In the years before life as a literary impresario, Nancy Gerbault travelled the world as a flight attendant, produced internationally-recognised work as a painter, and for a while pursued her passion for food – working as a restaurant chef in California.
Her love of art and letters and creativity may lead one to believe she is “arty”, but Nancy, owner and founder of Abroad Writers’ Conference, finds her inspiration in nature and science.
During her career, she has studied Art, History of Art and Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, she has exhibited her paintings in exhibitions around the world – with one project receiving recognition from the then Minister of Culture for France, Jack Lang and the archaeologist Richard Leakey – and she has studied prehistoric rock art, hunter-gatherer societies and Food History at California State University, Sacramento in where she received her MA in Anthropology/Archaeology.
Nancy’s love of Food, History and Literature was the foundation of what drove her to create Abroad Writers’ Conference. She loves to create modern day Salons in historic settings where guest enjoy the company of others who love Literature, History and wonderful food.
But how did a love of science lead her to set up Abroad Writers Conference, and more recently the Nancy Gerbault Literary Agency?
Nancy explains. “I have had to adapt in numerous situations, and after you do, several times, you realise that you just don’t have control in life.
“You have to roll, adapt or die. Just like in evolution. Anyone who stays rigid is not able to survive. Evolution teaches you that, and it applies to life.”
So this is how it all came about.
‘An idea in mind’
In 2003, Nancy wanted a new direction and she found a simple equation.
She had already worked in the travel industry as a Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight attendant and she had completed both her degrees. So she put travel and academia together and came up with Abroad Writers Conference where writers of any discipline get together.
She also took aspiring authors and put them together with international authors. Many of the participants, she noted, would never have had access to the tutors she worked with, were it not for the events that Abroad staged around the world. So she took talented new writers and helped to shape their careers.
Literature became the primary focus, although history and science had been the original driving force. Writers such as Dame Margaret Drabble, Alan Lightman, Michael Ondaatje, Andrew Motion, Robert Olen Butler and director Sally Potter took part in some of Abroad’s first events. Later events: Rae Armantrout, Sarah Gristwood, Paul Harding, Edward Humes, Michele Roberts, Jane Smiley, Rebecca Walker, Alison Weir.
This improvisational, evolutionary approach was deliberate. Painterly, even in how she looked at her conference events.
As Nancy puts it: “To me, it is like painting. I go to a canvas with an idea in mind, but the painting directs me. I know when it’s becoming alive. That’s when I no longer control it.”
And for anyone who remains unconvinced, this is how the Hever Castle conference or Lismore Castle came about, because it’s no secret that renting a castle steeped in history, and one that is in need of loving maintenance and conservation all year round, could be a pricey endeavour.
‘Life is uncertain’
“We went with our dreams,” says Nancy. “Hever or Lismore Castle was more expensive than anything else we were looking at. But we were drawn to it.
“If we had gone by the book we never would have selected it as our first choice. We just allowed ourselves to experiment and it allowed us to feel free.”
“Remember that humans only want to control all aspects of life because they hate uncertainty, but life is uncertain.
“Everything around us can change in a second. So, we cling to what we know, and we believe that it makes us feel more secure.”
Often, when we want to make something right – or correct – it becomes too heavy and it no longer breathes. It’s our problems we stack on top, layer by layer, until we kill the magic inside.”
“Certainty creates so many problems, because life just doesn’t go according to plan.”
So how best to proceed?
“One thing I’ve never understood is why anyone would want tomorrow to be the same as today,” says Nancy.
“Adapt. Be flexible. Evolve. Embrace change.”