Today sees the first of what I hope will be a series of posts in which writers tell us something about where they work - the very desk at which, as Marian Keyes puts it in her inimitable style, they do their "scribin' " - and from which we'll perhaps learn a bit about their methods and works-in-progress and hear their advice for those intent on a literary career.
My first guest scarcely needs any introduction - Adèle Geras is a prolific writer of books for children and adults, a reviewer, a seasoned judge of literary prizes, a knowledgeable commenter on so many aspects of the book world! Adèle lives in Cambridge with her husband the distinguished academic Norman Geras (known to the blogging world as Norm) and has passed on the literary genes to her two daughters, novelist and poet Sophie Hannah and publisher Jenny Geras.
Tell us about your writing desk, Adèle, is it a special piece of furniture or just a convenient surface? And the room in which you work - a dedicated study, or a corner you've carved out of another room in the house?
I write at an M&S desk which has a flat surface that you can see in the photo. To the left of my knees there's a three drawer chest of drawers type thing. The room in which I work functions as our spare bedroom when we need one but it's definitely my study doubling up as a guest room and NOT the other way around. It's on the first floor of the house, and has a lovely view over the garden....which I don't see as I work with my back to it.
What typically sits on your desk? Reference books? Family photographs or special objects? Can you work with 'clutter' around you or do you need clear space?
A calendar (lovely Gwen Raverat etchings, a Christmas present from Linda Newbery), a beautiful ceramic pot by Rhian Winslade, two most beautiful notebooks, upright and not for writing in. Both have marbled covers....the green one is visible and next to that is a pink one, which is even more gorgeous. A turquoise scarab I bought from the Fitzwilliam. A mug which was a present from the Oxford Festival in 2004 with lots of pencils and a scissors in it. A silver lamp. A notebook. My mousemat which has a picture of my youngest grandchild on it. A green velvet cat, which was a present from Jacqueline Wilson ages ago and on which I rest my wrist if it gets tired while moving the mouse around. Then comes my laptop and beside that, my Redstone Diary. I've had one of these every year for decades except for the year when Persephone brought out their diary. Couldn't resist that. Also in the picture is a bit of work, sitting to the top and the left of my computer. I often have a piece of something or other there, which either needs attending to or integrating into what I'm doing. I can't really work with clutter around me. If I need reference books, I will put them on the bed, which is behind me and consult them when I need them. My deskchair is a twirly, office type thing and I've covered the seat with the back of a striped jumper that I never finished. I felt dead creative tacking this old piece of knitwear to the chair and giving it another life.
You mentioned that you're facing away from the view when you're at your desk, so do you prefer a blank wall, or does a lovely object or painting help focus the mind?
I have a blank wall facing me but if I raise my eyes even a bit, there's a whole wall of books by me: what I call my Self Shelf. This gives me confidence. I've done it before and I can presumably do it again.
Do you write in longhand first, or make notes and plans that way, or do you work directly on the computer? Favourite notebooks and pens, or does any scrap of paper serve the purpose? How about aids such as a pinboard or whiteboard for sketching plot points and structure, jotting notes and reminders or displaying visual cues to locations, characters or interiors?
What you describe is what I long for, think I will do and yet never quite achieve. You want to talk to Celia Rees for marvellous notebooks about forthcoming books. I work directly on to the machine. I make notes in notebooks...usually one per book and these are always beautiful. I used to write whole books in longhand and then type them out and in those days, I needed all the stationery I bought. These days the drawers in my three drawer chest under the desk is full to bursting with glorious notebooks because I still can't resist them when I see them. I also buy lots of pens....madness, but there you are. It's an addiction. I particularly like pens which write with brown or violet or green or some exotic ink. My sepia pen is the favourite...I love it. From Paperchase.
Do you ever write away from your desk, for example, in cafés or libraries, and if so, is that because you happen to be in those places and need to get on with some work, or do you purposely go to other writing locations for inspiration or improved concentration?
I was writing in cafés before JKR was out of school. That's where I wrote the majority of my first few books. When my children were small, I'd go to a café while they were in playgroup and spend the 3 hours scribbling away. The café was called Silvio's in Didsbury, Manchester. LONG GONE! Now I only ever write at my desk, or perhaps in the kitchen on my laptop if that happens to be where I need to be for some reason. Like: to be near a cake in the oven. I NEVER write in hotels, or trains or cafés now. I regard all three of them as places of unalloyed leisure and pleasure. I was very shocked when Paula Danziger, (with whom I was doing a gig in Glasgow ages ago) invited me into her room.There I discovered she'd brought a whole set of page proofs to correct. This was in pre-internet days, of course but I like reading on trips and not writing or doing anything resembling work.
Tell us about sound while you're working: do you like to listen to music or prefer silence, and do you need to be shut away with a virtual 'do not disturb' sign on the door, or can you get on happily with the usual interruptions of phone, doorbell, other people in the house?
I'm fine with ambient noise. Can work through music, and have even been known to work with talk radio going on. If I'm writing, nothing much disturbs me. And my husband is only one floor up and we chat etc. from time to time. I think this ability comes from my 8 years in boarding school. You had to be able to work in pretty much any conditions sometimes. Mind you, I am very distractable. I am happy to stop whatever I'm doing and talk on the phone, for example. I don't think the words DO NOT DISTURB have ever passed my lips. When the girls were very small I used to write at night. When they went to school, I'd write while they were in school and for the last nearly 20 years the house has been pretty quiet. I don't mind hearing music coming from other parts of the house.
What tends to distract you most when you're supposed to be writing?
The internet!! Emails and tweets take up far too much of my time. If I'm in the middle of a novel, I'll be good and not go there but it's often a distraction that can suck you in and not let you escape.
What is currently 'on the desk', i.e. your work-in-progress?
I have just cleared the desk of my forthcoming novel for adults, called COVER YOUR EYES. This will be published by Quercus in Spring 2014. It has taken me about 5 years to finish it to my satisfaction, though I have written shorter children's books during that time. I'm now in the very pleasant and enjoyable stage of my next novel: researching and gathering my thoughts. It's much more of an historical novel (for adults, and also for Quercus) but I don't want to say more about it than that at this stage. I put my researches into a plastic file or into Dropbox and there's a pretty exercise book with green and black roses all over it in which I write various stray thoughts. I will start the novel soon....but I have two commissioned short stories for children to complete first.
As a highly experienced novelist, what would you say were the best, most rewarding aspects of the writer's life, and what are the downsides, if any?
The best thing about being a writer is being able to please yourself: be your own boss. Do your own thing. It might not always be working, or your thing might fall out of favour but you do not have to punch a clock, travel to an office and by and large you can do whatever you like every day. That's a gift beyond price. Also good are the people. Writers, the ones I've met at least, are mostly lovely and the internet means we are forever chatting online and we meet in groups here and there and the whole scene has been massively improved by the Book Blogs who have added nothing but pleasure to the business of bringing out books. Editors and publishers are mostly very nice too, so it's a pleasant life. I love the books people send me; I love meeting other writers and especially, I enjoy being on Judging Panels. The two occasions when I've judged the Costa (once when it was the Whitbread) were among the most enjoyable experiences of my life. It's my ambition to be an Orange judge..only it's not called Orange now, of course.
The downside is: you have to realize you may not make a living! Publishers are cutting their lists, everyone wants different things they think might hit the jackpot, and I'm afraid that the literary standalone children's novel is an endangered species, especially with the libraries being cut as they are. Money is tight, no one quite knows what ebooks will mean and so it's a tough climate out there just at this moment. It's hard to get published but possibly even harder to STAY published. Midlist writers are being severely hit, with many splendid people escaping to the small presses. I am not quite sure why publishing houses haven't realized this one blindingly obvious fact: most books make very little money and sell very few copies. That ought to be emblazoned in letters of fire above every single publisher's desk.
Finally, by spending many hours 'at the writing desk' over the years you have built a highly successful career - what advice would you give to aspiring writers, or to those already in print and hoping to build on that beginning?
What can you say? Hang on in there and don't lose heart. That's the only advice, really. You can't stop trying. I think that more and more writers are going to have to have a day job but there's nothing so bad about that. Think of TS Eliot. Also, it goes without saying that if you marry someone who has a good job, you start with an enormous advantage. It was YEARS AND YEARS into my career before I earned enough even to be taxed, so I have my husband to thank for the luxury of never having had to go out to work.
My thanks to Adèle for allowing us this lovely look over her shoulder at her writing desk.