What does a bunch of authors do when thrown together for weeks? They write, talk, laugh, argue, cook, eat and drink. They endlessly discuss books, the craft of writing and nervously inquire how much the others are writing. They feel like kindred spirits — and that is what writers’ residencies are all about, perhaps the only places in the world where writers don’t feel like freaks because they are in the company of fellow freaks.
In late March, I was thrilled to receive a mail from Peter Q. Rannes, Director, Danish Centre for Writers & Translators, informing me that I was one of the four authors selected globally for their fully funded four-week International Summer Residency for Writers at Hald Hovedgaard in Denmark from June 1 to 27. Within minutes, I was mentally packing my bags.
Hald Hovedgaard is a serene and beautiful country estate in the Danish province of Jutland, 380 km from Copenhagen and 10 km outside Viborg city. The writers’ retreat is something right out of a Wodehouse novel — a two-winged, three-storied mansion with numerous rooms, a library, ornate sitting and dining chambers, banquet halls, fireplaces, sprawling green lawns, cascading onto a lovely lake. I could well have been Bertie Wooster at Brinkley Court.
The principal purpose of this international literary encounter, instituted at Hald since 2010 with support from Danish government, is the informal meeting of professional writers, living door to door in an inspiring environment. Hald has so far hosted over 30 writers from 20 countries. For the 2016 residency, besides me, the three other international writers selected were Fiona Shaw (the UK), Amanda Michalopoulou (Greece) and Jac Jemc (USA). The Danish writers who were to share the first fortnight with us were Mirjam Bastian, Bo Dahl Olsson, Elisabeth Flensted-Jensen and Rebecca Bach-Lauritsen. We hit it off almost instantaneously.
Life at Hald was just perfect for the ‘writerly’ existence. After an exhilarating morning walk around the woods, I would have tea and biscuits, then grab my writing pad and go into the halls on the first floor, which had nice nooks to park oneself in and write. When hungry, I would descend to the kitchen, bump into fellow writers and chit-chat as we prepared and munched a hearty breakfast. That done, I would return to my lair and scribble away till lunch time. Lunch was a working meal or a leisurely one depending upon how much writing one had got done in the morning. Progress or the lack of it was writ large on people’s faces. Frets, frowns, pre-occupied gazes, monosyllabic answers were common. Anyone who appeared cheerful and conversational was envied.
Post lunch, I generally stole a quick siesta in my room, then took a relaxing shower and got back to work, this time outdoors. Thanks to an uncharacteristic spell of excellent weather, Hald was at its fascinating best. The birds twittered, the breeze blew gently and the bewitching setting produced a magical trance that was so conducive to writing. Words have never come easier to me.
We had formal dinners every Monday, when Peter and his wife Gitte served Danish delicacies. The staple Danish fare is roasted potatoes and different kinds of meat. Danish desserts were, however, not quite my idea of yummy-ness as they tended to be less sweet and much too sour. “Fresh strawberries with cream are known as the taste of summer,” Gitte told me. To enjoy it, however, I had to add so much sugar that the Danes were convinced I was heading for diabetes!
On other days, dinner was a casual, leisurely affair with all inmates relaxed and voluble. What came through is that authors everywhere, except best-selling ones, face the same existential struggles — how to keep writing and getting published while also earning a livelihood. Clearly, it’s only their passion that keeps them going alongside the hope that perhaps their next book might be the turning point, bringing with it either literary accolades or serious money...
Our last week featured a reading session in the King’s Chamber at Viborg. The sounds of appreciation from the small audience in this foreign land were gratifying to hear as I read out passages from my book, The Murder of Sonia Raikkonen.
Champagne was uncorked. Catchy Danish songs and ditties were sung. It seemed surreal to be leaving the next morning. Hald had already become a habit. Writing would never be the same again – for where else would I hear nothing but the sweet sound of scribbling and of my brain whirring contentedly with words.
One highlight of my stay at Hald was meeting Danish crime writer Lotte Petri. With four books under her belt, Lotte is fast emerging as a prolific author. “The more stable a society, the more scary things you want to write and read about,” she remarked when I asked her about the popularity of Danish crime fiction. “One likes to safely read about other people’s miseries.” Her books so far have had a strong medico-biological angle. “Every year, there is a new trend to the type of crime books being published in Denmark,” Lotte explained, “Last year it was erotic crime, the year before that scientific crime and a little earlier domestic crime.”
Salil Desai is a Pune based crime novelist who was selected for the Hald International Writer’s Residency in 2016.
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