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Q&A with Catherine De Saint Phalle on her novel ‘The Sea and Us’

TM: How did being shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2017 change your perspective on your own writing?

CDSP: I was overwhelmed by being shortlisted, but I don’t think the 2017 Stella Prize changed my perspective on my own writing. It did have a tremendous impact on my person though. I was buoyed, encouraged and sustained by an unexpected rush of hope coming at me from nowhere. Australians, Australian women liked and chose my book! I was over the moon – but nothing affects the inner fact of writing. A deep-sea diver may earn a medal, but when he goes back under the water – the challenge remains the same down there.

TM: Your latest novel, The Sea and Us, is based in and around a fish & chip shop. What drew you to this particular location as a setting?

CDSP: My ex-partner owned a second-hand bookshop. I kept shop for him and wrote two books in there. There was a fish and chip take-away next door, with rented rooms above it. These rooms and their inhabitants acquired a phantom presence in my mind. When I was a child, I lived in Paris in an apartment building which, like many old French buildings, had maids’ rooms on the top floor. I used to creep up there to explore the lie of the land. I housed an imaginary friend behind a certain door. The place was real, so my ‘friend’ acquired reality, just like Harold. Harold came to me, fully clothed and booted, thanks to that fish and chip shop.

TM: How did the character of Harold come to you?

CDSP: He came on his own, without warning, as a sort of voice, explaining things to himself as if he were lost, as if he were trying to find somewhere to berth, somewhere to simply be. As if mere existence had always been a problem for him. But he was going to tackle it now … Harold was very tenuous at first, but he swept another project away. I could only think of this voice, then I realised it was a man’s; when I discovered his name was Harold and that he had rented a room in the fish and chip shop – there was no going back. 

TM: What was the most challenging aspect of writing a character of the opposite sex?

CDSP: He was so very Harold, right from the start, that I had no doubts about him. It’s a bit like asking if it’s challenging to have a brother of the opposite sex – you just manage, he’s your brother.  Some things don’t need to be explained. I must admit that I had been reading a lot of male writers in the past year, I’m only realising this now. A long time ago, I had translated On the Road into French and wrote a radio play from my translation. I lived with Sal Paradise for two years and that character speaks from Kerouac’s heart. I learnt to recognise a true male voice from a phony one as Chandler would say. I wasn’t romantic about Harold, I just listened.

TM: The themes of absence and a sense of belonging are a particular focus in The Sea and Us. What is it about these themes that compels you to write about them?

CDSP: My parents were like grandparents, my father was fifty-six when I was born, and my mother was forty. They were part of a vanishing world. Their own parents were older too and, for example, very few generations separated them from the French Revolution. (Seventeen of my great-grandparents were beheaded). When WWII came, much of my parents’ world was swept away. They were always referring to lost places, forgotten habits, obsolete rules, while poo pooing what other people considered basic security. I supposed I never felt many roots and lived off their stories – their sense of reality was off kilter at best. It’s only when I arrived in Australia that belonging to a real place dawned on me

About Catherine de Saint Phalle

Catherine is the author of five novels published by Actes Sud and Buchet•Chastel in Paris. Her novel On Brunswick Ground and her memoir Poum & Alexandre, for which she was shortlisted for the prestigious Stella Prize in 2017, are published by Transit Lounge. Australia has been her home since  2003 – some people find it later than others. In their migratory flight, dwarf geese don’t return to where they were born but where they learnt how to fly.

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