Writers On Writing / The five best things about a week at Varuna by Mark Brandi

Best-selling author Mark Brandi reflects on the best things about a Varuna residency, after receiving the Writing NSW Varuna Fellowship.

Mark smiling at the camera

I’ve been lucky this year, having twice received a Varuna Fellowship, the most recent of which came in early September, courtesy of the NSW Writers Centre.

The Fellowships have offered two weeks of valuable writing time, but also a good idea of what makes Varuna special.

So, for those wondering if it’s worth the trip, here’s my five best things about a week at Varuna:

1. Quiet and solitude

By limiting life’s small chores and procrastinations, Varuna offers the writer three important gifts: time, space and quiet.

At home, I am fortunate to have a dedicated space for writing. When I first arrived at Varuna, I wondered whether I really needed to travel 900 kilometres to experience tranquillity (especially after the airline lost my bags).

What I didn’t realise, however, is the extent of small distractions at home – the phone calls, the dog, Internet ‘research’, etc.

When I first worked a full day without diversions, I understood just how much time I normally lose.

2. Natural environment

By the end of both my stays at Varuna, I’ve found myself checking local real estate prices; it’s probably not news to many, but the Blue Mountains are magical. Katoomba is also a lovely town and the nearby villages are similarly picturesque.

Many who stay find the local bush walks to be spectacular, rejuvenating and inspiring.  That said, I don’t get out and experience much of the natural environment, save for an evening run to Echo Point.

For me, knowing it’s there is enough.

3. Other writers

I was thrilled to receive my first Fellowship back in February, but also a little nervous. Spending a week with four other writers sounded a bit strange – like a bad reality TV show about a house of introverts.

My first group was especially intimidating – all but one of the writers was successful, award winning and widely known. Indeed, one had written an iconic book that defined a generation.

I worried as to how we would get along – my only other experience of shared accommodation was at boarding school, where I lasted just four weeks.

As it turned out, all of my fellow writers (on both occasions) were humble, generous and respectful. We kept our distance during the day, toiling away quietly in our rooms. At night, over dinner, we shared wine and conversation.

It is slightly awkward at first, but over the week things become more relaxed. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I think the number of return visitors is a testament not just to Varuna itself, but the writers who go there.

 4. The food

Sheila is a brilliant cook and a lovely person too; it’s pretty special to have a delicious dinner prepared each night.

For lunches, while some had leftovers or raided the pantry, I preferred a lazy walk into town. I’d usually sit in the gardens of the Carrington Hotel with a sandwich, spying on the locals, tourists and backpackers.

It’s also worth sneaking inside the hotel itself; it has an old world quality reminiscent of the The Shining, but without the struggling writer, creepy twins or rivers of blood … or the last two, at least.

5. Atmosphere

Katoomba is a pretty quiet town, aside from the flow of tourists visiting the Blue Mountains. But there is a vague eeriness in the atmosphere, something I couldn’t quite pin down.

People are friendly, but there is a sense of something else below the surface. But then, having grown up in a remote country town, I have a vivid imagination about such things.

Varuna itself is an old building, generous in its proportions, but not ostentatious. There is a humble quality to each room and how the place has been maintained – a pride in its history, without becoming mired there.

I’m sure other writers have different ideas about what makes Varuna unique. And, no doubt, it is not ideal for everyone.

But all who have stayed would agree on one thing – we’re fortunate to have such a generous gift as part of our literary landscape.

Mark Brandi was born in Italy and spent his childhood in a remote Australian pub. He now (mostly) writes fiction and his work appears in various publications and is broadcast on ABC Radio National. Visit www.markbrandi.com.


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