Last week Adèle Geras let us join her at the writing desk, today my special guest is novelist Deborah Lawrenson who has kindly allowed us into her home in Kent to have a peep at her study and the desk at which she writes.
If you don't already know Deborah's books then you have a treat in store! Her most recent novel The Lantern was featured on Channel 4's TV Book Club (click there to watch the programme - Deborah's segment starts at the 10.26 mark); the book was shortlisted for the RNA's Epic Romantic Novel Award last year, and was also a Cornflower Blue, one of my 'books of the year', not to mention having been published to great success in many countries. I described it as "a Jo Malone fragrance in book form" as it is so richly evocative of the French landscape in which it is set - a place Deborah knows well as she and her family have a home in the Luberon which she often writes about on her lovely blog.
Deborah, your books transport us to other times and other places - please tell us about the spot in which they are written. Is your desk a special piece of furniture or just a convenient surface? And do you have a dedicated study, or have you claimed a corner of another room in the house?
My writing desk fits almost exactly in front of an upstairs window in my study. This is definitely my best working space so far – it’s my daughter’s old bedroom (she moved a floor up for more space) – but I’ve written books in various places in the house: I wrote two early novels in a tiny box room on the top floor, freezing in winter, the archetypal garret; one in the downstairs study which has now been commandeered by my husband; and one on a console table in front of a window in the main sitting room which looked out onto the village high street and made me feel like Jane Austen, though sadly only in the sitting-writing-by-a-window sense.
What typically sits on your desk while you are working? Reference books, photographs or special bits and pieces?
As I have two laptops – one for the book, one for the internet – there’s not much space for more than a few reference books and my notebook. If the thesaurus isn’t on the desk it will be close by on the floor.
I can see from the picture that you have a view from your desk, so looking up and out is clearly a help rather than a distraction while you're working.
There’s a view of evergreen trees and a high yew hedge. I like to see out, especially on a day of heavy rain or snow. It makes me feel cosy and purposeful, and I don’t beat myself up about being too engrossed in writing to go out for a walk.
We've been talking about notebooks recently, and I wondered whether a notebook is an important adjunct to the computer for you, at any stage of working. Do you find you need to see a book's structure or 'plot' its plot with notes and diagrams set out on a pinboard, or do you display images of settings, say, to help inspire the words?
Each book begins with a new bound notebook and I make notes and plans in that. I do try to make all my notes in this notebook but inevitably there will be bits of paper to stick in. No pinboards; the visualization is almost all in my head though I often take photographs of locations to remind me of the location details.
Is all your writing done at your desk, or do you ever take yourself to cafés or libraries for a change of scene?
The only time I write away from my desk is when I’m in France. Very occasionally, I will scribble in the notebook while on a train. I found some notes I made while travelling from Avignon to Paris a few years ago. They ended up as the foundation for an episode in The Lantern I always rather liked (see below).
Bénédicte drifts though the rooms of the lower floors, into the dust of venerable scents: flecks of the lavender held in the corners of drawers; flakes of pine wood armoire; the soot of long-dead fires; and from the present: the deep mossy aroma from cloud formations of damp above the rose-tiled floor; the sharp white smells of late spring flowers outside.
These visitors are new. She is sure she has never seen them before though she closes her eyes and tries to think calmly, to count her breaths, slowing her intake of air, scouring her memory to make sure. When she opens her eyes, they are still there. The strangeness is that they stare straight into her face, just as they look around her so intently, into the corners of the rooms, up to the cracked ceilings, the fissures in the walls, yet they don’t acknowledge her presence. All is silent, but for the tapping of the catalpa tree in the courtyard and the creak of a newly-opened shutter that lets in a shifting band of brightness.
I will sit a while longer, Bénédicte thinks. Watch to see what they do next.
Breathe. Breathe deeply.
Your husband Rob is a composer, so yours is a musical household, but do you like to listen to music while you work or is silence preferable? And do you do what you can to minimise external interruptions or does that not matter when you're in your stride?
It varies. I’ve always enjoyed writing to music but haven’t been so keen lately. Throughout most of the first draft I’m working on now, it’s been an unwelcome distraction but I’ve recently started putting some carefully selected CDs on. My current favourite is the swing band soundtrack to Dancing on the Edge, the Stephen Poliakoff series on the BBC – fantastic original music by Adrian Johnston and Paul Englishby, superb! The phone goes on answering machine but I still have to contend with all the usual interruptions with as good a grace as possible.
Are you very disciplined about work or prone to being easily distracted?
I am pretty dogged when I’m working and don’t let much distract me, but what has done for the past few months (and this could have something to do with not wanting music on) is the latest production of husband’s panto. The original music and words have been hard to escape…
Your fans will be keen to know how the next book is progressing as we're eagerly awaiting it - can you tell us anything about what is currently 'on the desk'?
A first draft of a new novel. It’s not quite right yet and I’m at the jittery stage, close to the end, worried that it’s not good enough and that I just won’t be able to make it as good a read as it is in my head.
As an experienced novelist what would you say were the best, most rewarding aspects of the writer's life, and what, if any, are the downsides?
The most rewarding aspect is playing around with words all day and still being able to say I’m working. The downsides are not getting out enough while work is in progress, with the result that I become a) very dull and b) fatter than I want to be!
Finally, you've spent many hours 'at the writing desk' and as a result you have built a successful career and an ever-growing readership; what advice would you give to aspiring writers, or to those already in print and hoping to build on that beginning?
Never give up. Don’t eat that cake.
Many thanks to Deborah for letting us stand at her elbow and giving us this privileged glimpse of her writing desk.