Jill Prewett talks to a quiet achiever who lives in Geneva
Each of us has a story, something unique to share …
Can you tell us about your own writing career?
I came both early and late to a writing career. Before marrying a Frenchman and moving to Europe, I wrote and worked for MacMillan Publishers in NYC. Then I put on hold my writing, and raised a large family, moving from France to Belgium, to Italy, and finally to Switzerland where I have lived for now 40 years. When the older children were in university, I returned to my mother tongue and to writing. I went to my first writing workshop, two weeks long in the States, when I was 50. Shortly afterwards, I started publishing stories in The London Financial Times monthly magazine, Resident Abroad, and to lead the Writers’ Workshop at the American Women’s Club of Geneva.
I moved from writing short stories to writing narrative essays and publishing them in The Christian Science Monitor and in anthologies both in Europe (grateful to Dianne Dicks and Bergli Books) and in the States. This led to my teaching workshops for the International Women’s Writing Guild. My writing and teaching careers have continued hand in hand. I started the Geneva Writers Group in 1993 and published my first book, Looking for Gold, A Year in Jungian Analysis in 1995 when I was sixty. This opened doors to teaching more workshops in the States, at Writers Centres and at CG Jung Societies. Often I encourage writers to take their time, as Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “Everything is gestation…” Everything is being patient.
You’ve lived in many different places—what brought you to Geneva?
I came to Geneva in 1970 because of my husband’s work. I arrived from Italy, with five young children. Suddenly the children were no longer seen as little princes and princesses. In fact I felt out of place, with my five lively offspring. But the children learned to be quiet in public and to stand in line whenever possible. And with more and more Americans arriving in the city, perhaps the Swiss learned to be more tolerant.
What are the things you like most about the city?
I appreciate most its international character. Geneva has a distinct personality, due in part to its famous residents—Calvin, Voltaire, Rousseau, Henri Dunant, Dinu Lipatti, Jean Piagget—and to its many international organizations. There are more people working at the United Nations and its affiliated organizations here in Geneva then at the United Nations in New York. And, secondly, I appreciate its location, in the centre of Europe, on the lake and so close to the Alps. With so much to offer, Geneva draws back our children and grandchildren for visits and holidays. This is a big plus!
How did the Geneva Writers’ Group come about?
After leading the Writers’ Workshop at the American Women’s Club for eight years, I realised there were enough English language writers in and around Geneva to start an independent writers association welcoming both men and women. There were 18 of us at our first workshop. We met once a month, the third Saturday, at the Café du Soleil in Petit Saconnex, with a morning workshop in creative writing which I continue to teach and an afternoon critiquing workshop.
Our numbers grew steadily. We continued the collection Offshoots, Writing from Geneva, publishing every two years a collection of our writing. In 1998 we put in place the first International Geneva Writers’ Conference, following on the heels of the Swiss-wide Writers’ Conferences in 1994 in Bern, the one in 1996 in Zürich. Our monthly workshops became too crowded at the Café du Soleil, and we moved to the Geneva Press Club at the Villa Pastorale near the United Nations. We established by-laws and very recently membership dues. Today we are over 160 members, coming from more than 30 different home countries. With a terrific and committed steering committee, we continue to organize monthly workshops, master classes, occasional readings, literary salons, a mentoring program, the biennial Geneva Writers’ Conferences and the publication of Offshoots, Writing from Geneva.
I attended the Geneva Writers’ Conference this year and found it wonderfully stimulating. But it must be an enormous feat of organization.
For each conference, the steering committee of ten members adds on five more to cover all the different responsibilities: programs, finances, registrations, welcome, meals, hospitality, bookshop, coffee bar, nametags, signposts, and everything else. Maybe the most important element is our faculty, finding top-notch instructors, agents, and editors, who are not only excellent in their field, but who are supportive and congenial. The Conference now has a very good reputation. Last winter for the eighth Geneva Writers’ Conference, we were over 200, with a waiting list. The best news is how many of the participants go on to get published. We have a page on our Website:
www.genevawritersgroup.org, with conference success stories. It is full of encouragement!
Let’s talk about you as a reader. Do you have a particular genre you enjoy? And which book has most impressed you this year?
I read a great deal, literary fiction and nonfiction, in particular memoirs, and a small dose of poetry. I read also books of spirituality and psychology, keeping up-to-date in Jungian work and reflection. My choice of books is geared in part to my teaching. I read with a pencil in hand, to indicate excerpts that I will later use in a workshop. And to underline sentences that are so well written I want to read them over and over again, to taste them as it were and to learn from them. Amy Clampitt, the late celebrated American poet, was asked at a writers’ conference, “What do writers need?” She answered, “Predecessors.” We come into this world on the shoulders of all the writers who have gone before us.
My favorite books this year: The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal (an extraordinary biography by an English writer) and When Women
Were Birds, Fifty-four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams (one of my favorite American nonfiction writers, a very recent, iconic memoir).
What are you writing at the moment?
I am working a new on a memoir, Lasting Love, from Courtship to Celebration, about a long marriage, about loving the same person for over 50 years! Memoir is a window into the writer’s life, hence a writer can write several memoirs, just as one opens many windows in a house. The window is the subject. I have written memoirs about dreams and creativity (Looking for Gold), about silent prayer (Circling to the Center), and about raising six kids in Europe (Footsteps). My last book is a nonfiction writing book with twelve of the workshops that I teach, titled One Year to a Writing Life, for which I just signed a contract for a Chinese translation.
And what’s next on the horizon for you, and for the GWG?
I would see on the horizon more years of writing, teaching, time with my husband and family (six children, fifteen grandchildren) and quiet moments alone.
And for the GWG: new ideas, new endeavours, and always the supportive environment that has fortunately become our password.
What advice would you give to our readers, all of whom are writers and many of whom are expats?
Be patient. Read and write every day, or almost. No writing time is lost. Each of us has a story, something unique to share. Give voice to your story and bring it into the world.