New blog series: Writing an audio novel, part 1


Readers of this blog may remember that just before Christmas I got some very welcome news: I was awarded a grant by Create NSW, the NSW Government’s arts-funding body, to create the ms of A Turn off the Path, a short novel for adults which I’m writing specifically for the audio format. This will be then submitted by my agent to Audible for consideration for their Audible Originals list.

It’s an exciting new challenge for me and I’m so delighted to be able to work on over the next few months, thanks to the generous Create NSW grant. I’ve been doing a bit of background research for it since early this month but have now started work on it, with the draft of the first chapter begun yesterday. Over the next few months, as I write it, I’m also going to post regularly about the book and what it’s like to write a novel with an eye(or rather an ear!) to the audio format: thought that might be of interest to other writers contemplating the possibility of doing the same. This post introduces that series with a bit about what A Turn off the Path is about, and in future posts I’ll write about the background to it, why I wanted to write it, and how or indeed if the writing of an audio novel differs from one that you intend for print.

Something about the story:

Set in the picturesque French Basque town of Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi in Basque) in May 2017, A Turn off the Path is centred around twin Australian sisters, Helen and Alex Dorian, who are in the town at the start of their planned walk on the famous Camino, the pilgrim route to Santiago del Compostella. It’s something they’ve wanted to do since they were very young, but it’s only now, as they approach their fiftieth birthday, that they’ve finally found the time to do it. But when Helen injures her leg on the very day of their arrival, she has to stay behind in the town while Alex proceeds with their plans, and a very different experience to what they’d hoped for unfolds for the sisters. And when Helen unexpectedly meets an old schoolmate who is in Saint Jean to explore his Basque family roots, events really take ‘a turn off the path.’

This will be a lively, warm and thoughtful novel, exploring relationships, the past’s effect on the present, and the dream and reality of the modern pilgrim experience. It also has a strong sense ofplace and culture: as my mother’s family is part-Basque and has always lived in the Basque country, and two of my own sisters now live there too, I know the area well and I’ve been to Saint Jean Pied de Port itself many times from my childhood onwards.

A street in Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi): photo by Sophie Masson

My prize-winning poem, Paddock Life

I’m very pleased to report that a poem of mine for children, Paddock Life, has won third prize(poetry category) in well-known children’s poet Jackie Hosking’s annual Poetry and Stories in Verse Competition, the results of which have just been announced!

Congratulations to all the prize-winners and highly commendeds, and many thanks to Jackie for running the comp and always supporting poetry for children!

Below is my poem. Hope you enjoy.


Paddock life

by Sophie Masson


She has all the morning alive in her throat,

Silvering the air with a fresh stream of notes,

She’s dressed for a show in her black and her white,

And her song will remain even when she takes flight.


The spiders spin their silk all over the place

Patiently weaving fine patterns of lace,

Turning grass clumps to cities and fences to art,

As they work and they wait and they prowl and they dart.


Over the fence, look! There he goes,

That famous acrobat striking a pose!

Up on two legs, then down on four,

And with the tail, he adds one more.

Blue tongue lizard

From his home in a log the blue tongue clumps out

Like a mini dinosaur he stomps and stalks about,

His tongue flicking in

His tongue flicking out.


Knee deep in grass, in the bright golden day,

The cattle are making their very slow way

Down to the dam where they’ll drink and they’ll chew

And they’ll stare and they’ll dream the whole day through.



An interview with Lisa Hayden, translator of Laurus

laurusThe greatest discovery of my reading life this year has been the extraordinary novel, Laurus, by Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin, beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden. Set in the Middle Ages, around the life of a Russian healer and mystic, it is bold, brilliant, spiritually profound and utterly absorbing. I’ve been raving about it to anyone who would listen ever since I read it–and thank you to my friend and fellow author, Natalie Jane Prior, for first drawing it to my attention!

And now I’m absolutely delighted to be bringing you an interview with Lisa Hayden, whose pitch-perfect English translation has so skilfully brought Laurus to readers all over the anglophone world( the book has of course collected many fantastic reviews). Fresh from a trip to Moscow where she won the prestigious Read Russia prize for translation, in the contemporary literature category, Lisa generously answered my questions with great insights and interesting observations. Enjoy!

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories. Photo by Anatoli Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories, Joaquin Fernandez-Valdez, Claudia Scandura, and Selma Ancira. Photo by Anatoly Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.



First of all, Lisa, congratulations on your wonderful translation of Laurus! It must have been an extraordinary undertaking. How did you prepare for it, before you even started the writing work? And how long did the whole process take?

Thank you! I’m glad you and so many other readers have been enjoying the translation. Laurus was tremendous fun to translate and it seems like that comes through for readers.

 I don’t generally do much before starting a translation other than reading the entire book before signing a contract. I don’t do a lot of advance research since I prefer to take each difficulty as it comes, though I often find that author interviews give helpful insights into an author’s intentions. All that said, when I was starting Laurus, I gathered lots of books about the Middle Ages. Though I can’t say I sat down and read any of them cover to cover, I enjoyed paging through lots of them, reading passages, and getting a feel for medieval prose, herbals, and life. An anthology of medieval literature that I read in college was helpful, too, for background information, ideas on vocabulary, and a look at translations of a text or two that Eugene borrowed for Laurus. As for timing, if I remember correctly, I had about eight months from start to finish to work on the translation, with editing taking more time later on.

Were you in touch with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, during the translation process?

Eugene and I first met in Moscow, in September 2014, and have kept in touch ever since—he and his wife have become friends and I love spending time with them. Eugene answered questions for me and even read through my entire manuscript, which was extraordinarily helpful. He’s just wonderful to work with because his English is very good and he understands the role of the translator. We think of each other as the co-authors of Laurus.

Laurus is an absolutely superb, moving novel with a richly evocative style, truffled with piquant language and a complex narrative chronology. Yet though it’s so artistically accomplished, and the best evocation of the mystical experience I’ve ever come across, it is also very readable and accessible. I imagine that it must have been very difficult to recreate that balance between art and accessibility. How did you do it?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Of course I knew what awaited me because I’d read the book before I began translating. Really, though, for me translating any book is, most of all, a matter of sitting down each day, hearing the text in my head (this sometimes includes reading it out loud), and finding English words that can combine into phrases and sentences that feel like they capture the meaning, energy, style, and spirit of the Russian text. I’m pretty intuitive, so I follow my instincts. I usually go through about five or six full drafts before turning in a final draft. I read the entire book aloud to myself at least once, edit it on paper several times, and read it once on an electronic reader.

 Before Eugene saw my draft, I showed it to two Russian colleagues: Liza Prudovskaya checks a draft of all my translations and Olga Bukhina specifically looked at the old language in Laurus. They answered questions, corrected mistakes, and gave me further ideas. They’re both just wonderful to work with. So are my editors at Oneworld: publisher and editor Juliet Mabey is very no-nonsense, a quality I value highly in an editor and she has a fantastic feel for books that’s won Oneworld numerous awards. And copyeditor Will Atkins is just phenomenal. Beyond straightening out twisted syntax and correcting grammar and stylistic slips, he asks tough questions about usage and vocabulary that help me sharpen my texts. I enjoy working collaboratively, so all the feedback, queries, and ideas from Liza, Olga, Juliet, Will, and Eugene freed me up to take appropriate risks with the language in Laurus. In the end, I think what happened is that I had my intuitive feel for the text, translated the book, and then, thanks to all the drafts and comments, felt confident that my translation fit with the original in terms of meaning and style. Each book is different but that’s my general approach to all of them.

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

You are currently working on the translation of another book by the same author, The Aviator, which will be published in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I love The Aviator! The novel begins when a man wakes up in a hospital suffering from amnesia. He gradually begins remembering his past and his identity, and those memories are especially interesting because of how they fit with Russian history. I don’t want to say much more because what’s happened to him is so, hmm, unusual. It’s a book with a Petersburg setting that fits beautifully with Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov, which will also be published by Oneworld: all three books look at time, history, and identity, forming a beautiful triptych. I’m working on a first draft of The Aviator now and enjoying how it translates.

Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament français, has his narrator say, ‘The translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation?

I can’t say that I have a philosophy of translation other than very basic things like “be flexible” and “get the work done,” something that applies to all levels of the process itself. Each book is different so I feel like I work under unique unwritten guidelines for each. Most of those guidelines are subconscious and sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve been doing until rather late in the process.

 The line you mentioned from Makine’s book comes from Vasily Zhukovsky, a nineteenth-century poet and translator. I’ve heard and read this before and I suppose it always irritates me a bit because I’m a prose translator and, despite knowing what he’s saying, I don’t feel like I’m any novelist’s slave on even a metaphorical level! Of course I’m very fortunate that my authors tend to see their translators as co-authors: they encourage me to approach their texts creatively and we often make changes together. Translating fiction is very creative work: even though I’m not restructuring a plot or rewiring character development, I’m a writer who’s supporting the author’s plot structure and character development by choosing words and putting them in an order that feels appropriate for capturing the language and literary devices in the Russian text by establishing a poetics for the translation. It’s very complex work and it’s a tremendously interesting and gratifying form of writing that requires a lot of thought about and feeling for the text.

What other literary works have you translated?

I haven’t been translating for a long time so this will be fairly quick to answer, particularly if I stick to recent and upcoming novels. I’ve translated another book for Oneworld, Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, a novel about a young woman from a small city who goes to St. Petersburg and eventually becomes a filmmaker. Since I’m from a very small town, I particularly identify with Masha’s provincial roots. I translated Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus, a rather edgy family saga, for World Editions and am finishing up her Italian Lessons now. I love Marina’s feel for history and pain, not to mention her humor. Then there are three other books for Oneworld that are in various stages: Eugene’s Solovyov and Larionov, about a historian and a general who live in different times; Eugene’s The Aviator, which feels so close to me right now; and Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, about a kulak Tatar woman who’s exiled in the 1930s. Guzel’s book is a historical novel that looks at Soviet-era difficulties but it’s also very lyrical in places, with imagery and descriptions of nature that are very moving. I like to translate books that have the power to make me cry. That’s why I like all these books: they’re very different but they all move me.

You are a Russian language specialist, and as well as translating literary works such as Laurus, you have taught the language. What drew you to Russian in the first place?

Literarily speaking, stories about Baba Yaga were the first thing to draw me in, when I was very small, then I read my first Chekhov story, “The Bet,” in the sixth grade. I went to college hoping to be a biochemist but nearly failed calculus: I signed up for first-year Russian after loving a Russian history course and went to Russia, which was then the Soviet Union, for the first time in 1983. After that came grad school in Russian literature, though I dropped out with just an MA because I couldn’t picture myself teaching and researching for the rest of my life. I love Russian and I love writing but don’t have it in me to construct plots and develop characters, so translation feels like ideal work for me.

 Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to answer these questions for you. I appreciate your interest in Laurus, Eugene’s writing, and my work. Happy reading to everyone!

Paris literary studio 10: Martine Murray

Award-winning children’s author and illustrator Martine Murray was resident at the Keesing Studio with her two year old daughter, and in this interview writes about how that influences the experience.

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

I was a resident in 2008. I applied because I could. I was a single mother with a two year old living in the suburbs of Melbourne so the idea of Paris was just exciting and large. It seemed worth making the most of the rather unstable employment that writing is by taking it elsewhere and since I speak a workable French, Paris was a rather appealing elsewhere to be.

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

To be honest when I walked into the studio I didn’t swoon. It was a large room with a dark green linoleum floor, a fluorescent light and a single bed–with all the tone, character and proportions of a

Jardin des Plantes

Jardin des Plantes

dormitory! However, the neighbourhood was immediately enthralling and I was instantly uplifted. The room became home and I got used to how it was and we went to the flower market and brought some cyclamen to put on the window sill which means I often think of that room whenever I see cyclamen. I also remember meeting an old woman there at the flower market, with whom I spoke for quite a while and who was very elegant and gentle and represented something very likeable about Paris and its culture.

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, which has changed considerably since and has spent some time on the shelf while I finished other projects, one of which was a novella for a collection of stories based on fairy tales, Tales from the Tower. Because I was in the studio with my two year old daughter, I was always home in the evenings and often looking out the window onto the dance studio across the narrow street. I was madly wanting to run over and join the tango class. This made me feel sort of trapped, as if I was looking on an outside life that belonged to others. So I adapted The Tin Soldier and turned into a tale of a boy with a limp who is trapped in a tower… Later I turned that into a longer novel.

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 wasn’t alone, I was with a two year old, which was like being both very alone and very fused with another. My least favourite thing was having to negotiate a flimsy pusher over cobblestones, down metro steps, through turnstyles and crowds etc. My favourite thing was just… Can I say Paris? I loved the sense of continual discovery that it offered, the layers of life that had been lived there, the museums, the little exchanges, or the smell when you walk into a boulangerie, the custom of kissing, the habit of drinking an aperitif, the little round tables facing the street….

What was it like as a writing/ideas environment?

For me anyplace in which I am a stranger is good because it makes me see the world anew. In some ways it was hard to write in Paris, because I was always wanting to be out in it, rather than at my desk.  But at the same time there was so much to experience that I was stimulated and full of ideas.

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

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

Having a small child meant I got to know the parks pretty well. The very grand and lovely gardens with their green chairs and sandy floors; Jardin de Luxembourg, Jardin des Plantes, Jardin des Tuileries. Also the smaller ones like the playground out the back of Notre Dame which had a swing and was worth it for the horse chestnuts in spring. And the Square du Temple or the Place des Vosges. Other places: Le Marche des enfants rouges, wandering up the rue Vielle de Temple, a small café called Au petit fer au cheval. And the Palais de Tokyo. Centre George Pompidou. L’Orangerie.. for Monet’s lilies. La Palais des Decouvertes…. We spent time watching the buskers on the bridges and eating apple tartes.

cafe parisWhat experiences stand out for you during the residency?

I met a lot of lovely people at the Cité, and because all of them were artists of some sort, often their work too had an impact on me too. Clare Dyson who is a dancer/choreographer from Brisbane made a work that required all of her friends there to stand in front of a camera one by one holding a piece of paper with a word on it that described Paris for them. I don’t know why, but it still moves me every time I see it. Possible because it captures a time and experience of being at the Cité that always has about it both the flavor of Paris and the sense that it and the other artists you meet there, will all be a significant moment in time for you, but not one that continues.

The studio is also next to the Holocaust Museum. On a commemorative day they read out aloud the name of every French Jew who was killed by the holocaust. This list of names is so long that it went all night and I don’t think I slept much through it. It was such a long, steady, sad note, and the relentlessness of it really had an impact on me, as did just the fact of seeing the schools in the Marais

Musee de la Shoah(Holocaust Museum)

Musee de la Shoah(Holocaust Museum)

district which had plaques citing the names of children who were taken from the schools.

On a lighter note, I do remember my daughter waking up and suggesting we go have a crème brulée for breakfast. And then her always running down our street to the heavy steel gate and climbing up on it so that she could go for a ride when it opened. Since we are now living in a small village in France for a year, I took her back there last week, to the same gate, which as a ten year old, did not offer quite the same joy.

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

Yes, I imagine so. It was a very enriching experience. That always has a continuing impact.

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.

Paris literary studio 8: Matthew Condon

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.

Paris literary studio 7: Emily Maguire

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.

keesing studio 2014

Keesing studio at time of Emily’s visit

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.

emily maguire in paris

Emily in Jardin des Tuileries

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

Hotel de Ville skating rink

Hotel de Ville skating rink (Pic: Emily Maguire)

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.

Impromptu street memorial

Impromptu street memorial (Pic: Emily Maguire)

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.

Paris literary studio 6: Susan Johnson

Susan at the window of the studio, 1989

Susan at the window of the studio, 1989

Like Jean Kent, acclaimed novelist and journalist Susan Johnson was fortunate enough to be awarded two residencies at the Keesing Studio: in her case, as she explains in her interview, through sheer serendipity.

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

I was the Keesing Studio resident twice – once in 1989, from June or July I think – and once again in 1991, when someone unexpectedly dropped out and I happened to be in Europe anyway, so the Australia Council didn’t have to pay for an airfare, and popped me in as a sort of emergency replacement. The first time, in 1989, I followed my ex-boyfriend, the writer Tony Maniaty, into the studio, so it was a bit like old-home week (we were amicably separated and remain good friends).

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

I decided to apply for the residency all sorts of reasons, not just one. I was a relatively new writer then, with a first novel published (Messages From Chaos, first edition Harper and Row, Sydney, 1987) and editing my second (Flying Lessons, Heinemann, Australia, 1990; Faber and Faber, UK and US, 1990 and in translation, Actes de Sud, 1992). Being published by Faber was like a dream to me – the publisher of Hughes and Plath and Eliot and every literary giant I had long revered. Honestly, that year – winning the residency and being published by Faber – was like heaven. All year I felt blessed, and very, very grateful.

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

I knew from Tony (via a letter! No email back then, no Facebook, no Twitter) pretty much what to expect. I knew it was a relatively ugly new building in the midst of much beauty (the Marais), and Tony was still in situ when I arrived, so I saw the lino, the unadorned windows, the narrow cot for a bed. But I also saw beauty and freedom and a wonderful, wonderful gift. I adored it – the way Tony (in his Greek-Australian fashion) had built shelving in the kitchen and divided the room, and everything looked clean and bright and shining. I could lean out the window and find Paris at my feet. I was breathless.IMG_0871

Funnily enough, only last year, Christmas 2014, I was in Paris again (editing my eighth novel, The Landing, Allen and Unwin, 2015) and a writer I knew then only in passing but who was in residence at the studio, Emily Maguire, invited me over to see it. I was pretty shocked at how run down it had become in the 20-odd years since I lived there. It looked very old and tired – but I could see that to Emily it was still glorious.

When I was there, I loved the Marais at once. I loved Paris too – my only other experience had been my first trip to Europe, aged 18. I was a young journalist then, what was known as a cadet reporter, a school-leaver who was supported by my employer to undertake an arts degree at the University of Queensland at the same time. I had never studied French and couldn’t speak a word, and was with another young woman who also couldn’t speak French. Back then, no-one wanted to speak English (this would have been 1976) and we couldn’t even work out how to negotiate the metro. We didn’t know “sortie” meant exit, that’s how bad it was, and when we tried to ask anyone for help, they walked straight past, possibly assuming we were beggars. That experience was seared into my brain, so I had studiously attended Alliance Francaise classes, in Brisbane and Sydney before I left, but I was pretty nervous about what I would find. It was such a relief to find that even a bit of French made a difference: either the French had changed, or I had. Everyone was lovely.

I feel completely in love with France – and the idea of France shall we say – and I have never fallen out of love since.

What were your favourite things about living in Paris for six months, and your least favourite things?

My favourite things were everything: the air, the sky, the trees, the food, the people, the stones, the way manners acted as a form of civilization itself, civilization made visible. The way that being a writer was an actual thing, it had a meaning, a value, indeed it was admired – unlike in Australia, where – arguably, still – being a writer equals being a wanker, or someone who has tickets on themselves, or someone who thinks he or she can get away with something – or does get away with something. Arguably, there is still hostility in Australia to anyone engaged with the weird, invisible practice of writing. I wrote an essay – or rather gave a lecture – on this very subject to the National Library of Australia on this very subject – here

Only now, from a great distance of more than twenty years, can I speak about my least favourite things – but they are not specifically about Paris, more about France. And that is the elitism and possible racism against Pied Noir, Algerians and latterly Muslims, and France’s tendency towards xenophobia – but I also believe this tendency is overwhelmed by France’s greater love for liberte, egalite, fraternite…..I was there for the Charlie Hebdo marches, and there were Muslims, Jews, Christians, secular non-believers. I lived in the UK for ten years and the class system there is far more rigid than it is in France – I would still rather be a poor person in France than a poor one in England. I remember living in a flat in the 13th once, when a building site was across the road. All the workers – if they didn’t go to a restaurant at lunch time – would sit down with a fresh baguette, a cheese, a half bottle of wine and eat and talk. In England they would eat working class food – at least in France food is equal, and that to me is symbolic of so much more.

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

Perfect. Unlike others, who went to cafes, I like best a plain simple room without distractions. No views, nothing. But I had a view out the open window, the beautiful curling old building across the street, the tips of buildings. It was heaven – quiet, cell-like, magnificent.

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

See above. But what I also got to love was the American Library and the American bookstore (I found the three volumes of Margaret Anderson’s extraordinary memoir there – she started The Little Review and was Joyce’s first publisher and France was her spiritual home). I made friends – French friends – who became my friends for life and through knowing Simone and Jacqueline and Maica and the rest I was lead into a richer and fuller life in France – into Monterlot (near Fontainebleau) and Fitou in the south, and Corsica where Simone climbed mountains in the winter and where her friend died in summer on the beach – Corsica, possibly the most beautiful place on earth – and I found myself searching for cep mushrooms in the forests in autumn, where the Italian in our group wanted to fry them in oil and garlic and Jacqueline, the Frenchwoman in our group, regarded this as a tragedy. A mushroom! A piece of fruit from God’s earth, the fate of which could be debated with such fire! I loved France for this – for caring about the fate of a mushroom.

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

Once I sat at an open window of Chez Julien with the man who would become my first husband. You could still smoke in restaurants then and I leant on my elbows and looked up into the Paris sky: right then, I had everything. Love, a full belly, a head ringing with ideas. I would write everything! I would eat up existence! I was full to bursting.

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

Yes, yes, and yes. That year in Paris changed everything: I burst free. I had jumped off – into love, into my work, into my real life, at last. From there I spent years away from Australia – in Hong Kong, in Boston, New York, ten years in London. I learn who I was in the world. I learn to reach the limits of myself, in that, at last, I learnt my limitations. But those initial months in Paris were the key to everything that followed. The studio residency was my open door.

Paris literary studio 5: Jean Kent

Jean Kent, Paris 1995

Jean Kent, Paris 1995

Award-winning poet Jean Kent has been lucky enough to have been awarded two residencies at the Keesing Studio, and in this interview, she looks at both experiences.

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

I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune of being in the Keesing Studio twice. The first time was in 1994, from the beginning of August, to the end of January, 1995. Then, the second time, I was there in 2011, for the six months from February till July.

Apart from the fact that I’d always wanted to live in Paris, there were several reasons related to my writing that prompted me to apply. I’d fallen in love with the French language when I was first learning it as a teenager in rural Queensland, and that was when my love of so much about French culture also began … the impressionist painters … composers like Debussy and Satie … and French style generally …

But suddenly, twenty-five years had passed, and that dream of living in Paris hadn’t happened! I think I was rather hoping to find the ghost of my younger self back in Paris, and perhaps to also understand better why a girl growing up in semi-tropical Queensland would imagine that Paris could be another home for her.

As well, I’d married into a family with a very different cultural background from my own Australian one. My husband’s father was Lithuanian and his mother came from Germany. I’d started trying to write about their experiences as migrants here after the Second World War. Going to Paris struck me as a possible way of understanding better what that might have been like for them. It would be a temporary reverse migration, albeit a short one.

After the 1994 residency, I brought home kilos and kilos of notes, which I hoped would eventually turn into poems or some other writing. I did finish a lot of that, but I also had a great deal of unfinished work which had become quite foreign to me, and I hoped that being back in Paris would re-immerse me in the sensual and emotional environments where the poems had begun, so that I’d be able to work on them in a less forced way. I also had another project in a very early stage that I wanted to research, retracing the steps of my grandmother, who had been in Paris in 1916.

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

Keesing Studio Sept 1994

Keesing Studio Sept 1994

In 1994, my first sight of the studio was of an utterly bare, green linoleumed space, with only one single bed jammed against the far wall, one big table and two chairs. The administrative staff at the Cité Internationale des Arts were not very welcoming either! There were jackhammers going full blast at the construction site opposite, and I have to admit that after travelling for thirty-six hours to reach this, I did have a momentary desire to turn around and fly straight home again. By the time we’d sorted out another bed for my husband and ventured down to the local shopping area for baguette and pate and brie and vodka, it was a warm, velvety twilight, the street outside was relatively quiet, and everything started to feel a lot better. The fact that we were right in the centre of Paris, with so many little shops and galleries and fascinating buildings just outside our door, plus the beauty of the islands and the open sky over the Seine so close by, was a great compensation for any hardships of the studio.

By 2011, there had been great improvements in the attitudes of the Cité des Arts to its residents. It was a much friendlier place, and the studio was more comfortable as well. We’d bought bedspreads and potted plants and pictures and some extra things for the kitchen to try to make it cheerier in 1994, but we were sternly advised that any of these things could not be left there, so they were all passed on to other residents before we left. This regulation had apparently gone by 2011, which meant that within a day or so of unpacking all the goodies left by previous residents in the storeroom, the studio was pleasantly homey. It was better equipped, with two tables, chairs, and oh yes, the sofa … the envy of everyone else at the Cité  who visited … The noise of the builders had been replaced by the noise of the Dance Studio they’d been constructing on the other side of the street, back in 1994 … it did feel more claustrophobic without the view that used to be there, through to the fairy tale sight of the Hotel de Sens, but the Studio itself was much more pleasant.

The biggest shock in 2011 was the number of homeless people who called the area outside the main building ‘home’. There had been occasional lost souls walking nearby in 1994, but mostly they’d stayed in the shopping area around rue St-Antoine.

Jean at Keesing Studio 2011

Jean at Keesing Studio 2011

Because this was my second time there, I was familiar with the local neighbourhood, and in fact it felt like home. I loved to walk around the network of little streets each afternoon (just as I’d do back at Lake Macquarie) seeing what was flowering in people’s window boxes and in the little parks tucked between the apartment blocks. I was always being surprised by the details, and by what changed even over six months – shops and cafes gutted and rebuilt, for instance. There were some things I never quite got used to: e.g. the regular appearance of armed police (often because of events at the Shoah Memorial next door), but I was aware that there was a need for surveillance at those times, and for every disturbing event there were other surprise disruptions that were wonderful, like film crews in the street and sudden invasions of dignitaries and guards on horses.

What were you working on when you were there, and did your original vision for it change over the course of your residency?

In 1994, I took a manuscript of poems I was already working on, as well as my notebooks for future projects. The work-in-progress was based on a sequence of poems set in a fictional Hunter Valley town, and I always thought of it as a back-up project rather than something I’d be focused on in Paris. I quickly realized that I couldn’t think about it at all. I started doing drafts of poems in response to being in Paris instead, and although I managed to get some of them close to a finished state, I also eventually realized that there was just too much I wanted to record about my daily Paris life, so I concentrated on that, and waited until I was home in Australia again to try to make sense of the work for a book. My vision for all my writing changed while I was there, I think – I became more acutely aware of how differently we live in Australia and the shock of coming back to our different landscape and climate also had a huge impact on my work.

In 2011, it worked the other way round. I took the Ms of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks, which had been in a very nearly finished state for a few years. These were poems which had begun as notes in Paris – they were full of the experiences of my time at the residency in 1994, and although most of them had been published in magazines and some had even won prizes, I wasn’t really happy with them, and I could not work out how to assemble them into a coherent collection. After being back in the studio for a month, all the niggling parts of the poems that I thought were wrong became very obvious. I sat at the table overlooking rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, with the sounds of the bells of Notre Dame coming in the window and just that narrow slice of sky over the attic roofs, and Paris seeped back into the poems.

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 was there with my husband, Martin. He is a very visual person, and passionate about painting, so that made for good connections with other residents at the Cité  who were artists. He also spoke no French at all … which led to some interesting times, especially with the Cité  admin staff who refused to admit in 1994 that they knew any English, and with a dentist who was needed urgently after Martin lost a crown.

August 94 View from Keesing Studio

View from Keesing Studio, August 1994

My favourite things? I will probably be writing books for the rest of my life about this! I love the beauty of Paris – the light, the architecture, the parks and gardens (large and small), the constant surprises and stimulation.  The food, even from the supermarket, was fantastic … the breads, cheeses and terrines and pates …  and we liked to go to the market near Hotel de Ville every week for fruit and vegetables and flowers (gorgeous flowers, especially the peonies), and roast pork. As for the cakes … I think we had a different one (shared between us) nearly every day we were there (both times) and we still didn’t get through all the possibilities or stop marveling at how delicious and exquisitely constructed they were.

My least favourite things were the noise, the crowds and French bureaucracy. Getting visas for the six months was a nightmare.

I live in a very bushy suburb of Lake Macquarie, with trees all around the house and a large garden made noisy by birds rather than traffic, so although I relished the inner-city experience of Paris while I was there, I doubt that I could survive it fulltime. I did miss silence … and a big sky full of stars at night.

What was it like as a writing/ideas environment?

As a place for actual daily writing, the studio was a challenge. I did find the noise from the builders in 1994 and the Dance Studio opposite in 2011 difficult and when I needed more quiet for good concentrated work rather than just doing diary or journal jottings, eventually I sought refuge in the little storeroom, where I set up a mini office closed off from the rest of the world. But as an environment for gathering ideas and stimulation, Paris was brilliant.  Just being there was a sensory tonic, and also stirred up memories and ideas for me. Apart from Paris itself, I found the Cité des Arts a very beneficial place for creative excitement as well. I loved the regular concerts and open studios and exhibitions of work done by the other artists in residence. There was one other writer there in 2011, Rolf Hermann, a poet from Switzerland, and we collaborated on some translations of one another’s poems. I made good friends with other residents, including some Australians, and those connections continue to be very important to me.

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

One of my absolute favourite places in all the world is the Orangerie, with its two rooms of Monet’s waterlily paintings curved around the walls. I loved to go there for the paintings, but also to watch the other people, who would just stop and sit there for ages, looking.

I’d make a very long list if I mentioned all the other places that are very special to me, so here are just a few.

For its extraordinary contemporary architecture, including a wall of metal irises that open and close according to the sunlight, making lacy patterns of shadows over the floors inside, as well as for its

Jean at Institut du monde Arabe, March 2011

Jean at Institut du monde Arabe, March 2011

Arabian food and views over Paris from the roof: the Institut du Monde Arabe.

For its art (especially the impressionists and Art Nouveau), as well as its restaurant with over-the-top gilt, relaxed waiters and easy to order meals: the Musée d’Orsay.

For their stained glass cupolas and Art Nouveau style balconies and their theatrical certainty that fashion and shopping matter (even if I’m too overwhelmed by how much merchandise they have to actually buy anything), les grands magasins, especially Printemps and Galeries Lafayette.

For its ethereal atmosphere: Sainte Chapelle. I went to a sunset concert of mediaeval music here on my 35th birthday (during my very first two-day visit to Paris), and the voices of the singers seemed to hang in the air with the lozenges of coloured light through the stained glass windows. It was so magical I’ve never dared go back there.

For the fact that they were always there, beside the river and I walked over to them so often under the great stretch of Paris sky: Ile St-Louis and Ile de la Cité . I loved their little holes-in-wall for icecream and sorbet, the musicians playing there on the bridges in the summer twilight, and the view of the Eiffel Tower, lit up and sparkling on the hour.

What experiences stand out for you during the residency?

I’ve sometimes described my times in Paris as a mixture of bliss and horror, with those two extremes regularly happening several times on the same day.

One afternoon in 1994 we went to visit the Luxembourg Gardens. It was August, late summer, deep shade under the horse chestnut trees, big beds of flowers everywhere – marigolds and salvias and cosmos and dahlias … old men playing chess, children sailing boats, tourists everywhere, the statues white in the sun. Utterly idyllic. We spent hours there, until our cameras ran out of film, then walked home happily across the Left Bank.

When we reached Notre Dame, we discovered the entire area between there and the studio was blocked by police guards. Huge crowds were queueing along the footpaths and no one was being allowed through. I saw other people from the Cité des Arts showing their passports and the police shaking their heads. It looked hopeless. In hesitant French, I said, as politely as I could, that we lived ‘in that building over there’.  The policeman remained absolutely silent and stern, but he did open the barricade a fraction and let us through.

The celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation of Paris were on that night, just around the block at Hotel de Ville. That was why security was so tight. Shortly afterwards, there was a cavalcade of official cars along Quai de l’Hotel de Ville, and later that night there was much rumbling of tanks and army vehicles – sounds that were frightening even in their celebratory context – but also the music of Jean-Michel Jarre booming out and young people dressed as Resistance Fighters or liberating Americans dancing along the same route, followed by a display of fireworks. We were able to go to a window on the first floor of the old part of the Cité des Arts and look out at the spectacle.

It was so typical of the collision of the everyday and the extraordinary that I came to regard as normal in Paris. There were reminders of history everywhere, and so many celebrations with Paris itself as a beautiful backdrop. We never knew what would happen each day, and although that could be unnerving, it was also fantastically exciting.

Another experience which affected me greatly was being ill with shingles. This meant that I was confined to the studio for most of my time over a few weeks, and perversely, I could do nothing except sleep, look out the window at the world passing by, think about Paris, read books, write a little, and watch children’s TV. We had been cramming so much into our time there that I probably did need a rest! It was good to just slow down and let some of what I’d already seen and felt about Paris settle.

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

Since my residency in 1994, I tend to think of my life as Before Paris and After Paris. That applies to my writing as well. There was a much greater respect for literature, and poetry especially, in Paris, than I’ve ever been aware of in Australia, and that has helped me to persevere with what has sometimes felt like an odd way of life.

I came home that first time believing that I would continue to write about the experience for ten years at least …I was certainly still haunted by it nearly twenty years later, when I went back the second time. And now I have another store of experiences to write about …

So far, there have been poems for a third of one book, The Satin Bowerbird, and for another complete collection, Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks.  After coming home from Paris each time I’ve felt as if I were seeing my usual environment with my eyes peeled, and that is been a huge influence on the poems for my most recent book, The Hour of Silvered Mullet. Even though it’s mostly about Australia, and especially the Hunter Valley, I think that experience of being jolted away from my usual home and then returning with a slightly more European sensibility was crucial to the writing. There are more new Paris poems based on my notebooks in 2011 in progress too, as well as a memoir … so I feel sure my residencies are going to remain a very dominant presence in everything I write for a long while.

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.


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?’