list. Suitable for both adults and young adults, the deceptively simple style and endearing narrator in “Asylum” allow for serious ideas to be discussed without polarising the audience. Many may be surprised by such a fresh perspective and by what they learn through humour.

 

Channa Wickremesekera is a Sri Lankan-Australian who has published three other novels, “Tracks” (published Sri Lanka, 2015), “Walls (Wasala, Sri Lanka, 2001)” and a novella “In the Same Boat” (Bay Owl Press, 2010).

A fun novel written in a jaunty teen voice—a novel that tries to tip our assumptions on their heads and succeeds.” —Anna Funder, author of Stasiland and All That I Am

“This is a timely novel, written with daring and imagination. It deals with themes that we urgently need to engage with and reflect upon, challenges that cry out for a long-overdue national conversation.” —Arnold Zable, author of Cafe ScheherazadeThe Fig Tree, and Violin Lessons

Asylum Wickremesekera, Channa. Published by Palaver.

ISBN 10: 0994343108 ISBN 13: 9780994343109

 

 

Sharon Rundle has researched novels by South-Asian Australian authors published in Australia for a Doctorate of Creative Arts thesis. She is co-editor of Indo-Australian anthologies of stories published by Picador Pan Macmillan (2009 & 2010 India, Australia & UK), Rupa Publishing in India (2014) and Brass Monkey Books in Australia (2012 & 2014).

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