Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)

Chateau+Lavigny+016-590x393Last night I discovered one of the great treasures literary life in the Lake Geneva area.

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.

View from the Terrace.
View from the Terrace.

The Readings

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.

Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switz...
Steamboat on Lake Geneva, near Lausanne (Switzerland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Nothing like an inappropriate picture to end the article!
 Typical Swiss landscape, photo credit: Wink Lorch,http://www.jurawine.co.uk



15 thoughts on “Why Writers’ Retreats Work (Mostly)”

  1. Marina Sofia – Thanks for sharing your experiences – and those lovely ‘photos. I think there really is something about writers’ retreats and colonies that can bring out one’s creativity. And the opportunity to connect with other writers just adds to that. I hope that they continue.

    1. I wish I had taken my camera with me, as it was such a beautiful day, perfect for photos. Then again, at least it meant that I had plenty of time to talk to every one – they were a truly fascinating bunch of people.

  2. That’s sad to hear, that writers’ retreats are losing funding. It’s also sad that English books sell better than books published in other languages. Do publishers assume a non-English book won’t appeal?

    1. I suppose so – and it is probably true that they don’t make quite as much money on the whole. But at the same time, if you deprive people of the choice, then it’s no wonder that they don’t know what else is out there, right?

    1. For full-time writers (who tend not to be a wealthy lot, on the whole), this is one of the few means still available for writing in peace, without having to worry about earning money. (At least for a month or two per year.) The application process, however, can be quite arduous and competitive, though.

  3. oh wow – that sounds just awesome – i once went to a one day poetry slam workshop in heidelberg – just that one day done by one person was inspiring – and what you tell sounds like heaven – what an inspiration – and i hope they can manage to go on with the work they’re doing

  4. The magic of Lavigny indeed…. The photo of the Montbéliarde cows by the vineyards you have used at the end of this post is mine (and stolen without permission from my blog/Google). It was taken in the vineyards of Lavigny in the Jura department of France. (Amazing what a search comes up with).

    I’m a writer too – I’ve just completed my first self-published book on the wines of the Jura. As you will appreciate, people steal words and photographs all too easily. It’s always worth asking someone permission to use their photograph as they may well say yes as long as you give them credit and a link. Retrospectively I will say yes – as long as you credit me – Wink Lorch – and my website http://www.jurawine.co.uk

    You can also give a shout-out for my book somewhere perhaps (I won’t give the link as this might become spammed – but I am selling the book at winetravelmedia dot com)

    1. I do apologise for not crediting you. I always try to be scrupulous about attributing pictures to their rightful owners and crediting the websites I got them from. Perhaps I found this somewhere else unattributed? I honestly cannot remember now. Thank you so much for being so gracious about it. I will make the corrections and give a shout out for your book, especially since I love Jura wines too.

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