An isolated Danish literary retreat forces four writers to confront the perils of their craft
Author: Sun Wei 孙未
Sun Wei, a member of Shanghai Writers’ Association, has published 23 books including full length novels and short story and essay collections focusing on contemporary Chinese urban life. She is also a member of the Baltic Sea Literature Centre in GÖteborg, Sweden, and participated in the Shanghai/Cork literature residency in Cork, Ireland in 2011, among other residencies. These experiences have become a source of inspiration for her writing. She won the Excellence Award at the Chinese Writers’ Erdos National Literature Awards in both 2013 and 2016. Her work has been translated and published in English, French, Spanish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and other languages.
In the summer of 2014, I did not die at Blue Lake Manor.
Yes, this was in Denmark, but it had no connection with Copenhagen. The location of this writing center in the western forests relative to the big city was like Inner Mongolia to Shanghai—and not the capital of Inner Mongolia, but a yurt sitting on the grassland 20 kilometers away from the Xilingol League. The heads of most of the European charitable foundations believed that if you raised your arms, and threw a writer so far that you couldn’t hear the sound of them landing, their inspiration would rebound from that mysterious distance, like something that happens at a séance.
I don’t want to go into the details of how, after getting off the plane, I spent 11 hours changing trains, taking a bus, and by some miracle, finding the place where the writers from different countries met up. I just want to say that at midnight, when we finally got in the car provided by the center director and were driven to the manor, and saw this absurdly luxurious house standing alone in the wilderness, we all sighed in unison.
The manor was completed in 1798, but some of the objects inside were even older. It was as if the oil paintings, chandeliers, and both the ceramic and cast-iron fireplaces had all been summoned here from afar to constitute a feeling of nostalgia. Portraits of kings from the 16th to 18th century hung in rows in the foyer and on the landing of the stairs, while queens and princesses hung on either side of the big clock in the kitchen.
The building was magnificent and symmetrical. There were even two cabins for forest rangers 100 meters away, one on each side of the house. The vast lawn and garden were carefully designed, with an ornamental lake at the center, ringed by oak trees, perfectly blending in with the blue lake and the forests beyond. It seemed that this beautiful scenery, as far as the eye could see, was all the work of the gardener of the manor.
This was the writing center for an annual Danish literary retreat. Due to budgetary constraints, this year’s committee only selected four authors from around the world. Our tasks would still comprise the three usual parts: teaching creative writing courses, holding workshops, and reading. We nicknamed it the “freeloaders’ trio,” because, as long as we fulfilled these obligations, we could enjoy not only free accommodation and a stipend, but also do our own writing in this charming environment for a month.
The director of the center, Peter, was a Dane about 60 years old, tall and strong, and, like most Scandinavians, blond. His appearance was ordinary, but with his dignified smile and precise English, he gave the air that he was planning to run for US president.
The first thing he did was make the safety announcement: There were wolves around the manor. It was said that they attacked the ranch behind the manor a few years ago, and tore out the throats of four fat sheep. Then, last spring, two cattle and five sheep were killed, with one carcass found every day for a week. This even got the attention of the National Wilderness Safety Administration. By the time they sent over the police, though, the wolves had disappeared.
This year’s authors included a Hungarian novelist named Owen. He was a heavy man who wore a pair of black-framed glasses and worried about everything. He had already searched for more information on his phone, and whispered to us that, after last year’s incident, Denmark’s Security Administration conducted a DNA test, and the report on those animal carcasses showed DNA from 11 different wolves—a whole pack!
Director Peter then reminded us to avoid getting bitten by the ticks hidden in the grass by the lake, because they carried a kind of disease that killed sufferers within one week, no matter which hospital they were sent to. Owen brought his phone closer to us to show that the scientific name of this type of tick was ixodes, and the disease was called “forest encephalitis” in English. Although not 100 percent of the infected were killed, the few lucky survivors were still very likely to be left paralyzed.
I asked Owen, “Does your Hungarian phone have data roaming in Denmark?”
He nodded. “It’s very expensive. They charge by the byte.”
“Then novelists must earn a lot in Hungary.”
He gazed at me solemnly. “Don’t you think data is a small price to pay for our lives?”
At midnight, he walked along the corridor and knocked on all our doors in order to show his newest findings. To our surprise, he’d found a few sites that rated the experience of writing retreats around the world. We opened one, and as we scrolled down, a row of text suddenly appeared before us: “The Blue Lake Manor, the writing center with the highest mortality rate in the world—96 percent of authors who have been there have died.”
None of us believed this at first, except Owen. He made plans to get vaccinated against encephalitis, and, as this needed to be done at a hospital, he would have to spend 11 hours and change trains twice to go to Copenhagen. After some hesitation, he thought that the distance was acceptable. However, when he asked the director’s wife, he found that he had to get a referral letter from a general practitioner first, then be put on a waitlist for about two months, by which time the retreat would be long over.
So Owen tried his best to stay inside. He only went out when he had to buy food, since hunger was the only thing that could kill him faster. It was summer, but he wore high boots, thick pants, and even gloves when he had to go out, just to avoid being bitten by ticks. But one day, as he washed vegetables in the kitchen after returning from the supermarket, he found a red dot on his wrist.
He looked at this and began to laugh. “If someone tells you that he goes to the hospital more than five times a year for physical exams, eats organic food, and exercises regularly…in a word, he spends his whole life doing things that can help him live longer, only to die prematurely because his gloves were two inches too short, wouldn’t you find that funny?”
Owen began to experience severe headaches, and held out his head to us in the living room to show us his pain. He also coughed intermittently, which was said to be a complication of forest encephalitis. Like a kind mother, the director’s wife spent two hours driving him to the nearest town, Viborg, to visit the rural general practitioner. According to Owen’s description, this was just an infirmary, and the doctor made diagnoses just by looking at his patients’ faces; he didn’t even have a stethoscope.
Although convinced that Owen hadn’t contracted encephalitis, the doctor was unable to explain most of these symptoms. Every day, Owen went to the doctor to get examined. At last, the doctor asked, “Have you been Googling forest encephalitis?”
There was no doubt that, by this time, the roaming data had already cost Owen all of his stipend.
The doctor said, euphemistically, that there was a kind of patient who would carefully read the instructions on their medicine and then involuntarily show all the side effects. When this conversation was reported to us by the director’s wife, we exchanged looks of understanding. About 90 percent of authors had depression, and hypochondria was one of the symptoms. The doctor understood us well.
We also heard that Owen had finally asked the doctor, “I have deep depression. If I don’t die of forest encephalitis this time, will I die by suicide?”
The doctor answered sincerely, “Sir, I’ve never met anyone who cherishes life as you do.”
Anyhow, Owen still firmly believed that he had an incurable disease. He also read on his phone that some people who caught encephalitis experienced an incubation period. However, he decided not to go to the hospital again because he did not want to waste the limited time left to him, and wanted to finish his masterpiece as soon as possible. I asked him what kind of story it would be, and he emphasized that this one would be different from all the stories he had written.
“A kind of glory that’s everlasting,” he answered. The story had to have that glory.
Sefreja came from Croatia, and she was a crystal-like old lady with fair skin and curly silver hair. Her cheeks were always raised in an elegant smile, and, at the same time, she would open her blue eyes wide. It was said that she was one of the most treasured female poets in Croatia.
She really hated Cindy, the young novelist from Boston. This girl was big-boned, short, and thin, with high cheekbones. Together with her confident posture, she looked like a statue of a female warrior. But they had no choice but to live together.
The nearest store was two kilometers from the manor. There you could find cigarettes, expired milk, a lot of gift coupons, and a drunk shopkeeper who always forgot to open the store. If you wanted to buy some real food, you had to go to the only supermarket, which was six kilometers away. A map with no street names, but only signs of old-growth forests and ranches, was the bible that directed us to the market. Since it took us four hours to walk there and back, we had good reasons to believe that the “six kilometers” referred only to the linear distance. It was said that wolves only attacked people walking alone, so even if all 11 appeared in a pack, they wouldn’t dare to go after a group of three or four people. For this reason, we all had to go to the supermarket together.
One of the reasons why Sefreja disliked Cindy was that she believed it was under the delusion of so-called American democratic politics that Croatia gained independence from the Federal Republic and gave up the socialist system. The citizens used to think that a democratic capitalist system would enable them to get richer, but on the contrary, the whole country got into a mess of competition over resources. The politicians divided up the nation’s wealth and sold it to foreign businessmen at a low price, made good money in the bargain, then moved overseas. Then a new batch of politicians would come in and sell the rest. The citizens lost their jobs, the prices of commodities skyrocketed, and people became poorer and poorer. Every time Sefreja talked about this, Owen would agree with her and complain that this was the same situation that Hungary faced in taking the road to democracy.
In my opinion, though, the real reason was that Sefreja envied Cindy’s unlikely success. Cindy was young, but she had sold more books than Sefreja. Just a few years ago, she’d been a full-time waitress who had never even written a half-page.
When we walked across the wilderness, which was full of blooming heathers, Sefreja would ask Cindy pointedly, “In American restaurants, how much do you usually ask customers to tip? Ten or 15 percent of the bill?”
“Actually, it’s 20 percent,” Cindy would answer professionally.
“Tsk-tsk, such a good job. How could you bear to give it up?” Sefreja shook her head.
“Well, at first I was unwilling, but then I found that writing is also a good vocation. Although the hourly wage is almost the same as that of a waitress, I can choose when and where I work.” Cindy held up her chin with a dignified smile, like a waitress discussing her wages with the cook.
Sefreja stomped over to me, and as she did, she stepped on a piece of bone in the grass. It was composed of three segments, with the flesh already stripped clean. It looked like a leg attached to a hipbone—the joints were bright and white, and there was still some tawny fur sticking to the thinner end, which might have been the hoof of a sheep.
Cindy scrambled up to it, and declared, “According to my years of experience cleaning up leftovers at restaurants, I can reliably tell you that these are definitely not bones left by kids who took a picnic here. Who would eat a sheep’s leg with fur on it? Only wolves!”
After we returned, Cindy went to the director immediately to ask if the “96 percent mortality rate” was true. The director summoned all of us to the library. The floorboards creaked, and the walls were full of framed photos which were said to be of the authors who had previously been on this literary retreat. There were old-styled hunting outfits, collared suits, flannel coats, striped shirts, Beatles hairstyles…Some were photographed next to a rhino, or holding a pipe, working on a typewriter, drinking beer around a square table, and throwing scripts into the fireplace. The color of these photos gradually faded into yellow, with some of them finally turning into a pale yellow smoke, like a soup stain on a tablecloth. It was said that one of these photos was taken when a Nobel Prize winner met the Queen in the corridor of the manor. Although their faces had already blurred, it was still easy to distinguish the Queen from the graceful carriage of her head, while the author respectfully cringed before her.
The photos taken in modern times were much more typical, as most of them were standard frontal Polaroid shots with the manor house and the garden in the background. There were dates marked on them. The director carelessly pointed at these photos as he began: “This gentleman died by accidentally falling down the stairs, and I must admit that the stairs of the manor aren’t well-designed. This gentleman died of a heart attack, and he was very young at the time; if only he had not bet the others that he could swim to the other side of the lake. This gentleman was killed by a pen cap; he had the habit of writing with a pen cap in his mouth, and one day he accidentally swallowed it and choked to death. This gentleman was bitten by a tick and died. The first day, I told you to be careful of ticks…”
In all these Polaroids, there was only one taken in the side view—an old man hammering these framed photos onto the wall. He appeared much older than the authors in the photos. Of course, he had also died. He was hit and killed by a child who was playing with a skateboard.
At first, Cindy held a notebook, and like a dedicated waitress who stood beside the customers and wrote down their orders, she recorded every cause of death. Eventually, though, she put her pen away and exclaimed, “This is nuts! There are so many ways to die, and almost all impossible to prevent. It doesn’t matter whether I write them down or not.”
Cindy was the hardest worker among all four of us. We heard that she planned to finish her fourth novel while on the retreat. Every day at 5 a.m., we could hear the sound of rapid typing coming from her room. It was seldom that she had free time to ask me to go to the lakeside and chitchat. She said that the most beautiful death she had ever seen was that of a 92-year-old female short-story writer. White-haired, and wearing a splendid dress, the writer went to attend a literary salon. Before the reading started, when the host was still introducing her new book, as she sat on the ornate chair in the center of the platform, her head gently tilted backward and she died before a roomful of admirers waiting for her to read. And her feet were still clad in golden heels.
There were also people who wanted to die gracefully but failed to get their wish. The old man nominated for the Nobel Prize was one of them. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so he went to the best sanatorium in Switzerland to wait for the coming of death, and specially ordered purple satin sheets. However, he died of a sudden heart attack on the toilet, and didn’t even have time to pull up his pants.
Cindy said that she really hated things that were beyond her control. But apart from death, writing was the most uncontrollable thing in the world. She used to be a confident waitress, because she knew how to ingratiate herself with the customers and get them to tip more than usual. “Actually, putting aside the question of enjoyment, writing and waiting tables are almost the same thing. If you want to make a living from it, you have to know how to please the readers, or the critics, right?” That, however, was never a certain thing. Cindy’s publisher only reminded her not to forget the feeling she had when she unexpectedly succeeded in writing her first novel, and they asked her not to attempt themes and writing styles that were too different from those of the first one, no matter what.
Poor Cindy! Her slapdash debut novel had been about her grandfather, an American reverend who gave up his profession. She did not have another grandfather, but she was now on her fourth novel. The sound of typing that we heard every day did not represent the increase of pages, as she was simply anxiously writing and deleting, over and over.
“We authors earn little but have to worry about so much, and that’s really disappointing. If I make it home alive, I’m gonna continue waitressing,” said Cindy. “To go down in the annals of American literature is such an uncertain thing, even less certain than death.” After that, the sound of typing no longer emanated from her room. Such an abnormal occurrence made Sefreja feel the coming of death. I guess that she had endured an hour of eerie silence before she knocked on my door at 6 in the morning.
Generally speaking, the older people got, the less likely they were to believe that they would die. They always had an illusion that death would ignore them, as it already had for so many years. Therefore, when they finally felt the danger, they were terrified.
“I can’t die!” Sefreja’s shrill voice trembled. “If I die now, I’ll be remembered as a villainess!”
She lowered her voice, as if she did not want the others to know this secret. Due to Croatia’s economic recession, the number of readers decreased day by day. Several years ago, there had been no publisher willing to print Sefreja’s poems, even though everyone admired them. She heard that there was a national fund for books, but only publishers could apply, so she registered a small press just to publish her own poems. She got the funding, but discovered that her business had to pay even more in taxes than she got from the fund. The only thing that made her feel good was all those other authors, who also couldn’t find a publisher, who came along to beg her to publish their writing.
“They were all obsolete old authors or ignorant new authors, and their works have no value to go down in history,” she frantically explained to me. Sefreja would pretend that she had reviewed these manuscripts, and would write to these authors and ask them to come and sign the contracts, but only if they were willing to pay a fee. Once she received the money, she would inform them that, due to the decline of the reading market in Croatia, the press had decided to postpone the publication of their books.
It was useless to sue her. The authors had all been too proud to put it in writing that they had paid to be published. They also couldn’t take their manuscripts to other presses, as the rights had already been given to Sefreja. According to Sefreja, this prevented those new, poorly written books from filling the limited market and blotting out the glory of her poems.
Owing to this reliable source of “income,” Sefreja was able to live an elegant life in these troubled times, finding delicate inspiration to publish new poems every year. She firmly believed that time would prove that her unscrupulous methods had protected one of the most precious cultural relics of Croatia. One day, these authors, who used to hate her, would prostrate themselves before her and admit that supporting her masterpieces had been the most important choice of their literary career.
However, if she died now, she would never be able to write these enduring verses.
“Everyone would spit on my tomb, wouldn’t they? For want of a few lines of a masterpiece, my epitaph will read ‘A profiteer who sucked authors’ blood for the sake of personal pleasure’ rather than ‘A saint who devoted her whole life to literature.’”
She was becoming hysterical, so I did not think that this was a good time to debate whether she had done right or wrong; the most important thing was to calm her down. So I cajoled, “Isn’t there still a 4 percent survival rate? At least one of us is going to survive this. If you’re really confident you can write those enduring verses, I’m willing to give up my share of the 4 percent to give you priority to live. How’s that?” Our conversation finally ended as the trembling of her shoulders gradually stopped.
“No, don’t give it to me. The responsibility is too heavy. What if I can’t write enduring verses? What if my talent is not as unique as I’ve imagined? I’m tired. I prefer to die.” These were the last words she sobbed.
The last day of workshops coincided with a book fair and the final day of the retreat, and surprisingly, all four of us were still alive. Beside a table filled with roasted pork legs and walnut cakes, Owen told me that he had finished the first three chapters of his “masterpiece.” He’d written 100 pages in just one month, which was superbly efficient, but he looked unhappy. He had printed these pages out and read all of them a dozen times.
“To be honest, from a reader’s view, the writing is a little affected. No, it’s totally affected!” He was reluctant to admit this. It was obvious that this had been a failure. He was astonished, because for the first time in many years, he had started to doubt his professionalism. With timidity and fear, he recalled his former works—seven full-length novels and four novellas, which were all bildungsromans describing the social realities in Hungary in the 1980s, which he wanted to break away from when he wrote the “masterpiece.”
He again used his expensive roaming data to go on Amazon and buy his own e-books. Just as he’d feared, although these novels did not possess an air of affectation, they were insipid and rough. When he reread them, he could hardly believe that he had spent most of his life writing these dull stories, and thinking he’d reached the pinnacle of success.
Hearing him talk, I knew that he was done for and his whole life was ruined. There were many anthills in this part of Denmark, and we could frequently see them on the way to the supermarket. Some of them were hidden in the lush grass, with only their arched tops visible, and some of them were even higher than the trees. On the surface, they looked like common heaps of dirt, but they were large and exquisite inside. The ants collected leaves, blades of grass, twigs, stones, coals, and other materials from various places, and then they carefully constructed these complicated caves, bridges, and tunnels.
Every author who had written for years had his or her own anthill, but the difference was that this anthill was solely constructed by one ant. We keep silent, living in seclusion, and construct our kingdoms day and night. According to our understandings of the world, we formulate our own philosophies, and they are completed year by year and are still being developed even now. All the manuscripts submitted to the presses and the descriptions of the outside world are projections of our anthills. It would be fatal for an author to not believe in his world one day, because he could neither hide in his anthill, nor re-assimilate into the outside world, and his spirit would have nowhere to stay. And he would no longer be able to write words that wouldn’t make him want to laugh at himself.
The next morning, when we finished packing, the car that would take us away had already parked outside of the gate. The director asked us one by one to take a photo behind the house. Sefreja was pushed against the brick wall, and the director pointed the Polaroid camera at her. When the shutter clicked, she shivered.
Watching through the kitchen window, I said to Cindy, “It’s like an execution.”
“Bang,” Cindy succinctly supplied. Truly, she was from an English-speaking country.
I was the last to go. I also stood against the brick wall, looking at the long black lens pointing at me. Suddenly, I had an epiphany. I asked the director, “So all of those photos were taken when the authors were about to leave?”
“Yes, and then they would be put on the wall.” Peter still wore his presidential election smile. “I hereby inform you that your obligation to this literary program still includes one item: In the future, when you pass away, please ask your family to email an obituary to our center.”
I knew where the 96 percent figure had come from. This house had hosted authors since the 18th century, and more than 200 years had passed. Earth was the planet with the highest mortality rate. We had all been deceived by Peter’s solemn appearance.
“Did you also write a masterpiece?” Peter asked me.
“I wrote a will…You Danes are too good at joking!” I almost cried.
After leaving Blue Lake Manor, I lived for a while in Copenhagen, and wandered in the Thorvaldsens Museum and the National Gallery of Denmark. Later, I went on writing retreats in Gotland in Sweden, in the lake district of Monaghan in Ireland, in the Bardonecchia Mountains in Italy, and by the seaside in Ventspils in Latvia. I have lived in many kinds of houses, but I have never forgotten Blue Lake Manor.
I cannot forget that in order to get some food from the supermarket, we spent four hours wandering in the wilderness, and every two or three days, we had to do it again. At that time, I thought of this as an exhausting and dangerous chore, but in retrospect, getting away from the ostentatious house and the stares of kings was the most luxurious thing.
The four of us used to walk through a vast, dark forest together, listening to the rain beating on the world outside of our thick canopy. We bypassed the misty lake hidden in the woods, and the attentive gaze of kingfishers. We stepped over mossy roots and branches when raspberries bloomed among the dewy leaves. We went up to the hills, seeing the blue lake stretching from the horizon to the ground, glistening like the most expensive jewel in the world. We saw a white swan swimming alone on the dreamlike surface and saw it cause a silent ripple that was wider than the world. Far across the lake stood a large beech, like an island, where hundreds of swallows rested. They would soar into the air suddenly, almost at the same moment, and dance in the mirror-like sky like a cloud of falling petals.
Through this magnificent world, we moved silently, walking lightly, with wandering minds. Our happiness and sadness mixed into an undifferentiated emotion. There was a moment when we saw in each other’s faces the self-deprecation in our hearts. Everything on earth was so delicate and elegant. Compared with them, humans were clumsy creatures, ugly in our appearances and foolish in our behaviors. Yet we, the so-called authors, still described them diligently in order to leave the slightest mark on eternity. Aren’t our lives more meaningless than even the emptiness of a regular human’s life?
Six months after I left Blue Lake Manor, I heard that Sefreja committed suicide by poison.
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: I’ve always believed that fiction can often provide more realistic depiction of the world, removing the limitations and restrictions that exist when narrating real figures and events. This is a story about death. From a worldly point of view, no matter how successful and eminent a person was, a particularly tragic or ludicrous death would redefine their life, just like how the ending of a novel can sometimes determine if the work is a comedy or tragedy, or mere popular fiction. No one can foresee or control their own death, which means we are never the author of our own life stories. From a philosophical and artistic point of view, death propels us to seek the so-called meaning of life. We all hope for some kind of connection with eternity, no matter how unrealistic and tenuous, and writers are the most avid among this group of wishful thinkers. Death is an imaginary beacon and a source of light in our inner world, and the change in our distance to the beacon over time leads to the changes in the projection of life in writers’ minds, and in turn, in the world we want to depict.
Fiction: Escapades at Blue Lake Manor is a story from our issue, “The Good Life.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.