Malaysia/UK | 2006
Tash Aw grew up in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of 18 to attend university. His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and was also nominated for the MAN Booker Prize and Guardian First Novel Prize. It is currently being translated into 18 languages. He lives in London where he is at work on his second novel.
After four weeks at Santa Maddalena, I went away for the weekend. Together with another writer, I decided to take a couple of days off work; we had both been writing very intensively and wanted a little break. We made a mad dash for the Italian Riviera and spent a day looking at gardens full of rare plants; we crossed the border into France and found a cheap Seventies-style hotel in Menton; we sunbathed on a pebbly beach and swam in the sea near Monte Carlo; we drove along the Ligurian coast and had dinner in the hills near Portofino. When, late that Sunday night, we finally found our way back to the narrow winding road that led back to Santa Maddalena, we both experienced something strange, something completely unexpected: a sense of relief, of a return to order. After merely a month, I realised that I had begun to think of the Tower as a homeowner would. The books scattered across the desk were mine. The clothes in the bedroom were mine. They looked every bit at home in the Tower as the pre-Columbian figures on the shelves or the Miro print (sadly not mine).
This is what Santa Maddalena does to you. If, like me, you spend your life wondering where home is, Santa Maddalena makes you think that it is yours, that you could quite happily stay there forever. It is a place created by people who were essentially wanderers, people who understand what it is like constantly to be searching and creating, and who have thus built a dwelling-place that defuses the restless instinct so commonly found in writers. You find quite quickly that you don’t need 8-meg broadband. You don’t need cable TV (in fact, you don’t need TV at all). Your daily mochaccino seems ridiculous. Here there are views, long walks, even longer conversations, rich Tuscan food, a few eccentrically refined dogs, charming local restaurants and brocantes. And you will work and live in some of the most stylishly simple rooms you will ever see.
It is also a place of stories. I can guarantee that you will not have heard more zany or mind-boggling ones. Most of these come from Beatrice herself, delivered with the utmost matter-of-factness that you soon realise that here, at Santa Maddalena, the extraordinary is really quite commonplace. These stories will make your fiction seem very, very bland indeed, but at the end of your stay I can also guarantee that you will have some very memorable ones to tell yourself. You will also come back with some very good olive oil, and perhaps something from the brocante at Arezzo (in my case a 19 th -century French soft-porn novel: thank you, Beatrice).
For those who are at all interested in how I worked, I will only say that – for the first time in a year and a half – I actually looked forward to clicking on the hitherto dreaded WORDCOUNT button at the end of the day.
My advice is simple. If you are invited, go. Go quickly. For I am planning, some time very soon, to steal into the Tower, change the locks and board up the doors and windows. After a while (I have to check Italian property law), I will assume squatters’ rights and the Tower will become mine, and I might not be as generous as Beatrice in allowing needy writers into my home.