UK | 2004
Jon McGregor was born in Bermuda in 1976, and grew up in Norfolk. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things, was published in 2002 and won both the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in Nottingham.
Four weeks at Santa Maddalena, March 2004
It’s been said before, but it won’t hurt to say it again – the desk in Grisha’s studio is something very special indeed. Broad and solid, imbued with a lifetime of writing (and now, thanks to the Foundation, snatches of many lifetimes’ writing), looking out over a timeless Tuscan view of forest, valley, church, castle, pasture; this would be a special desk even it were a fifth of the size it is. But no, it’s a big desk, oh boy is it a big desk. It’s easy to forget, with the movie version of writers as wild-haired wanderers scribbling on napkins in free-refill cafes, that sometimes we have quite particular technical requirements; and for me, one of those is a good desk. And this desk, in this studio, is a good desk. It’s three and a half metres long! It’s longer than my house is wide! And having the space to spread a three or four thousand word chapter out, to pace up and down shifting paragraphs and sentences to their rightful place, to lay out my notes and sketches and plans, my second and third versions of a chapter; to do all that and still have room for a cup of tea, well, that’s what I call a desk.
See, maybe this is just me. Maybe everyone else just uses the laptop. But I like to spread my papers out and see what I’ve got.
And, if I can be forgiven a slightly clumsy metaphor, this is what Santa Maddalena meant to me. I had space to spread my work out, and see what was there. I had time to work, and to rework, and to throw it away and start again. I had the luxury of waking up, and knowing that the whole day was mine to fill with writing – I didn’t need to do the washing up, get to the shops, put those shelves up, or even be sociable. I could fall out of bed and go straight out to the studio, straight to that vast desk still spread with the previous day’s work, and if I wanted to I could stay there until the sun had traced its way right across the sky and disappeared again somewhere behind Donnini and the Arno River.
Of course, the company was good – the French, the Dutch, the American, different writers from different traditions and with different perspectives on the experience of writing, the approach to writing, the meaning of doing this strange fiddly business with words. And the hospitality was very fine indeed – the food served up with skill and care by Nilantha and his wife, the stories (many stories) told with warmth and humour by our host Beatrice, the sense that for our time there we were a part of the household. But, for me at least, it all came back to the desk.
What did I do? Well, I came to Santa Maddalena with three-quarters of a novel I’d been working on for a year and a half, desperate to finish it. I knew exactly what I wanted to do (I thought), the chapters I needed to write, the sections I needed to rearrange, the stories I still needed to invent to fill in the gaps. So, mostly I wrote. A typical working day for me started about 8am, with breakfast, and went on until dinner in the evening with only a break for lunch. Usually I fitted a walk in there somewhere, mostly after lunch when the pasta was making the desk feel more like a pillow, mostly down to the valley or up to the road again, occasionally following the valley round and back up the hill to make a long circuit. Once or twice I went to Florence. Two or three times a day I stood mournfully on the edge of the swimming pool, wishing despite the weather that it was full. And I looked out of the window, a lot, watching the trees around the studio change from bare frosty branches to sudden clouds of dewy-white blossom to pale green unfolding foliage alive with returning songbirds, watching the storms work their way across the valley, watching the occasional jet streak across the sky. But mostly I wrote, and by the time I left I had a manuscript which said The End on the last page, if not a finished novel.
Regrets? Perhaps that I didn’t give myself enough time to not write. I was caught up in a part romantic, part puritan idea that I could finish this unwieldy book in one final flurry of fourteen hour days, when perhaps I should have allowed myself more space to make use of the experience of being in Tuscany, of going for day-long walks instead of snatching the odd hour or two here and there. (Although, in my defence, the weather was kind of English while I was there…) Maybe the poets have got the right idea; more thinking, less writing. I also regret not speaking Italian or French, but that’s a whole other subject.
Comments? It’s only a small thing, but could I suggest that sometimes it was easy to be taken by surprise by the timetable of events at Santa Maddalena? A day out for lunch, a press conference, a guest for dinner – for this uptight Englishman at least, unexpected changes to the writing schedule lead to a certain level of jitteriness. A few days warning would have been appreciated. But maybe that was just me.
I would love to be able to say that I finished my novel at Santa Maddalena, that the quietness, the company, and the good food all combined to give me the final push I needed, but I didn’t. The work I produced during my stay was too intense, too much of an outpouring to be a finished piece. But it was writing of a type I’d been struggling to produce for some time, and it was writing which I’m now able to cut and shape into something a little more measured.
There are no Italian scenes in this novel that I’ve nearly finished, no references to frescoes, wine, or olive groves. There isn’t even an excitable pug dog. But the studio at Santa Maddalena has become a vital part of the book all the same, and a very fond part of my writing life. I’ll send you a copy when it’s done.
Jon McGregor, March 2004.