I slipped this slim, unassuming little volume into my bag, planning to have a look during my daughter’s swimming lesson. I pulled out the book – pleasantly solid and tactile, with crisp cream pages – while perched on the unyielding plastic of the pull-down seat in the stuffy, chlorine-scented spectator area. The cover is simple and monochrome, with an energetic line drawing of the three authors wrapped in some sort of wispy communal kaftan, or perhaps a sheet, knotted at the shoulder; a nod to the authors’ collaborative approach that conceals their differences just as much as it showcases them.
As I began to read, the muffled hum of screeches and splashes faded away into the thick air, to be replaced in my mind with the sights and smells of the 17th century Couvent des Minimes in Lille. Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman, and Michèle Roberts – between them novelists, poets, biographers, autobiographers, playwrights, editors and professors – have been in a writers’ group together for ten years. In September 2013, they went away for the weekend to Lille to plan their new book, The Cabinet of Possibilities, about being in a writing group, and about opening up one’s writing. Over the weekend, each kept a diary.
Roberts is all about the detail, and once she introduces the idea of The Cabinet of Possibilities as ‘…a magical, expanding Cabinet, able to hold whatever we want to put into it. Space drawers. Knicker drawers? Top drawers. Bottom drawers.’ I perceive this playful metaphor throughout the writing, in her descriptions of food, for example: ‘…tiny cubes of cakes like jewelled objets d’art varnished and enamelled in slick, bright colours…’ And in Le Fanu’s embarkation gifts, given in St Pancras: a postcard from the Saloua Raouda Choucair exhibition at the Tate of ‘four naked women lounging around on cushions on a red checkered rug, sipping tea and reading books … cotton hankie covered in plump colourful birds on leafy twigs … conjuring up the pleasures of reading and writing (naked or clothed), and flights of the imagination.’
Reading and writing, naked and clothed, imaginations flying forward and back in time. If one could melt, mix, and then distil these three accounts of one weekend, the essence would contain all this. While Roberts often looks to the past – her French grandfather’s love of a caramel choux pastry called religieuse (the nun), whom he’d say was burning in caramel flames; and the plain yoghurt in a glass jar reminding her of childhood breakfasts – the whole group is also focused on the future: on what writing they will do, how they will push boundaries – their readers’ and their own. All are experimenting with form, Roberts reveals; refreshingly honest about the reaction of her ‘inner monster-toddler’ to her two friends’ gentle critique.
It is fascinating to see the different perspectives on the same events. Dealt with swiftly by Roberts as ‘a stag party of chaps all in pink polo shirts,’ Newman seems quite reflective about the group of young men who share their Eurostar carriage, casting them as a brotherhood, travelling counterparts to the sisterhood of three writers. She notices their politeness, their neat centre partings, their shirts bearing the words Al’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and their cans of beer, which don’t quite match up to the champagne and small glass tumblers rolled in a linen napkin that Michèle Roberts has brought. Le Fanu wonders, ‘isn’t the League of Extraordinary Gentleman an alternate universe steampunk series by Alan Moore?’ (I checked, it is).
As well as food, sights, and other people, they write about writing. Roberts’s toddler-monster, the unwritten rules of the writing group (discuss writing not feelings, leave the phone off the hook), point of view, Jane Austin and Katherine Mansfield, and the joyful rediscovery of a rejected manuscript. The writing is beautifully evocative, equally descriptive of place and emotion, and funny, accompanied by line drawings full of spirit, energy and humour. A wonderful insight into friendship and writing, it will inspire you to create a circle of writers of your own.
The Lille Diaries: A Writers’ Group Weekend by Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman and Michèle Roberts was published in 2016 by Hawkins & Quiggin, London.
Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW. Her current project is a work of creative non-fiction, family fables organised as a collection of short stories narrated from different points of view, fragments stitched together into a multi-layered autoethnogaphic family herstory spanning 100 years.
Photo by Linh Nguyen (CC0 1.0)