A Book About Writers’ Retreats: Real People

Alison Lurie: Real People (1970)

Borrowed from the library following a recommendation by Smithereens, it was in the reserve stock section in the basement and had last been taken out in 1988. Clearly, it has fallen somewhat out of favour, but it is a fun book and a quick read, while also posing some interesting questions about artistic ambition.

‘Are those artists, Mom, or are they real people?’ 

That is what a child visiting the luxurious artists’ colony Illyria asks, and with good reason, as hyper-sensitive mid-career mid-successful lady writer Janet Smith finds out. At first, it seems like Eden, with perfect weather, wonderful quiet, friendly and gentle artistic people. Although she seems to lead quite a privileged existence, it is such a relief to be away from the humdrum everyday worries of family life, and focus only on the writing. A sentiment all writers who dream about peaceful retreats will echo no doubt:

At home there’s always the telephone and the doorbell – Bessie will answer, but of course I hear the ring and wonder who it is. And whenever I raise my eyes, I notice something I ought to do something about: smudges on the wallpaper, that peculiar bill from the cleaners… If I look out the window, I don’t see a view; instead I’m reminded that the garage will need repainting soon, I must call White’s Nursery about spraying the fruit trees, and we’ve simply got to have the Hodgdens over to dinner. And when I look back at my story, it’s fallen apart again. I suppose the wonder really is not that I’ve had so much trouble working in Westford, but that I’ve been able to work there at all.

Yaddo, said to be the inspiration for this book.

But all is not well in paradise, of course. The Garden of Eden is beset by worms, serpents, temptation, envy and monstrous egos, especially when a pretty young girl turns up in their midst. Artists prove obtuse or vulgar, pretentious, self-absorbed, while Janet muddles through, feeling guilty about not working, feeling she has nothing new left to say, desperate to prove herself in this milieu yet blind to her own failings. It is beautifully precise social comedy about the scandals and squabbles of the artistic and literary community, but also has something to say about dreams and ambitions and selling one’s self short. Finally, Janet admits to herself that she has in fact a patron, her husband, who is supporting her lifestyle and writing ambitions, although he doesn’t see her literary merit. She considers herself lucky that she doesn’t have to apply for grants or work three jobs to support herself, but in a moment of complete honesty she realises she has given up writing to a certain degree:

… when I decided not to write stories that would embarrass Clark and the children, I gave up writing seriously… Not that it happened all at once. I censored myself gradually over the years, as the children learned to read, as Clark became more prominent locally, as my stories began to be published in magazines more people read… But what I see now is something else even more disquieting. It’s that over the years I’ve begun to avoid doing – and sometimes even seeing – any thing I couldn’t write about.

Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice. I know all this; I’ve known it for years. But all the same I’ve begun adding water, more and more lukewarm water, to every batch I made. Because I was afraid the that undiluted stuff would freeze and burn me, and everyone around me.

Alison Lurie, from her website.

This kind of over-specialised musing and satire may appeal only to other writers, but it’s a shame that there aren’t more books set in artists’ colonies, as there is a rich seam of humour to be mined. Sadly, perhaps all writers are aware that if they let rip, they will alienate their writer friends and publishers, and risk never being granted permission to attend such retreats (above all, to teach at such retreats, a valuable source of income).

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Friday (Thursday) Fun: Writers’ Retreats

Some of them belong(ed) to writers, some of them are being used for writing workshops and retreats. All of them will predispose you to a bookish reverie…

Edith Wharton's house The Mount in Lenox, MA, organises 2-3 week residencies for women writers of 'demonstrated accomplishment'.
Edith Wharton’s house The Mount in Lenox, MA, organises 2-3 week residencies for women writers of ‘demonstrated accomplishment’.
Court Green in Devon, the house of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Picture courtesy of P.H. Davies. Hughes' widow still lives there.
Court Green in Devon, the house of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Picture courtesy of P.H. Davies. Hughes’ widow still lives there.
Lumb Bank is another house formerly owned by Ted Hughes, and is currenty an Arvon Writers' Centre.
Lumb Bank is another house formerly owned by Ted Hughes, and is currently an Arvon Writers’ Centre. Picture by Alison Morton.
Kerouac's cottage in the Orlando neighbourhood where he wrote The Dharma Bums. 4 three-month residencies a year are available to writers of 'any stripe or age, living anywhere in the world.
Kerouac’s cottage in the Orlando neighbourhood where he wrote The Dharma Bums. 4 three-month residencies a year are available to writers of ‘any stripe or age, living anywhere in the world.
Marguerite Yourcenar's villa not far from Lille and the Belgian border offers 1-2 month residencies to European writers.
Marguerite Yourcenar’s villa not far from Lille and the Belgian border offers 1-2 month residencies to European writers.
Barnhill on the Scottish island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984, is still open to writers seeking solitude and lack of Wifi.
Barnhill on the Scottish island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984, is still open to writers seeking solitude and lack of Wifi.
Gladstone Library in North Wales operates a bed and breakfast, as well as a Writers in Residence Programme.
Gladstone Library in North Wales operates a bed and breakfast, as well as a Writers in Residence Programme.

Finally, the Michalski Foundation in Switzerland has  been busy building different versions of treehouses by renowned Swiss architects. You can apply for a writing residency programme in one of those treehouses, very close to where I used to live (talk about bad timing for leaving the area!). Here are more details on how to apply (deadline is Sept. 30th, hence a Thursday rather than Friday Fun posting, to give you time to apply).

Cabane Mangeat-Walhen, Fondation Jan Michalski.
Cabane Mangeat-Walhen, Fondation Jan Michalski.

Chateau de Lavigny: Readings from International Writers

20140831_172441I had the great pleasure to attend my first reading at Chateau de Lavigny last year and I wrote some more about this writers’ retreat with a very special atmosphere then.  This year I was only able to attend the very last reading of the season last night, but it was no less magical. It was an extremely diverse group of writers, both in terms of nationalities and languages spoken, but also in terms of style and subject matter.

20140831_172422First up, there was French poet Franck André Jamme, who has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and ‘philosophical fragments’ (for want of a better word), has translated from Hindi and Bengali literature, and has collaborated with a number of artists. He read from Au secret, a sort of travel journal, against a background of birds chirruping.

Tuccelli
Photo by Neva Micheva.

Second author was Italian-American Jessica-Maria Tuccelli (photo left), anthropologist turned film-maker and actress, now writer. I had read excellent reviews about her ambitious debut novel Glow and it was from this novel that she read, with an impeccable Southern accent.  The novel traces the lives of the descendants of a white slave-owner and moves back and forth in time and in voice, weaving an almost mystical tale of hardship, race relations and family tissue.

20140831_172530The third reader was Bulgarian translator Neva Micheva, who is her country’s foremost translator from Spanish and Italian. She had some very interesting things to say about translations, namely that, contrary to popular belief that the writer creates the original while the translator makes a copy, each good translation is an equally original interpretation and creation. On the other hand, bad writers and bad translators can create equally bad fake literature. Alongside the greats such as Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Javier Marias, she also translates books she personally enjoys and cannot forget, books she wants to share with others.  She read to us what she described as ‘her one and only attempt to translate poetry’, from The Poems of Sidney West by Argentine writer Juan Gelman, who very kindly answered her many, many questions about the text before his death in January of this year.

Photo by Neva Micheva
Photo by Neva Micheva

The fourth writer is Austrian/Slovak writer Zdenka Becker (photo right), who writes fiction, plays and screenplays, mostly in German. She read from a short play entitled Odysseas Never Returned, which has been translated into English and performed off-Broadway. A story of war, passion, vanity and disappointment.

20140831_172457Finally, there was Jason Donald, whom I already knew from the Geneva Writers’ Group. Born in Scotland, raised in South Africa, he worked for a while in the UK where he published his first novel in 2009, and currently lives in Switzerland. He read a very vivid, funny yet cruel extract from his novel Choke Chain.

So I came away as usual with a wealth of lovely words in my head, a couple of signed books, conversations to treasure and the inspiration to carry on. Long may these summer events of Chateau de Lavigny last!

20140831_172737

A Few Easy Reads

I’ve been reading some rather lengthy and serious books lately, so I thought I would unwind with a few lighter reads. Here are three I read in about a couple of hours each, something for every taste.

WRitingGert Loveday: Writing Is Easy

Delightful and frothy like a French dessert, this is a book for and about writers. There are a couple of deaths within its pages, but it’s not crime fiction. Instead, writers’ workshops and retreats are given the satirical treatment. The lively characterisation  really makes the story here: washed-out novelist Marcus Goddard, who is afraid he will never live up to the success of his first novel; impenetrable modernist writer and performance poet Lilian Bracegirdle; the wannabe writer of hardboiled detective fiction who gets stuck with too many dames; the fitness fanatic who firmly believes it can’t be that hard to write a book in a week; the downtrodden housewife turning to the world of fantasy fiction for comfort; the serial award-winner who still hasn’t managed to find her own voice. Not forgetting resourceful or greedy assistants, a temperamental chef, tremendous egos and past secrets resurfacing to haunt people. A romp of a novel, just the thing to make you laugh out loud at human absurdity.

InawordMargot Kinberg & Martin Edwards (eds.): In a Word, Murder

This is a labour of love: an anthology to commemorate indomitable blogger and crime fiction specialist Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona. All proceeds from the sale of this anthology go to one of Maxine’s favourite charities, the Princess Alice Hospice. It’s a fun collection of murderous short stories in diverse styles, reflecting the diversity of authors included. There is a lot of humour, as well as darker deeds, in this collection, and quite a few of the stories have a literary bent as well: self-publishing becomes a life-saver (literally), book blogging becomes deadly, changing publishers is a dangerous game… and so on.

 

Stella Rimington: The Geneva Trap

GenevaOK, I’ll admit it: I read this one purely for the location, as I live in the Geneva area and thought it would be fun to see if the author had captured the local flavour well. Needless to say, as with any spy thriller, the locations change and also include Marseille, London, plus some godforsaken rural areas in France and England. Stella Rimington was famously the Director General of MI5 for many years, so she knows her stuff and perhaps her work is more authentic than John Le Carre or the recently read ‘I Am Pilgrim’. But oh, how much more boring authenticity is! A lot of surveillance, meetings on park benches, computer analyses… This is the 7th book in the Liz Carlyle series, so perhaps I missed something by not starting with the first, but it just felt like run-of-the-mill spy fiction  to me. There was nothing to lift it above the average. Still, this would work well as a quick airport/airplane read.

 

 

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