PENINSULA WOMAN: Prolific Port Townsend artist, writer Rikki Ducornet explores transformation

PORT TOWNSEND ­— Rikki Ducornet is the daughter of a Cuban father and a Russian-Jewish mother ­— “a whole minestrone,” she calls her ethnic makeup — who brims with zest for life.

As a girl, she dreamed of being a visual artist.

“I thought I would be a painter,” says the woman who loves to portray life forms in various stages of growth and change.

Then she grew up, married a Frenchman and flew off to the village of Le-Puy-Notre-Dame, where she raised her son, Jean-Yves, to be bilingual from the start in French and English.

It was in France, Ducornet says, that she became a writer. Life in Europe brought out something new; “I was so acutely aware of language,” she remembers.

Ducornet, who has lived in Port Townsend for four years now ­— after teaching in Centrum’s writing workshops and winning honors including France’s Prix Guerlain and the Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters — and has just released her eighth novel and will begin a book tour this Friday at the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle.

The novel is Netsuke (pronounced net-skay), named for the miniature Japanese sculptures used to fasten the cord of a kimono. This slender book, just released on Coffee House Press, is a classic example of Ducornet’s desire to explore darkness.

The author took time with a reporter recently to reflect on her life as a writer, an artist and a woman who embraces each opportunity to learn.

Over a plate of spicy tortas, a bowl of dates and a nectar she identified as Turkish coffee, Ducornet began with her childhood in the Bard College community of Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., There her father, Gerard DeGré, was a professor of social philosophy.

He showed his daughter what she now calls “a smorgasbord” of ideas. He taught her the rumba when she was 10, and throughout her childhood and adolescence, he gave her wondrous books to read, from Albert Camus to Lao Tzu.

The household attitude, she recalls, was “all this is out there,” so let us explore.

Some decades later, Ducornet has taken her readers on strange and entrancing trips, across continents, far back in time, and especially into the depths of her characters’ minds. To this writer, the psyche is a most magnetic frontier.

Netsuke is the story of a pyschotherapist who is “profoundly ill,” as Ducornet says. He is an addict, a sex addict continually hunting for the high that keeps him from seeing the truth about his life. Among his delusions: that he is helping the patients he seduces. In rare moments, though, the doctor catches a glimpse of what he has become.

Ducornet describes this tale as “like running over hot coals.”

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls Netsuke a “killer new novel . . . as fascinating as it is dirty and dark . . . the plot is impossible to resist.”

In Library Journal’s Barbara Hoffert goes further: “Pick up a book by the award-winning Ducornet, and you know it will be startling, elegant, and perfectly formed . . . Writing about a satyr-psychiatrist could be so predictable, but Ducornet makes her characters real and scary beneath the ruminative, quietly observant prose.”

The story came pouring from Ducornet’s pen. As with her seven other novels, seven books of short fiction and five collections of poetry, she wrote Netsuke longhand. On a chaise longue, before a wide window that looks out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Ducornet uses pen, paper and a clipboard almost the size of a cocktail table.

Writing this way “is either impressive or really crazy,” she says. “But I am so much more comfortable than being hunched over a machine.”

Of course, revising one’s handwritten prose is on the time-consuming side. To Ducornet, it’s a good trade. The glare of a computer exhausts her, while the sensation of ink on paper is, in a word, “liberating.”

And just as reading a good novel is a voyage of discovery, Ducornet believes the act of writing one should be, too. She is not an author who decides, in the beginning, to deliver a specific, pre-conceived message.

“I feel very strongly about this,” she says. “If you set out ahead of time thinking, ‘I have something to say,’ it’s going to be really didactic. And if you already know [the lesson], why do it?”

Her novels ­— from Entering Fire about a French Nazi and The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition about the Marquis de Sade to Gazelle, the tale of a 13-year-old girl’s erotic awakening in Cairo — are not for the prim and proper.

Instead, they’re Ducornet’s passion distilled into print, narratives born of dives into the hearts of her subjects. As she writes, she seek to understand the people in her story, and the events that shaped them.

“I really do write the books that I want to read,” Ducornet adds. “I don’t think about the market. So to have readers is astonishing.

“You spend hours and hours of your life, alone,” composing a novel, she says. Creating the story is also “transforming, exciting, stimulating. One learns so much . . . every book is a revelation.”

“And suddenly, one’s readers are there,” in a bookstore or classroom.

“That is a tremendous gift.”

After months at home in Port Townsend, she’s looking forward to connecting with those readers, at book signings across the West. And following visits to famed bookshops such as Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle and City Lights in San Francisco, Ducornet will teach writing workshops at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., and at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt.

Ducornet’s interest in abuse of authority drove her to write Netsuke. And in the case of the psychotherapist, she looks without flinching at the way he betrays his patients.

“You realize: This has to come from somewhere. He has been profoundly harmed. His humanity,” she says, “has been really torqued in childhood.”

A fascination with alchemy, especially the kind that can change a struggling, ill individual into one who is healing — also drives this writer. Through her creative process, she studies the ways people transform, by way of their relationships and their self-care.

“I am really interested in mutability,” that possibility that a living thing can change and regenerate, Ducornet adds.

This process can be seen, too, in her paintings. She depicts fantastical plants, plankton and other creatures on large canvases; she’s also the illustrator of books such as Horse Flower Bird, Kate Bernheimer’s collection of fairy tales for adults; Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s Torn Wings and Faux Pas; and Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges.

Ducornet’s imagery arrived on the local scene last month, when she and fellow Port Townsend artists Linda Okazaki and Helga Winter presented “Relic of Place,” a show at Artisans on Taylor in downtown Port Townsend. A few of her prints are still at the gallery at 236 Taylor St.

“It was wonderful,” she says, “having a show with two fabulous women.”

More of Ducornet’s paintings can be seen at www.RikkiDucornet.com, along with a list of her written works. The titles are worth sampling: her books of poems include Knife Notebook, while The One Marvelous Thing and The Word Desire are among her short-story collections.

In Port Townsend, Ducornet lives up close to her environment.

“I walk everywhere,” she says, even when the wind is so stiff it breaks her umbrella. Again, getting away from a machine gives her that feeling of freedom.

Ducornet and her second husband, Jonathan Cohen, “fell in love with the Salish Sea,” she recalls. They moved here following Ducornet’s stint as a novelist in residence at the University of Denver.

Since Cohen’s death three years ago, Ducornet has deepened her friendships with other local artists.

“We hit it off immediately,” Okazaki, also a painter and printmaker, said, adding that on her and Ducornet’s canvases, dream imagery and the unconscious come forward. Also, both women lived in France and found inspiration among the Surrealists’ works displayed in Paris.

“We both appreciate beach walks and the woods,” near their homes, Okazaki adds.

Just last Sunday, she sat down and read Netsuke.

“I am stunned,” she said, “by the naked truth of erotic power,” and by the skill with which Ducornet “peels back the layers of deception.”

In March, in conjunction with their Artisans on Taylor exhibition, Okazaki, Winter and Ducornet presented a panel discussion titled “Rigor, Imagination and the Creative Process,” at the Undertown cafe in Port Townsend.

Rigor and imagination are Ducornet’s operative words. These days, she’s using them to work on something new: a bilingual — French-English — libretto for an opera by a French composer.

Finally, before saying goodbye to the visiting reporter, Ducornet shows off one last image that gives her joy: a photograph of her son. Jean-Yves Ducornet is now a musician, composer, arranger and producer in Los Angeles.

In contrast, there is one moment in the writer’s past that, while it’s connected to a song that was a gigantic hit, she is not so excited about discussing. But an article about her would not be complete without a mention.

Ducornet met Donald Fagen of Steely Dan at a party circa 1973 and gave her his phone number.

“Nothing happened; we just flirted,” Ducornet remembers. After that party, she went off to live in France.

Fagen remembered her well: He immortalized her first name in the Steely Dan song “Rikki, Don’t Lose that Number.”

That fact is well-documented by Wikipedia.com and other sources. But naturally, Ducornet would rather be known for her novels, stories, poems and paintings.

Among her readers and fellow writers, she is known — and revered — for her diverse body of work.

“Rikki Ducornet can create an unsettling, dreamlike beauty out of any subject,” writes author Joanna Scott.

She “exposes life’s harshest truths with a mesmeric delicacy,” Scott continues in the Coffee House Press brochure promoting Netsuke.

Ducornet, Scott adds, “holds her readers spellbound.”

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