I am happy to be able to offer you this interview with Isabel Huggan about the writing retreat she has recently opened at Le Mas Blanc. A Canadian writer of fiction, essays and poetry who now lives in France, she is the author of the collection (half memoir, half story) Belonging: Home Away from Home (2003), You Never Know (short stories, 1993), and the book of stories that launched her fiction career, The Elizabeth Stories (1984). She was awarded the Charles Taylor Literary Non-Fiction Prize in 2004 for Belonging.
She has been teaching writing for over 35 years, and on the staff of the Humber School for Writers since 1988, for which she earned the Calliope Award for Outstanding Writing & Teaching, from Humber College in 2003. She has given writing workshops not only in Canada but Australia, France, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. About Isabel and her retreat at Le Mas Blanc, Antanas Sileika wrote on the Humber blog: “She has always been one of the most gentle and caring teachers in the Humber program, so I can’t imagine anyone ever leaving the place without having learned something.” Here are more details about her career.
I met Isabel at a meat counter in Nairobi, Kenya. Well, ok, we’d met briefly when I was taking a writing class with Leon Rooke and she was teaching another group, at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, and I found out she was in Kenya. So I had my ears perked for an Ontario accent. To this day I am glad I plucked up my courage to talk to her when she joined me at the meat counter. From then on, we went for walks in Lone Tree Estate. I remember a party she gave herself, of the women friends she had collected during her three years in Kenya – laughter, warmth, and great food. The following are her written answers to my written questions.
Why did you decide to set up this retreat?
Around a decade ago, my husband Bob created an office on the top floor of a small stone barn that sits across the driveway from our house, for in his retirement he continued to work as an international development advisor and teacher. My own work space in the house is a comfortable book-lined study. When my husband died in 2011, I had the option of moving my office to the barn, but I couldn’t imagine myself working in that space, somehow… But I thought about how other people might use it. During our years in Belleville and Ottawa, both Bob and I had often gone off separately for a few days of intense and concentrated work, usually in a summer cottage: thus it struck me I might provide such a place for others looking for solitude and separation from their ordinary lives. Of course, I first thought of writers, but have since opened the concept to include translators, editors, artists, composers, and musicians – anyone with the need for privacy, and nothing to do but zero in on whatever project demands attention.
For how many years have you been living there?
Bob and I left Canada in 1987, spending three years in Nairobi, and then three years in Montpellier, and then Manila, where we stayed from 1993-98. During that period, on a return visit to France, we bought this old house, Mas Blanc, and during several summers worked to renovate it so that it was habitable by the time we moved in the spring of 1998. (I write about this in my memoir.) So in answer to your question, I’ve been here for 14 years, longer than I have ever lived in any other house. This is home.
What have you written in Le Mas Blanc?
I finished the last chapters of the memoir Belonging: Home Away From Home while living here, and I have also written several poems and essays, published in literary journals (such as The New Quarterly and The Malahat Review) and magazines (such as Home & Garden and Canadian Geographic).
What are you working on now?
I’m putting together a collection of related poetry and personal essays, as I like very much the way that these two genres have made friends with each other in the past few years, and show themselves to be entirely compatible within one book-cover. I thought the same for the blending of memoir with short stories when I took the chance with Belonging, so I hope this works as well.
What do you like about this place?
I’ve been here a long time, and so it feels wonderfully familiar, even though the topography and geographical features are not at all like the pastoral landscape of my childhood in south-western Ontario. This paysage reminds me in many ways of Australia in its rocky dryness, and as I am very much attached to Tasmania, but can’t possibly find a way to live there, this similarity gives me great comfort.
How long has it taken to get the barn renovated and the retreat set up? Who helped you?
As I said earlier, there already existed an office-space/guest room in the barn, which was large and bright, and had a bathroom with a shower ensuite (on the same level). So it was only a matter of redecorating, but nothing “major” in terms of renovation. I have been here long enough now that I know people who can help with such a project, and so it went along smoothly, although the hardest part for me was making decisions about items such as microwave ovens (I’ve never liked them and don’t have one, but it is an essential item in this bedsitting-studio space).
Who is it for? Are there any requirements, such as publication or manuscript in progress, or is it simply: If you can pay, you can come? Does it include reading or your comments on work? The only requirement is that you are an artist, of whatever variety, published or not, recognized or not, just starting out or in mid-stream, but above all you will be someone with a creative spirit who needs a place to “be alone to concentrate for a while.” If you are a writer, I am here to help with editorial comment, but as I must make my living in this way, I will charge for time spent reading and discussing your work. (For example, close reading of a text with line-editing corrections, €50 per hour; reading with a general overview commentary, €35 per hour, light reading prior to conversation, €30 per hour. Time spent depends on your needs and the size of your project.) [To see how exigent she might be, check her Humber blog.] If you are in a discipline that does not connect with mine, then your time here will be entirely yours to spend, without need of my counsel or mentoring services. If you pay – and if you are coming to work – then you can come. I do not want to open my private world of Mas Blanc to holiday-makers, only to those who are in some way engaged in productive, creative activity. Having been already published or recognised in your field is not a requisite.
Will there be more than one writer there at a time? No.
Is it easy to find? It is not at all difficult to find, and directions will be given if a booking is made. Mas Blanc is part of Tornac, which is actually not a village but a “commune” – that is, a collection of farms and houses over a large area of several kilometres. Tornac is close to Anduze, and only 45 minutes from Nimes and an hour from Montpellier.
What else is there to do? Can one clear one’s head by long walks or is one restricted to the barn?
There are lovely walks from the house, depending on the kind one wants. The “hill walk” takes about an hour and has some steepish bits, but it provides a lovely path through a pine forest at the top of the ridge. The “flat walk” takes less than an hour and goes through vineyards down to a crossing over the little river and then back home along a country road. The “village walk” goes up through the old stone houses in a part of Tornac known as “Soulier” and is a pleasant half-hour or so. And the “chateau walk” takes you through Soulier over to the hill on which sits the long-ruined chateau de Tornac, which presents you with a fabulous view down across the vineyards on one side and over toward Anduze and the Cevennes mountains on the other. On the other side of Anduze there is a very well-known park called “La Bambouserie,” in which you can spend many happy hours wandering the pathways through bamboo of every description, including an exquisite Japanese garden with ponds and lovely places to sit and dream. And if you have a vehicle, then driving up into the Cevennes is a “must” as the marked walks there are beautiful – I have a photo of a typical view on the website.
How much does it cost? How did you arrive at this price? Does it include meals?
I am charging €50 euros per day for the space itself, which is the usual low-end sum that one pays here for an overnight or weekend stay in a “gite.” Seven nights is €350 for the space, which will help me cover costs for electricity, water, etc. I provide all the food you will need for your two daily meals – breakfast and a simple lunch – and the cost for this is €50, so the final sum is €400. Everything is, of course, negotiable, if the length of time is less, or more, and if the food required is less, or more. For people coming without a car, I’ll meet their plane or train, and will provide an evening meal (this adds €100 for the week, a reasonable expenditure for three-course meals with wine). If people drive here, they may well prefer to dine at one of the many cafes or restaurants in Anduze or other nearby towns and villages. [If you are wondering about her cooking, here is her interview with The Hungry Novelist.]
Do you use retreats? Why would you recommend this one?
As I said earlier, I’ve always found it beneficial at some stage in my own writing to “go off somewhere” and leave the world behind. I’d recommend Le Mas Blanc because from the moment you turn around the walls of the monastery on your way here, you have had to slow down, and by the time you cross the tiny bridge to the road that brings you past the olives trees on the way to the house, you are in first gear. You have entered a new way of being. There is nothing to disturb you here, except the music of birdsong in the morning and the racket of frogs in the evening. It’s a heavenly place, which is why I am staying here myself.
What is nearby? If a writer were planning a vacation that ends with a retreat, for example.
I do address this to some extent on the website, so just to say here that I would happily provide some advice if asked. The Mediterranean is an hour away, and the mountains are an hour away in the other direction. Cities such as Nimes and Montpellier are close, as well as the cities of Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, and Carcassonne. And there are many charming towns, such as Uzes. It’s just a matter of interests and inclinations and time.