UK | 2009
Tristan Hughes was born in Atikokan, Canada and brought up around Llangoed, Ynys Mon (Wales). He completed a PhD thesis on Pacific and American literature from King’s College, Cambridge. Hughes’ first two novels, The Tower (2003) and Send My Cold Bones Home (2006), have won wide literary praise. His third novel, Revenant, is published by Picador. Tristan Hughes has also won The Rhys Davies Short Story Award. Hughes is seen as one of the truly promising writers of his generation.
I’ve always had a strange fascination with towers. My very first book was about one; its title – showing a great leap of imagination – was The Tower. But I never dreamt I’d ever have the opportunity to actually live and write in one. The Fates are rarely quite so generous and considerate.
And what a tower it turned out to be! Set on a Tuscan hill and peering out over forests of oak, beech, ash and acacia, cut deeply with crevasses and steep walls of red clay; filled with curios and exotic artefacts; facing a Moorish castle; possessing probably the finest bathtub in the world! As a devotee of towers, Santa Maddalena was more than I could have hoped for. As a writer, it was just about the most perfect place to work I could have imagined.
I arrived there after what, in writing terms, had been the bleakest of winters. I’d started work on a new novel, and I’m a terrible starter – a clumsy, tentative, stumble-over-the-blocks one. Most of January and February had been lost in the backwards blur of the cursor as my finger was kept firmly pressed on the delete key of my computer. Catching hold of the book had been like tickling trout – it kept slipping out of my hands and swimming off down the river. By the time I got off the train at Donnini I’d just about decided to give up and let it keep swimming. And then the words began to come.
A few at first. Then a few more. Then whole paragraphs and pages and chapters. I remember a particular afternoon, sitting outside the Baronessa’s house drinking coffee with my colleague and friend, the Catalan novelist Jordi Punti. I’d been attempting that most difficult (and often feared and anxiety-plagued) of things: trying to describe my new book and what it was about. Expecting to stumble and stammer through the explanation I’d been re-hashing through the previous year – a mishmash of garbled ideas, confused plots, vague themes – I was surprised to find what I was saying actually made a kind of sense. It sounded like a real book. I realised suddenly that I knew what it was about.
I have no doubt I owe that moment of realisation to the special, and unique, atmosphere and surroundings so carefully cultivated by Beatrice at Santa Maddelena. It is a retreat in the very best sense of that word: a place that permits you to step back and away from your normal life, somewhere that subtly initiates a lifting and loosening of the imagination, a suspension of the usual anxieties. Looking back, a slight quality of daydream pervades my memories of my time there: long happy lunches, full of good food and conversation, followed by long happy walks in the surrounding woods and hills; daily animal sightings – of deer and wild boar and porcupines; trips to vineyards in Chianti country, to antique fairs in Arezzo; an Easter feast, outdoors under the Tuscan sun. And all the time the words kept coming. Literary spirits flickered in the air, as swiftly and furtively as the lizards over the stones of the buildings. They traced strange patterns of coincidence and connection. I’d studied On The Black Hill as a schoolchild in Wales, and there I sat, scribbling away, in the very tower where Chatwin had composed parts of it.
Santa Maddalena is a place where books come alive. What else could any writer want!