THE YEAR THAT

Stephanie John­son

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

It was 2000 and I was 38 and mar­ried with three chil­dren — Stan was 11, Maeve 9 and Willa 6. I had won the Merid­ian En­ergy Kather­ine Mans­field Fel­low­ship, as it was called then, which meant stay­ing in Men­ton in the south of France. It was the first time I’d been to Europe, which is un­usual for my gen­er­a­tion. Thirty-eight is quite old to go fur­ther north than South­east Asia for the first time.

It was set up so that the fel­low stayed in an apart­ment in the Palais Lu­ti­tia in Men­ton proper. Then to work you had to get to Men­ton Gar­a­van, where the Kather­ine Mans­field writ­ing room is, in the bot­tom of the house she lived in.

It was the first time since I’d had the chil­dren that I’d had the free­dom to write ev­ery day. I wrote The Shag In­ci­dent, which won the Mon­tana Book Award in 2002, and also wrote a play, Strange Chil­dren.

Be­cause the big French school hol­i­day was go­ing to hap­pen in the mid­dle of the time we were there, we de­cided the chil­dren wouldn’t go to school in France, which I re­gret now. They stud­ied through the Cor­re­spon­dence School. Even though we had the in­ter­net and email then, they were noth­ing like they are now. So we took a 50kg box of stuff from the school and my hus­band, Tim, was their teacher.

Some­times I’d come home from the writ­ing room and the kids would be say­ing, “We hate Dad,” be­cause he’d given them a maths test. But he also had a lit­tle rou­tine where ev­ery morn­ing they were al­lowed to go to the bak­ery and get some­thing for morn­ing tea, but they had to speak French.

Be­cause I can’t speak French — just enough to ask for the bus, but not nec­es­sar­ily to un­der­stand the an­swer — I found it in­cred­i­bly peace­ful be­cause you’re not be­ing ham­mered all the time by ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. What­ever I was work­ing on would be clear in my head, all the time.

In the af­ter­noons, I’d meet the fam­ily at the beach. There was one beach where you had to pay. That had sand and we only went once. The free beach that we went to had stones. But we swam and swam.

At one point, Tim’s par­ents came over from Aus­tralia and looked af­ter the kids and Tim and I went to Paris for two weeks. I had an in­tro­duc­tion to a pub­lisher in Paris but I com­pletely stuffed it up by bring­ing up the sub­ject of the Rain­bow War­rior. I never got a French pub­lisher.

One night I had a dream that Michael King, who was still alive then and a friend, had rung me up and told me there’d been a meet­ing and they had de­cided they were go­ing to roll it over and give it to me for an­other six months.

I re­mem­ber at the time know­ing it was go­ing to be a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and it cer­tainly was. Even though I had had a Rain­bow War­rior an­tipa­thy to­wards France, I re­mem­ber think­ing I’d be just as ar­ro­gant as they are, be­cause it’s the most won­der­ful coun­try and so beau­ti­ful and the so­cial­ist ethos was still very strong and the food and the per­fume and the art and the ar­chi­tec­ture — ev­ery­thing about it. I was look­ing at some pho­to­graphs from then and all of us looked so happy all the time.

As told to Paul Lit­tle STEPHANIE JOHN­SON’S MOST RE­CENT NOVEL IS JARULAN BY THE RIVER, PUB­LISHED UN­DER HER PSEU­DO­NYM, LILY WOOD­HOUSE (HARPERCOLLINS AUS­TRALIA, $30).

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