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The Writer’s Room

Tuesday 18 February 2014

By T MAGAZINE

Upstairs, downstairs, in a corner, at a desk, on the bed, with a view of trees, water, the street, the sky. Five writers, who all publish new books this year, explain how the right space can unlock the mind and let the words flow.

Colson Whitehead In ‘The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death,’ Whitehead recounts his journey from amateur to unlikely contestant in the World Series of Poker (Doubleday).

We moved around the city a lot when I was growing up. Uptown, downtown. Another kid, a bigger apartment. Kid off to college, lose a bedroom. We lived in one building for six whole years, although we switched apartments halfway. Someone upstairs committed suicide, and they were still hosing him off the pavement when my dad said, “I wonder if his place is available.”

There’s always a better apartment, that’s the rule. I’m sedentary now, but I keep up the hunt by moving my desk around. Where’s the mojo these days? What room, what corner? How about by the window, one story above the street? Pluses: taking in “the life of the city”; nose-picking deterrent. Minus: overhearing “Who’s that sad man sitting there all day?” A hundred pages in the dining room, 100 pages in the living room while the kid’s at school. It adds up. For the first half of a new book, maybe you want your back against the wall. Gunslinger style. Nothing can sneak up on you except your own bad sentences. Try it.

I wouldn’t mind ghost-hunting gear, fancy goggles and meters, because looking for a mojo spot is like looking for the paranormal — you know it’s there, but it’s invisible. Only pages are proof. For the final push of “The Noble Hustle,” I moved to a corner of the den. The new baby was getting my office in a few months anyway. View of the garden, big-ass TV on one wall. I can see my grill. Makes me happy. There’s good mojo here, similes poppin’ and the like.

Until it runs out and the hunt begins anew.

Douglas Coupland Coupland’s ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’ follows a hard-luck cameraman who travels from London to the South Pacific to shoot a reality TV show (Blue Rider Press).

Five years ago, two things happened. One, I installed really good Wi-Fi in the house, and, two, I broke my left leg. Suddenly every room in the house became a new room, and what used to be the “sculpture pit” beside the living room became my new office. I painted it black, which you think would make it scary, but instead it makes everything in the room turn warm.

My window looks into trees and ferns, and there’s a creek just below that’s a highway for animals on the mountain slope, so on any day I’ll see raccoons, skunks, bears and, once, an otter that cleaned out all the koi in the pond two summers ago. That was cute but annoying.

On the shelves are a variety of architectural models and shapes derived from building kits. When I’m writing I look at them to cleanse the palate of my brain. Writing takes place in time, while objects take place in space, and entering space for a few seconds helps me mentally change gears. I’m a visual thinker, but most writers are not. Writing in a big empty room would give me the bends. I need density around me.

I write on an escritoire I found on Craigslist. I refinished it in Japanese red lacquer, put some holes in the back for cords, and it’s great because the moment I close it I look like an organized person. It’s such a good system that I ended up producing escritoires with a friend who has a furniture factory called SwitzerCultCreative.

The round naval bombing painting is by a Chilean painter, Adrián Gouet. The explosion it depicts looks just like one piece from a series I did a few years back of Andy Warhol wigs. The similarity is haunting and utterly unexpected.

Mona Simpson In ‘Casebook,’ Simpson tells the tale of a young boy who endeavors to find out the secrets behind his parents’ failing marriage (Knopf).

I’ve never had an exclusive relationship to a room where I write. I used to want one. In my 20s, I’d look up and see the windows in New York and think of the apartments left empty all day by their owners who went to work in offices. “I need an office!” I thought. I could have used one of those empty rooms.

In my 30s, I wrote in the back house of a ramshackle Spanish Revival we rented across from the ocean in the Santa Monica Canyon. I wrote thousands of pages there, but in order to see another adult human being I had to steal out through the brambly side of the house, along the driveway down to the street. I was usually spotted by my child, who was still young and would cry for me.

When I started writing “Casebook,” I needed to be watched while I worked. I’d rented an office but I was recently divorced and traveling too much for a family illness. I thought that I could hold it together for a day’s work if other people were around. I wouldn’t let myself cry in public. I wrote the first draft on a table in the Santa Monica Public Library.

Now I write at home. I revised the last 11 drafts, red-penciled the copy editing and marked the first-pass galleys at different places in the house; sitting on the floor next to the heating vent, on my bed, at the kitchen table, leaning back in my chair with my feet up on the desk.

Writers collect stories of rituals: John Cheever putting on a jacket and tie to go down to the basement, where he kept a desk near the boiler room. Keats buttoning up his clean white shirt to write in, after work.

Instead of a dedicated room, my best trigger is the actual habit of reading over the texts from the day before. Marking. Changing. Fussing. This ritual amounts to a habit of trust. Trust that I can make it better. That if I keep trying, I will come closer to something true.

Joyce Carol Oates In ‘Carthage,’ Oates conjures the harrowing story of a young woman who goes missing and the decorated Iraq War veteran who becomes a suspect (Ecco).

“No ideas but in dreams” — or rather, daydreams.

I spend much of my time gazing out the window of any writing space I have inhabited. This is particularly true of my present study which overlooks, from the second floor of our house, the rear of our property sloping down to a creek that flows into a lake. There is surely some subtle connection between the vistas we face and the writing we accomplish, as a dream takes its mood and imagery from our waking life.

Among my earliest memories are the fields, woods and creeks of my childhood in western New York State, where I grew up on a small farm north of Buffalo. I could see the Tonawanda Creek from the upstairs windows of our farmhouse.

This writing room replicates, to a degree, the old, lost vistas of my childhood. What it contains is less significant to me than what it overlooks, though obviously there are precious things here — photographs of my parents and my grandmother. Photographs of my husband Raymond Smith, who died in 2008, and of my second husband, Charlie Gross. Portraits of me by my friend Gloria Vanderbilt. Like all writers, I have made my writing room a sanctuary of the soul.

Bookshelves contain copies of most of the books I have written from 1963 onward. How stunned I would have been to imagine, at the outset of my writing life, that, in time, I would write so many books! — when each day’s work, each hour’s work, feels so anxiously wrought and hard-won.

My writing begins in “longhand” sketches and notes. I write at my beautifully carved little “antique” table where I can gaze dreamily toward the creek and lake and be distracted by birds at the feeders below. My larger, more utilitarian desk contains my laptop and it’s here that I type seriously, often for hours, expanding on ideas that I’ve written by hand in what is called, quaintly, “cursive” — soon to be a lost or even secret skill, like Gaelic.

I love my study and am unhappy to leave it for long. Yet I think I most envy writers who look upon the sea or rivers — I would be enthralled facing such a view where time would pass virtually unnoticed, in anticipation of something wonderful.

Roddy Doyle ‘The Guts‘ revisits the working-class characters, now almost 30 years older, of ‘The Commitments,’ Doyle’s debut novel (Viking).

I work in the attic of my home, in Dublin. There are three skylights, so I have good light as I work but I can see nothing but the sky. Except in the winter months, when the geese come to stay, from Canada. I hear them first, at about 4 p.m. — every day — and I look up through the window right over my head and see the geese, in the battle-formation V, charging across the sky to Dublin Bay. It’s a sight — and a sound — that never fails to make me grin. It’s so impressive, and comical.

It’s the sounds that reach the attic that inspire me. Sirens from the local police station, children’s laughter, the noises of construction — a shout in Polish, followed by laughter — the DART, Dublin’s commuter train, passing, dogs barking. Constant, welcome reminders that I live in a city, and that my characters live in a city.

The approaching geese are my daily alarm clock, a push to get some words down before the end of the working day. But it’s the seagulls that I love. I’ve always lived near the sea and the squawks and thumps of the gulls have been a constant. They land on the roof, right over my head. I often see them perched beside one of the skylights. They look so earnest. They’ve made their way into several books. I even made them talk in a children’s book — it seemed quite natural. Once, I heard a particularly urgent squawk, looked up and saw a seagull chasing a heron. The urge to open the window and shout “Why?” was almost overpowering. There might be a book in the answer.

Copyright 2014 The New York Times Company

See online: The Writer’s Room