French fairy tale travelling, by Lorena Carrington — Sophie Masson’s Fairytale Country

Today I’m welcoming my wonderful co-creator, Lorena Carrington, to this blog, to write about the travels in France that helped to inspire her glorious illustrations in French Fairy Tales. All photographs in this post are by Lorena. French fairy tale travelling, by Lorena Carrington In late September last year, I touched down in France with […]

French fairy tale travelling, by Lorena Carrington — Sophie Masson’s Fairytale Country

Captive in Fairyland–the Strange Case of Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle


Today I’m republishing a piece of mine which has aroused quite a bit of interest over the years–it’s about the fascinating story of an extraordinary man called Robert Kirk who wrote an even more extraordinary book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (first published in 1691). It starts off with a visit we made years ago to the site of Kirk’s life–and mysterious end.



by Sophie Masson

Aberfoyle, Perthshire, March 2001

Fairy tree with wishes, Dun Shee, Aberfoyle(all photos of Aberfoyle sites by Sophie Masson)

It is a pretty track from the manse to the hill. It is spring, and the trees are beginning to put out new young leaves. Subtle colour permeates the landscape; the pale purple of growing tips, the russet of lingering winter, the film of green beginning to thicken, the darkness of the evergreens. It is a brilliant sunny day, bluely, sharply cold, after massive snowfalls which almost stopped us coming north at all. The path up the hill is through quiet oak woodland, over mossy rocks, through carpets of dead leaves, over little runnels of water where late snow has melted, through dark patches of mud. It doesn’t look like much of a hill from a distance, nothing like the high frowning Trossachs all around, gaunt in their velvet-brown winter austerity, and Ben Lomond in the distance, capped by snow. This hill is round, soft, gentle. But the walk is a bit steeper than it had seemed from the bottom; and there is an ambiguous atmosphere in this quiet, beautiful, light-filled place which makes me remember the expression on the face of the woman down in the village who had shown us where to go. ‘You’ll see what you’ll see when you get there,’ she’d said, with a little smile that could be interpreted in any number of ways.

Minister’s Pine(on left of pic), Dun Shee, Aberfoyle

We get to the top, to a clearing on the summit. In the middle of the clearing, there is a tall, lone Scots pine. The Minister’s Pine, it is called, around here. And all around it are leafless oak trees, of varying sizes. And on the oaks, long, fluttering ribbons: some bright, some faded and bedraggled. On the ribbons, words. ‘To the fairies of the place: a wish’. ‘I ask for the help of the fairies in..’ ‘Fairies, will you give me..’ There are one or two ribbons tied to the pine, but the words are too faded to read, as are indeed many of the ones tied on the oaks. You can’t tie much to the pine; its branches are mostly too far off the ground, its long slender shape not like the open-armed embrace of the oaks.

It is not a place where you want to stay. After the first two or three reading-aloud of wishes, you somehow don’t want to look at any more. A hand placed on the pine’s scaly bark is quickly withdrawn; the leafless oaks with their cargo of strange blossom look stranger and stranger. The evergreen,. alone of its kind amongst the circling oaks, takes on more and more of of a mute appeal. Yet that is surely just because you know the story. Because you know what that pine is supposed to mean, so that it takes on more and more the aspect of an enchanted prisoner standing helpless and speechless, as in a dream, within the ambiguous circle of his captors. You’d thought you’d want to stay there, soak in atmosphere, think, imagine; but no. Not really. Nobody says a word as we walk down, back into the wood, and come out at the entrance to the path just as a forestry worker in a van draws up and after a brief nod at us, prepares to tie a plastic ribbon across the entrance: foot and mouth precautions, you see. Nobody will be able to get up there now for days, weeks, months maybe. We only just made it in time.

Ruined church, Aberfoyle

Down the track, past the manse, across the bridge, and there is a ruined church. There is a graveyard at its back, which faces the hill. We wander amongst the stones, noting the names: McGregor–for this is McGregor country; Macintyre; Mac Donald; MacLaren, MacFarlane, Menzies, Primrose, Swan, Keir..And Kirk. Robert Kirk. Here he is, commemorated in a slab of red sandstone, and these Latin words, written, according to local hisorians, in what appears to be 18th century script:

Hic Pultis Ill Evangeli Promulgator Accuratus et Linguae Hiberniae Lumen M.Robertus Kirk Aberfoile Pastor Obiit 14 Maii 1692 Aetat 48.

Here lies the accurate promulgator of the Gospels and luminary of the Hibernian tongue, Mr Robert Kirk, pastor of Aberfoyle, who died 14 May 1692, aged 48.

Robert Kirk grave with epitaph and etchings

There are also three designs on the stone: an etched thistle, to represent his proud Highlands background; a shepherd’s crook, to represent his calling; and a dagger, to represent–well, we shall see. No mention on this slab of stone of the Minister’s Pine, or the other life of Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle.

No mention of the strange story surrounding his death. No mention of the strange book he wrote a year before his death, which ensured his immortality in more ways than one. Nothing ambiguous about this stone, pinning Kirk firmly to the earth, to time, to death, to sensible pursuits. Only in recent times has a small plaque been erected on the wall of the graveyard, noting discreetly that the gravestone of Robert Kirk, the ‘Fairy Minister’, was to be found within. The modern tourist authority knows that it is not Kirk’s prowess in evangelism or translating the Bible into Gaelic that attracts modern pilgrims from far away. But it doesn’t want to be too closely connected with the strangeness of the other thing, the ambiguous, elusive nature of just what it was Kirk did, and how he came to be both beneath that firm slab of stone, and in the lone pine on the hill.

Everything about Kirk in Aberfoyle is like that–glancing, elusive, quickly passed over, ambiguous. To get information on him seems like trying to hold quicksilver in your hand. There is no biography of him, though there is any amount on characters like Rob Roy MacGregor, a contemporary of, and related to Kirk himself. There is little information in any of the tourist literature; nobody seems to have thought him worthy of extended examination. He merits only a tiny paragraph in the Scottish Dictionary of National Biography, though the local Aberfoyle paper, Strathard News, featured an article on him, written to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his death in 1992. Perhaps it has to do with the lingering distaste of the traditional supernatural in Presbyterian Scotland, which has never seemed to come to grips with the complexity of belief as has, say, Catholic Ireland. Or perhaps it is something even stranger, undercurrents that cannot be named, cannot be pinned down, despite the best efforts of sensible epitaph-writers. For in Kirk’s life, death and legend, lies an extraordinary story, a story not of irreconciliable dualisms, but of things which mesh together in strange and illuminating ways.

The Dun Shee seen from Robert Kirk’s grave

The exact date of Robert Kirk’s birth is not known–some sources say he was born in 1641, others in 1644. He was a native Gaelic speaker, the seventh son of the Reverend James Kirk, Minister of Aberfoyle. In traditional Highlands belief, being a seventh son confers upon one the power of second sight–perhaps one of the reasons why Robert Kirk chose later to delve into beliefs surrounding second sight and the contact that second-sighters, or seers, have with the fairy world. Aberfoyle, of course, is at what local tourist literature calls ‘the gateway to the Highlands’–it in fact represents the transition point between the Lowlands and Highlands, and shares bits of both cultures.

Rob Roy, 1820’s engraving

Robert was brought up at Aberfoyle, and it is reasonable to assume that he saw the burning of woods and houses around the area by the forces of General Monk, one of Cromwell’s army commanders in 1654. Aberfoyle was a royalist stronghold, both then and later, and the burnings were both warning and reprisal. In 1661, a year after the Restoration of the monarchy, Robert graduated with an MA from Edinburgh University, after obtaining a bursary for his studies from the Presbytery in Dunblane. He then went on to further studies at St Andrews. After his ordination, he was inducted to the parish of Balquidder, not far from Aberfoyle, in November 1664. This was also Rob Roy’ MacGregor’s country–Kirk was related by marriage to the MacGregors, as he was to the Grahams by birth. It is interesting to speculate on whether the two men knew each other–Rob Roy was about 10 years younger than Kirk–and how Kirk, educated in Lowlands English-language culture, but deeply steeped in Gaelic language, folklore and history, managed to reconcile all these different aspects of himself, much as MacGregor did, in many ways. A bicultural background can be a huge advantage, as well as a drawback; and the man of agile mind who is able to jump between them, using one to inform the other, can be in a fortunate position. But also a difficult one.

Whilst in Balquidder, Kirk married Isobel Campbell in 1678, and the couple had one son, Colin. However, Isobel died two years later, on Christmas Day. Her gravestone, with an epitaph cut on it by her husband himself, is still to be seen in Balquidder. Later, Robert remarried, to his first wife’s cousin Margaret Campbell(note that because of the fact bearing the very name of MacGregor had been banned under pain of death by King James I in 1603 following a rebellion, many MacGregors, including Rob Roy himself at one stage, went by the name of Campbell, a name to which they also had kin-claim). Robert and Margaret Kirk had one son, also named Robert.

Whilst at Balquidder, Kirk began work on translations of the Bible, Psalms and the Catechism in Gaelic, and wrote up a helpful Gaelic vocabulary. He also translated the Psalter into Gaelic metrical versions–and this was published in 1684, and was the first ever complete translation for Gaelic speakers. His work was reckoned to be both important and elegant, displaying a great deal of literary talent as well as skill in translation. However, the Presbyterian Synod in Argyll was not altogether comfortable with the tone of Kirk’s translation, considering it a little too open-minded, almost Episcopalian. Not for ten years was a version of his work published under the approval of Argyll.

Meanwhile, Robert was not worrying himself overmuch about whether Argyll approved or not. He was taking part in a great deal of theological and metaphysical debate, travelling to Lowland Scotland and England on occasion to take part in discussions. A long way from being the stereotypical Presbyterian bigot, he was most interested in combatting what he saw as the dangers arising not from resurgent Catholicism, but fashionable scepticism and materialism–an aim he specifically mentioned when writing his next book. In 1685, he was appointed to his birthplace, and his father’s old parish of Aberfoyle, and it is perhaps this return to his origins and his childhood which stimulated him into starting work on his next project, his most famous and infamous book, and the reason for which he has not been forgotten altogether.

We do not know exactly when Robert started this book, which was published in 1691 under a ponderous title:

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; or an Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterrenean and(for the most part)Invisible People Heretofoir going under the name of Faunes and Fairies, and the lyke, as described by those who have the second sight.

Naturally, in referring to it from now on, I will shorten this simply to The Secret Commonwealth.

The Secret Commonwealth is a fascinating book. Written in a matter-of-fact and occasionally turgid style, it recounts the habits, appearance and attitudes of the supernatural beings called, variously, elves, fauns or fairies–or rather, as his second-sighted parishioners were more likely to call them, the Sith. The details of Sith lives are very specific, and strangely compelling and suggestive, mysterious whilst being of an odd sort of realism. These beings, he points out, are very close to humans, living close to human dwellings, often underground, wear clothes of the same style and colours as their human counterparts in the region where they lived, so that in the Highlands, they wore ‘plaids and variegated garments’. However, though their appearance was similar to that of humans, their size varied, with some being of human size and others much smaller. ‘They speak but little, and that by way of whistling, clear not rough,’ he went on, and ‘their bodies be so plyable through the Subtility of the spirits that do Agitate them, that they can make them Appear and Disappear at leisure.’ They took the nourishment out of food, sucking the inside of things, leaving the husk behind; they had servants who were ‘Children, like Inchanted puppets‘; they laughed little, and that more like the rictus of a skull than real amusement; they had ‘pleasant Toyish books‘ in their libraries, and tended to be rather rather restless, moving about especially on Quarter Days, when second-sighters would see great crowds of them on the roads. (Kirk points out ruefully that these days were also the times of the year when his church was the most full, as parishioners flocked to take refuge in the sacred building). He also said that their world was the source of the gift of second sight, and that second-sighters could always see them, whereas ‘normal’ people could not. The second-sighters, he wrote, said that each human being, however, had a fairy double, or co-walker, a ‘doubleman’, and that this doubleman walked with a person all their lives, invisible to everyone except the second-sighters, until their human double, or host, died, when the Doubleman would disappear. If a person’s fairy double was seen separate from his or her human host, when the human was still alive, it meant that person would die very soon. Kirk recounts many cases when this happened. (The notion of the Doubleman was also used to great uncanny and powerful effect in Christopher Koch’s extraordinary 1985 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, The Doubleman, which is partly based on some of Kirk’s findings.)

One of the interesting things that Kirk mentions is that in the Highlands, it was mainly men who were supposed to have the gift of second sight, and women only rarely–therefore it was mostly men, and not women, who were in contact with the fairy world. From this world, for the second-sighter, would come the gift of healing, of prophecy, of poetry. But the second-sighter was not, as it were, in control–it was very difficult to force the fairy world into anything, and people were very wary of talking about it at all. In fact, here as elsewhere in the world(and fairy belief is found all over the world), there were euphemisms for the fairies–they were the People of Peace, the Good Neighbours, the Friends, the Little People, and so on. And he stresses that many of the second-sighters are terrified by their gift; that when they see the fairy folk gathering on the roads, their hair stands up on their heads; and that they suffer through seeing things they’d rather not see.

Manuscript pages from Robert Kirk’s notebooks(reproduced from Kevin Manwaring blog,

There are too many stories gathered together in Kirk’s book to recount here, and that is not the purpose of my essay, anyhow. The Secret Commonwealth is fascinating not just as one of the earliest ‘scientific’ sources of Highlands folklore, not just fascinating on account of its depiction of the strange alien lives of strange alien beings, but also because of  how Kirk’s stated aims and his perhaps unspoken underlying beliefs contrasted and meshed, and what bearing the book has on the development of the later legend of the Fairy Minister. As well, to look briefly at some of the social and historical and cultural elements surrounding the book, might be useful.

This was a transitional age: between Stuart and Hanoverian; tradition and modernity; magic and science. It was to become slowly an age in which the uneasy peace between England and Scotland brought about by James VI of Scotland and I of England’s accession to the English throne had brought, was suspended. It was to signal the beginning of the 18th century calvary of the Highlands, the destruction of the clan system, and of many traditional aspects of life. Kirk’s book is a priceless cultural, human and social document, written by a man who wrote both as insider and outsider, a bicultural man fluent in both worlds, a true ‘walker between worlds’. It is believed that Kirk collected many of the stories in his book through talking to his parishioners, but it is also possible that at least some of them could have come from his own experience, and his own thoughts on the matter.

The fairy hill at Aberfoyle, the same one I described at the beginning of this essay, was one of his favourite walking spots. He was often to be seen walking from the manse to the hill–and it is there that he was found stone dead on a sunny May morning in 1692. It is not inconceivable that in writing his book, ostensibly as a quasi-scientific endeavour to convince English readers of his class and calling as to the spiritual validity of the beliefs of the Highland (or ‘Erse’ as he called it) he was in fact describing his own spiritual and imaginative experiences as much as those of his second-sighted friends. English author and academic Dr Diane Purkiss, whose book, Troublesome Things(Allen Lane 2000), is a most interesting and complex study of fairies and fairy stories, notes, in a passage on Kirk and his work, that ‘belief in fairies actually warmed and grew as people began to be afraid that scepticism was a bottomless black vortex into which Christianity itself might be drawn‘(page 185). Kirk was certainly worried about this–he states specifically in his preface that he wants to combat scepticism and materialism. But it is not his only motive. After all, he was a seventh son, of a minister, what’s more, a man bearing the name of ‘Kirk’, possibly a family that had long been associated with spiritual and metaphysical matters.

Kirk, however, was no fool. He knew that to write directly about fairies himself, in an age which was very much a transitional one, but which prided itself on its new scientific and ‘objective’ aspects, would be tantamount to intellectual, not to speak of theological suicide. Keeping a wary eye on fundamentalist misunderstanding was also a concern. In the event, the Presbyterians said nothing about this book–perhaps they were not particularly aware of it–but in presenting his material as a kind of anthropological study avant l’heure, Kirk ran a great deal less risk. This kind of book was having a certain success in literary and intellectual circles in England and Scotland at the time, particularly in England, where it was becoming quite fashionable to collect folklore. Magic and science were still closely linked. Many members of the Royal Society, to which people  such as Isaac Newton belonged, for instance, were great collectors of, and in some cases(including Newton’s)firm believers in, and students of, magic. The antiquarian and wonderfully garrulous and zestful writer John Aubrey, a contemporary of Kirk, had written at some length on English fairy beliefs, recounting many wonderful stories, and had also corresponded with a Scotsman–not Kirk–who had sent him a great deal of information on second sight. The Scottish connection was important, because a great many English people of Aubrey’s day and class considered that, as a ‘savage’ society more in tune with ‘primitive’ beliefs, the Scots, particularly the Highlanders, presented a less ‘untainted’ version of traditional supernatural beliefs of all kinds. (In fact, this was not really the case; fairy beliefs in the Highlands as elsewhere evolved and changed over time, and there were some areas of England every bit as traditional in their descriptions of fairies as the Highlands: but they were different, often not such fierce fairies as in the Highlands, and therefore thought to be ‘tamer’ or less ‘pure’ as folklore). John Bovet, who wrote Pandemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster, in 1684, also recounted some tales of Scottish fairies, with descriptions of their lives and homes, which were remarkably similar to the descriptions given by Kirk. He also, incidentally, describes an English story of a fairy market, invisible to all but a few, yet tangible entirely, which is also very close to the visions experienced by the Aberfoyle second-sighters: this is not an instance of Kirk copying from a source, however, but of his accounts tallying closely with those of other writers, not only in Britain but in other places, the invisible parallel world being a common feature of fairy lore in many cultures all over the world.

This whole area of folklore and belief, its collection and examination by proto-scientists, was of interest to more than just enthusiastic antiquarians. It was also studied in more practical circles–Samuel Pepys being one King’s employee who thought that the phenomenon of second-sight might have military applications. Employed as he was by the Navy for so many years, he thought it might be useful if the second-sighters could be employed to ‘see’ at a distance how many enemy ships were coming, or what the outcome of a battle was likely to be. Rather unfortunately, there is no record of whether this was indeed tried–perhaps it was and failed, and everyone decided to keep quiet about it–sceptical critics were an occupational hazard then as later, when psychics were employed by both Pentagon and Kremlin along the lines of ‘Why not? It can’t hurt, anyway!’

Kirk could have told Pepys and others like him, though, that the fairy gift cannot be used in such ways. Unpredictable as the Muse, capricious as talent, it cannot be pressed into service. But the fact that some people possess it was enough for their neighbours to be wary in their dealings with them; to make sure to keep on their right side, to be ‘looked after’ in the same way as healers and priests were looked after. The fairy gifts were not supposed to be used for ill, and there was a strong belief that if they were, the harm would rebound upon the unwise wielder of power; but they were seen as dangerous in the same way that nature can be dangerous. And that is another thing. I’ve been writing about ‘supernatural’ but the kinds of talents referred to by Kirk, though uncanny, were not seen as anything but natural. They were natural because Nature, God’s created world, encompassed the fairy world. And so of course Kirk and his parishioners were matter-of-fact about it all. They did not need to explain, or even to ‘believe’, for that word implies the presence of doubts somewhere in the background. Such things were true, as true as the oaks on the fairy hill.

It is time here to make a few general remarks about fairies and the fairy world. Fairy belief is one of the most elusive aspects of traditional cultures all over the world. In each place, this parallel Otherworld is seen slightly differently, and called by different names, but it still shares some remarkable similarities worldwide: a taboo on speech whilst in the fairy world, for instance; or the fairies’ love of dancing and feasting; or the odd passage of time in the fairy world. As the Irish scholar and writer Dr Angela Bourke points out in her extraordinary evocation of a 19th century ‘changeling’ case in Ireland(which has many related features to the case of Robert Kirk), The Burning of Bridget Cleary, (Pimlico 1999), ‘Fairies belong to the margins, and so can serve as reference points and metaphors for all that is marginal in human life.'(page 28) Stories about them are highly complex, mysterious yet often very realistic; fairies’ love of secrets, of promises, of bindings in word and deed is often evoked; their transitional state between good and evil, their unpredictability, their fateful appearances, are all best understood through story, through dream, through imagination. They cannot be pinned down, analysed, entirely. Other aspects of folk culture, such as witchcraft and its portrayal, are perhaps more suspectible to being ‘explained away’, rationalised, ‘understood’. In the post-medieval past, witchcraft, of course, was demonised as an evil thing.  The tendency prior to the Renaissance was to see it as a necessary, if frightening thing. After that, and especially after the Reformation, witches were seen as evil. But even then witches were never seen as less than or more than human–they had merely, so the old cant had it, sold their souls to the Devil–or devoted them to the Goddess, as the modern cant has it. But fairy belief could not be shoehorned by Renaissance and Enlightenment rationalists and organisers into such useful dualisms. It remained defiantly ambiguous, ungraspable, quicksilver, the very mirror of the nature of the supernatural beings it represented. Though in Presbyterian Scotland there was some attempt to link fairy beliefs to witchcraft, these received short shrift in general in other religious organisations. The Devil was a serious matter, to be believed in by right-minded folks. Fairies–well, who could really believe in them?

And yet, strangely, who couldn’t? Anyone who has ever been in a quiet wood, anyone who has unexpectedly caught, out of the corner of their eye, a glimpse of a shadow dashing past, anyone who has felt some odd quality of glamour, of fateful knowledge, gathering around a person, knows that there are unspoken, almost unspeakable, undercurrents to the human soul that cannot be pinned down, like dreams that cannot be recalled on waking, but that were nevertheless there. The persecutors as much as the persecuted know this. You can ignore it, laugh at it and pretend it doesn’t exist; you can try to analyse, saying fairies are the symbolic expression of nature, or the soul, or imagination, or whatever; you can fall completely under its sway; or you can simply accept it, and get on with your life. Which last is the version most people chose. And continue to choose.

It is not known what the general reaction to Kirk’s book at the time was, but perhaps he did not have enough time to judge what its reception would be. A year after the book was published, he was dead, at the age of 48. He had gone for his customary early-morning walk on the fairy hill, and when he did not return, was looked for, and found dead on the hill. At once, the story sprang up in the village–and was recorded by his successor in the parish, a Reverend Graham–that he had been punished by the fairies for revealing their secrets. He, a favoured son, a second-sighter, had been a Judas. And fairies hate traitors above all things. The people, said Dr Graham, were convinced that he was not really dead; that a ‘stock’ or facsimile of his body had been left there on the hill, but that Robert Kirk had, body and soul, been imprisoned in the heart of that great old Scots pine on the hill: a fate recalling that of Merlin, who, as some medieval stories tell, was imprisoned body and soul in a tree in the forest of Broceliande. Another version was that a funeral had been held–but that the coffin was filled with stones. All was not lost for Kirk, however, the Reverend Graham went on to say. Margaret Kirk was expecting a child at the time Kirk ‘disappeared’, and the captive himself appeared to one of his relations, begging him to help him escape from fairyland. It could be done in this way: the cousin was to bring a dirk to the christening of the child at the manse, Kirk would appear, and then the cousin must throw the dirk at the vision, pinning it with cold iron–as everyone knew, a bane against fairies–and bringing the lost minister back to the earth, even in death. However, though the cousin dutifully brought along his dirk, when the vision of Kirk appeared, the cousin was so dumbstruck that he could not move–and the opportunity was lost. His family seemed to have resigned themselves to his fate. Colin Kirk, Robert’s oldest son, who became a lawyer in Edinburgh, reportedly said, in a rather chilling bit of fatalism, that ‘Father has gone to his own kind.’ But Kirk himself did not give up. He could be saved, he told people in dreams, if, when a child was christened at the manse, a dirk was stuck into the great chair that had belonged to him and was still held at the manse(at least till 1943).

But unfortunately no child seems to have been christened at the manse since 1692–so Kirk is still trapped in that tree on top of the hill. The gravestone in the churchyard, it is said, is not 17th but 18th century: and there is no body in the grave. And the dagger I referred to earlier–that is the only coded reference on that sensible marker to the fairy story: for it is said to be the dirk that was never properly used. The great English folklorist Katharine Briggs, writing briefly of the case in her 1978 book, The Vanishing People(BT Batsford), notes that local people in Aberfoyle, at least at the time she was collecting her information, in the 1940’s, said that when you crossed the hump-backed bridge near the fairy hill, you would sometimes find a burden on your back: the soul of Robert Kirk begging to be freed.

And there is the uncanny, powerful and ambiguous fact of the matter. Here is a man, named, born, lived, who lived a fairy story, really lived it: and in the popular imagination, he lives still. There are innumerable stories of fairy contact in countless cultures throughout the world, but Robert Kirk is not anonymous–fairy-taken, he, like Bridget Cleary in 19th century Ireland, real, documented, flesh-and-blood people, have stepped out of the human world, the world of the ordinary, sideways into a strange, parallel universe where nothing is quite as it seems.


Since 1691, The Secret Commonwealth has been published several times: first in Edinburgh in 1815(this was the version used by Sir Walter Scott for his novel Rob Roy, which mentions Kirk and the Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle); in 1893 with an introduction and editing by Andrew Lang, in 1976 with an introduction and editing by Stewart Sanderson for the Folklore Society; in the early 1990’s by Element Books, with an introduction and notes by R.J.Stewart. More recently, there’s an excellent edition published by the New York Review of Books, with an introduction by Marina Warner; and it’s published within the superb compilation of texts, The Occult Laboratory, edited by Professor Michael Hunter. Manuscripts of The Secret Commonwealth are rare, but  two are held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and one in the Advocates’ Library, also in Edinburgh.


Books cited:

Bourke, Angela, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, Pimlico, London 1999.

Bovet, John, Pandemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster, London 1684.

Briggs, KM, The Vanishing People, Batsford, London 1978.

Koch, Christopher, The Doubleman, Chatto and Windus, London, 1985(new edition Minerva, Random House, London and Sydney, 1996)

Purkiss, Diane, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy stories, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London 2000.

Also to note:

Briggs, KM The Anatomy of Puck(opinions on fairies in 16th and 17th centuries), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1959.

The Good People, by Hannah Kent, Pan Macmillan, 2016. Set in Ireland in the 19th century and based on another real ‘fairy’ case, this is an engrossing and disturbing novel.


Across the Tasman 4: Gavin Bishop

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s long and very successful career has made him one of New Zealand’s most well-known creators of children’s books, both nationally and internationally. He has published more than 70 books, been translated into eight languages and won many awards. Yet he has also stayed close to his New Zealand roots, with a double Maori and European heritage which continues to inspire him. In this fascinating interview, he talks about how he started, his influences, process–and leaves us with an intriguing mystery about what he might be publishing next!


Gavin, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent author-illustrators, winning many awards both in your home country and internationally.  Can you tell us something about how you started? Who were your influences, in terms of both illustration and writing?

In 1978, I met someone who asked if I had ever thought of writing and illustrating a book for children. She had heard that Oxford University Press, in Wellington at that time, was intending to establish a children’s book list with a strong NZ flavour. A big bright light switched on in my head. It felt right. It was something I should do. So that very night I sat down and started to write BIDIBIDI a book about a South Island high country sheep who wanted more from life. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was writing a picture book but I ended up with far too much text. After quite a lot of time I sent my efforts to OUP and to cut a long story short, they liked it. It was in need of a lot of work and that is where Wendy Harrex came in. She had

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

recently returned from England and she became my editor. After a lot of rewriting and false starts the book was finally published in 1982 after another book of mine, MRS McGINTY AND THE BIZARRE PLANT had already been published.

What impact does being a New Zealander have on your work? Do you think there is a distinctively New Zealand literary/artistic atmosphere?

Being a New Zealander and living here is everything to me. It entirely shapes who I am and the work I produce. Knowing both my Maori and European whakapapa (Sophie’s note: this is a Maori term meaning genealogy, family history) and the attached family stories is a constant source of inspiration. I believe I have an obligation as a writer for children in this country, to kiwimoon_th-1mirror what I see and know of this place. NZ children reading a NZ book should be able to recognize landscapes, places and our stories that they can relate to and feel are important.

You have illustrated other authors’ texts as well as creating and illustrating your own. How do you go about each process? Which do you enjoy most?

Ultimately, writing your own story to illustrate is the most important thing you can do as a picture book creator. You are in complete control then; you can speak to your readers through the text as well as the pictures. It is a challenge to come up with original material more than it is to illustrate someone else’s text or to retell an existing story.

Many of your books have been based around traditional stories–Maori myths, European fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Why do you find them inspirational? And how important do you think they are in terms of children’s reading?

As a child I read a lot fairy stories and folk tales. As I grew older, as an adolescent, I graduated to horror stories and horror movies which are of course firmly rooted in fairy stories. I think it is very important for children to be familiar with nursery rhymes and fairy stories from an early age because they provide examples of traditional story structures and archetypal characters. I would include Bible stories here as well for no other reason than a knowledge of these is needed to understand and appreciate a huge amount of European literature, art and music throughout history. 

Nursery rhymes introduce us to language and ideas that can often be mysterious yet intriguing. I love the way a small child will often listen to a nursery rhyme with no idea of what it means. The rhythm and the succinctness of the words is enough, and they never forget them. A couple of hearings and a child has that rhyme for life. maori-myths-bishop

Our children should also be familiar with the stories told for centuries by Maori. Too few New Zealanders realise that the huge collection of Maori myths and legends are as complex, subtle and as encompassing as any of the Greek myths and legends that many of us were brought up on.  

I was fascinated to read that you’ve also been commissioned to write and design several successful ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1985 I was commissioned by the Artistic Director, Harry Haythorne, of the Royal NZ Ballet Company to produce an original story and designs for a children’s ballet for their schools’ programme. They were interested in a story that reflected NZ. I thought about it, then remembered the time I ran away from home when I was two. I was going to a park to see an aviary of birds some blocks away from my grandmother’s house in Invercargill. I used this incident as the basis of the story of TERRIBLE TOM and later when the ballet was performed it was a great thrill to see dancers like Sir Jon Trimmer dancing out the story of my life. I learned a lot too. It was a bit of shock to realise that I couldn’t use any dialogue and the stage had to be empty so the dancers could dance. A second ballet was commissioned because the success of the first. I called it, TE MAIA AND THE SEA DEVIL. Set on the West Coast, it told of a brave young Maori girl who went to the bottom of the sea to save her mother who had been turned into a sea horse by Taipo, a sea devil.

These ballets were produced from scratch. While I did the libretto and designs, Philip Norman wrote the music and Russell Kerr did the choreography. They were the first original ballets produced for children in NZ.

You are also prominent in advancing the profile of New Zealand authors and illustrators for children, such as being involved in curating the marvellous exhibition of New Zealand illustration at the recent IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, which showcased NZ illustrators to an international audience. How important do you think it is for creators to be involved in the promotion of a literary culture? And how do you see the situation for authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

I have been involved in the promotion of children’s literature from the early 1980s. I’ve attended hundreds of literary events here and overseas. Through the NZ Book Council’s Writers in Schools Scheme I have visited thousands of schools throughout NZ. It is an important part of being a children’s writer.

teddy-one-eyeChildren’s literature is misunderstood by many, and especially by other writers who write for adults. Writing for children is critically discriminated against. And illustration is, in particular, regarded with scorn. I come from a time when at the School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, the word “illustration” was used like a swear word. Again, I think it is through a big misunderstanding of the role of illustration. I see it as a storytelling process and in a way, a form of writing.

In 2006, a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Christchurch, and I was one of them, established the TE TAI TAMARIKI Charitable NZ Children’s Literature Preservation Trust. That was a bit of mouthful to say, so we now have a work-a-day name, PAINTED STORIES. Originally we set out to collect original illustrations and manuscripts of New Zealand children’s books to create a resource for research, exhibitions and events. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that this was not going to be easy. Our small gallery and display space in Victoria Street was demolished as a result of the 22nd February 2011 quake and on another occasion in another exhibition venue, a borrowed illustration fell from the wall and was damaged. So we decided to concentrate for the time being, on setting up national exhibitions of original art from NZ books. 

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

We have been doing that for 10 years. In the recent 3 shows we have used digital prints on watercolour paper instead of original art. This reduces insurance costs and lighting and conservation issues. It also helps us to emphasise that our main aim is to show how illustration is part of a story telling process and individual illustrations are part of a suite of images that all go together to help make a book. It takes away the expectation that an illustration needs to be considered as a serious piece of art.

Our trust is funded entirely by donations and goodwill and the generosity of the Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and the Millennium Gallery in Blenheim. We have never charged illustrators to be part of our exhibitions. Once our current funds have been exhausted though, we will have to seriously look at fundraising. Follow us on Facebook.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a big project at the moment, one of the biggest things I have ever done. It will be published next year. That is all I can say.

Across the Tasman 3: Kyle Mewburn

kyle-mewburn-375I first met Kyle Mewburn, one of New Zealand’s most prominent writers for children, a few years ago in my capacity back then as Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, and Kyle’s as President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. Well, Kyle is still NZSA President, and very active in advancing the cause of writers and illustrators in NZ, against a not very positive background of change and difficulties in the industry there. And in this very interesting interview, he looks frankly at some of those issues, as well as his own literary work.

Kyle, your recent picture book, illustrated by Sarah Davis, The House on the Hill, recently won the Hell Children’s Choice Awards–love that award name by the way 🙂 in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Can you tell us something about the book, and how you and Sarah created it? And how have young readers responded to the book?

The idea for the story had been simmering away in the back of my mind for several years (as they do), though ‘idea’ is possibly too grandiose a term for what was, in effect, simply a refrain – “the house on the hill”. But that’s often how my stories start – with just a phrase that won’t go away. I knew there was going to be a journey of some sort, but had no idea who, or what, was going to make the journey. It wasn’t until I was Writer-in-residence at Otago University in 2011, that the story started coming to life, infused with an unexpected Edgar Allan Poe-ish vibe.

It took three weeks of solid, focussed writing for the story to come together. At the end of each day I’d go home exhausted, but satfisfied, despite having completed one stanza or less. I sent the story off to Scholastic and got a reply within an hour – “We love it.” Excellent, I thought. But over the next few months a sense of trepidation started filtering through, as the publishing team started second-guessing themselves. Was the story perhaps too scary? Fortunately, Diana Murray (publisher at the time) had a chat to the head buyer at a major bookstore chain whose verdict came as somewhat of a relief – “Embrace the darkness.” Having strived to make the story as scary as possible, having confidence in my young readers’ willingness, and enthusiasm, to have their pants scared off in a caring, controlled kind of way, I would have been hugely reluctant to water the scares down.

The next question was, of course, who should illustrate? I seldom get asked this question, but I jumped at the opportunity to put Sarah’s name forward. I’d always admired her work, not only for her undoubted technical ability, but also the fact she’s such an eclectic illustrator. Each work is unique with its own distinct style, and she was, I believed, the kind of illustrator who would push the boundaries and come up with a style to perfectly complement my story. Unfortunately, she was rather busy, so I was faced with a choice – wait 2+ years or choose house-hillsomeone else. I didn’t hesitate. Sarah it was.

One interesting, and unusual, aspect of working with Sarah was the unexpected rigour with which she addressed the text. Ultimately there were several stanzas which required re-writing and another which was dropped simply because it didn’t advance the story sufficiently. I really had no input into the illustrations, so can’t comment on that. Apart from saying they’re brilliant throughout and genius in numerous places, especially with their use of perspective. The art of illustration at its finest.

The response to the story has been phenomenal. Despite several parents, teachers and even reviewers initially worrying about the scariness level, the reality is that kids enjoy a good, safe scare and are happy to embrace the ‘game’. As one 6 year-old pointed out when his mum questioned whether or not he was scared – “No. I knew they weren’t real ghosts because there was a cat. Cats don’t like ghosts.” Winning the kids’ choice award is, I think, the ultimate accolade.

Though you are especially known for your picture books, you have also written chapter books and early readers. What are your favourite types of books to write, and what are the main differences between creating texts for all those different formats?

Picture books are my first passion. Almost a vice. My ideas are almost instinctively for picture books, and they seem to be the genre that most suits my thought processes and my writing voice. They’re also the biggest challenge and I get a lot of pleasure pursuing picture book ideas. (Also a lot of angst and anguish, but that’s another story…) Chapter books and junior fiction require a more measured approach. It’s more about building upon a concept than simply chasing an idea. For me, junior fiction (especially for so-called ‘reluctant readers’ or transitional readers) really has to begin with a strong character, ideally a child character. Once I have my hero sorted (whether that’s the first evolved boy in a Neanderthal tribe, or a shape-shifting dragon boy who wants to go to Knight School) I can view their world from their own unique perspective. It’s all about building relationships and interactions. Then, additionally, I add extra details and levels of meaning which encourage and reward re-reading.


All my writing is child-centric. It’s all about creating stories which reflect their lives, or more specifically, some critical aspect of it. Generally my stories are about making or maintaining friendships. I guess the biggest difference between writing picture books and junior fiction is the former is a distillation process – reducing grand themes to its essence; while the latter is more a process of accretion – adding layers and details to a simple idea.

What are you working on now?

Currently I’m experiencing a bit of mid-career-itis, so not quite sure what I’m working on. The house on the hill was the last picture book I sold, so the drought has dragged on a bit. I’m not 100% sure why my picture books don’t seem to be hitting the mark any more. Possibly it’s me. Having never settled on a single style of story, I’ve generally always pursued whatever ideas tickled my fancy. And after writing over 25 picture books I’m reluctant to rework old ground. So I’ve been experimenting with different styles and approaches to writing, just to keep myself amused and challenged. Maybe that’s not what the market wants at the current time.

In the meantime I’m developing a new junior fiction series and tinkering with re-writing some of my early adult novels. A musical friend and I are also playing around with a script for a musical. It’s all good fun, but as the main breadwinner I can’t afford to spend too much time on non-profitable diversions, no matter how inspiring. So we’ll see what happens. 

Born and brought up in Australia but living in New Zealand for a long time now, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent authors of children’s books, and you are also President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. In both capacities you’ve had a good deal of contact with the Australian literary world as well. How do you see the similarities and differences between literary New Zealand and literary Australia, both in terms of the kinds of books that get published, and also the literary scene–both in the children’s/YA and adult fields?dinosaur-rescue

There are enormous similarities between the two countries’ literary worlds and I’m rather perplexed by the fact there still seems to be a huge wall with respect to the sharing of books and writers. The key differences, I think, stem largely from the smallness of the local literary  community and market. Despite the size of the population (think Melbourne) there are very strong cliques and factions which are more based around protecting funding turf than  anything else. Which means local writers are very reluctant to criticise anyone or anything for fear of offending the wrong person. You could all-too-easily end up on the outer with no chance of funding or reviews. I’m sure every country has the same rivalries and divisions, but here, because of the population, it is much more distilled and rather potent.

The small market also makes it difficult to make a living. Print runs are often only 1500 and you can make the bestseller list by selling 100+ copies in a given week. I’ve been fortunate insofar as many of my stories have had some longevity (several are still being reprinted 10+ years later), and have had numerous titles published into international markets. Sadly New Zealand publishers are increasingly acting like imprints of their international parents, insofar as they have become much more focussed on publishing stories with local flavour. In the picture book market there has always been a demand for kiwi stories (literally stories about the bird) but this has become massively more so over recent years. No wonder when many bookshops report most people are buying picture books to send overseas to relatives or take away as souvenirs. There has also been a huge growth in stories translated into Te Reo (ie Maori language). While all this might be worthy and understandable from a business model point of view, it has not only made it that much harder to make a living as a writer, it has also created an unfortunate quandary – ie write for this market and accept your income is severely ring-fenced, or you don’t, and stack the odds against being published at all.

With respect to making a living as a CYA writer, I think Australia has massive advantages with respect to creating a secondary income stream from school visits and festival appearances. However it is a lot more cut-throat. In New Zealand school visits are arranged mostly through the Book Council, while in Australia it’s all done through agencies. So in Australia it’s much more a case of the more popular you are and the better your presentations, the more visits you get. Here it’s a bit more communal with visits shared around. On the negative side, we earn half as much for a visit as you do in Australia. It’s still very difficult to convince the majority of schools there is much value in author visits… as opposed to visits by sportspeople… or magicians… or the local fireman…

kisskissyuckyucklgeAs President of NZSA, you have been involved in helping to organise the first ever National Writers Forum in New Zealand, which has just been held. What are you expecting from the forum? And what are the issues that are most preoccupying authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

The National Writers Forum was a huge success. The feedback has been extraordinary. The main goals were, firstly, to offer some serious professional development opportunities through masterclasses and expert panels. Secondly, it was about creating opportunities to discuss the business aspects of a writer’s life at every stage of their career. There’s plenty of information out there but seldom do writers get an opportunity to ask specific questions pertaining to their own, specific careers directly to a panel of experts. Finally, and for me most importantly, it was an opportunity for writers to assemble at the national level in a collegial and congenial environment. There are way too many divisions within the literary community, and this doesn’t help the literary cause in the wider context. The only way to break down barriers and cliques is to strengthen personal relationships by talking to each other directly rather than shouting at each other over the parapets.

As in most countries, the biggest issues preoccupying us in New Zealand centre on the increasing difficulties of making a living. New Zealand books are expensive in comparison to international titles available on-line, so there has been a concerted effort to exclude books from GST. Wishful thinking under the current government. We already have parallel importing, so have long ago come to terms with the long-term (all negative) consequences. As with writers everywhere we’re also concerned about the push to change (ie water down) copyright laws.

A very recent research report published by the New Zealand Book Council contained the rather disappointing finding that New Zealand readers were biased against NZ fiction, saying that they rarely read it–but also could not name any NZ authors–and that only 3-5 percent of fiction bought in the nation was by NZ authors. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a matter of cultural cringe? Do you think it could be turned around? If so, how?

Cultural cringe with two capital Cs. In many ways it reminds me of Australia in the 80s when I was at high school – nobody admitted to reading OzLit. When I arrived in New Zealand in 1990 there was a huge push to make NZ Music cool. The government pumped in $5million per year and introduced a radio quota. And (surprise!) within a generation NZ Music became cool. There was an attempt to do the same with books but with a budget of $100,000 and divisions within the industry, it gained little traction and soon disappeared. In the last 10 years, NZ has become a massively flag-waving country. Kiwis are enormously proud of their sportspeople, their music, their films (well, Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, anyway), but there remains a total reluctance to wave the NZ flag when it comes to books and writers, despite local writers garnering increasing international awards and respect.

I suspect the cost of local books has something to do with it. It also doesn’t help that NZ “literature” is still discussed in such reverent tones while genre and/or popular fiction hardly gets a look in. It fosters the impression that local literature is rather intellectual and elitist. We have many world-class, internationally best-selling writers across all genres. It would help enormously if these were celebrated a bit more.     

Last year NZSA instigated a grassroots NZ Book Week with a very limited budget. Hopefully it will continue to grow and, over time, leach into the psyche. But generally I feel it requires a much greater level of government action and investment. It also is a long-term project. I’m constantly frustrated by the lack of commitment to involving local writers/titles in literacy programmes. The “as long as they’re reading something” approach does little to improve literacy, in my opinion. The only way to grow literacy is to promote local authors and stories and instill some pride in local literature. Imagine how few kids would be playing rugby if the All Blacks were considered also-rans, nobodies, rather than superstars. Pride – whether in rugby, music or literature – begins with aspirational role models. We need to start kids on NZLit from the get-go.


Kyle Mewburn is one of New Zealand’s finest, and most eclectic, picture book writers. His titles have been published in a dozen countries and won numerous awards including Children’s Book of the Year (Old Hu-hu), Picture book of the Year (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!),two Children’s Choice awards (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck! andMelu) and a Flicker Tale award in North Dakota (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!). His stories are noted for being multi-layered, funny and linguistically creative.

He has been a frequent Finalist at the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards and many of his titles have been included on Notable Books Lists in both New Zealand and Australia.

As well as picture books, he has published numerous School Readers and junior fiction titles, including his popular Dinosaur Rescue series which has been published in over 20 countries. He was the Children’s Writer in Residence at Otago University in 2011 and is currently President of the New Zealand Society of Authors.

Originally from Brisbane, Kyle lives with his wife, Marion, a well-known potter, in a house with a grass roof in Millers Flat. When he’s not writing, Kyle’s free time is almost wholly consumed trying to maintain a semi-self-sufficient lifestyle … or watching the endlessly entertaining drama of chickens trying to get to bed under the watchful eyes of two teasing cats.

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 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 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?’

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.


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?


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