Getting inside the head of one of the 20th century's most enigmatic and self-isolating writers is no easy thing. For actor Sarah Peirse, who is about to play thriller doyenne Patricia Highsmith, one way into the mind of this famously prickly character is through her shoes.
"She wore Brooks Brothers shirts and jeans and men's chinos and she always wore loafers," Peirse says over a cup of tea at the Sydney Theatre Company, where she is rehearsing for the Australian premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith's Switzerland.
"Look, I'm wearing them now," says Peirse, swinging her loafer-clad feet. The soft, comfortable shoes are caramel with tassels. "Apparently, Highsmith had huge feet and hands. She did woodwork. She made her own furniture. She was a cultivated eccentric. She had this huge handbag she would fill with snails to pull out at dinner parties or in cafes, just to be perverse."
According to Mason Currey's book Daily Rituals, which details the weirder aspects of famous writers' lives, Highsmith bred about 300 snails in her garden at home in Suffolk, England, keeping them in enormous terrariums. Bizarrely, she once attended a London cocktail party with a "gigantic handbag" that contained a head of lettuce covered with snails, whom she said were her "companions for the evening".
"She was deliberately provocative," Peirse says. "Fiercely funny and intelligent but also quite brutal."
Switzerland, 3 Nov - 20 Dec 2014, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House