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Escaping the Solitude of the Writing Life Through Letters


In April this year, I turned the key in the door of an apartment on the tenth floor of a grey building and walked into an ocean of light and sky. A bare, enormous room with white floors and walls, a few pieces of furniture including a brown couch in an advanced state of infirmity. The eastern wall was entirely glass—sliding doors from floor to ceiling, leading out into a balcony overlooking an endless stretch of water where the Loire met the Atlantic. Seagulls swooped past the window to the lighthouse nearby. The apartment felt like a ship—nothing but water on every side. Holding on to the balcony’s banister and looking at the sheer drop downward, I saw Icarus tumbling through the burning sky.

The manager of my first-ever writing residency handed me a single sheet of paper before she left. “Dear Anuradha Roy,” it began, “I am writing you these words to wish you a warm welcome in Saint-Nazaire. I hope you will find inspiration in the contrasting sceneries of this port city with the peaceful surroundings of your house in, as I picture it, a snowy Himalayan village.”

The letter was from a woman who did not know me, as I did not know her. In the tradition of this residency, the writer whose term preceded mine had written to welcome me. “I truly hope you will find in this city as much inspiration as I did myself,” she ended. “Please accept this letter as a token of our literary friendship.”

For the first fortnight of the seven-week-long residency, my husband was with me. We discovered the flat together. He found remnants of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in the kitchen, I found an unopened packet of coffee. Salt, pepper, honey, rice. Aspirin. If you were stranded on a desert island, what could be more fundamental to survival? These had been left on the shelves, maybe by the writer before me, or perhaps she had inherited some of it from her predecessor. On the shelves were books in many languages, and a Complete French Grammar in which some previous resident had made a valiant attempt to grapple (in meticulous penciled exercises) with infinitive verbs, before giving up, around about page 7.

Two weeks later, alone in the flat for the first time after my husband had gone back to our dogs and publishing house, it seemed cavernous and deathly quiet. My voice bounced off the walls and uncarpeted floors when I talked on the phone. At night the ocean was dark, the streets empty, the blinds grated and rustled as if mice lived in the flaps, the wind sighed and sometimes screamed, and the bridge to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins on the south bank of the river was a moving stream of headlights flowing into infinity. What was I doing here, I wondered, so far from home, in the middle of nowhere? When I had finished five novels in my chaotic little cottage which fitted in four dogs and our publishing house, what need had I to be on this ship that went nowhere? As I tried to push back my panic at the thought of the next few weeks, I reached out for a sheaf of old letters on the shelf from resident writers to their successors.

“When you have lost count of the passing ships, you can always restart, suggested a Chinese writer....

 Read the rest of the article here, in LitHub.

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