It was 2008. My father had died unexpectedly, as I held his hand, barely twenty-four hours after I arrived in India. It was a trip I had planned for some time. I wanted to hear him tell me some of the stories of his life, something as a child I had shrugged off as being too boring, too old-fashioned, too unexciting...too everything I did not want to face. Now it was truly too late. I returned home to Geneva a few weeks later in a daze, muzzled by guilt, buried under grief, re-living those moments when I felt his hand become limp in mine and his life slip away.
I didn't remember applying for it but I must have, for just a few days after I came back I found out I had been accepted to the Chateau de Lavigny Writers Residence for three weeks. Mired in my self-indulgent sadness I almost didn't go. My husband convinced me. After all, I lived just about an hour away from Lavigny and, in the worst case scenario I could just drive back home. So I went.
The chateau was beautiful but I had expected no less after spending almost two years in the area. What appealed to me first was its literary history. Once the home of famed German publisher Heinrich Maria-Ledig Rowohlt, the residence had been created according to the wishes of his wife Jane, who herself died a year after he did. She had died in the home, alone, a home that had once regularly hosted Nabakov (who lived at Le Montreux Palace hotel in nearby Montreux) and other orominent writers of the day. There were letters from Hemingway (complaining about the low royalties) and paintings by Henry James dedicated to Jane .
But more than the history of this beautiful house, more than the surrounding countryside and the sometimes visible Lac Leman glittering in the distance, were the other writers there with me. There were four others: a Frenchman from Paris, a young writer from South Africa, a Proust expert from Columbia and an Iranian-Swedish dissident. We drew together. We spent our days writing or wandering the gardens or the countryside for inspiration. But come aperitif time we gathered on the back patio and then to the dining room where local ladies fed us our three course meals in grand fashion using the finest ingredients from the bountiful canton of Vaud. Together we watched spectacular sunsets over the valley and into the lake.
Over multiple bottles of wine and delicious food we stopped being mere writers and became friends. It didn't matter then how many books we had sold, how feted one was over the other, the challenges we faced in our writing, the pitfalls in publishing. Instead we wove elaborate, drunken tales about Martian adventures, found out about each other and became friends. Once we even raided the attic, discovering old, dusty treasures and mysterious knick-knacks. This was, however, before we found Alexandra, tucked away behind the glass wall of the large salon.
Ah, Alexandra! She was an exotic papier-mache beauty, legless and armless, though her elaborate Egyptian head-dress and permanently perky bare breasts made up for her lack of limbs. In an old album we found a picture of Heinrich (by now we talked of him and Jane in the first person, we were their house-guests after all) in which some grateful writer was presenting our pink-socked publisher with Alexandra. Oh yes, the five of us named her so, one evening as we sat her between us for late-night drinks. She was Egyptian after all. And we think Heinrich would have approved of us releasing her from captivity. We are not sure the Lavigny committee approved. They said they had never seen a group like ours in their years of running the residence. We were not sure that was a compliment.
Yes, I finished the first draft of my novel at Lavigny and conceptualized the next. A novelist discovered a hidden talent for poetry, the others completed their own drafts or mowed past their writing blocks. We also read each others work in the evenings, and when we read aloud excerpts aloud at the public reading we applauded the loudest for each other. None of the polite literate and literary clapping of our audience.
Lavigny made me redefine my romantic notion of what it meant to be a writer. Writers thrive in solitude, yes, but in the spirit of Heinrich and Jane's open house/salon that welcomed all writers and thinkers--writers also thrive in each other's company. We bring out the best in each other. Writing was and remains the salve that healed my grief but so did the writers of Lavigny. Perhaps that is why the Chateau de Lavigny is a writers residence, not a retreat.
A retreat implies a departure from the world, from life, from others. I write about this world. How can I not write in it? I do need to go away once in a while, to nourish my writing in the company of other writers...and that is what this writers residence gave me. Apart from the surrounding vineyards, the lush grounds and manicured lawns, my beautiful suite, the wonderful food and wine, the history within its walls, the chateau of Lavigny was itself a living presence. It remained alive because of the writers who continued the tradition of its passionate owners by not just creating in solitude but by talking and laughing and discussing, by being silly and serious, by being ourselves. And Lavigny, more than anyone or anything else, helped me start on my own journey. A journey of laying down the burden of guilt and sadness so I could remember my father at his best and not just at his end. A journey back to remembrance...back to writing.