Writers' Rooms

Why do I have such an enduring fascination with seeing the places that writers write? Forget overblown S&M; Fifty Shades of Farrow & Ball Elephants Breath is my preferred flavor of porn.

One of my favourite procrastinatory activities, after having sat for a few minutes with my fingers quivering above the keyboard as if I were bloody David Helfgott contemplating Rach 3, is to shy like a pony and slope off for a dose of Writers’ Rooms from the Guardian archives. Compulsively consuming the details of Sebastian Faulks’s student-digs study, or Martin Amis’s glass-ceilinged nook provides sweet reassurance that even brilliant, long-practiced writers hoard bizarre talismans, stare out the window and get tempted by Spider Solitaire.

The photographs for the series are taken by Eamon McCabe, who mounted an exhibition a few years ago; you can still watch his audio slideshow on the BBC website. Browsing these spaces is a way of feeling closer to authors you love, of picking up on telling hints about their personalities and daily routines, but I’m also sure some small, irrational part of me searches these scribes’ pads for coded secrets of success. If my desk were vintage cherry, not Ikea MDF, might I develop the ability to resist adverbs? Would the manic energy of a Pollock on the wall render me incapable of cliché? Wait, is that Montaigne I see on a bookshelf again? Dear God, why have I never read Montaigne?

Once you fall into the (sound-proofed, rattan-floored) rabbit hole, you realise how many pushers there are out there tempting you to indulge. Just this week I’ve been distracted by the Huffington Post’s slideshow of ‘Famous Writers’ Retreats: The Rooms Where Classics Were Created’ (poet Robert Stephen’s Hawker’s Hut puts a whole new spin on suffering for your art) and, slightly bizarrely, an album of 15 writers’ bedrooms from Apartment Therapy, as if soft furnishings have the ability to convey bons mots to the sleeping brain.

The more images you see, the more you notice a tension between the sensualists and the minimalists. Predictably, as most authors famous enough to be profiled are middle-class and relatively mainstream, there is tendency towards shabby chic, art-filled wombs with tribal masks on the wall and sash windows looking out onto trembling lime trees. But there are still proponents of what McCabe calls the “bare-lightbulb” approach: a shabby simplicity that harks back to a long tradition of starving wordsmiths and which feels, no doubt unfairly, like a more authentic habitat for those with supremely colourful brains. McCabe remembers being most surprised by V.S. Naipal’s Spartan “sixth former’s study” but on further reflection this bareness seems the perfect foil for a mind transported to the rich chaos of India. Russell Hoban’s crammed basement hovel  “should carry a health warning” but is also “the best room ever” – in the tradition of CS Lewis’s wardrobe, its mundane mayhem looks like it could be a purposefully innocuous portal to other worlds.

It’s a tension that fascinates Kyle Cassidy, an American photographer whose ‘Where I Write’ project -showing fantasy and science fiction authors in their creative spaces – started as an insert in the Worldcon 2009 programme and is now graduating into a book, featuring Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, and many others along with interviews. “It’s always a bit of a surprise”, Cassidy explains. “I can’t really tell from someone’s writing if they’re going to have a cluttered space with a 15 year old computer and a layer of dust or an immaculate one with a bowl of fresh fruit and a collection of fountain pens and handbound journals. It does seem that once you get super-successful your room gets a little less interesting (though possibly more functional) because you have people to help you out with things, and very likely because you’re so busy that you have to get more organized.”

Unlike McCabe, his photos feature the writers within their rooms, and the intimacy he shared with his subjects while he shot were a bibliophile’s dream. “I think probably the most fun I had anywhere was at Piers Anthony’s. I got to watch him shoot a bow and arrow — and how many times are you in the woods watching Piers Anthony shoot a bow and arrow at a paint can? Though Harry Harrison’s place was like the most awesome party you’ve ever been to where there was nobody there but you.” He’d like to shoot the spaces of J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, or Stephen King just for the fanboy fun, but “there are some that I think I’d love to photograph because I have absolutely no idea in my mind what they’d look like – like George R. R. Martin or Harlan Ellison. “

Playing through the literary keyhole isn’t just something that intrigues other creative types. When I say that I write, one of the first questions people invariably ask me is not what, or why, or how, but where. The implication is that creativity needs special treatment: isolation from the mundane, or extra oxygen. But writing is about five percent creativity and ninety-five percent hard graft, and for your average spare-time hack, time to write is such a luxury that place becomes purely opportunistic.

Personally, I favour the sociable anonymity of a library. My annual membership of the London Library – intimate in feel, epic in knowledge, with a calm yet charged atmosphere – is a worthy investment. But I will write anywhere; I must, if I am ever to hit my word count. Admittedly, nailing a difficult sentence in someone else’s spare room while everyone gets ready for a wedding, or crouched on the filthy carpet of Las Vegas airport illicitly stealing the plug space of a fruit machine, is not ideal. But rootless writing often returns the best results, and my ideal writer’s rooms is a moving one. Train carriages and airplanes send me into a productive trance, as if the movement negates my own restlessness and allows the words to flow as freely as the scenery. The excuse of poor connectivity means that I can shut out the world, hunker into a corner, let the randomness of strangers filter quietly through my ears, and get a hell of a lot of shit done. If I could afford the fare, I’d spend my days rattling back and forth from London to Aberdeen with nothing but a lunch box and some eye drops.

Do you have an ideal writing or reading space? Whose would you love to peek into if you could?

This article originally appeared in Bookdiva