In 2016, French-Australian author Sophie Masson asked me to answer a few questions about my 1989 residency in the Keesing Studio in Paris, as a visiting writer sponsored by the Australian Council for the Arts. My answers run below, along with a few images from the era. The Keesing Studio, funded by a bequest from the author Nancy Keesing, has been home - six months at a time - to dozens of Australian creative writers eager to experience the ‘Paris factor’. I encourage authors to apply.
When were you the Keesing Studio resident? And why did you decide to apply for it?
I was the studio occupant for the first six months of 1989. I always wanted to spend time in Paris writing a novel, a long-held dream, so I figured six months would cure me. I ended up staying in Paris for three years. I didn’t get the residency first time around, I applied but missed out - the person who was chosen pulled out, and the Australia Council rang and said, ‘Can you go in her place?’ I was on the next plane, although the flight itself turned into a nightmare. As we approached Europe, the captain informed us that violent snowstorms were blanketing all major airports. We’d have to divert to either Brussels or London; in line with French democracy, the passengers were given a vote, and Brussels won. We took a bus through blizzard conditions down to Paris, where I discovered my luggage was lost. I spent my first days in Paris buying fresh underwear. But I was in Paris and that was all that mattered.
What did you work on when you were there, and did it change from your original vision as a result of the residency?
I had two concurrent projects. I was editing my second novel ‘Smyrna’, so had the very enjoyable task of sitting with my Penguin editor Bruce Sims in the studio fixing the book line by line. Since it was Paris, we also consumed a fair amount of wine. (I maintain the novel was the better for it, and I’m sure Bruce agrees.) Then I moved onto what was to be my third novel, titled ‘The Conduct of Arrows’, set in Brazil in the early 1960s. I’d been to Brazil for research a few years earlier and brought copious notes and files to Paris, ready to crack 'the big one’, the novel that would cement my career. I began writing about the tropics of Brazil in the depths of a miserable European winter, and by spring I had the first draft. Penguin wanted to publish it but I wasn’t happy with the result. My six months was up, and, out of cash, I returned to Sydney to work as a producer on the SBS World News desk, which quickly saw me sent back to Paris as their European correspondent, a gig that lasted until 1992. Paris again had me in its wonderful grip. I spent two years running around Europe, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Little did I know that the Brazilian novel would sit in a drawer for another twenty years before I tackled it again. I’m polishing what I should be the final draft, but you never know...
What were your first impressions of the Keesing studio itself, and its neighbourhood, and how did that evolve over the course of your residency?
When I walked into the studio it was pretty bare, with no kitchen bench space. Being of a practical bent, I immediately took the metro to the nearest timber yard, bought some wooden planks, found the location of the nearest BHV store (a French hardware chain) and bought nails and cheap tools and got to work. For the first day or so I was building, not writing. I prowled the surrounding Marais streets by night and found leftover furniture and set myself up in the studio as a second-hand king. I built a folding screen to create a separate office space. The only thing that irked me was the lumpy single bed (since I was single) but the notorious Madame Bruneau - fierce moral guardian of the Cite des Arts, where the studio was situated - would not countenance swapping the single for a double. There was a tiny TV set, black and white. Once I’d set up the kitchen I was cooking pasta and was as happy as Larry.
Did you go 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 went alone but a strange thing happened: I met a French woman. This turned into a torrid affair, complicated by the fact that (a) she was married to an Englishman, and (b) she had an eighteen-month-old daughter. It was further complicated by the fact that their best friends in Australia had asked me to deliver a present for the baby girl, which I duly did. One thing led to another and I had to write back to my Australian friends to inform them that not only had I delivered the present for the baby girl but that I'd run off with the mother. (The husband, I discovered to my relief, had left her.) So my Paris sojourn began to resemble a Feydeau farce. As spring came, Paris turned into the great outdoor city it was, and still is, and I came to love everything about it. The food, the markets, the bookstores, art stores, cafes, even now I struggle to think of anything I didn’t like in that city.
What did you think about it as a writing/ideas environment?
The Keesing studio was a good place to work at night, but by day I found it gloomy; it was a new concrete building in a wonderful old neighbourhood, the worst possible combination, and whenever I could I escaped to write in libraries and cafes, or along the quays if the weather was fine. But I wasn’t complaining; the studio was in perhaps the best location in Paris, it was clean and rat-free, and best of all, it was free. I did all my manuscript typing there. (This was in an era where typewriters were still considered practical tools, not curiosities.) I should mention that when I was awarded the residency, there was no living stipend attached; I explained to the Australia Council that one couldn’t live in Paris on love alone, they agreed and came up with $10,000 for six months - which thereafter became a fixture of the residency.
Tell us about your favourite Paris places - sites, culture, food…
I loved the Jewish restaurants in the Marais, which back then was not trendy by any means; there were still plenty of trades and working class people around, and the odd ‘derro’ lying on the footpath, although by the time I returned to Paris in 1991, it was already showing signs of gentrification, and now I find the area insufferably self-conscious. Bars and cafes: my regular haunts were the La Tartine on rue de Rivoli in the Marais, said to be where Trotsky had written his radical texts (and where the toilets had not been renovated since) and La Palette on rue de Seine, filled with the bartered artworks of students from the the Beaux-Arts across the street. Food: my favourite restaurant when I could afford it was the Balzar, in rue des Ecoles near the Sorbonne, where the dry old waiter got to know my order: cold lamb with endive salad and fresh mayonnaise, and a glass of Morgon rouge. I loved the Paris metro too, and prided myself on knowing the shortest ‘correspondences’ between stations. Notre Dame did nothing for me, nor the Louvre, but the Musee Quay d’Osay housed my favourite painting in the world, Van Gogh’s 'Portrait of Doctor Gachet'. It was always incredible to see it hanging there.
What experiences stand out for you in the time you spent in Paris?
I was invited by a friend to her parent’s place one day, they were ‘having a few people over’ for drinks. The ‘place’ turned out to be the entire top floor of a building in Saint Germain du Pres, an apartment of twenty or more rooms, and the 200 people there quaffing Bollinger were attending the Paris Air Show, and were aircraft dealers - people who bought and sold Jumbos to airlines and fighter planes to African dictatorships. For a boy from Australia, even for a journalist and author from Sydney, this was a heavy crowd. Paris, behind its historic laneways and facades, was home to some of the richest people on the planet. At the other end of the spectrum, I loved sharpening my pencils in the Cafe Select and drinking my coffee and being left alone to create for hours on end. The fact that everyone in Paris saw this as perfectly normal adult behaviour was enlightening.
Do you think the residency has had a lasting impact on your work, and in what way?
Paris taught me the value of literature, and its place in a civilised society. In early 1989 I’d had one novel published by Penguin, with another about to be released, but the words ‘Penguin’ and ‘novel’ seemed to create some magical ether that opened doors at all levels. One night I met the head of the French equivalent of my principal funders, the Australia Council Literature Board, and asked him if they had negative front-page stories in France about writers getting grants from the taxpayers' funds - as we did at the time in Australia. He looked at me, more than a little baffled, and asked how much money was involved. I had no idea, but I said something wildly extravagant like five-million dollars a year, hoping at least to impress him. He shook his head, unbelieving. ‘Merde,’ he said, searching for the right metaphor. ‘But that’s, that's just... the wing tip of a fighter plane!’ My time among the Parisiennes gave me enormous respect for French cultural values, not to mention their sense of theatre.