Here’s a test. Ask anyone involved in any Australian literary circle to name a writers retreat. Chances are, they’ll say ‘Varuna’. Google’s algorithms agree – if you type into its search field ‘Writers retreat Australia’, the website for Varuna comes up as its top listing.
So just how has Varuna earned its stellar reputation and become a household name among writers? And what’s it like to stay at Varuna? I spoke to its CEO, Jansis O’Hanlon, and recent resident, Zoya Patel, to find out.
Varuna, the Writers House, is located in the Blue Mountains region of Katoomba, New South Wales. It is both conveniently central – a drive of about an hour and a half from the Sydney CBD, walking distance of nearby shops and cafes – and suitably isolated, situated on two acres of land.
The house was built in the early 1930s by Eleanor and Eric Dark. Eleanor was an accomplished novelist and short story writer, and her husband also had a number of books under his belt. The name Varuna comes from the original wooden mountain cottage that was on the property.
In working with the architect who designed the new Varuna, Eleanor wanted to build a house would be filled with light. Jansis explained that this was why the house has north-facing windows and no balconies.
Varuna has a curving staircase that leads up to the first storey. On this first storey are the house’s five bedrooms, each with its own writer’s studio. It was one of these bedrooms that Zoya Patel occupied for a week in September, as part of her Anne Edgeworth Fellowship.
Zoya Patel is a very busy person. She was named one of ‘15 Women to Watch’ in 2015 by HerCanberra, which listed some of her myriad accomplishments: editor of Lip magazine from 2010-14, founder and editor of the online journal Feminartsy. Zoya has just completed her Master of Communications, capping off her Bachelor of Arts. She also holds a full-time job in communications. So it’s little wonder that Zoya needed some time out to work on her writing projects.
Zoya’s Varuna residency was her first experience of a writer’s retreat. She spoke of the house as ‘stunning’, and said that being in Katoomba was ‘a bit like slipping into a time warp’ because of the 1930s art deco style of the houses.
She was initially worried about whether she would manage to settle into the new rhythm of living fostered by Varuna, going from juggling all her different priorities to having a week to work solely on her creative writing. ‘But I have to say, it was a really smooth transition and I just loved it,’ Zoya enthused. ‘I loved having the headspace to actually think about the work that I was doing and reflect on the purpose of what I was writing.’
She cited the knowledge of having to return to her ‘real, kind of insane’ life after this spell of serenity as something that spurred her to make the most of her time at Varuna.
‘Once I was there, I think the reason I could produce so much content was because I didn’t have to keep pulling myself out of what I was writing. I could just stay there and keep my thoughts there instead of having to ease in and out constantly.’
Her experience resonates with what Jansis expressed to me as being the value of writers’ retreats.
‘It’s the opportunity to work without interruption – and without fear of interruption. I think this quote, “To know that you can work to your own creative rhythm” and not have to be disturbed by, as someone described, “the quotidian impressions of life”. So you don’t have to think about dishes and what’s in the fridge or looking after the children.’
Varuna not only frees its residents from the chores and demands of everyday life, its writers are also in charge of setting their own schedule. ‘So if they want to work till 3 o’clock in the morning, that’s what they can do,’ Jansis said.
She added that focusing on work and the practice of writing is not limited to sitting in front of a screen. ‘That work, the creative space, may involve walking around the mountains, staring out the window… time and contemplation and reflection about work.’
This mix of activities seemed very much part of the routine Zoya fell into while at Varuna. In asking her to tell me about her typical day at Varuna, she gave a portrait of three meals and lots of writing, reading and contemplation.
Her days began at 6:30am or 7:00am. She would immediately go to her writing studio and work, then wander downstairs for some breakfast. After that, she read for a while before returning upstairs to do more writing.
‘We all read a lot,’ Zoya said. ‘I think I read two books while I was there. Because you have all this peace and quiet and time, if I wasn’t writing I was reading.’
In talking about the pattern she fell into at Varuna, she said, ‘My process is very much not being able to do one thing for a long period of time. So I’d write for, like, an hour, and then have to read or do something else […] and then go back to writing.’
At 11:30am, Zoya would walk into town for a coffee. In the afternoon, she would meander down a scenic trail. Then at around 6 o’clock, all the writers would filter down to the living area, get the fireplace started, and have a chat before dinner.
‘During the day you wouldn’t really see anyone,’ Zoya said. ‘You might run into each other walking out of the driveway and you’d have a couple of whispered words of conversation. But it was very much the case that we’d acknowledge that everyone else is working and in their own headspace. So night-time was the only time we really socialised.’
Jansis described this time as being an ‘opportunity for the writers to spend some time together, talking about what it is to be a writer today in Australia’. Zoya was emphatic about the benefit she derived from being with the other residents.
‘Being able to talk to other writers about the process was something I found quite invaluable,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing that compares to being able to talk to people who really understand where you’re coming from.’
Zoya also got a sense of validation from being around the other writers and being at Varuna more generally. ‘If you write part-time or have to sustain yourself through full-time work in another industry, your writing never really gets treated as ‘work’. I’m kind of used to people thinking of my writing as a ‘hobby’ or thing I dabble at outside of work hours.’
‘The thing I loved about Varuna was that writing is absolutely treated as ‘work’. And it was treated as important and valid.’
The competition for a residency at Varuna is fierce. Approximately 180 writers of all ages and skill levels stay at the house in a given year, while more than 800 apply. Once they’re in though, the assessment ends. Writers are not asked to account for the time they spend at Varuna.
Jansis explained that this is in keeping with the spirit of the original values and ideas that were part of the establishment of the Dark Foundation. ‘It was considered very important to be able to offer time to those writers without fear of interruption. So distractions like reporting or other people’s agendas or work timeframes are not part of the programme we offer. Once they are accepted to work here, writers are trusted to use the time in the way that is best for them, and to allow their creative processes to come into place.’
That trust is well founded. Jansis told me later that in any one year there are some 30-40 publications from people who’ve stayed in Varuna. She cited alumni such as Charlotte Wood and Tegan Bennett Daylight who recently returned to Varuna to present a public event.
Zoya was immensely productive during her week at Varuna. She told me that she ‘did the thing you’re not meant to do’, setting herself a word count each day. Her goal had been to write the last 10,000 – 20,000 words of her manuscript, which she achieved. She also wrote an essay that explores similar themes to that manuscript along with commencing some short fiction pieces and plotting out a novel.
The manuscript was Zoya’s memoir. She said that it ‘interrogates a difficult period in my relationship with my parents’. Upon completing the manuscript, however, it dawned on her that she wasn’t ready for it to see the light of day.
‘I started thinking about what the purpose of the book is,’ Zoya said. ‘And realised that maybe there was a part of me that was taking too much of that pressure on of being a published writer. Thinking, “I’ve got a great story, I’ve got a great angle; let’s make this a thing”.’
She continued, ‘I realised that what’s more important to me is having a relationship with my parents. I probably won’t regret not publishing a book, but I will regret not having a relationship with them.’
So for Zoya, one of the lessons she took from Varuna was that she could write something without having to do anything with it. The value of simply finishing a draft.
I set out the premise to Jansis that Varuna has a reputation for being the finest writers’ residence in Australia. I asked what Jansis attributes this reputation to. In her reply, she talked about the scale of Varuna and its proximity to amenities in Katoomba and beyond.
‘It’s small enough to be a home and to have a strong sense of it being a home,’ she said. ‘Also its location to Sydney… I know they’re just practical, pragmatic things. But it’s just a kind of nice, friendly home; human scale. And getting your fridge full of food and a dinner every night is an added bonus.’
Zoya’s favourite place within Varuna was Eleanor Dark’s garden studio, which is in a different building to the main house. ‘Because I struggle to write in my house, the thought of having a space that’s near the house but is actually a separate space would be amazing,’ Zoya said.
Since leaving Varuna, Zoya admitted that she has found it tough to find the motivation to work on her writing projects, citing in part her busy job. ‘I’ve managed to carve out time to work on my novel, but it seems so much harder,’ she said. ‘Whereas at Varuna, it was a total luxury to write. It felt great to just sit down and write. Which really says something about the space that you create for yourself.’
This article was published in the December 2015 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.