Something very significant happened a few weeks ago, and it’s the reason I had to take a small break from (personal) writing.
On June 1st I farewelled my precious little Sabrina.
She was more than just a cat – she nursed me through the grief of losing my mum suddenly in 2009. She got me out of bed with her little chatter in the mornings, protected me from annoying blowflies in Summer (she had a great left paw hook), calmed me down when the world got too much and made writing a book such a companionable activity.
Sabrina loved it when I was drafting A Letter From Paris last winter, either perched just behind my shoulder or next to my leg, or sometimes sneaking under the blanket when I was too in the zone to even notice anything except that I felt warm and cosy.
I’m a pretty sensitive person, and I’ve noticed that life without her is missing that softness. I used to come home and just go straight to pick her up and have a pat. If I’d been in too many crowds or seen another horrendous news story or someone had walked too close to me and scared me a bit, just the simple fact of her non-verbal furriness would bring my heart rate down.
But it was time to say goodbye. What I thought was a spider bite was a large tumour on her back near her neck, and she was most probably in a lot of pain. I never knew exactly how old she was because I rescued her as a stray in 2009, but she was at least 13. I still can’t think about her without a huge tearful gulp.
But as a friend poetically said to me, “now she can come with you to Paris!”
In three weeks, my partner and I are travelling to France for a wedding. We have a brief sojourn in London where I’ll get to visit the UK Scribe office, and see the first copies of my book.
Squee!!! Two parts of this thrill me beyond childhood dreams.
As you can imagine, seeing the first, physical copy of your heart and soul and years of work, with a spine and everything, a cover, all of it… is just monumental.
But the second is that I’m picking up the first copy of my book on an entirely different continent! I’ve always wanted to be published outside of Australia, so when I heard the news about the British edition (it comes out ten days after the September 3 Australian release), I was just over the moon. (Fingers crossed for a US announcement, next…!)
Now, onto even more exciting Paris news. Last March, when I was in Paris, I visited the iconic Shakespeare and Company bookshop which is at the edge of the Seine in the 5th Arrondissement. As usual, it was packed. One of the most famous English-language bookstores in Paris, Shakespeare and Co was called Le Mistral when it opened in 1951 by American ex-pat (and ex-GI) George Whitman. Whitman relocated to Paris in 1946, quickly amassing a large number of books, and apparently used to leave his apartment unlocked so that anyone could come and read his books whether he was home or not. A true bohemian bibliophile!
I’m certain my dad would have gone to Le Mistral (if not known George earlier, as they both moved to Paris in the late 1940s and adored poetry, knowing some of the same poets. Also, the English-speakers in Paris weren’t as numerous back then as they are now. And he just sounds like the kind of guy dad would have loved.)
When George opened Shakespeare and Company, he started the now famous ‘tumbleweed’ offering for aspiring writers: they could stay in the store for free, in exchange for three things: they had to read a book a day, help in the shop, and write a one-page autobiography for the store’s archives.
There’s so much more history with that very special bookshop, and when I visited in March 2017, I noticed that at the front of the store they had a whole section devoted to life in Paris in the post-WW2 period.
Now, I hadn’t even written the first draft of A Letter From Paris at that stage, but as I stood in the musty bookshop (that still has the tumbleweed offering in place!) I had this vision that made my skin tingle in delight: one day, my book about dad, and Paris, would sit in that very shelf.
So imagine my delight when Shakespeare and Company emailed me this week to say that they’ve already ordered copies of A Letter From Paris! Dad gets to return to his favourite city in the world!
It certainly took the frost off Melbourne’s coldest day of the year.
So when I’m in Paris in a few weeks, I’m going to sign some copies. This all seems so wildly unreal right now I can’t believe I’m typing it, to be honest. I’d also love to be invited to do an author talk there, which they hold inside every Thursday, with bounteous cups of wine for bibliophiles alike….
I’ll be sure to post pictures on Instagram when it’s all, actually, happening!
Another exciting development this week was a little message that Readings bookstore sent an email out to their subscribers which noted A Letter From Paris as an Australian book to get ‘excited about’ in the second half of the year. I’m certainly excited! Even more so, that they’re excited!
It still feels like such a strange concept, that this quiet, intense, deeply personal project is going to be out in the world as a physical product in less than eight weeks. It’s magical and more than a little frightening, to be honest.
My publishers are getting some lovely bookmarks ready for my upcoming trip to London and Paris, and I was going to take them along to some of the little independent bookstores in Hampstead and around Bloomsbury in London. Do you have any favourites? I’m looking forward to having some time to wander around Hampstead and Bloomsbury a bit, because I didn’t have much time when I was in London last year just to wander. I definitely want to spend more time in Hampstead.
I’ve also been thinking of topics for library talks, planning the book launch (September 6 at Readings Carlton, for anyone in Melbourne!) and tinkering with the idea of adding an ‘events’ tab to my website for library chats and bookstore events later in the year.
All this thinking about the reality of holding my book physically in my hands is all very exciting, and the most fun part of writing a book, which is such a solo, introverted process.
Lots of writers are horrified by the whole marketing process, but I really enjoy it. The book was such a holy, hard, exquisite agony to write, I just feel like talking about it and promoting it will be easy (in comparison). I lived in the questions for so long, I could answer anything you have to ask about library research, or how simultaneously painful and beautiful it is to join forces with your father after he’s long left this plane, to write his story.
“No novel that I’ve loved has ever given me an answer. It has given me the opportunity to live in the question,” said Nicole Krauss at her book chat at Shakespeare and Company last Thursday. Image from @lastnightsreading on Instagram.
I think this is so true. All stories inevitably have conclusions, and come to some kind of resolution at the end. But to write a book – to follow something from idea to thought to written form, for as long as it takes to write a book – you need to be able to live in the question, in the story’s unanswered certainties, for such a long time.
For me, those questions started on the 30 January 2016, when Coralie first messaged me from Paris. And now it’s late June 2018, and I’m approving the typeset proofs for the publisher (we go to print on Thursday!).
It has been an immense personal journey to live in the ‘questions’ of my memoir for this long. A writer friend asked me to summarise the book (in preparation for publicity) in one line last week, and at first I stumbled. But then I thought of the character’s journey (me) from who I was when I first received Coralie’s message, to who I am today.
And here is how I’d sum up that change: If you asked me about dad, before I wrote this book, it physically hurt. I couldn’t answer you. Now, I don’t just know him, but it doesn’t hurt to think about him and his life.
And so if I hadn’t been able to sit with those (painful) questions and follow them down every side street and back road and laneway until I realized that it wasn’t about the answers, it was about the relationship I was forming with dad (and myself) from being able to sit in the question, I would never have been able to write the book.
As we pass the longest night in Melbourne, and daylight is so short and precious and all the little faces on the train seem somehow more introspective, and we all become a little more like cats – looking for the heat, spending more time sleeping and inside – I think of the inner, inward journey that this book has been for me, and how it’s finally coming to an end.
Precious little Sabrina is gone, but I’ll think of her when I’m in Paris, passing little chat noirs on the balconies, guarding their tiny territories and moving through the world like gracious spirits.
And I’ll prepare for the new beginnings inevitably coming in the Australian Spring.