Helen Simpson

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UK | 2017

Helen Simpson is the author of six short-story collections: Four Bare Legs in a Bed (1990), Dear George (1995), Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), Constitutional (2005), In-Flight Entertainment (2010) and Cockfosters (2015).  A Bunch of Fives: Selected Stories (2012) includes five stories from each of her first five collections. In 1991 she was chosen as the first Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and won the Somerset Maugham Award. In 1993 she was chosen as one of Granta’s twenty Best of Young British Novelists. She has also received the Hawthornden Prize, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ E.M.Forster Award. She lives in London.


As March crossed into April this year I found myself in a medieval stone tower making progress at last with the story with which I had been wrestling since the beginning of the year. There is nothing like being air-lifted away from the usual demands of life to increase productivity.   Several more hours are created daily for writer-guests at Santa Maddalena, thanks to this temporary liberation from practicalities. Tortellini in brodo or Minestra di ceci? Someone else’s concern! Internet connection playing up? Forget emails!


At night I read late then dreamed in the pink bedroom with its pink sheets and eiderdowns, its lantern-lit beamed ceiling and engravings of lovers on the Bosphorus. One of my nocturnal books was Gregor von Rezzori’s Anecdotage, containing the backstory of the tower as well as fine-limned portraits of his Beatrice. During the day I worked mostly at the stone table outside the tower, lapped in a coat for the morning hours. The temperature was shifting from winter to spring; Karin Altenberg, staying upstairs in the tower, reported hearing a rose open into bloom by the pool one afternoon. Zachary Mason, our fellow-writer, saw wild boar during long afternoon walks, and—once—an albino deer.


We ate together twice a day, a temporary family, over at the main house. Sometimes there would be a guest at table too, with a story about a viper which could still inflict blindness even after it had been beheaded, or of a cross-eyed club-footed bearded infant who grew up to be a leading medico fiorentino.   It was wonderful to be surrounded by art—pictures by Tancredi and Helen Frankenthaler, Castellani’s white surface reliefs on white walls, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s wittily unsettling mirror paintings. When I asked Beatrice about her first-ever exhibition in Milan, she told me that Tristan Tzara had written the introduction to the catalogue.


To have been provided with this three weeks’ writing time at Santa Maddalena was a blessing—thank you!

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