UK | 2010, 2012
Diane Evans lives in London and is a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA. She has published short fiction in a number of anthologies, has worked as a journalist and arts critic for several magazines in the United Kingdom, and writes regularly for The Independent and Stage. She won the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2005 for 26a. She returned to Santa Maddalena in 2012.
In the spring of 2010, at the invitation of Bill Swainson and Beatrice Monti della Corte, I spent four weeks at the Santa Maddalena writers’ colony in Tuscany, Italy. This was the first part of a six-week fellowship to be completed in 2011 and funded by Arts Council England. My purpose for going was to make headway on a novel, my third, which had been floundering in its early infancy in London among a host of distractions, and which I hoped would be coaxed into the light by distance and clean air.
Santa Maddalena is a fifteenth century farmhouse covered in lush foliage and set in copious grounds amid the woodland, brooks and ravines of the Arno Valley region. It is a profoundly peaceful place, of breathtaking beauty, whose special magic I first sensed while being driven along the stony, winding lane that leads from the main road to the house. Already, time was slowing down, in tune with the stillness of the olive trees. The quietness was palpable and reassuring. By the time I arrived at Beatrice Monti della Corte’s front door, there had taken place a subtle shift in my state of mind, a shift towards the openness and listening required for creative work.
It was with some trepidation that I met the baroness and her four dogs. I had never met a baroness before, and as far as I had until now been aware, I was allergic to dogs, as well as cats (she also has a cat, Tiger Lily, who is, admittedly, elusive). I expected that within minutes of being inside the house I would be sneezing, coughing and spluttering to escape. But this did not happen. The air was very cool, the walls built of stone, the floors uncarpeted, and I believe there was also a little magic involved in the fact that I seemed to be cured, and sat unsniffling through a nutritious first lunch, after which Beatrice, gracious and imposing, led me across the olive grove to the tower.
A stone aspiration at the helm of the garden. A lonely annexe. This was the Medieval signal tower in which Beatrice’s late husband Gregor Von Rezzori wrote his memoir, Anecdotage. I read Anecdotage during my own sojourn in the tower, sitting up in bed in the upper rooms at night, the same pink-striped room inhabited at various times by Bruce Chatwin, whom Rezzori mentions often in the book, sometimes as a dying man, others as a golden-haired youth. Chatwin became one of the presences that permeated my luxuriously long days in the tower. Chatwin, Rezzori himself, Edmund White, and the baroness also, whose grandmother is pictured on the wall of the pink bedroom and whose objects and paintings from around the world crowd Santa Maddalena with a sense of style, charisma and artistic passion.
One of the unique qualities of Santa Maddalena is that it is someone’s home. As such it is unlike other writers’ colonies, where the accommodations and studios are continually stripped of a trace of each person before. Here there are cosy towelling dressing gowns in the linen cupboard, well-fingered books on every available shelf, ornaments, baskets. The vast study where I worked every day at the top of the tower was crowded with people, in the figurative sense, creative ghosts who, rather than causing a hindrance, spurred me on with their faith in the importance of what I was doing. I thought of them when I was stuck, pictured them when I was lonely. It is easy to feel, as a writer at work in a metropolis such as London, that one’s words are worth little, that no one will be able to hear them above all the noise. In the tower, all I could hear was birdsong, and most of what I felt was encouragement. My head was truly in another world and my imagination was fed by it, so that the world that I was writing about took on an unusual tinge, a new colour, distance, which meant I could get closer to it with my pen. In order to increase this feeling of closeness I left the keyboard and started to write by hand, which helped me further in getting a firm grip on my novel.
I produced forty pages of manuscript during this first part of the fellowship. I consider myself a slow writer. For me this was fast work, and I believe it was due not just to the time spent in the study but also that spent away from it. During long afternoon walks through woodland and meadows I would see scenes from my project, significant moments, unfolding in my head, entirely unanticipated avenues I was being invited to explore, as if the trees were telling me which way to go. Other walks in the company of my fellow writers, Anne McLean, with whom I shared the tower, and Jaspreet Singh, were equally stimulating. I discovered authors I was previously unfamiliar with, such as Evelio Rosero and Javier Cercas, and was able if I wished to discuss challenges I was facing in my work. Conversations continued at dinner, always of an international scope, always obsessive of literature and art, and enhanced by Beatrice’s near-mythical, humorous stories. After dinner I would venture across the dark field back to the tower and climb into bed with a book, of which I read five during my stay, all from Beatrice’s library, as well as the literary journals scattered around the house. This constant submersion in the culture of words made me think of writing less as a difficult, isolated act than an endless, bustling conversation between different voices about the world we live in and what it is like to be alive. It became easier, each morning, to return to the desk.
Beatrice was kind enough to invite me, along with Jaspreet Singh, to stay on at the colony when our travel plans were obstructed by the Icelandic ash cloud. This allowed a time of reflection and restoration after the weeks of intensive writing, which gave room for new creative ideas to emerge. I am very grateful to her for this gesture, and for her good judgement in thinking of her home as a valuable place for inspiration. I came away from Santa Maddalena with a fresh perspective on my work, a renewed passion for writing itself, a calmer mind, and a deeper faith in many things. I miss the tower and think of it often. I also look forward to returning.
Two years after taking the first part of my Santa Maddelana Fellowship, I returned in March/April 2012 for the second part in order to continue work on my third novel. This time I stayed in the main house rather than the tower, in the quiet room under the staircase. Although I am used to working in a separate study, I worked well in this room and was able to concentrate. As usual in the Beatrice Monti della Corte style the room is comfortably and charismatically furnished, with interesting books and journals lying around and unusual paintings and photographs on the walls. When I arrived there was a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul sitting on a little table by the desk.
I will remember my second visit to Santa Maddalena largely as the moment in which I discovered this book. I read it in the evenings after dinner and was pulled in to Pamuk’s beautiful, melancholic and compassionate version of his city. It brought me to think of my own city, London, and my relationship to it, in a new way, and this will certainly have a bearing on my future, and indeed current, work. This I think is one of the most useful aspects of writers’ retreats, the coincidental encounters with new work and new ideas that might not otherwise have surfaced, and the contact with other writers.
My fellow artists at the retreat during my stay were the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, American poet Michael Thomas Taren, and the travel writer Michael Jacobs. I particularly enjoyed reading Šalamun’s audacious, reckless and voluptuous poetry and listening to his accounts of his experiences in life and literature. Aside from working on my novel, of which I completed ten pages of rewriting, I also wrote some poems, reconnecting with and remembering my instinct for doing so in my early writing and the pleasure it still gives me.
The surrounding nature of woods, mountains and meadows at Santa Maddalena makes for luxurious walks and runs after a day of writing, allowing the mind to loosen and relax, and thereby creating space for ideas about one’s work to solidify and advance. This work that happens by itself, away from the desk, is just as important, and I am grateful for the peace of mind that this retreat has for a second time made possible.