Intimidation and Inspiration: Zoë Strachan Reflects on RLS Fellowship

Looking down the staircase at Hotel Chevillon
Category: Writing

As a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson (what Scottish writer isn’t?) the opportunity to stay at the Hôtel Chevillon held particular allure. After all, it was there in 1876 that RLS met Fanny Osbourne, who was to become his lover and literary helpmeet. Fanny’s son Lloyd later wrote of how the party at the hotel were sitting around the long dinner table one summer evening, when they were startled by a noise at the window: ‘in vaulted a young man with a dusty knapsack on his back. The whole company rose in an uproar of delight, mobbing the newcomer with outstretched hands and cries of greeting’.

RLS’s feet must have trod on the same floorboards as mine

When I read Lloyd’s account for the first time, I did not guess that I might find myself sitting at the same table, in the same room. All right, perhaps the furniture has changed, but the wooden bannister of the curving stair to the bedrooms has been worn down by generations of hands, and RLS’s feet must have trod on the same floorboards as mine. It could have been intimidating, but instead it felt like an encouragement. Like a blank page spurring me on. 

Good residencies absorb an atmosphere of studious and creative intent. There’s an incredible luxury in getting up in the morning and going straight to your desk, and it helps to know that others are doing the same: placing their art at the centre of their lives for a week, a month, however long they have. Emails are death to creative productivity, and even conversations with loved ones can disrupt the flow. (A ‘bonjour’ in the boulangerie proved just about acceptable.) To this day, I haven’t found a circumstance in which I’ve written as much as I wrote in my six weeks at Grez:  the libretto for a short opera, a play, even made some decent progress on the novel that had been languishing on my hard drive. I would never underestimate the power of deadlines, but even so, there’s something about Grez.

What did I learn there? A glass of cheap rosé on the terrace at dusk is an excellent reward for a day’s work. There’s real satisfaction in beating Sweden at pétanque. That RLS was correct about the extraordinary variety and tenacity of the biting insects of the forest of Fontainebleau. Oh, and a Finnish joke . . . but I’ll save that for over a glass of cheap rosé.

An immersive routine and uninterrupted headspace take you a long way

These are probably not the kind of tips for writers that I’m supposed to be offering in this blog. And even with all the tips and talent in the world, luck plays its part. I was lucky to go to Grez. Lucky to have all that time to sit at my desk, thinking and writing until my head hurt and my back seized up. An immersive routine and uninterrupted headspace take you a long way, and they’re the hardest things for new and not-so-new writers to achieve. I considered it a success to end the day exhausted, stiff and mildly disturbed by some of my subject matter. Thankfully there were places to walk and people to talk to and books to read (not to mention that rosé).

Yes, I could have done without the house martin that flew in the window, circled my room, and left its own inimitable brand of literary criticism slap bang in the middle of my manuscript. But even that was a lesson: there’s a point at which you have to trust yourself and write as if nobody is reading. The opera has been performed, the play produced, the novel published, and I’m still chasing ideas that came to me at the Hôtel Chevillon. I’ll always be grateful for my time there.


If you'd love to follow in Zoë's footsteps, apply for a RLS Fellowship by 1 February.

Zoë Strachan

Zoë is the author of three novels: Ever Fallen in Love, Spin Cycle and Negative Space (Picador). The latter won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award. Her short stories and essays have been included in numerous journals and anthologies, she contributes journalism to various newspapers and magazines and her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 3. She has received various residencies and fellowships including a Hawthornden Fellowship, UNESCO City of Literature residency at the National Museum of Scotland, a Hermann Kesten Stipendium (Germany), and a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship.