25th Trillium Award

At the Desk: Marianne Brandis

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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.

Stratford-based author Marianne Brandis has written in a variety of genres, from historical fiction to biography. In today?s At The Desk feature, Marianne tells us about the expansive workspace where her books came to be. With an attic, bedroom office, living-room armchair and more, Marianne has many places she can work. This vast space gives her room to distance herself from the outside world when writing, keeping the business aspects of being a writer separate from the creative.


My primary workspace is in the attic, three floors up, low ceiling, dormer windows looking north and south into treetops, a skylight giving a view of my own chimney and, beyond that, sky and more trees. It?s a tower room: it feels high and isolated, a wonderful space. When I?m there I pull up an imaginary rope ladder, distancing the outer world so that I can focus on the inner one. I?m immediately in ?writing? mode: I don?t have to wait for inspiration to come. Nor, at the end of a writing session, do I need to tidy away the books and papers to clear space for other activities. It is where my main writing project — whatever it happens to be — is installed. The computer there is a very ancient laptop that?s only good for word processing. That is the desk shown in the picture.

Desk work related to the business and promotion part of my career is done in my office, which is in one of the bedrooms, one floor down from the attic. The computer in that room is the one that has email and Internet access. I like having the business part of writing separate from the creative part. If, during a writing session, I need to check something on the Internet or in my email files, I have to go downstairs to the office; I do it when necessary, but I think twice about it.

However, the attic is cold in winter and hot in summer; I can cope with that (using a small heater or two fans) on all except the worst days. But there is a bright little room on the ground floor behind the kitchen, also with a view into treetops and, when the trees are bare in winter, a tiny glimpse of Stratford?s swans in their off-season compound. That room is comfortable all year round, so I can move part of the main writing project down there. It houses another old laptop.

I also use that small room for secondary writing projects, of which I always have one or two in progress.

My writing-related files are on a USB stick which I can plug into any of the computers. I also carry with me — up and down the stairs, from room to room — a tray bearing current writing papers such as lists of work to do and notes about planned library research. Cups of coffee or tea also go on it. The tray, like the USB stick, helps to make this complex geography work.

And then there is my armchair in the living room, and the comfortable chair on the porch in summer, in either of which I do research reading in the evenings.

It?s because I live alone that I have this luxury of multiple spaces, that I am able to let writing-related activities permeate my whole house. All my writing requires research, and there are filing cabinets and file boxes in both writing rooms. There are dozens of ring binders containing research notes, and piles of barely tamed loose papers. Most of all, there are books everywhere. Besides being resources for research, they represent the tradition in which I?m working, the bookish atmosphere that I?ve enjoyed all my life and by which I?m nourished.

I write in the mornings, reaching the attic as soon after 8:00 as possible. If I get three good hours of attic work done in a day, that?s enough. Besides the actual writing — work on a manuscript, at whatever stage it is — there is office work to be done (emailing, record-keeping, business arrangements) and research reading.

This system provides a good context for my creative work. Different phases and stages of the process of writing happen in different places, but all the streams merge when I?m at one of the two writing desks. Represented by papers and notes and reference books, by lists and plans and text on the computer, the streams come together in a way that is by now, after decades of doing this, so automatic and comfortable that it?s hard to analyze precisely how it works. On all but the worst days, the writing spaces have an energy that I connect to when I?m there, a sense that creative work has been done here before and can happen again. This is where I am; this is what I do.

Marianne Brandis is an award-winning author of young-adult historical fiction and has also written adult fiction set in modern times and (for adults) a fictionalized biography of a duchess who lived in the late 17th and early 18th century. In recent years she has written biography, autobiography and memoir. She lives in a tall, elderly house in Stratford.

For information about Thinking Big, Building Small: Low-tech Solutions for Food, Water, and Energy and other books from Marianne Brandis, please visit her website.

Buy her books at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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