Four Questions on Farsickness is an interview series with creative writers for whom place is essential to their work. Each writer answers the same four questions—and featured here is Paris-based poet, author, and editor Heather Hartley.
1. Share a little about where you’re from. When you were growing up, what place — real or imagined — most fascinated you, and why?
I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia in an area of the city surrounded by trees, greens and ravines. The summertime there of my childhood is so evocative for me, in large part due to the richness of flora and fauna that was in our backyard and nearby at the State Park. Although I usually prefer to walk on city streets and don’t have a great working knowledge of Appalachian indigenous plants and flowers—and not so much of a green thumb—there’s something about a dirt path shaded by red and silver maple and oak leaves and black walnut branches in the height of summer, blooming with sweet vine-y honeysuckle and low, lush red bud branches that conjures up the idea of serenity for me. (Add a cool lemonade or spiky spritz that lifts the mood as well.) I’ve become more interested in gardens and parks since my mother recently became a Master Gardener, and I could only hope some day to have the tiniest bit of knowledge that she has about the natural world.
I was fascinated with travel from an early age and had the great chance and privilege to travel to England and live there for three months when I was seventeen. I spent a portion of that time in London and loved the city—it’s rhythm, dynamism and in addition everyone spoke English and for my lackadaisical, late-teen ways at that time, it suited me very well to be able to communicate easily. (It was a couple years later that I would take a keen and deep interest in foreign languages, and French in particular.) G.K. Chesterton said that, “London is a riddle,” and I really relished puzzling out the city.
2. What travel has been a particular inspiration to your work?
I would say that all of my travel has had a positive impact and impetus on my work. I was lucky to start travelling young, and it’s been a part of my life ever since. In terms of cities, London, Paris and Napoli, Italy, have been the most consistently inspiring for me. Of course each of these three cities has their own unique, exceptional and sometimes indescribable personality and that makes them all the more exciting and intriguing. I write consistently when I travel and always have a notebook (and laptop) on hand.
I’ve lived in Paris for over ten years and the city has definitely made its way into my prose and poetry. Paris, for me, after having lived there so many years, gives a sense of permanence and rootedness to my work. It feels like home, as do Napoli and Charleston. It’s like having three different homes. I’ve written about all three in my recent second poetry collection, Adult Swim and Paris and Napoli also both appear in my first collection, Knock Knock. And in terms of finding inspiration in and incentive from a city, when Audrey Hepburn said, “Paris is always a good idea,” I couldn’t agree more.
3. Where do you “escape to” to recharge creativity?
I like to escape to a coffee shop to write—be it a new one or an old favorite. I find that the atmosphere of a café—in addition to the coffee itself—is really conducive to working on my writing, whether it’s a draft or a final version, whether it’s poetry or prose. Then, after the café, I can escape back to my desk.
Another way that I escape to refresh creativity is by walking and Paris is a fabulous city to stroll through. In some ways, wandering through the city has become a way of life for me and I’m so fascinated by discovering new areas of the city.
Recently I walked through the Passage Véro-Dodat in the first arrondissement and it was like walking back into a sepia-colored era where time had stopped for a little bit, filled with marble columns, frescoes and low-lit globed lamps. This particular covered passage (also called a galerie), dates from 1826 and was built by two butchers. Full of gorgeous retail stores, there’s also a great coffee shop, Café de l’Époque at one end that’s been serving since the passage originally opened. The day that I was at the Galerie Véro-Dodat, it was a quiet, warm late spring afternoon and walking in the long corridor with its shiny black and white tiled floor was like walking back through some kind of antique, beautiful time.
4. Where would you most like to travel to next?
I’d love to go to Sicily. I’ve never been that far south in Italy and from what I’ve heard from friends and colleagues, it’s absolutely stunning—and not so far from Napoli!
Heather Hartley is Paris Editor for Tin House magazine and the author of Adult Swim and Knock Knock both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her short fiction, poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS Newshour, The Guardian, Slice, The Literary Review and other venues. She has presented writers at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, and her column about literary Paris, “Apéritif,” appears on the Tin House website. She has taught creative writing at the American University of Paris and the University of Texas El Paso MFA program. Find her online at heatherhartleyink.com.