Stefan Merrill Block
USA | 2009, 2011, 2016
Stefan Merrill Block was born in 1982 and grew up in Plano, Texas. His first novel,The Story of Forgetting, was released in 2008. The Story of Forgetting won Best First Novel at the Rome International Festival of Literature, The Premio Letterario Merck Serono, and the Book Award for Fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas. His second novel, The Storm at the Door was released in 2011. He lives in Brooklyn. He returned to Santa Maddalena in 2011 and 2016.
The enormous doors to the grounds of Santa Maddalena seem also to function as a portal to a wormhole in spacetime: passing through them, I felt like I had passed into another century. Latching the weighty iron knob behind me, I sealed out the cacophony of life beyond, replacing that 21st century techno-welter with cricket chirps and fireflies and four-course meals served on silver. It felt like a different time, and time moved differently. Hours passed in a smear, measured only by what I had managed to read and write, the meals I had eaten, and the conversations I had. I must admit that, in the early stages of my cyber-detox, I panicked. My fingers, with no refresh button to obsessively tap, were fidgety. I spent many hours in Santa Maddalena’s one island of wifi. Another writer and I hiked the hourlong distance to Donnini just for the reassuring familiarity of exchanging money for Diet Coke. I often had the cyber-withdrawal equivalent of the DTs, pacing up and down the rutted dirt road, looking for a quick fix of cell phone service. But weeks passed, and so did the panic. The world had narrowed and quieted, and eventually so did I. After two or three weeks in that paradise, I found myself able to concentrate in a way I rarely have before or since. Marooned from the present, thousands of miles from home, I had the surprising, paradoxical feeling of being more capable of writing about the present and home. The distance and the calm were just what I needed. The smallness, astonishing beauty and rural quiet of Santa Maddalena forces intimacy but also encourages close friendships within the foundation’s little society. Back at home in New York, with the distractions of millions, it seems nearly impossible to achieve the kind of closeness I felt with my fellow writers, with the staff, and with the great Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori. To often in New York, my interactions with other writers focus upon the business of the job, but at Santa Maddalena dull conversation about writerly anxieties and monetary worries could give way to far more interesting conversations about books and ideas. In the afternoons, when my focus began to flag, I pulled from Santa Maddalena’s library the books that the other writers had passionately recommended. Several of these books now feel vital to me, and I am still working my way through that wonderful curriculum. Having never before spent much sustained time in the company of other writers, the six weeks of that fellowship — as a writer among other writers– made me feel a little less alone. Six weeks: upon my arrival it felt impossibly long, but as the weeks passed I understood it was not at all long enough. What a profound bummer, one November afternoon, to climb aboard the 11:20 train to the airport!