Working with Words: Catherine de Saint Phalle

Catherine de Saint Phalle is a Melbourne-based writer, bookseller and translator. She has written four novels in French and has been published in France by Actes Sud, Buchet/Chastel and Sabine Wespieser Editeur. Her first work of non-fiction, Poum and Alexandre, was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize. Catherine spoke with us about big breaks and keeping sane – and warned us against showing anyone unfinished work.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Photograph of Catherine de Saint Phalle

My first published piece of writing was a novel called N’Écartez pas la Brume, published by [French publishing house] Actes Sud.

I had been working on this piece for a few years; it was about my fourth unpublished novel. Then, in my early thirties, I said to myself: ‘This time, I am really going to try, instead of putting the thing back in my drawer after a first refusal’. So I made a stack of photocopies, and was preparing to take the train to Paris to drop them with different publishers.

The day before I left, I went to an art opening. An art critic asked me what I did. When I told him what I was up to, he asked for one of my precious copies. (I had made seven; photocopies were expensive at the time, and I was broke.) ‘Ha! No. No,’ I answered. ‘I need every one of them. I can’t afford to leave one lying fallow, even with a well-meaning person. Anyway – you are an art critic, not a publisher. ’ He insisted, and so I gave in, perhaps because his interest was so unusual.

Next morning, I hopped on the train with my six manuscripts. My mother, Poum, was still alive then, and as soon as I arrived at her place, she pounced on me: ‘Catherine, call this number! Don’t ask me why, you won’t believe me. Just do it.’

I phoned, and it was a publisher’s number. The art critic had liked the manuscript and passed it on to Actes Sud – my dream publisher. Sabine Wespieser, who now has her own publishing house, took me on that very day. Even before we had ended our conversation, I could hear my mother uncorking a bottle of wine.

What’s the best part of your job?

The exercise of writing keeps me sane. When I don’t do it, I might as well reside in a dustbin.

Writing stories, writing about what I didn’t understand. Words have helped me find a passage through the briars and brambles of reality into something else, as if they awoke sleeping meaning. The exercise of writing keeps me sane. When I don’t do it, I might as well reside in a dustbin. Not to mention the intense happiness when you catch the elusive, twinkling echo of what wants to be, as if it were a flower wanting to bloom or a river needing to flow or a dog having to bark. It just lets something out. And it’s such a relief.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part of writing is when you are not writing, when you are too anxious to do it or harassed by health or money problems or a broken heart and you just can’t get into that world. Because writing is a world.

I think all the people who need to type or hold a pen daily will say the same thing. Suddenly you are breathing again. You can take the gas mask off and really be alive.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

There were two such moments. Strangely, though I had four novels published in France, I was nearly fainting for joy when Barry Scott of Transit Loungeaccepted my first novel in English – On Brunswick Ground. I couldn’t even read his email. My eyes ran over it helplessly. My partner Paul Croucher had to take it and spell it out to me.

I suppose it’s because I’ve been mad about Australia from that first day, 14 years ago, when I saw that immense sky out of the airport floor-to-ceiling windows. It was to become the first place in the world where I ever felt at home. One can’t explain or control these things ... So to be published here, by an Australian, that was something.

The second one was when Veronica Sullivan at the Stella Prize called me to say I was on the long list, and then on the short one. Oh, my gosh …

Cover image of 'Poum and Alexandre'

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best was when a poet friend told me to only show my work to people I loved.

The worst thing is to show it to people before it’s ready. A piece of writing must be whole before it’s shown. I did that once when I was in my teens, and I never did it again. I couldn’t write for a whole month. Though I have had the luck to have marvellous editors, they have never seen anything before it is finished. Sabine Wespieser, Pascale Gautier, my partner Paul Croucher and Penelope Goodes (of Transit Lounge) have helped me in so many ways, and I owe them all so much – because you never stop learning when you write. Because each new story is a new continent.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself [or your work]?

Fiona Capp’s review of Poum and Alexandre in the Age. And then there have been the words of friends (like David Eckstein, Barb Minchinton and Patrick Curley) and so many things my partner Paul Croucher has said, that have given me stronger vertebrae. Doubt is one’s friend and one’s worst enemy. 

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I think, and this is a recent thing, I would love to clean beaches. I hate to see turtles, birds, fishes throttled to death by plastic. And the idea of being responsible for an Australian beach, getting rid of the muck the boats chuck out – that would be satisfying.

Writing is a bit like that. You get rid of a lot of emotional muck before the real words come, free and alive – as if, really, they had nothing to do with you. You had just helped them escape, get away.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I don’t want to enter that debate. I am sure many excellent writers have been to, or teach, creative writing courses. But personally, I hate them and always have. They make me cringe. They remind me of those group exercises to help pregnant women deliver their child, or gym on the beach or yoga classes ... I have never learned to write. Nor do I have the feeling that I write all that well. But something happens to me, to the pen, to the keyboard, to the paper, and I hang on in there. Alone.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Not to want to become a writer. And to have no ambition. But just to do what you love. And if you start writing every day for the joy of it, to carry on. And then only to show finished worked to people you love. Not important people, not literati – just mates. It’s a work of the heart, and the heart finds its way much better than any contriving.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

I have never thought of that. It feels slightly embarrassing. They welcome me in their world and I am subsumed by it. I never imagine them in mine or imagine myself with them at all.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I suppose it was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I was very unhappy at the time I read it, and suddenly that book put me together like a puzzle, snapping into place.

Portrait of Catherine de Saint Phalle

Catherine de Saint Phalle is a Melbourne-based writer, bookseller and translator. 

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