Living with a writer: 6 days in Italy with Catherine McNamara

Living with a writer: 6 days in Italy with Catherine McNamara

I step off the train at Vicenza and make my way through the station pulling my suitcase behind me. I’m wearing one backpack on my back and the other on my front. Maybe, one day I’ll learn to travel lightly. I stop outside to take in the view of the wide open park area and the low lying hills in the distance. After the high mountains of Trentino where I’ve spent the last three weeks, it makes a nice change to be able to see for miles.

Catherine McNamara, the writer I’m staying with for the next five nights, can’t collect me until 5pm, so feeling hungry, I make way along the tree-lined Viale Roma through the Campo Marzio until I find a suitable bench on which to eat my picnic. I eat and instantly feel that deep state of relaxation that comes from having satisfied my hunger, along with knowing that I no longer have to worry about getting off at the right stop or, in fact, anything else for the next few hours.

My bags and no left luggage facilities at the station mean that I can’t go far even though I’d love to explore the city of Vicenza, so for a while I observe the people walking past and allow the warm September air to wave over me. I’ve got about three hours to while away and there’s someone nearby making a lot of noise, so I pick up my stuff and head towards the end of the Viale Roma where I discover the Giardino Salvi.

The Salvi Gardens

I wander in to the Salvi gardens where I come across my first example of the Palladio architecture that the region is famous for and the reason it’s a UNESCO world heritage site; The Loggia Valamarana. I find a bench and greet the occupant at the other end with my limited Italian. It’s Sunday afternoon and people are relaxing or strolling with friends. There’s someone asleep in the sunshine. Enjoying the peace and quiet, I take out my notebook and begin to write down ideas. During my online call with Catherine on Friday, I’d expressed my worries about not knowing which project to focus on and being on a 1-1 retreat. Catherine had agreed that I needed something to work on and she assured me that over meals we’d be talking shop and that there’d be plenty of time to bounce ideas around.

How I ended up on a writing retreat

In a moment of spontaneity, I’d sent Catherine a message three days before asking if she had any places for the coming week. I hadn’t expected her to say yes but she came straight back saying that she was free until Friday when another guest was arriving. Then, of course, I had to make a decision quickly. There was not much time to get my head around it or reflect and percolate in my normal style. A friend suggested I ask Catherine for an online call to make sure we’re compatible. After all, it will be just the two of us for nearly a week. The next day we meet online.

Catherine, aka Cat, explains that she’s the editor of Litro magazine and, in response to my questions, she tells me a bit about her work as a short story writer before asking about my writing. I enjoy the call and Catherine’s friendly nature and feel that I can handle a week writing on my own. Perhaps some time working on my ideas without distractions is just what I need.

Creative doubts

Suddenly the thought of actually writing for five days, fills me with doubt about my creative ability. What if I’m not really a story-teller or a creative writer after all? I send a Whatsapp to my writing friends who assure me that these doubts are normal. They tell me to embrace my fear and that of course I’m a storyteller – they have evidence to prove it. I love them for their encouragement and on Saturday I reply to Catherine to say that yes, I’ll be arriving the next day. I start to gather up my things and arrange my trip by train from Trento to Vicenza, ready for the next adventure. And, before I know it, my three weeks in Padergnone comes to a grand finale on Saturday night with a spectacular end of season firework display over Lake Garda from the picturesque town, Riva di Garda.

Mindful scribbling

Back in the Salvi Gardens, my afternoon scribbles come to an end just before 5 o’clock. I’ve decided which project to work on and what I’d like to achieve on this trip. Shortly after, Catherine arrives and whisks me off across the lovely countryside of the Veneto region to her home. As soon as I jump into the car and she starts to talk, I know we are going to get on well. I enjoy the ride and love the openness of the land. Like Trentino, it’s a wine-making region and there are vineyards everywhere. Rows and rows of vines propped up on wooden structures that help avoid the winter frosts and snow. Catherine points out a sophisticated villa tucked away on a hilltop; of course, it’s a Palladio.

We arrive at Catherine’s where I’m introduced to Voss, her dog and shown to my enormous and beautifully furnished room. Shortly after, we sit outside to enjoy the warm evening and a craft beer. We talk about writing and how important it is to have the right energy when we write, travel and Catherine’s adventurous life in France, Ghana and Italy. I feel relaxed and happy to be here. After a delicious home-cooked supper, I take myself off to the enormous bed in my room and fall into one of the deepest and most peaceful sleeps I’ve had since I’ve been in Italy.

Monday

I wake up at 6.15 and open one of the two doors in my room that lead out into the garden. Following the early morning light around the side of the house, I find a table and chair; the perfect spot for a cup of tea and some journaling. From here, I can see that Catherine’s home is surrounded by fields, sloping vineyards and, in the distance, the Euganean Hills. I go back inside and make myself some tea, adding the local honey Catherine bought on the way back from the station yesterday, pick up a blanket and go outside to write.

How to get unstuck

I think about my novel. I’ve done lots of research already and written around 15,000 words but I’ve got stuck and don’t know how to get unstuck. Over supper yesterday evening Catherine suggested I focus on mapping out the story and writing a work plan. I go indoors and, pulling out some A5 pieces of paper from my writing pad, I lay them on the enormous desk that’s provided in my room, appreciating the sense of space it gives me, and get to work. I’m having such fun that I’ve even forgotten about breakfast but, fortunately, Catherine hasn’t. She kindly knocks on the door to let me know it’s on the table when I’m ready. By the end of the morning, I have the main events clear in my mind and various points of conflict in the story.

After a delicious lunch of pasta with pesto and one of Catherine’s wonderful salads, she takes me off to the cantina in search of local wine. We pick up a box of white and later that evening after our walk through the vineyard, we sample it. Catherine prepares us a Bianco Spritz with the wine, ice, lemon and water. Normally, I like red wine but this is the second time this year that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by white wine. An Italian aperitif, I’ve discovered over the last three weeks, is incomplete without a salty snack to accompany it and Catherine doesn’t disappoint as she fills a bowl with some local crisps. I sit on a stool and watch, sip and nibble while she prepares dinner, feeling privileged and highly spoilt.  

Tuesday

My story is based on real life events, so I’ve typed up a timeline of what really happened. I write a little about how I discovered the story just to warm up and feel connected. Then I copy and paste bits from my already existing 15,000 words onto a new draft which I relabel so I know which one I’m working on. I write some dialogue based on the research and the inciting incident. Mid-morning I take a sunshine break and head out onto the bench on the lawn to think with some nibbles that I’ve found in the fridge. Later, over another delicious lunch of organic roast chicken with dates, we discuss all things writing. I’m inspired by Catherine’s news on her new book of short stories which is coming out on October 1st.

A sunny garden in Italy with comfy chairs and a bench

Feed the writer, feed the page

After lunch, I’m keen to get going and head back to the laptop. I spend most of the afternoon getting back into my story and writing. As I’m typing dialogue about dredgers removing shingle from the seabed, I realise that I’m feeling bored. I take myself off to the kitchen where Catherine, who has just got back from the organic veggie shop, is making hummus and preparing local pumpkin and other veggies to oven roast. She fixes me a Bianco Spritz and I tell her my novel feels boring. Unfazed, she asks me what it’s about and quickly pulls out the human element. She tells me what she wants to hear about in the story and we bounce ideas around. Catherine soon picks up that I’ve not yet allowed the creative voice that I need to make the story work to come out.

I realise that I’ve been trying to write fiction based on non-fiction events and not a story about my characters. I haven’t allowed myself to ‘own’ the story and make it mine. Catherine suggests that I try setting the story somewhere else to see what happens. I feel that Catherine has hit on something important. A little while later, I don’t know if it’s the Bianco Spritz, the hours on the laptop, the tasty oven-baked pumpkin and grilled veggies with feta cheese or the sheer relief of finding a way through my writer’s fog but suddenly, I find I’m exhausted. I head off to bed, tired but happy.

Wednesday

I wake up an hour later today and take myself outside with my journal and my tea with honey. I’ve established a routine sitting outside, wrapped in a blanket watching the colours in the sky change as the sun rises. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. After journaling, I follow a yoga session on You Tube and over a healthy breakfast of fruit and yoghurt I chat some more with Catherine.

Our discussion leads my novel to go from four sisters (real life) to two (my story) and I start to play around with different ideas. Catherine comes up with some thoughts about the sisterly relationship and before I know it, I’ve decided that the elder sister is protective of the younger one. Neither of us are keen on the name she has so far so I make a mental note to change it. We discuss character names and I remember one I came across on a walk through a graveyard earlier this year (a great place for looking for names). My characters get a new surname. The older sister’s first name is still pending. Maybe, the reader will never know her name like Mrs Max de Winter in Dauphne de Maurier’s novel Rebecca.

Possibilities

I realise that there are possibilities. Catherine’s right; making changes has helped me to free myself up to think differently. I’m no longer feeling boxed in by real events. I’m looking for a people story. The events are a springboard and the backstory. Finally, I’m starting to take ownership of my story. In the afternoon after another wonderful lunch (gnocchi and homemade tomato sauce and salad with Catherine’s mouth-watering sesame seed dressing), I wander out to the garden and enjoy the warmth of the late sunshine. I spend the afternoon engrossed in short stories from Catherine’s collection The Cartography of Others.

Living with a Writer. In the writer's garden. A table in the sunshine with notebooks and a copy of The Cartography of Others by Catherine McNamara

Later, over a wonderful meal of salmon and pine nuts that Catherine found on Ottolenghi and has been meaning to try out on a willing guest, more discussion takes place. After dinner, Catherine listens to three short extracts from my writing. She listens carefully and feeds back exactly where she hears a voice and wants to keep on listening for more. She points out the difference in my writing in the three extracts and suddenly something clicks; I feel my character and start to know who she really is.

Thursday

I wake up early feeling excited. Today Catherine is taking me to Venice and I’m keen to see it for the first time with someone who knows it well. I journal on the sofa in my room this morning and, today in my writing, my character talks to me. I find myself in her head and keep writing in her voice until it is time for breakfast. We go by car to the train station and catch the 10.30 to Venice. I’m already impressed before we get there with the double decker train.

Venice like a local

As soon as we step out of the train station, I’m bowled over by Venice. I feel like I’ve walked into a different world. I don’t recall ever stepping out of a train station into such a stunning space. At the waterfront, we buy tickets for the number 2 ferry and ride to Guidecca, one of Venice’s many islands, where we get a view of Venice without the crowds and the dome of San Marco over cappucino and tartina di ricotta. Here, there are very few people and after coffee (and a delicious polpetta), we move around easily, wandering the tiny narrow streets before jumping back on the boat to Arsenale. At Arsenale, we meet up with Catherine’s son for a drink on the canal edge near the Naval museum before making our way along the narrow streets and over many bridges towards the Piazza San Marco.

A view of Venice from a coffee shop
Coffee and tartina di ricotta
A shop window in Venice overlooking the canal

By the time we get there at 4.30, the crowds have gone and we can wander around freely. Finally, we cross the Rialto Bridge and eventually, the Scalzi Bridge to go back to the station. As Catherine buys our tickets, I queue for a well-deserved gelato for the ride home. I feel so privileged to have seen Venice for the first time in the hands of a writer with inside knowledge. I haven’t had to worry about a thing all day except taking it in; breathing in the atmosphere and the feel of the city.  Catherine is also pleased that her itinerary has worked out well and, tired but happy, we celebrate with dinner and a glass of the local white wine when we get back to hers.

Friday

Outdoors, with the smell of warm grass and soil and my morning tea, I journal and reflect on the day in Venice. I feel so lucky to be here and to have met Cat. Not only have I had a wonderful time writing and visiting Venice but I’ve also felt inspired to reconnect with hosting my own retreats – a topic that I’ve conveniently put to one side.

What I learnt

Catherine has helped me to see just how important taking time out to recharge my writing batteries is. She has not only looked after me and provided me with home-cooked tasty meals, she’s also listened, understood without the need to explain in depth, empathised and given me constructive feedback and advice. She gently helped me to see that, like a ladder propped up against the wrong wall, my writing was not focusing on the story I want to tell. I was looking at the facts and not the story. I just needed to re-position the ladder. Not only has my enthusiasm been reignited but Cat has encouraged me to draw out my voice and feel confident listening to it.

Living with a writer and the conversations have made me feel connected. Not having to think about anything except my writing has enabled me to prioritise which in turn has given me energy. It’s made me take my writing more seriously. I feel more confident than I did six days ago. The novelty of a change of scenery, a room for writing and excellent company has all been more inspiring than I could have imagined. The act of getting the words down can be difficult, but now I know I can do it. I’ve embraced my fear and now I feel like a story-teller. What strikes me most, though, is that through her caring nature, Catherine has made it easy for me. And, this, I realise, is a rare and sophisticated skill.

Over wine

Officially, today is my last day as a new guest is arriving. However, Cat has kindly agreed to let me stay another night. Around midday I vacate my room and move into a cosy one with a writing bureau in the upstairs part of the house. I spend the day gathering up my notes and transferring them to Word documents before reading the end of a short story in Catherine’s collection. I can’t help but agree with Hilary Mantel’s appraisal when she read the book: “striking in its confidence and originality”.

Book cover The Cartography of Others by Catherine McNamara
Hilary Mantel’s thoughts on Catherine McNamara’s short story collection

Then, I sit at the writing bureau from which I have an amazing view of the countryside, and write this post. I watch my final evening of pink hues over the vines as the sun sets before pouring a Bianco Spritz and meeting Catherine’s new guest. She has just arrived and is in for a wonderful week of writing during her trip to Europe. Over wine and another delicious dinner, we talk travel, writing and stories.

Book cover: The Carnal Fugues
Catherine McNamara’s latest book The Carnal Fugues

You can purchase Catherine’s book The Cartography of Others at Bookshop.org

Disclaimer: This post contains an affiliate link to support independent local bookshops at Bookshop.org. This will not affect you in any way if you click through and buy a book, but it may give me a small commission that will go towards the cost of keeping this blog running. Thank you!

3 thoughts on “Living with a writer: 6 days in Italy with Catherine McNamara

  1. This was a joy to read Rebecca, thank you so much. The sights and smells and tastes were so vivid, I felt I was right there with you! I love Italy and like you, was bowled over by Venice when I first saw it so it was a real treat to be taken back there, thank you. Your week was full of so many insights about your writing process, you have given me lots to think about. And Catherine sounds like an amazing guide, what an inspiration.

  2. Such a well written piece, described so beautifully I could see the places vividly in my imagination.
    Rebecca you most certainly are both a story teller and creative writer.
    The location of Catherine’s retreat sounds stunning.

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