Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)
I had the great pleasure to attend a reading of poetry and prose at the coquette Chateau de Lavigny near Lausanne. This beautiful manor house set amidst vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is home to the Ledig-Rowohlt foundation and has been hosting for two decades retreats for both emerging and established writers from all over the world. Once a month in the summer, the resident writers share their thoughts and works with a small public, in both English and French – and also, very often, their native languages.
Last night’s friendly and talented group of writers included: novelist and children’s author Ousmane Diarra (from Mali); poet Janet McAdams from the United States; fiction writer and translator Alexander Markin (from Russia); novelist and essayist Tatiana Salem Levy from Brazil; writer of Gothic novels Leonora Christina Skov from Denmark.
Ousmane kicked off with an extract from his novella ‘La Revelation’. It is the story of a child who discovers that his real mother is dead. He asks the local priest what death means and is told that his mother is now with ‘le bon Dieu’ (the good Lord). From now on he will wage war with the good Lord, in an effort to gain back his mother. With his resonant voice and brilliant insights into a child’s confused thoughts, the author gathered us around an imaginary campfire to hear this moving, thrilling and often funny tale.
Janet’s poetry was about finding and losing one’s identity, about moving on, about moving to other countries and about being observed and scrutinised. Haunting, thought-provoking poems, which struck a deep chord in me, although she seemed to fear that she was too serious and said at one point, apologetically: ‘It doesn’t get any more cheerful.’
Alexander read fragments from his semi-fictional diaries depicting the life of an artist in present-day Russia, a mix of minute details and philosophical reflections, anecdotes about artistry and repression, acute observations of everyday absurdity and a healthy dose of satire.
Tatiana read the opening of her first novel ‘A chave de casa’, an exploration of her family’s past, from Smyrna to Rio. She was lyrical, funny, tender, with richly sensuous details and an air of sepia-coloured nostalgia.
Last but not least, Leonora very bravely read out her own translation into English from a rough draft of her current work in progress. This is a novel inspired by Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ and is set in a writer’s colony on a lonely Danish island. Murderous writers, tongue-in-cheek and witty style, mordant characterisations: I can hardly wait to read this!
So, as you can see, a remarkable diversity of styles and subject matters, but all equally talented and passionate about writing. Can you just imagine the dinner table conversations there? This is one of the beauties of writers’ residencies. While conferences within your own genre are very useful and huge fun, the best ideas often come from this diversity of visions and ideas. It’s the difference of approaches and the cross-pollination that ultimately leads to the most interesting experiments, that will make a writer venture out of their comfort zone.
Availability of English Translations
Or, rather, the lack of availability. In our post-reading chat over drinks, every one of the writers (except for Janet McAdams, who writes in English, obviously) emphasised how difficult it was to get translated into English and published in either the UK or the US. This rather reinforces the point I made earlier about reaching a wider public if you are writing in English.
Although Tatiana Salem Levy is featured in Granta 121: Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, her work is not otherwise available to the English-speaking world. How is it that her first novel has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, but not in English? Alexander’s diaries are being translated into German – everyone there agreed that German publishers are so good at discovering new talent abroad, that they are the fastest with their translations. Yet the Germans themselves are just as worried about the demise of the publishing industry as anyone else.
To my mind, Leonora Christina Skov has all of the qualities to appeal to an American or British audience: she has that sly dark humour, she writes quirky Gothic tales and she is a Scandinavian bordering on crime fiction, for heaven’s sake! What more has that woman got to do to be noticed? It seems to me infinitely sad that she is seriously considering switching to English in her writing.
The Future of Writer’s Colonies
I don’t think there is a writer on earth who has not dreamt of going to a writers’ colony for a month or so, in a idyllic location, and having nothing else to worry about but writing. Not even laundry, cooking and cleaning, let alone earning a living. Most would agree that it is very conducive to writing, even if the company you find there may be challenging at times.
Of course, as foundation pots and art funds dwindle, it’s becoming harder and harder to fund these programmes. Last night I heard rumours about initiatives like these closing down in Spain and Greece. Smaller profit-making initiatives are springing up, offering no stipends, but instead comfortable surroundings in which a paying visitor can get away from it all and be creative. Not quite the same, is it, if you are still worrying about money and the taxman?
The group of volunteers from the steering committee at Lavigny are worried about the future. They can’t get any funding from the Swiss state or local canton, because they have an international rather than a local remit. Meanwhile, PEN or other international art foundations are overwhelmed with applications on a daily basis. Above all, they are reluctant to reduce the residency programme from its current 3-4 weeks to just one week, because they feel that is too short to get the creative juices really flowing. I do hope the magic of Lavigny will be able to exert its influence on writers worldwide for a while longer.
- Facing My Ghost Stories at A Room of Her Own Writing Retreat (mugsters.wordpress.com)
- Tutored Residential Writers’ Retreat (weayorkshireandhumbertutorblog.wordpress.com)
- Writer’s Retreat (jimdaleywrites.wordpress.com)
- DIY Writer’s Retreat (travelingscreenwriter.com)