Catherine de Saint Phalle

Catherine de Saint Phalle was born in London, spent her first years in Sussex, England, and lived in Paris and the South of France. She moved to Melbourne in 2003 and now lives between Brunswick and a garden in Daylesford. She has had six books published in France and Call me Marlowe is her fourth book with Transit Lounge. English was her mother tongue and when she became an Australian citizen it all came together – she found that the language of her childhood made her heart beat in Australian-English.

Author insight

Why do you write? I write because I have a jungle in my head. My thoughts are like birds flying between the branches and the foliage of the trees. It’s a mess in there – but writing clears all that. Suddenly, everything quietens, and I hear what I’m going to put down on the paper as if someone were dictating to me.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I don’t know. I have no idea. I’d still pursue the odd jobs I do to survive. I’m a Jill of all trades. Translating, editing, gardening, cleaning etc… And I read madly. Always have. I’d have reading, looking at art, repairing things. That would be a consolation. If some inner god were to forbid me to write novels, I could always write in my notebook, couldn’t I?

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? My own doubts. My own fears. What some people said to dampen my spirit. I think an inner decision, an inner strength must ripen for things to occur. It’s a bit like falling in love. It happens you know not how, you know not when. Grapes need to be ready to be made into wine.

How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? No, my publisher Barry Scott, who is a writer himself, proposes several covers but I get to say which is my favourite. It’s a joy that up to now our tastes have converged and the final decision is a moment of confirmation and relief.

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Writing. The pure joy of feeling words leave your soul, not letting anything get in the way – even myself.

— the worst? When you get stuck in a rut. When you don’t hear any voice, any whisper, or see the slightest thing. When I was in my teens an image would hang in my mind, like a forgotten painting in a bombed-out building. Now, I mostly hear a voice, an insistent voice. There is also a certain loneliness involved. But I don’t feel that anymore. Perhaps I’ve walked through my jungle of loneliness and I’m on the other side.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? Nothing. I’ve always followed my intuition and I would do the same. It’s the only thing that works for me.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I didn’t set out to become an author. I started scribbling stories at the age of seven. Writing has always been with me like an itch.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? Don’t listen to anyone. Listen to what’s inside you.

What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? There are two types of writers: the architectural ones, who build their book then fill in the fleshy parts and the intuitive writers who don’t know where they’re going and crawl through the bushes. I couldn’t advise the first kind, but if I were forced to give advice under duress, I would say to the second kind to listen and listen, take notes, and trust what they hear from within. The silence of the heart is the only guide.

How important is social media to you as an author? Social media is not vastly present in my existence. On occasion I enjoy discovering friend’s moods and epiphanies on Facebook and putting up little pieces about what touches me, makes me change my mind, or shifts my perception. And I like posting photos. I will also tell my friends I have a launch.

But I hate twitter, twit, twit… so short, so frantic, so superficial. Perfect medium for Trump.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I used to experience it a lot. And it was like a dark night in the middle of the day or a bright, hard day in the middle of the night. Now, it doesn’t happen so much. I suppose you just have to walk through the desert to reach an oasis.

How do you deal with rejection? It can be frightening. As for everyone, it can be painful, of course. But without the rocks alongside it, the river would have no direction. Rejection guides you in a way, it has you take sudden turns and makes your realise things. It plucks stupidity out of you.

In three words, how would you describe your writing? I can’t describe it. Can you describe your liver, your gut, what’s inside, under the skin? It’s not for me to say. For my last novel, Call me Marlowe, the three words could only be: Harold, Marylou, Petr.

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? Joseph Roth. I would love him to tell me what he feels when he gets up in the morning – the small details of his life, the ordinary things. Because writing is in everything, even in the dog curled up at your side.

What was the inspiration behind your new release, Call me Marlowe? After finishing my last novel, The Sea and Us, Harold, its main character, would not go away, would not leave me. He was just there all the time. I could hear him think in my head and I knew he was worried. I saw where he was, what he was doing and who was around him. I started realising what was bothering him, and soon it was bothering me too and I was off writing his story again. I found the title straightaway, which is always a good sign – Call me Marlowe.

Then when my own life took a sudden turn, Harold’s also swerved unexpectedly. This made me wonder if everything that happens to us, an accident, a breakup, a move, the loss of a friend, reverberates on two levels: the level we’re living in and the level we’ve got our heart in – whether we write, cut hair, paint, garden, make furniture or shoes, clean houses, look after older people, or children.

I knew the story was circling around narcissism. The subject was all I read about for months on end. And because Harold was of Czech origin, I read up on Czechoslovakia too – book after book. I’ve always been concerned about Czechoslovakia, since childhood and not only because of what happened to me at school – but it must have had an effect too.

I was in an American school in Paris because the French nuns wouldn’t have a child born out of wedlock. One day, in the middle of those mass assemblies they liked to fill the whole school with, a girl was ushered in and everyone was told that here was a refugee from Czechoslovakia. The Russians had just invaded their country.

She was dark haired and composed. She was older than I was. I remember the withdrawn, guarded look on her face, as if all this were not happening to her, as if she had nothing to do with all these voices and all these people. She was not in my class, and I never got to see her again. But I never forgot her.

In September 1938, the Great Powers, America, France, and England kow-towed to Hitler. Roosevelt, Daladier and Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement and sold their ally, Czechoslovakia, to the Nazis in the name of safety, in fear of another Great War. Czechoslovakia, bang in the middle of Europe, was its democratic heart, and the only real democracy in Europe at that day.

I began to feel that intimate terrorism was linked to national tyrannies.

Harold and Prague began to converge. Call me Marlowe was fed by a call from elsewhere, a call I could hear distinctly. The other characters just confirmed a cloud of intuition that hovered for four, nearly five years over me. Trauma, often the result of narcissistic behaviour, starts small and ends big. The only thing to say to narcissists is no and goodbye. It’s a strange state of being that forces people to defend their hearts and their lands. It forces you out of yourself to exist in the real world where stories happen and find resolution.

Book byte

Set in both Prague and Melbourne, Call Me Marlowe captures a man’s search for his motherland in the hope of making sense of his life. With a delicate touch, the novel embodies the nature of trauma – both personal and political – in people’s lives.
Harold Vaněk loves Marylou, a woman he met in South Korea, where she was working as a sex worker, but whom he has managed to bring to Melbourne. She is the one who calls Harold ‘Marlowe’. Theirs is an uncommonly beautiful but
tenuous intimacy.
Harold feels his mistakes are urging him to leave Melbourne. In a wild gamble to retrieve all he has lost, he disappears to
Prague. What happens in ‘the City of a Hundred Spires’ is both remarkable and affecting. The people he meets there –
Vacláv, Marie, Pete, and Petr – and the soul of the city itself provide answers and a ‘world’ that he desperately wants Marylou to be part of.
But is it all too late?

Buy the book here.