Portrait

The writing mentor finally finds time to write. By Sarah Price.

The writer stuff

Nestled under a rustic hotel in Katoomba is a quiet, light-filled cafe. It’s the town’s best kept secret, he tells me, and it’s where he goes to write. He sits at the same table under the box-window, every day. The routine delights him. After years spent fostering the talent of others, Peter Bishop has finally found his own space to write.

When I walk into the cafe he looks up from his laptop, his face crinkling into a smile. He’s 64 now, but just as I remember: the beard tinged with brown, yet mostly silver, mostly unkempt. Behind the rectangular glasses his pale eyes are searching and revealing and commanding and distant, all at once. Today his woolly jumper is purple; the shirt, pink.

We climb the steep staircase and settle ourselves in the hotel’s guest lounge. Peter rests his elbow on the curved arm of an antique sofa. “Ahh, isn’t this lovely?”

The room is filled with vintage furniture. Around the walls, below the ornate cornice, stories are told on huge and intricate tapestries. Stained-glass windows frame the cold and empty street below, and colourful swirls of fuchsia pattern the old carpet. Somewhere in the room Frank Sinatra croons from a tinny speaker.

Peter’s voice is gentle, his crystal enunciation lilting and eloquent. There’s an old-world courtesy and charm to his manner, to his way of just being.

He tells me about his time as creative director of Varuna, The Writers’ House, about his joy in mentoring some of the country’s most lauded literary talent. Fundamental to his success as a mentor was music. “My languages are English and music. Classical music is highly structured. My knowledge on writing comes from music, from listening to what is happening.”

By the age of 10, Peter knew all Beethoven’s symphonies by heart. “Music is the whole of me. Symphonies happen in my head all the time; it’s just the way I experience the world. Even people strike me as belonging to a particular tonality or tempo.” As if he’s conducting our conversation, his pianist’s hands are always moving, gesticulating. “When I’m reading, I’m also listening. Listening to words as if they were a piece of music: What contrasts are here? What colour is this? Is this an oboe? What key is this?”

It was with considerable distress during his time at Varuna that Peter never found his own language for writing. When his formal role at Varuna ended in 2010, he began staying up late at night to care for his wife, Libby, as she suffered through a degenerative illness. “It was just me and the night. And I thought: what are we going to do? So as Libby slept, I started to write. Then I heard my voice, and I was enthralled.”

The writing surge continued as he cared for Libby, until her death last year. “Those last years with Libby were unavoidably difficult; but as an expression of marriage, beautiful.

“Grief is not reducible and I needed to find the language for it. Sometimes you howl like an animal, sometimes you feel grateful. You’re all over the place. Writing helped me through it.”

It is with the sort of quiet reverence with which David Attenborough might speak of a threatened species that Peter speaks of writers. “It’s so impossible to make a living out of being a writer. The ideal situation is not always success. They need integrity and solitude. And money to survive. Small publishers and independent bookshops are vital to writers in this country. Without them, we haven’t got any breath for our conversations about writing.”

Every night, five writers, mostly women, come together for the evening meal at Varuna. In his role as creative director, Peter would often join them. When we attempt to tally up how many women he’s dined with over the years, Peter squeezes his eyes shut and chuckles. Pubs aren’t his thing, he tells me, and he’s not one of the boys. He once got a reputation for being gay, because instead of going to the pub after work, he used to go home to Libby. “The people I’m at home with are women. When they let me be one of them, it’s wonderful.”

It’s easy to understand why writers flock to Peter with their knotted manuscripts, why they hang on to his words like an elixir. His interest is not in the success of a book, but the process through which it is born and developed. “I’m boundlessly curious about other people. And writers are incredibly trusting. They have no reason to trust me, yet they do. I’ve learnt as much from them as they have from me. When I’m writing, they are very present.”

Peter is now putting words to things that have been going on in his head for 60 years. “I’ve always been a writer, I’ve always known I was a writer,” he says. “I just needed to find the articulation for it. When I find the words for something now, it comes as a flood. It’s strange and unique. And exhilarating.”

Mick Dark, who gifted Varuna to the public in 1989, died on July 11. He is survived by his wife, Jill, and three children.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "The writer stuff". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.

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