Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

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At the Desk: Duncan Weller

Duncan Weller's Desk

For each book we readers eagerly open, there's a writer who's spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. The place where all this happens is unique to every writer, and we love nothing more than to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the site where it all happens. In Open Book?s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Governor General's Award-winning writer and visual artist Duncan Weller lives in Thunder Bay in a former drug house he calls "Disgraceland." But if you can look past the black ceilings and the holes in the walls, its actually a pretty great place to make art. In our first Focus On: Thunder Bay feature, Duncan describes why Disgraceland was the perfect place to compose his recent children's books The Love Ant and Big Electric Cat — even if it did lose him the girl.



Welcome to Disgraceland, the name given to the two-story hundred-year-old house I rent in Thunder Bay. The previous renter was a drug dealer who paid only $300.00 per month for the entire house, plus utilities. Referred to as ?Hippie,? he broke doors, ripped out the kitchen ceiling, drilled holes, painted walls and ceilings black, installed an infrared video security system and barricaded the doors with bars and planks. In the basement he built a stage out of wood palettes where local Heavy Metal Bands performed. His father grew the marijuana and supplied him with hashish. There?s evidence in the house that Hippie planned to turn it into a grow-op. Fortunately, last year, police raided two houses not far down the street, which scared Hippie away. He left everything, including his car and the security system. It took a locksmith and a sheriff 45 minutes to get into the house.

The landlord?s daughters, friends of mine, did not want to rent this disaster of a house to me, but I pressured them into it. I was going to Ghana on a Chalmer?s Art Fellowship Grant to research trickster stories and the slave trade for a future children?s picture book. I had to permanently leave my previous residence as the owners decided to sell the house, which they had offered to sell me for $80,000.00 four years early, and which they sold this year for $175,000.00.

I needed a place to store all my art and furniture while I was gone for a month in Africa, but also so I wouldn?t have to look for a place to stay when I got back. In Thunder Bay there was a huge turnaround in the housing market from only three years ago when there was no problem finding a cheap house or a place to rent. Finding a place to stay with reasonable rent when returning Africa would be very difficult.

Upset that I wanted to rent their father?s home, my friends could make no commitments about how long I could stay, and felt very awkward about having me there. Together we threw out five truckloads of garbage, including food, furniture, broken musical instruments and leftover unkempt flophouse flotsam. My girlfriend at the time later cited the house as one reason for leaving me.

Due to other commitments I couldn?t immediately start fixing the place. My friends sprung the cash to have the bathroom renovated, and I painted and sanded, ripped up linoleum and renovated the rest. Almost a year on I have only the kitchen to complete, and I have an attic, basically a third floor, that I could turn into another studio if I become inclined to do so.

I have a great sight lines and views of the city as I?m located on the side of Hillcrest Park. Next to the house is a long stretch of stairs up the hill. Joggers, kids, dog-walkers and entire flocks of women in tight spandex outfits will strut up and down the stairs.

Now I?m able to have friends over for parties, and I have a great working environment. I have three studios in this house, one for writing and two for painting, so I can leave all my materials out instead of having to pack stuff up when shifting from one project to the next. Most of my life I?ve rented small apartments due to my limited income, so this is the first time I?ve had the chance to be this productive as a full-time writer and visual artist. I work about ten hours per day, and most of it is very rewarding. And being self-employed is great. I love not having a boss, and there?s no way I can fire or demote myself. But I can get raises if I work hard enough.

My desk for writing is flanked by full bookshelves and office supplies for self-promotion purposes. Along with writing the stories, I have to format them for sending the completed PDFs to the printers, and then do all the work to get the printed books sold. I have a Thursday column in the local paper, "Art on the Edge," and I write for online publications. I write every day, usually for a couple hours. Currently I pay for my rent and food solely from writing. The profit from my books this year all goes into a bank account until the printing costs of my books are covered. Then I?m allowed to spend the money on something else.

I need lots of light for my painting studios and I need easy access to the hundreds of supplies required to complete a single painting. I plan to spend a thousand bucks on a proper oak easel — which will be my first professional easel. There?s enough room to have someone pose for me, and with a bit of shifting of the furniture I can turn my living room into a photo studio. Models, both adults and children, will appear in the advertisements that I will create to promote my books. Once in a blue moon I?ll do a proper figure painting from life, which is a challenge, but a lot of fun.

I spend most of my time at my computer on my ass in a comfortable chair, so I ride my bike often (never owned a car) and go to the gym regularly. I need a laptop when travelling so I have the lightweight MacBook Air. I often use it simultaneously with the desktop.

After I complete this article I?m writing a response to a Toronto secondary student?s 20 questions about my life and work as a children?s book writer and visual artist. I have a lot to say, but I feel as if my life as a full time writer and artist has only just begun.

Duncan Weller is a writer and visual artist living in Thunder Bay. Primarily, he writes and illustrates children?s picture books. His latest two children?s pictures books published this year are The Love Ant and Big Electric Cat. His latest adult work, Rocket Fish, is a book of short stories for adults. Duncan displays his visual art at least once a year. His picture book The Boy from the Sun won two of Canada?s top awards for children?s books — the Governor General?s Award and the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Picture Book Award. Eight new picture books were launched this year as eBooks through his website, Last year, Duncan travelled to Africa to do research for a children?s graphic novel, Tiger Dream.

For more information about Duncan Weller and to purchase his books, please visit the his website.


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