The Vegetarian Regular at the Meat House Cafe

by Tara June Winch


I’m typing this on my best friend’s deck, during a winter that feels like a summer. I’m using her laptop, I don’t own one myself. I’m the writer without the laptop. Back home in France I have a PC, the keyboard is AZERTY and this one is QWERTY so q’s are appearing where a’s are meant to and so on. Home now is France and the best friend’s deck is Australia, the edge of the Gold Coast. Here birdsong lasts 24 hours, the baby in the far room wakes at 3am, 5am, and refuses with indignation to be laid in the cot. All the haze is making me feel 22 again, I’m in the rare circle of young mothers who lost their 20’s to soap flake soak nappies, children’s books, colic, stewed things. My now 10 year old daughter is sleeping through all the best friend’s baby’s restlessness. We arrived in Australia last week and since a decade separates my books I’ve felt 22 and under every day. Last time round I was soft and naïve and sleepless for years, this time around it feels dreamlike, all déjà vu, much easier since I know exactly who I am at 32 and I can look at what I’ve written and know exactly what it is. Swallow the Air was written in a weeping, emotional state, I was all rookie and was doing what my editor wanted – searching in my heart’s ache for the stories I carried and writing chapter by episodic chapter per month and sending them along. There was a particular conversation with my former editor, who was serious and gentle, who I wanted in some way to approve of me as a mother would, the particular conversation I’m remembering took place, coincidentally, at this same best friend’s house more than 10 years ago. I had a brickish Nokia then, and was bawling into the phone, spluttering that, “I couldn’t write anymore” pleading with her to make it stop, that it hurt too much. I can’t remember how she convinced me to keep going, but it worked. I’d pulled myself together, pulled and threaded the story out of me and it all ended as well as it could have for a first book.

I remembered how desperate I was, I’ve often felt the same way through the years while writing particularly draining pieces of prose, but haven’t ever been so excruciatingly in pain over them. I wonder now if it’s a negative thing – that I won’t have written something moving this time because I wasn’t dragged to the blade of insanity while writing it? That I can never be as filled up by Lady Melancholy, that the writing person I am will never be as raw and able to bleed on the page as whoever it was that once put it, so eloquently. Then I wonder if that may be a good thing, that I’ve learnt how to live as an adult, that I’ve learn how to separate the writer from the person, my soul from the artwork? I can’t go by reviews, awards, outer praise or criticism, it must come from me, looking back at the writing with enough time between and reading whether it feels to me. Whether I gave enough away, yet stole the part of me I needed to.

IMG_6348This book tour started in Melbourne. We holed up with other great friends with small children there and I went about my appointments, the book launch and so forth. The past started as soon as we landed. I bought the new Harry Potter for my daughter after my book launch, the next morning I realized I likely spent more on that book than I made in royalties for the evening. We purchased the French Divergente series in Italy and my daughter, the re-reader, refused to part even after the last page. Many publishers and booksellers have gifted her books along the way and so we are now travelling with more books than clothes. She reads ferociously, easily getting through 300 pages in a day and a half. She reads a lot more than me. I bought Elena Ferrente’s The Story of a Lost Name with me, I’ve barely read half the book. I bought Miles Allinson’s Fever Animals, I’m 30 pages in, Fiona McFarlane’s High Places is snug in my rucksack and so many more. On the way here we went to Italy for research in Rome and Florence, to see Elena Ferrente’s streets of Naples, for a swim in the Amalfi Coast, and to visit a bookstore in Venice. It was a magical trip, without a hiccup and completely engrossing.

IMG_6588I wrote merely two pages the whole time I was there, was it worth it? I don’t know yet. There are so many stories in After the Carnage that came from a single line, that’s how I write, have always written. In Swallow the Air, the entire book comes from drawing out that opening line: “I remember the day I found out my mother was head sick.” In After the Carnage there are plenty – in the “Meat House”, a story of a relationship breakdown on a honeymoon in Istanbul was inspired from a week I spent crying over my own broken heart and spending most of our meals in the Meat House cafe, it always stuck with me since I’ve always been vegetarian, the line in my head was simply “the vegetarian regular at the Meat House café”. In “Mosquito”, it was the Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘”The River”, and in it he sings for my nineteenth birthday I got a wedding coat and a union card, I wept over the song for weeks until I had my own character’s version “for my nineteenth birthday I got a bassinet and a single parent pension card”. In ‘”The Proust Running Group of Paris”, I indeed ran a lot living in Paris, and was trying with all my heart to get through Proust, without success.

These stories are the markers, residue blown up from wherever I’ve been. Knowing that now, seeing the sketch of each so clearly, maybe Italy won’t have been a wasted research trip after all, maybe 2 pages will be enough to draw out a novel. We’ll see.

We’re leaving my best friend’s house today, off to more bookstores and bookish things, leaving the comfort and pain that inhabits a home with a restless baby in it. It has stirred something in me, reminded me of the journey we all have to make it through the carnage, through the trouble to get to the other side. To arrive at a time when we can look back and know what we did was good and right and worth it.


Photo credits: Tara June Winch