Catherine’s top writing tip: Be yourself in every way. Absolute honesty with oneself is my only tip. Does a mole lie to himself? Does a dog? Even if a dog tries to pull one over his human companion, like pretending he or she hasn’t eaten for weeks when they’ve just had their breakfast, you can see they’re whole. They do not slip out of themselves; they’re holding their lie like a bone in their mouth. It sounds childish to say ‘be true to yourself’ but it’s the only tip I have. Anyway, I think it’s none of my business to advise anyone. Maybe a prime liar could be a fantastic writer. I’ve just explained what works for me.
Catherine de Saint Phalle was born in London and was immediately taken back to Paris by her parents, where an English woman brought her up until she was eight. Her childhood was spent between Paris and Sussex, England. She started writing at seven. She did a modest year of university. Her way of learning was reading compulsively and writing; academia was not her element. She married and moved to the South of France in Provence where she lived till 1998 and had two subsequent relationships. She has the religion of friendship like her mother Poum. For a living, she’s been a Jack of all trades, translating, gardening, French lessons, cleaning etc. She has had nine books published: five in France with Actes Sud and Buchet-Chastel and two of her radio plays were broadcast by France Culture. She left France in 2003 to live in Australia and that’s the best decision she’s ever made. She’s the proud possessor of an Australian passport since 2008. She is now single, lives with her dog and it quite baffled at how happy she is.
Why do you write? Throughout my life I’ve seen some of my dearest friends suffer in their effort to discover what they wanted to do in life – talented, inspired people who could not find their voice. I have written since the age of seven. I don’t think I can find a reason for writing. Writing is like breathing. If I don’t, everything becomes constricted and dark.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I think I would probably be learning about essential oils or naturopathy. My grandmother was interested in herbs and the people in the village came to her when they were sick. She died in 1943, so I never met her. But I feel close to her all the same. She knew the first French naturopath Paul Carton – long before natural remedies became the fashion. She also knew about graphology. Maybe I’d be a gardener, and then I could read and write for myself even if no one ever read me.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? It was changing countries. Five of my books had been published in France and my two radio plays had been broadcast. When I came to Australia, I couldn’t find a publisher. I stayed more than 10 years like that. I got a few articles out in the Big Issue thanks to Rochelle Siemienovicz and Martin Hugues, but that was all. I wrote all kinds of things, short stories, a play, a novel, nothing came up for air. I felt I was living in my drawer. I think I was just undergoing a process of transformation. Going from the French world to the English was part of it of course. But it was more than that. In Jung’s preface to Richard Wilhem’s translation of the IChing, he says that Wilhem became Chinese in his soul and, when at the end of his life he returned to Germany, he died. I think that pouring oneself in another container can be very hard. I didn’t realise this at the time of course.
I wrote my first proper novel at 17, then several others and was not published in France until I was well into my thirties. The main obstacle was self-belief. I never had much of that. But if you have too much, it can be a problem too. It’s tricky.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? No. In my experience, that’s the publishers’ purview. The font, the paper, etc is all their domain. Of course, if a cover made you physically sick, they would not leave you in pain. I’m lucky, I have an intelligent, considerate publisher, but he’s also very good at what he does and I trust him. As for the editing, he has a marvellous editor called Penelope Goodes and she helped me immensely to stay with the heart of the story.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? When I can write. That’s the purest joy. One is no longer in exile.
—the worst? When I can’t. When what is right there stays hidden in the moist earth – or when life is scary and intervenes.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I don’t know. I feel like a mole. For me writing is being in darkness, in the moist earth, digging towards the light, moving forward blindly, softly or sitting there in buried silence and trusting to find my way somehow.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Nothing. It’s a private matter, a personal endeavour. I even hate yoga, because the teacher whispers: You are calm, you are detached, you are this, you are that … I can’t bear it. I hate having a voice in my head. It obscures the other one, the feeble, tiny, half-smothered one I’m trying to hear. I know yoga is brilliant and would probably do me a world of good, but I’d rather strangle myself with my own cardigan than go to a yoga class.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Never take anything for granted. And listen.
How important is social media to you as an author? Well, emails, messaging, Facebook are great tools. Didn’t EM Forster have “Only connect…” written on his tombstone?
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? It’s the most awful thing. I have encountered it a few times in my life, once for a whole month. It feels as if the air were slowly being taken away from my lungs and I become more and more anxious – a tiger might as well be prowling around the room. I’m grounded when I write. I feel whole and useful, even when I’m writing in my notebook about a lady and her basket on the tram, about a streetlight, about the slope of someone’s shoulders … I feel I am saving them in some invisible, mysterious way. It’s ridiculous I know, but that’s how it is.
How do you deal with rejection? Because writing is such an inner thing, it feels like a jolt from above (again the mole), as if my mole hill had been squashed. It’s a tightening, a call to dig deeper. There’s a pinch of course, like all rejection. But it doesn’t make me lose heart entirely.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Oh dear, I’m incapable of describing my own writing. Sorry, it’s like trying to see what you look like from behind. It’s an inner endeavour, it comes from another world, the world of the unconscious where all our roots meet. So I have no idea at all.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? I think it would be Helen Garner. I always like to know what she feels about anything, not only writing. In fact, hearing her talk about her toothbrush would be most illuminating.
Catherine de Saint Phalle
From the Stella shortlisted author of Poum and Alexandre, this is a heartwarming novel about longing, absence and the people we unexpectedly come to love.
After many years spent living in Seoul, a young man called Harold
drifts back to Australia and rents a room above a fish and chip shop
called The Sea & Us. Who he meets and what he experiences there
propels him to question his own yearnings and failings, and to fight for
meaning and a sense of place that can only be reached by facing what
By turns electric, tender, and hopeful, The Sea & Us is a gem of literary
imagination. Catherine de Saint Phalle brilliantly captures disparate
characters and their common human desire for community and
connection. Long after the last page closes, ‘we can hear the bell
tinkle. Someone wants some fish and chips.’
The book is available here.