All artists have places that matter to them. Be it where they work, the setting of their latest piece, or where they go to think. Our Sense of Place feature invites you to the places that matter to our authors.
This week Paula Lichtarowicz shows us the beautiful New Zealand locations where she worked on her debut novel The First Book of Calamity Leek.
This is the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand, where I completed my first draft of The First Book of Calamity Leek. When I first started writing, I had this overwhelming urge to get away; from London, from cities, from all distraction. The thing I failed to appreciate, of course, is that when you travel, you’re always meeting people. It’s one of the most wonderful aspects of exploring places – making human connections with strangers – but it’s not that conducive to focusing on your novel.
So after a few months distracting myself here and there, I ended up in a retreat hut on the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. The hut was part of a Buddhist centre, but graciously they allowed me to stay for a few weeks. My two-roomed lodging proved an idyllic place to write undisturbed. And when I was climbing the walls, or spooked by the possums’ heavy-breathing under my window, I could pop out for some human company, and a spot of stargazing under the Milky Way.
I was rather chuffed with myself when I’d completed my first draft after eight weeks. Pretty confident about firing it off to agents, in fact. Just one more draft, I thought, to tidy things up. By this time, thoroughly in love with the area, I was staying in a house deep in the Bush outside Coromandel town.
In return for walking Dingle the dog, I had a quiet place to write. Four hours at my desk in the morning gazing at the trees, then Dingle and I would set off on our lunchtime excursion. Another two hours in the afternoon, when the birds were sundrunk and quiet. A perfect setting to imagine myself into another world. And how the words spilled out. Yes, I thought, admiring my mountain of pages, I am living the writer’s dream.
When the second draft was done, low on funds and with my visa nearly up, I gave Calamity to my friend Tara, with whom I was staying.
‘Job done,’ I said, thrusting a slab of A4 at her, my first reader. ‘One novel.’
‘It’s very heavy,’ she said.
‘Four hundred and twelve pages,’ I said.
I’m not sure who looked more nervous. Although secretly, I knew just what she would say once she had read it: I practised my modest responses, and a shy glow of authorial pride.
For a few days Tara didn’t mention the manuscript.
This I didn’t find surprising. She was probably gripped. That was understandable. And there was rather a lot of it.
A week passed. Funnily enough, Tara seemed to be out of the house a lot.
Perhaps she was finding quiet places to read. Perhaps that was why.
Except she was out, and the manuscript was still lying on the kitchen table.
In the end, fortified with a glass of wine, I ambushed her at the cooker.
Her eyes darted past me for a means of escape. There was none. ‘I didn’t understand it at all,’ she mumbled eventually. ‘Couldn’t get past the first chapter. Really sorry.’ She flicked her ladle towards the paper mountain. ‘I tried four or five times with it, but it was all gobbledegook to me.’
This news took a little processing. In the meantime I became fascinated by the red label on the bottle of wine.
‘I’m really, really, sorry,’ Tara said. ‘I did try.’
‘Well,’ I said, smiling the bright smile of one eternally damned. ‘Never mind all that. Glass of wine? So what’s been happening in town today.’
Days later, when the shock had worn off, I told myself there was no accounting for personal taste. Thus egotistically fortified, I set about enjoying my last weeks in New Zealand.
Some months on, living in rainy Bristol, I dared myself to pick up the manuscript, untouched since my Coromandel days. Looking with fresh eyes, I saw how right Tara had been: gobbledegook dialogue, rambling narrative, a lack of logic and purpose. It was such a mess I shoved it away, mortified.
For a year I focused on writing another story. But Calamity wouldn’t lie easy in the drawer. So when I had the energy to face it, I started on that story again, pretty much from scratch. And I worked it over for three years. Not in idyllic isolation, but wherever I could grab some time off work. Not with dreams of grandeur and views of eucalyptus gardens, but with unsentimental graft and a concert of city sirens around me.
One day I hope to get back to Coromandel, where I first found the peace to write, and where I received my most valuable lesson (‘be understood’). I’m sending a copy of the book to Tara. Hopefully she’ll think it’s improved a bit over the years. But if she doesn’t, well, I still like to tell myself, there’s no accounting for taste.
The First Book of Calamity Leek is out now, published by Hutchinson.