Vanessa Berry on Psychogeography and Writing Place

Vanessa Berry writes the mysteries and secrets of Sydney on her popular blog Mirror Sydney. She has over 10 years’ experience teaching writing, and currently teaches in media at Macquarie University and creative writing at the University of Sydney. She is the author of two memoirs, Ninety9 and Strawberry Hills Forever.  

You’ve written about place throughout your career. What are your favourite kinds of places to portray on the page? 

My favourite places to write about are those which are overlooked or not usually subjects for attention. Some of the Sydney places I have most enjoyed writing are ones from the recent past that have now fallen into disuse or disrepair, but are still present in the urban environment. On my blog Mirror Sydney one of my favourite subjects was the Marie Louise hair salon on Enmore Road, a local landmark with a striking pink and mauve facade. It was run by brother and sister George and Nola Mezher, who came to notoriety for winning the lottery in the 1980s and setting up a soup kitchen and charity with their winnings. The salon’s cluttered window display was full of fake flowers, photographs, toys and notes, a kind of memorial to Nola (who passed away in 2009). I believe it’s important to collect the stories of these places before they disappear, and capture something of what it was like to encounter them.

What is psychogeography? How did you become interested in it? 

Psychogeography is a way of engaging with places through a sensitivity to their atmospheres and moods. The term comes from Guy Debord and the Situationists of 1960s Paris, and I became interested in it when I first started to write stories about the urban environment. The Situationists devised psychogeography as a way of discovering places in the city with the potential for revolutionary change. But it’s founded on some fairly simple things: drifting through the urban environment, often by walking; being directed by chance; and an attraction to places that have a distinct ambience. I was already a psychogeographer without realising it, and since then have used its ideas more deliberately as a way to encounter and inhabit places.

What’s one key tip you have for writers struggling to capture the essence of a place on the page? 

Often the best way to capture a place’s essence is to think of yourself as a guide for the reader, describing the place for what it is without trying to make it more than that. Places are so rich with details that it can be hard to know what, or how much of these to include, but thinking about place as a vital force in your story, rather than a mere “setting” can help to shape what details to choose.

Join Vanessa and develop place-writing techniques in her course Writing Place in Fiction and Non-fiction at the NSW Writers’ Centre Saturday 3 September, 10am-4pm. 

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