Patti Miller is an award-winning novelist and memoir mentor. Her new book Ransacking Paris is an evocative and deftly written memoir of her one-year escape to Paris, a vastly different world from her baking and bushy home town in Wiradjuri country, central NSW. She tells us about the most magical places in Paris, what makes an unforgettable memoir, and the philosophy of bees.
How would you describe Wiradjuri country?
Wiradjuri country is my heart’s country; it feels as if it resides in the centre of my being. But it is also the country that my body remembers from childhood. As I’ve said in Ransacking Paris, ‘It doesn’t feel as if it is located in my mind, but in my body, imprinted as if pressed on wet clay, and when I look at that country, it’s as if I am looking at myself.’
It is a landscape of low hills, plains, fertile river flats, ironbark and yellow box gums, grassy paddocks and dry creeks. It is green and welcoming in the spring in a good year, but it can be dry and harsh in drought years, the land burnt brown and dusty.
But while Wiradjuri country means so much to me and is still home to the child in me, I think Paris is home to me as an adult.
What was it like growing up there?
There were eight children in my family and we all lived in a ramshackle farmhouse on a few hundred acres of land. We were poor, the house was shabby with no running water or inside toilet – or even toilet paper, but we were not deprived of love, so it was a noisy, messy, warm-hearted childhood. We also had no television, so I joined the library in town and read most of the time, learning about a world of myth and imagination.
As I became an adolescent I discovered the world of European literature, especially French, so in my mind I was already living in Paris. When I wasn’t reading, I explored the countryside, walking for miles over hills and along valleys, dreaming. In the evenings, after reading, I told my sister stories as we each lay in our beds in the dark; it was then I started to think I’d like to be a writer. It was a very different childhood to those of the French memoirists’ – Simone de Beauvoir, for example – but I discovered when I read her memoir that our inner lives were very similar, because our inner lives were formed by reading.
Was there an exact moment you decided to escape away to Paris?
Perhaps it was the moment I first listened to Marianne Faithfull’s haunting voice singing ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’. Lucy ‘realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sport car with the warm wind in her air’. It took a while and many more re-playings of the song, but I don’t think anyone could listen to that song without deciding, that no matter how difficult, how unlikely, they had to fulfil their dreams.
Comment bien parlez-vous français? (How well do you speak French?)
Je ne parle pas trop mal. I don’t speak too badly. During Easter this year, one of my sons married a French woman and at their wedding, I sat next to her mother who spoke no English. We chatted in French for three hours so I guess I could say that I am at ‘chat’ level. I don’t speak ‘comme de l’eau’, meaning ‘like water’, the French expression for fluency, and I know I regularly murder the tenses and genders, but I happily listen to the French news on television, and, if my listener is patient and tolerant of strange grammar, I can converse about most topics.
What are two similarities and two differences between Wiradjuri country and Paris?
Oh, that’s a difficult question! There are many differences, not so many similarities. When I think on it, the two main differences for me are:
- Paris has a long written history and literature, which can be easily accessed, while Wiradjuri country has a long oral tradition that was ruptured by colonisation and is now difficult to find.
- The attractions of Paris are nearly all human constructions – Pei Pyramid, Musée d’Orsay, rue des Mauvais Garçons, Café Odèon, cathedral of Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe – while the attractions of Wiradjuri country are nearly all natural – hills, valleys, creeks, bush, grasslands.
And the similarities:
- They are both beautiful! Both stir the heart with their presence, their celebration of the physical beauty of place, and both stir the senses with their sights and sounds and smells.
- They have both been invaded by different peoples; they have both resisted and adapted to the influences of different cultures; they are both what they are today because of the layering of history.
Why are you drawn to the writings of Montaigne?
I’m in love with Montaigne because his writing is so extraordinarily insightful, his understanding of the nature of the self so illuminating, his heart so compassionate. He explores the nature of human beings with such penetrating observations and wit, honesty and openness that I am won over every time I read his ‘essays’. His style is so fresh and his thinking so contemporary it is hard to believe he was writing over 450 years ago.
What’s the most magical place you discovered in Paris?
Oh, another difficult question! I’ve found so many magical places in Paris! I could say it was the tulip meadow in the Bois de Vincennes, or the hidden garden in the rue des Archives, or all the back streets behind Montmartre, or the Roman arena in the 5th arrondissement, or the patisserie in the rue Montorgueil, or the Seine viewed from a bike…. I cannot choose.
Was returning home a disappointment or a relief?
Truthfully, I wanted to stay in Paris. I cried from the airport to my home in the Blue Mountains when I came back (about 60 km). The suburbs of Sydney looked raw and ‘stuck on the landscape’ and even my beloved bush seemed harsh. I had become European in my sensibility in such a short time! But I am adjusted to the rare beauty (and much better weather) of Australia again now and happy to be able to return to Paris each year for a couple of months when I teach a memoir-writing course in the rue Montmartre.
Two bees are resting their wings on your front cover – why?
The bee design was inspired by the quote from Montaigne which gave Ransacking Paris its title: ‘Bees ransack flowers here and flowers there and then make a honey that is all their own.’ To Montaigne, bees are an image of the way a writer works; as a bee takes nectar, the writer takes from their observations and memories and from other writers’ insights to create a ‘honey’ which is all their own. The bee became an image which threads its way throughout the whole book, expressing a range of ideas from many cultures, particularly the idea that bees are messengers of truth and poetic awareness from the gods to humans – that is, that bees are a metaphor of the writer’s deeper process, drawing on what is hidden and perhaps not understood, to try to find a truthful expression of our experience.
What makes an excellent memoir?
There are many styles of memoir that I enjoy, from a simple, heartfelt story to a sophisticated literary memoir, but for me, an excellent memoir is one that enriches my experience of being here in the world. It lets me see out through another’s eyes so that I can live more than my own life, and it expands my knowledge and awareness of what it is like to be here in the mystery of existence. It doesn’t have to be a sensational or dramatic story, but it does have to be written with honesty and with a fineness of perception and language, and it does have to extend my world and enhance my experience and understanding.
Ransacking Paris by Patti Miller is published by UQP, rrp $29.95