I didn’t know my dad; he died when I was six. So my experience of writing A Letter From Paris was a little like an adopted child discovering a birth parent, it felt like a reunion. I learned just how similar we are, and what I’ve inherited from him.
I don’t mean in terms of looks, or superficial similarities, but those deeply embedded parts of our psychological make-up — beyond logic or learning — that influence the most nuanced decisions we make in our life.
The parallel experiences I found in dad’s diaries were startling. Just as I bumped into the only person I knew in New York when I was lost on my first trip to the US, dad likewise ran into Albert Tucker on his first night in Paris in 1948, having lost the artist’s address and randomly deciding to wander down a street in Saint Michel. That sense of bizarre chance and coincidence was running through so much of the diaries in Paris, London, and across Europe in the 40s and 50s.
The level of specificity was very detailed. I learned we both had certain superstitions about dreams — superstitions I’ve never told anyone about, nor known where they came from. In dad’s diaries were lines from some of my favourite poets — lines I’ve actually transcribed in my diary. One, particularly, threw me because I wrote it down when my mum died — dad had written it in his diary when his mum died.
Studies of ancestral DNA show that memory can be passed down the line, particularly trauma, because it makes such a mark on our biology, due to the fight or flight reflex and how that survival mechanism means the memory is imprinted, almost like a physical scar.
So when I learned dad’s papers covered the entire span of his life, I had a feeling that his love of art and music and France, and his connection with Australian artists like Tucker, must have tied into his experiences in Melbourne before or during World War Two. I had to find out what they were.
It was a gift to find dad’s diaries and manuscripts in the library, but once I opened them, it turned into an obsession.
There are at least fifty journals in his huge library collection, as well as dozens of other manuscripts, and thousands of typed and handwritten pages. This was another almost funny discovery, because I’ve kept a handwritten journal every day since I was fourteen.
A Letter From Paris is in some ways a meeting of both his words and mine, a reunion of father and daughter on the page, maybe.
I feel like we wrote it together.