RLS Retreat: Writing Without the City

The very word ‘retreat’ filled me with dread. Friends congratulated me when it was announced that I had won a 2016 Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. They reflected on the blissful month I would spend in the beautiful village of Grez-Sur-Loing with no distractions, no TV or radio, miles away from family, friends, and the nearest major city. For them it conjured up romantic images of the Writer, with a capital ‘W,’ pen in hand, filling page after page with profound and perfect prose. For me, the prospect of a month in a rural retreat in France was frankly terrifying. Not only did it mean I would have no excuse for not working, it would also be taking me away from the one thing I find most stimulating of all: the city.

I love cities. When not at home in Edinburgh, I seek out other cities to explore. I used to live in New York and am always finding excuses to return. Back in 2012 I spent a happy summer in Madrid learning Spanish. I find the buzz of cities thrilling and incredibly inspiring. Both of my books, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island and Miracle at Coney Island, tell the true stories of events which took place many years ago in New York.

I felt so grateful to Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland for the opportunity they had given me to devote an entire month to my new book that I daren’t admit to anyone before I left that I had a nagging doubt about how my summer in France was going to pan out. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, would I be able to work?

To my surprise, I found the silence was delightful. At home it’s not hard to find a reason (excuse) to get up from my desk to do something else. Suddenly, I had the luxury of spending hours sitting at my laptop with no other demands on me or my time, except for enjoying the view

And what a view.

Each morning, I threw open the windows and the sun streamed in on my desk, which looked down on a long, tree-filled garden, at the bottom of which passed the River Loing, a tributary of the Seine. As the day wore on, locals and holidaymakers from the nearby campsite would gather on the opposite river bank to picnic, play football and frisbee, and to swim in the river. Swallows danced across the garden in front of my first floor window at the Hôtel Chevillon, their song the only sound, save for the shouts of the swimmers diving off the bridge at the end of the garden into the river

There were times when the quiet drove me quietly crazy. When it did I shut the door of my cosy studio and headed out. I took long walks around a nearby lake with one of my artist neighbours from Hôtel Chevillon. We saw swans, deer and newly hatched catfish swimming in great swarms just below the surface of the water. We took a 10-mile bike ride to Moret-sur-Loing, a charming medieval town, where the impressionist artist Alfred Sisley spent the last decade of his life. And we took the local bus to Fontainebleau, to wander through the market, shop, and walk in the grounds of its famous Chateau.

Paris is 45 miles away and takes around 90 minutes to reach by bus and train, but I decided not to visit. For one thing, it was August, when much of Paris is closed for the summer. I had also grown to love Grez and wanted to savour every minute I had there.

Claire was an RLS Fellow in 2016, find out more about the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship.

Claire Prentice

Claire Prentice is a writer and journalist. She is the author of two non-fiction books — The Lost Tribe of Coney Island, and Miracle at Coney Island. She is currently working on her third book. She has contributed to the Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, Grazia, Cosmopolitan, the BBC and NPR.