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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.
I have three of Angela Thirkell's books to read over the next few days, and having never read her before I am greatly looking forward to them.
High Rising (1933) is the first of Angela
Thirkell's "brilliantly satirical English comedies set in the fictional
county of Barsetshire. Successful
lady novelist Laura Morland and her boisterous young son Tony set off
to spend Christmas at her country home in the sleepy surrounds of High
Rising. But Laura's wealthy friend and neighbour George Knox has taken
on a scheming secretary whose designs on marriage to her employer
threaten the delicate social fabric of the village. Can clever,
practical Laura rescue George from Miss Grey's clutches and, what's
more, help his daughter Miss Sibyl Knox to secure her longed-for
(1934) is "a sparkling 1930s English
romantic comedy, perfect for fans of Stella Gibbons, PG Wodehouse or EF
Benson: Pretty, impecunious Mary Preston, newly
arrived as a guest of her Aunt Agnes at the magnificent wooded estate of
Rushwater, falls head over heels for handsome playboy David Leslie.
Meanwhile, Agnes and her mother, the eccentric matriarch Lady Emily,
have hopes of a different, more suitable match for Mary. At the lavish
Rushwater dance party, her future happiness hangs in the balance . . ."
They both sound delightful, and fifty or so pages into the first one, I'm hooked!
Three Houses (1931) is not a novel but a memoir in which the author
recalls "the three houses in which she grew up and the
childhood memories their walls contain. Focusing first on ‘The Grange’,
where her grandfather, the celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward
Burne-Jones, set the cultivated tone, Thirkell also reminisces over her
parents’ home in Kensington Square and the Burne-Jones seaside retreat,
where her cousin, Rudyard Kipling, lived across the green. Her
elaborate portraits of the three houses and the lives within provide an
invaluable insight into late Victorian life, while the personal
recollections of Thirkell’s famous grandfather reveal a loving family
man behind the renown. A tale of forbidden explorations, Punch and Judy shows, and adventures
in the garden, Three Houses is beautifully evocative of the innocent
quality of childhood. Providing a snapshot of history from the busy
literary centre of London to the English coast, these stunning memoirs
are both reminiscent of the golden days of youth and an interesting
vision of a writer and the early influences that informed her later work."
I've been watching the film From Time to Time - perfect Sunday evening viewing (half the cast of Downton Abbey is in it), a touching story, a lovely house* at Christmas, ghosts and more ... It's based on Lucy Boston's book The Chimneys of Green Knowe which I haven't read, but apparently it takes quite a few liberties with the story. Still, with Maggie Smith and a lazy Labrador at the heart of things, it's very enjoyable in its own right.
It's a long time since I've read The Children of Green Knowe, the first of the series of which The Chimneys is the second, but as far as I recall it would make very good Christmas reading. Any fans amongst us?
"Then it came to me .... a conservatory, the kind the Victorians had, lean-to, with white-painted brick up to waist level, and ornamental mouldings and gutterings. If I could have that, with a door at one end of it and an electricity supply for heat, a well-insulated, tiled floor, then I should have my room, private, inaccessible from the house, a room in which to work and sit and look out and think, and also where I could try to grow a fig and a vine, and have a lemon tree and some lilies in pots. I would put a bench along one side, for bringing on a few early beans and lettuces and other tender plants (though this was not going to be in any sense a greenhouse), and a desk-height table, running all the rest of the way round, for working at. A sloping roof, with slatted, bamboo shades, and careful ventilation everywhere, and all would be well in every season.... Such a room of my own... is the stuff of dreams."
That passage is from Susan Hill's lovely The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year, and while she doesn't tell us whether she achieved her dream study at Moon Cottage, I hope she did - I'd rather like something similar. How about you?
(The picture is of a glasshouse on a grander scale: yours - with a castle - for around £2,000,000.)
"Belmont House stands 200 feet above sea level, set back 230 yards from the easily visible English Channel, at the southeast corner of Pound Street and Cobb Road in Lyme Regis. Its grand Georgian property incorporates relics of dwellings from medieval and Renaissance times. The elegant façade dates from 1785, when Eleanor Coade, astute owner of the Coade Stone Manufactory in London, adorned the front of her summer villa with serenely classical, ceramic stone faces, samples of the company's fine Adam-style ornaments. John Fowles imagined Belmont as aristocratically feminine, though as they took possession of the house just after New Year 1969, it was more like "an old whore, with its splendid façade and all the mess that lies behind ...
"In the southwest upstairs corner of the house, Fowles established his writing room, with his well-worn worktable, bookshelves, and space for his New Hall china. Looking seaward over the garden, French doors opened onto a south-facing balcony where vines eventually twined and birds alighted. The pounding of keys on his small portable typewriter thudded audibly through the house."
Many thanks to Ruth who, with reference to last Thursday's post, sent me the link to the lovely Writers' Houses website, "dedicated to exploring writers' spaces and the art of literary pilgrimage". I was pleased to see 'local laddie' Robert Louis Stevenson among the writers listed (the family home in Edinburgh's Heriot Row is here); my picture above is of his birthplace, just a few doors down the road from me, though that's not open to the public.
"What is it we hope to accomplish by trekking to the home of a dead author?" Anne Trubek wonders, and she travels across America visiting numerous writers' homes in an effort to find out.
"With a gimlet eye and indefatigable curiosity, Anne Trubek peers through the veil of domestic veneration that surrounds canonized authors and neglected masters alike. In the course of her skeptical odyssey, she discerns the curious ways in which we turn authors into household gods [... and] carries us along as she falls at least a little bit in love with each stop on her itinerary and finds in each some truth about literature, history, and contemporary America".
Coming closer to home, this book looks like an excellent vade mecum: A Reader's Guide to Writers' Britain by Sally Varlow. Both a practical guidebook, a reference book and a source of anecdote and whatnot, "Essential reading for everyone who loves books and places to visit in Britain," says one reviewer; it's gone on my wishlist, too.
When I saw the book Writers' Houses mentioned on Eggs on the Roof the other day - and thanks to Oxslip for recommending that lovely site in the first place - I bought a copy sharpish (though I see there are fewer available now and prices are high). It's the sort of book I can't resist, full of fabulous photographs of interiors, and some exteriors, too, rooms full of sunshine or pools of lamplight, books everywhere, desks and treasured possessions, all as though the writers themselves are about to step into the picture at any moment.
There is Karen Blixen's Danish family home, full of the flowers she loved to arrange, Lawrence Durrell's French house, familiar from some of his writings, Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst, Virginia Woolf's Monk's House, and many more, all discovered by author Francesca Premoli-Droulers and photographer Erica Lennard as they travelled across Europe and the United States in search of the 'spirit of place' or genius loci which influenced those whose houses they visited.
If you click on the picture to enlarge it you'll see, from the top row, left to right:
- the work table in the glassed-in veranda in his house in Sommières near Nîmes at which Lawrence Durrell would make an early start each day