THE YEAR THAT
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).