25th Trillium Award

At the Desk: Erin Bow

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Erin Bow (Photo Credit: Studio J)

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.

Physicist-turned-author Erin Bow sits us down at her desk today to talk about the lengths she went to finding the right space to write. Warning: it involves dancing and poles! Erin is one of the authors featured in our Kitchener-Waterloo Recommended Reads list. Her latest book is the young adult adventure Sorrow?s Knot (Scholastic Canada).


Some five years ago now, I quit my day job and made the big leap to writing full time. I?d sold two books to Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic, and now I just had to write the second of them — the book that became my just-released Sorrow?s Knot. It was a dream and, like most dreams when you come across them in the waking world, it was terrifying.

But still, I had it good. I was that rarest of things: a full-time writer. And, even rarer, I had a stay-at-home husband (also a writer) to look after our two little girls, who were then three and one. I counted my blessings and I set about to write.

And I failed.

Well, not completely. I wrote dozens of pages of notes and free-form scenes for a new book, only to lose them when the bag with my laptop and its external backup was stolen from a luggage rack. I mourned. I sulked. I tried to start again, and failed. I started a different book, trying to write it at the kitchen table, or at the desk jammed in beside my bed. I got very, very little done. My lap was usually full of daughter; my head was full of cooking and laundry and all the other things that needed doing. Eventually I settled into the routine of taking the older kid to preschool and writing in a nearby coffee shop for the two hours she was there. In that way I eked out about half a book in just one year.

If you want to keep the bills paid, by the way, this is not fast enough.

And then the idea came to me: I need an office.

And with the idea came the Guilt. I know lots of writers with neither space nor time. None of the amazing writers in my beloved writers? group has an office. The people I know online: mostly kitchen tablers. Come on, said my internal voice: how much more perfect do you need things to be? What if this frustration about writing at home is just an excuse? What if you get this one next perfect thing and the frustration doesn?t lift?

What if you?re just not a writer?

The best and hardest thing I?ve ever done for my writing self was ignoring that voice.

I put out feelers and searched want ads for some time. It was tricky, finding something both affordable and safe. I rejected dozens of leads; I despaired. But finally an ad popped up: a dance studio that gives classes in the evenings, with an extra room to rent. The room could only be reached by crossing the dance floor, so they wanted a tenant who didn?t see clients, and was there only during the day. It was right downtown, easy to reach on my bike. A nice high-ceilinged room with a big window looking out over the main street. Cheap. Safe.


Perfect? Poles. The dance studio is in fact a pole-dancing studio. The main space has a half-dozen brass poles mounted to the floor and ceiling. When I went to see it (with my father, incidentally) I confess I was, um, surprised.

But I rented it anyway.

And I love it. I got a desk from Goodwill, a couch off the curb. An old kilim rug, some Salvation Army curtains. A beautiful stained-glass lamp found in a junk shop. But it is not makeshift — it is mine. A space furnished purely for joy. The things in there are things I?ve chosen for comfort or beauty or some emotional resonance. The glass bird I fiddle with when my hands are restless. The brass bowl with the cloisonné butterflies where I put my keys. The wall with the icon of the Virgin and Child, the map of Tenochtitlan, the porcelain birds that were my great-grandmother?s, the bundle of dried grass from the hill by the monastery where I wrote my first book, and the back cover of a magazine from 1942 advertising the Waterman ?Commando? fountain pen ($5). It is almost a poem made physical, and walked into, every day.

Elsewhere in the world I have other jobs, and other roles. But in my office, I write. It?s not my getaway — it?s my gateway.

My husband is different. He can sit down with a pile of laundry at one elbow and a macaroni-artist at the other and drop into his fictional world. But I have always needed time to enter my work — and for that matter, time to get out. Many?s the time I?ve had the writerly equivalent of the bends after stopping too fast.

Most of the problem, for me, is getting started. The office helps me do that. It helps to have a space that cues the muse that it?s time to show up. My muse is recalcitrant and needs cues from all the senses. The schedule. The quality of the light in the window. The brass temple bells hanging from the door. The glass bird and smooth stones for my hands. The white tea in the blue cup. The music — I have one sound track for each project. The lemongrass candle.

In my office, I court myself closer to the writing in the way a church courts us to come closer to God. My space is ritualized, and I refuse to feel silly about that.

It was a better deal, looked better on the spreadsheet, when I was still a full-time writer. I now have a half-time day job that was too cool to pass up, as a science writer at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Plus, my girls are seven and five now, and both in school. The kitchen table would make more sense.

Still, this office — when I walk into this room I?m a writer. It?s hard to give that up.

Erin Bow studied particle physics in college, eventually working at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. She then decided to leave science in order to concentrate on her love of writing. Her first novel, Plain Kate, was named to the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list, and was the recipient of the 2011 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

Visit Erin's website.

For more information about Sorrow's Knot please visit the Scholastic Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore, online from the publisher or at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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