I write this with a deep peaceful sigh from the midst of a three-week writing retreat at Bundanon, the pair of properties given to the people of Australia by the painter Arthur Boyd and his family, on the Shoalhaven River a couple of hours south of Sydney.
It’s the second time I’ve had the great fortune to be here. I first came over ten years ago, when I was working on my second novel, The Submerged Cathedral – a book that turned out to be very much about landscape. Then, as now, I found the landscape here creeping not only into my work but my psyche. This time the effect is even greater I think, because while last time I worked in a large studio facing a different direction, this time my view, all day every day, is this one: the greenest paddock you have ever seen, often complete with kangaroos and wombats. The kangaroos oblige with a morning and evening ballet performance, and the wombats – enormous things – putz around after them.
I arrived at Bundanon after a busy month, having travelled from Adelaide Writers’ Week almost straight on to the fabulous Shanghai International Literary Festival and then very quickly to the Snowy Mountains Readers and Writers’ Festival, talking all the way.
I am exceptionally lucky to keep being invited to speak at these events, and it’s grand to meet readers of my books. At the same time, there is something that doesn’t really sit right with me when I do a lot of it. For one thing, I grow very quickly tired of the sound of my own voice. Writers are often rather introverted people, and so the performance aspect of speaking in public – as I have been doing for almost 18 months now, having published two books within six months of each other (d’oh!) and spoken at 15 literary festivals as well as assorted libraries and bookshops in that time - can start to erode your sense of who and what you are if you do too much of it.
It also means – for me anyway – that the creative well is all but dried up. All that hyper-stimulation and exploration of the outside world means the inside world of my head, where my new novel should be dwelling, has become a rather hollow, empty place. All I have been hearing is my voice banging on and on and on, instead of sitting quietly and listening, which is the only way I can find my way into writing.
All of which means that arriving here, to this view, with absolutely no requirement that I use my voice to speak at all, was even more blissful than I would ordinarily have found it. And while I’ve been keeping in touch with home and friends by email (and Twitter, which is where I learned of this lovely surprise last week) at least four days can go by at a time without having to open my mouth to speak. But it’s not only the quiet that is so restorative. I’m absolutely sure the actual view – that wall of green – has as much to do with it (a hunch seemingly validated by this research into “restorative environments”).
I’m in what’s known as The Writer’s Cottage, just a stone’s throw from the artists’ apartments and studios occupied by other residents – more often visual artists, but this time several other writers, all lovely people. A Musicians’ Cottage is a little further away, set back among the trees. The whole place is such a generous gift – with Arthur Boyd’s studio and the family home a stroll down the hill, and open every Sunday for visitors. It’s a stunning place to visit, so if you’re ever in the Shoalhaven area you really should come to see for yourself.
I’m just starting week three, and have been slowly sinking back into my new novel. It’s both a joy and a challenge to be so immersed in it – when you finally get what you want, the result can be confronting. “Oh, if I only had three weeks of pure isolation for work on my novel!” can quickly turn to a terrified “Oh my God, three weeks of isolation to work on my novel?” once you sit down to the blank page and the blinking cursor once again.
And that’s where one’s small daily routines become so precious, especially cooking and eating. The morning coffee drunk while watching the roos, the lunchtime fridge scavenge, the evening glass of wine while cooking dinner, then the meal itself. Mine have most often been eaten one-handed from a bowl, while reading, reading, reading in a comfy chair by lamplight – and it all takes on a great deal more ritual significance than at home during a normal working week. Even washing the dishes has become a pleasant diversion, what with the sink installed beneath a window that looks out on to a whole other view of stunning green, this time bushland…
Then it’s early to bed, and the best sleep I have had in years (interrupted only by the odd bit of thumping and shrieking from a wombat rumpus under the house once or twice, and one night, the sad moans of some yarded cattle down the way), then up early to start again, sitting down with the quiet mind, the blank page, my imagined world and that view.
This evening’s dinner is a new soup I’ve made up this afternoon, inspired partly by a mention my husband made of a sweet potato soup he made at home last week, and partly by the happenstance combination of veg in my fridge, and partly by the welcome return of some cool damp weather. I feel like one of these wombats, shouldering my way back into the long-missed burrow of my writing life. And, even though it’s kind of dark in here, I like it.
- olive oil
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, chopped
- 3 medium carrots, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 leek, finely chopped
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 3 cm lump ginger, finely chopped
- ½ bunch parsley, stems finely chopped & separated from leaves, also chopped
- ½ a celery stick, finely chopped
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 600 ml chicken stock
- salt & pepper
- a little fresh mint, finely chopped
- lemon juice & zest
- a dollop of natural yoghurt – optional
- First, I tossed the carrots and sweet potato in olive oil and roasted them till richly browned and caramelised, because – well, because generally I need a good reason not to roast things and couldn’t see one here.
- While they’re roasting, sauté the onion, leek, ginger, garlic, spices, chilli and finely chopped parsley stalks in more olive oil along with the spices till the veg are soft and the spices fragrant.
- Add the roasted veg and the chicken stock and simmer over a low heat until the carrots & sweet potato have fallen apart. I don’t peel mine, but you can if you wish. If you don’t have stick blender, the sweet potato skins might be too chunky for some, but I like a bit of rustic roughage!
- When you’re about ready to eat, add the chopped parsley leaves and mint, season well with salt and pepper, a good squeeze of lemon juice and a little zest, and turn off the heat.
- Pour the second glass of wine, spoon the soup into a deep bowl, add a dollop of yoghurt and another mint leaf or two, take up your Alice Munro (or Hilary Mantel or Elizabeth Strout or James Salter, all of which I’ve been riveted by here – except maybe the Salter which although brilliantly written is giving me the 70s Love God Great Man Writer heebiegeebies a bit), settle into your comfy chair and enjoy your evening.