25th Trillium Award

At The Desk: Brad Smith

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Brad Smith, photo by Lorraine Sommerfeld

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book?s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Brad Smith is the author of Crow's Landing (Simon & Schuster), the second novel in his thrilling Virgil Cain series. Brad's home, a farmhouse on the shores of Lake Erie, has a workspace that would be the envy of any writer. He rebuilt the rolltop desk where he writes himself, after having first spied it in a neighbour's barn at age 14.


I first laid eyes on this oak rolltop desk when I was about 14 years old. To be accurate, I laid eyes on the scattered pieces that had once been a rolltop desk. I grew up in a tiny hamlet called Canfield, in southern Ontario. The place was a railway stop that had once been known as Azoff. Where the name Azoff came from has long since been lost to history.
The property next door to my parents? house was a sprawling complex of barns and sheds and garages. The main barn had three storeys, and had at various times been home to an apiary and a mink farm. The desk was on the top floor, along with a jumbled collection of other antiques. I attempted to buy it that year, and the next year, and the next after that. The owner always refused, saying that it was a family heirloom that he?d rather hang on to. I could understand that and eventually stopped asking.
Fast forward a few decades and one day I received word from my mother that the neighbour was selling the house and moving to a condo in the city. The desk had not moved and was still in pieces. He?d decided it wasn?t worth fixing but said that I could have it if I was still interested. I was in my truck and on the road in minutes. I hauled the incredibly heavy components down from the third floor and took them home. The thing was indeed in rough shape, but solid and complete. I re-glued all the joints and fixed the roll which operated the top. Instead of stripping the wood and refinishing it, I gave it a vigorous cleaning it with Varsol and steel wool, then rubbed boiled linseed oil into the deep grain of the oak. The desk, which was built in the Kitchener area roughly 125 years ago, looked like new.
It sits in the front room of my house, surrounded by windows on three sides. I live in the country and from where I sit to write I have a full view of the surrounding countryside. I see raccoons, wild turkeys, jack rabbits, deer, possums and coyotes on a regular basis. There?s rumoured to be a cougar (of the four-legged kind) roaming the countryside, but I?ve never spotted it. What I don?t see very often is much traffic. Sometimes a couple of hours will pass without a single vehicle driving by. The silence is terrific.
My house was built in 1931, without the benefit of insulation. Heating oil 80 years ago was cheaper than bottled water is today, so the original owners didn?t worry about costs. I still heat, part of the time, with a grumbling old oil furnace that was installed in the 1960's. The thing gobbles fuel and makes more noise than Rob Ford when confronted by a photographer. A few years ago I installed, roughly four feet from my desk, a cast-iron wood stove, which has become my primary source of heat. There?s nothing like heat from a wood stove. It?s even and silent (that word again). Not only that, but a few hours in the bush, cutting and splitting firewood, is good for all parts of a man, including his head.
So I have an old house and an ancient desk and heating system that could have come from the 1800's. There?s a 1937 Ford in my garage. Maybe I?m stuck in the past. However, you?ll notice the computer on my desk. I wrote my first novel on a Remington manual typewriter and — as quaint and eccentric as that might sound — I won?t be returning to it.
Even I can recognize progress when I see it.

Brad Smith was born and raised in southern Ontario. He has worked as a farmer, signalman, insulator, truck driver, bartender, schoolteacher, maintenance mechanic, roofer and carpenter. He lives in a eighty-year-old farmhouse near the north shore of Lake Erie. His novel One-Eyed Jacks was nominated for the Dashiell Hammett Prize.

For more information about Brad Smith and his new book, Crow's Landing, please visit the Simon and Schuster website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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