Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Yes, I Admit It. I’m a Bit of an Art Colony Slut.

It’s true, I’m a bit of an art colony slut.

I’ve received grants to quite a few residencies in my time. Yaddo and Ledig House in New York State, Vermont Studio Center in Vermont, Chateau Lavigny in Switzerland, For Julia and David in Costa Rica, and two Scandinavian residencies in Italy. I love spending time with other artists and then “escape” into my room where I can work on my novels without being disturbed by anything but scorpions. I couldn’t have been as productive if it weren’t for those wonderful residencies where people look after you like you were a spoiled toddler.

Right now I’m at Fundacion Valparaiso in Mojácar, Spain. It’s the second time I’m here and luckily, it lives up to my expectations. The place is still gorgeous with wild rabbits in the garden and a poetic view of a dry riverbed. The Fundacion is situated in an old olive mill that has been turned into a haven for international weirdoes. There’s a wonderful library, a cute garden with a cemetery, and free sun sets almost every evening.

Andalusia is like a combination of Arizona and Florida, just without the Taco Bells. Cacti grow next to orange groves, the locals say hola, and the coffee is black as poisonous ink. We’re eight artists from Japan, Moldova, Lithuania, Canada, Belarus, Spain, Israel, and Denmark. And we get along fine. We wake up, eat our yoghurt with granola - and around noon most of us walk up the hill to the library in Mojácar Pueblo to go online. It takes about 25 minutes – the walk, that is, not to get online.

This is a picture of a Danish novelist " working". What is wrong with him, drinking coffee, staring into space pretending to get ideas? After all, some one gave this parasite a Spanish grant. Shouldn't we demand at least a novel, a poem, a three-penny opera from this man?

Yes, how can you live without computers in this day and age? Everybody at the Fundacion needs their emails. We’re all addicted to the outside world, even though we want to escape it. I communicate with the French literary festival I’m going to next – and with my girlfriend who always thinks I’m being gang raped when she doesn’t hear from me.

Yes, indeed, the real world refuses to go away. Mira Cedar, our Israeli painter, is writing on an application in Hebrew and English. She is from Tel Aviv and has never stayed a place that’s as quiet as the Fundacion. I guess she can’t hear the rest of us snoring.

Sachiko Hamada, our Japanese novelist, wants to get a profile on because I’ve told her to. GoodReads is like Facebook for writers, a site where you can promote yourself and trash talk other people’s books – how much closer to Heaven can you get?

All of us here get into weird habits. I buy a British newspaper every day and read about unemployment rates in Swansea. I also try to get started on my novel but I hate it after two pages. The theme and the idea are both fine, but the voice doesn’t work.

Nothing feels right. It’s as if my ego wants to write but my soul doesn’t. “Don’t push it,” my soul whispers. “Don’t push it or I’m going to blow up your computer.”

“No, come on, Peter,” my ego demands. “You need to write a best seller that Oprah will adore.”

Luckily, my soul wins the battle so I throw out my novel. Two months of research seems “wasted”. My whole purpose for being here is gone. So what am I supposed to do? I’m a novelist without a novel. That’s like being a goal keeper without a goal. Should I just write on my blog? Or walk some one’s dog?

Yes, life isn't easy in Andalucia.

Every morning I wake up staring into hills and cacti the shape of monsters. Perhaps Fundacion Valparaiso has an art police that checks if you’re working? Maybe they've hired Nazis to beat you up if you don't write: “Veee haff vayzzz of making you vorkkk, Herr Voigtal … vee gave you a grantttt and you arrrrre juzt lying in bettt like a Schweinhund …

Yes, my life has become a nightmare. I’m now a parasite with a grant. But I keep on getting good reviews for The Tsar’s Dwarf in the US, so maybe I should forgive myself a little …? After all, you can force yourself to write a blog or an email, but not a novel. Novels have to come from within or they just become ... blogs or emails.

Valeriu Buev, our Russian born painter, is a citizen of Moldova – one of the few countries in the world that is smaller than Denmark. He has a good sense of humor and I like his art, too. Valeriu has traveled 72 hours on bus from his country that is squeezed in between Romania and Russia. Valeriu tells me that you can actually get from Moldova to Mojácar without changing bus a single time, something I find truly amazing. However, Valeriu doesn’t.

“No, no, not strange,” he says. “A lot of Moldovans work in Southern Spain. But the bus trip was pure Hell.”

Valeriu has brought some souvenirs from Moldova that he will try to sell at the flea market along with some of his own art work. After the stay at the Fundacion, he is going to Brisbane for an exhibition. “I leave for Australia December 23 on a plane and arrive December 25 on the same plane. There will be no Christmas for me this year, only stewardesses.”

One of the people I hang out with the most is the Canadian poet Oana Avasilichioaei. If you don’t think her name sounds Canadian, you’re absolutely right. She is as Romanian as Ceaucescu, but a much nicer person. We talk about Montreal, our North American book tours, and the joy of Gin and Tonic.

But as I said, everybody is great at Fundacion Valparaiso. That goes for Andry Miakchilo as well who starts telling us writers that he doesn’t consider us artists.

“But I’m a poet,” Oana says, “and I do think of myself ...”

“No,” Andry says flatly.

Andry is not unfriendly at all, so maybe something was lost in translation. His own art is inspired by computer games. He is from Belarus, has gone to art school in Poland and is working at sculptures at the Fundacion. The rocks he uses he finds in the garden and on the hillside outside his studio. And the vegetables we get for dinner is from the garden as well.

Great times at the Fundacion Valparaiso. Everybody there was blessed with impossible last names, so let's just mention the origins of the artists: Spanish dog, Japanese filmmaker and novelist, Moldavian painter and anarchist, visual artist from Belarus, Canadian-Romanian poet, and our Lithuanian translator. Mira Cedar, Juan Casado and your Danish bloghead were missing in action.

Even though we’re all in paradise at Valparaiso, we do miss certain things from the real world. Sichiko Hamada wish there was a bath tub in her bathroom.

“A Japanese needs a hot bath. I’m brought up with bath tubs,” she sighs. Today Sachiko lives in the US – a country with way too many showers as well. She is usually a celebrated filmmaker but is at the Fundacion for another reason, to translate her American novel into her native Japanese. No wonder she needs a hot tub.

Juan Casado, the sole Spaniard in the group, wishes there was someone to talk to. He only speaks his mother tongue but luckily has a cell phone to get him through the meals. At the Fundacion, he is inspired by the many rabbits in the garden. They turn up in all of his pictures like peeping toms. He has also made some beautiful pictures of bullfighting. I like his paintings 10.000 times more than I like bullfighting.

Mira Cedar from Tel Aviv is a gentle presence in the dining room, always smiling, watching people with curiousity. She has become a fan of Danish art books. Since the Fundacion was founded by my countrymen, there's an obscene amount of books from my Scandinavian homeland.

Laura Liubinaviciute, our Lithuanian translator, wishes there was less salt in the food. However, she has a great ear for languages and knows how to mutilate a pineapple. “I’m not an artist,” she keeps on saying. “I don’t know why I’m here.” Well, we’re happy she is. During her first ten days, she translates a Spanish play into Lithuanian while she’s hanging out with Moldovans, Israeli, Danes, and the stray cats.

We also have two official mothers who look after us, Pilar Parra and Marie-Laure Gonzales, the manager and assistant manager. They are warm, patient, and helpful. When there is no water, they call the mayor of Mojácar. When there is no sun, they call God of Andalusia. They want what’s best for us, so we can stay happy, creative, and fulfilled.

But there is a limit to their service. We still have to chew our own food.

Fundacion Valparaiso is situated between Mojacar Pueblo, a quaint historical hilltown and Mojacar Playa, a boring beach full of British ex-pats looking for a place to vomit.

I’m happy I’m not here in the summer. In semi-cool December, however, the playa is quiet subdued. You actually meet more Spaniards than Northern Europeans – a rare occurrence in sunny Andalusia. However, we’re damn close to the nitty-gritty of Costa del Sol with its discos and sudden outbreaks of herpes - but luckily the Mojacar area hasn’t been destroyed yet. The hilltown is still gorgeously Moorish. All houses are white. The town is full of picturesque alleys, and there’s a great view of the coastline from the main plaza.

However, a new highway is cutting through the desert-like surroundings. It wasn’t there eight years ago, but I choose not to be disappointed. A few power cuts won’t bring me down either. I just feel grateful that writers, visual artists, and musicians can get grants to wonderful places like Fundacion Valparaiso.

“Artists are the people in the world with most freedom,” Mira Cedar says.

I’m not sure pilots, hobos, and Buddhist monks would agree, but one thing is for sure, life is wonderful right here, right now.

And hey, the food is great and the library is full of exotic books. Not bad when you remember that this used to be an old Spanish olive mill in the middle of nowhere.

If you’re interested in applying to art colonies around the world, including Fundacion Valparaiso, you can find some of them at

I can recommend Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York and Chateau Lavigny outside Lausanne in Switzerland. The latter is only for writers. So is Ledig House in Omi, New York, half an hour from Hudson. All three are great places.

“For Julia and David” in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica is a beautiful residency an hour outside San José, but I was there when the founder died (in 2005), so things were very unorganized. How things are now, I have no idea.

Circolo Scandinavo, Skandinavisk kunstnerkollegium, is for Scandinavian artists and is situated in Trastevere in Rome, Italy. Non male!

But San Cataldo on the Amalfi coast in Scala, Italy takes the prize for the most beautifully situated residency I’ve ever been to. However, it’s only for Danes or people living in Denmark. And it actually has more academics than artists in residence plus a few paying costumers as well.

Hey, maybe I should write a blog about my experiences all of these places …?

Perhaps I will if I don’t get started on my damn novel ...
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