25th Trillium Award


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An own of one's room

In what ways have you tailored your writing environment to help you do the job?

With Liam Card, Joanne Harris, Sharon McKay, Linda Spalding, Linda Svendsen, Alison Weir and Jan Zwicky.

Do writers over-think the need for an optimal writing environment? Sometimes it is one of the great strategies we have of procrastinating. My chair is just not comfortable enough in the right way. The lights need to be a little brighter -- no dimmer -- no brighter. Should I listen to Bach or Bacharach or Beck? Are my pants too tight? Do I have the perfect pen? Is the phone off? Has my tea gone cold? It is too often the case that writing does not happen because there?s nowhere to do it. That said, those who really want to write, those who have a dire need to write, will usually carve out some sort of space in which to get it done. Luxury for a writer is being able to tailor that space to specific desires. This month, I?ve asked a clutch of writers to tell me how they have tailored their writing environments to help them do the job. As for me, I recently changed my office and have completely changed my writing environment to one that is less accommodating, less private, less personal. Have I stopped writing because of it? No. The office I work in now is not an unpleasant room. It is small, with a large window. My chair (new) is a bright-red torture device from Ikea. I have the luxury of a massive computer monitor, which allows me to work in a large font (easier on my aging eyes). I wish I had a window beyond my desk, as I once did. Not for the clichéd view, but because it allows one to gaze at infinity and thus relax the eye muscles. But I can do without. My desk (also red, also new) is too small, a little wobbly and covered with incidental junk (a measuring tape, a child?s bracelet, papers, pens, ear plugs, lottery tickets, a calculator) that I want to sweep into a box and put on a shelf. The rest of the room is not mine, and it is filled with the clutter of my wife?s equally small desk and our daughter?s much smaller play desk. There are book cases, filled with mostly my books, which give me comfort. How much of this could be taken away? Most of it. The computer is the thing I would miss the most, but give me time to write and I could sit on the floor with a dull pencil and stack of napkins and get something accomplished. How will I tailor this new environment? First on my list is that junk box, second is a new chair. Beyond that, there?s not much else I need.

Now, lets take a look into some other writers? rooms.


Liam Card is the author of the novel Exit Papers from Paradise. He lives in Toronto, ON.

It could very well be that environment is as important as talent. What good is talent if you are working in a setting that is distracting? Worse, what good is talent if you are working in a setting that is not fostering and encouraging that talent and creativity? For me, the environment in which I write should be the place where two important factors collide: Privacy (an opportunity to focus), and Stimulus (an opportunity for inspiration). When I write, I can?t be in the place where I eat, sleep, or watch TV. When writing Exit Papers from Paradise, I was living in a fantastic 600 square foot condo at the time. I?ll be clear:

I don?t have ?a writing place,? that one magical place where focus and inspiration happens.

I don?t create a perfect little writing nest, plunk myself down in it, and type so madly the tips of my fingers glow.

To answer the question, I have never tailored an environment to help me do the job.

I select proper environments as they exist in the world that will encourage where my head needs to be. For example, in Exit Papers there is a chapter where Isaac meets Goth Princess/Bronwyn at a local pub for a first date. For this scene, I walked my laptop down to the Imperial Pub on Dundas, ordered a pint, and drank that pint ? all the while looking at people interacting.

Watching the wait staff take orders.

Watching people on dates, or meeting with friends.

Watching a drunk screw around with the jukebox for half an hour.

Watching a broken Corona sign repeatedly flicker a neon ?rona?.

The whole kit and caboodle.

Once that pint was nothing but some bubbles at the bottom of a glass, I ordered a refill and got to work. That was the perfect environment for me. I had not tailored it at all because it existed in reality and perfectly.

No fridge for me to stare into.

No TV to turn on.

No bed or couch to slouch and get lazy on.

The Imperial Pub was the perfect balance of privacy and stimulus. The setting doesn?t always have to be that spot on. I think I wrote fifty percent of the novel in the lounge, about fifteen meters to the side of the lobby/reception/concierge desk in its own private nook. They had two couches and an armchair and I always took that armchair. The environment was private in that I was out of my living space, but there was stimulus with people milling about. I imagine people thought I was just some creep sitting there siphoning an internet connection and streaming porn. The stimulus was that no one had a clue in the world what I was doing ? and I liked that. It fueled me to continue on with my great big secret.

Pick the right spot.

Don?t change a thing.


Joanne Harris is the author of numerous novels, including Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure, Chocolat and Runemarks. She lives in Barnsley, England.

I'm used to working in all kinds of environments, so my needs are quite basic: wifi; tea and as few interruptions as possible. However, after years of not having had a designated workspace, I now work from a shed in my back garden, which has proved to be an unexpectedly creative space. Just far enough away from the house to discourage casual drop-ins, it's fairy monastic in layout, with a desk, a chair, some lamps and some bookshelves, but the view is beautiful, the local wildlife is friendly, and the small but significant "commute" is psychologically helpful in allowing me to leave "real space" and enter my "writing zone." I think that regardless of where one lives, a space of one's own is invaluable, allowing for uninterrupted flights of fancy - and helping to legitimize a job that many people still don't really regard as "work".


Sharon McKay is the author of numerous novels including Enemy Territory, War Brothers and Thunder Over Kandahar. She lives in P.E.I.

My office is not as important as my place in the world. On a daily basis I am in contact with my neighbours. I loan or borrow onions/garlic/tea/milk at least twice a week. I ask about their work, I complain about mine. Through my office window I see children cluster around a bus stop. I can hear them laughing.

My actual office contains my world map and my computer. I am a war artist. I return to Afghanistan in the spring. It?s marked on my map, as if I?ll forget. And since I am still a Writer-in-Residence in Ontario, even though I moved to PEI six months ago, I can say that the airport is now my office. A rented car is now my office. My friends? guest rooms are now my offices. Really, my office is in my head, but I think that is true of all writers.

I am an insomniac, like my grandmother before me. My grandmother used to say that she?d tell herself stories to put herself back to sleep. I do the same. I have learned to plot out entire chapters, line-by-line, while gazing at a dark ceiling. It?s not a talent, it?s a hard earned skill.

I also carry a notebook. It contains wise and deep thoughts:

Pay library fine


Dry cleaning ? pick-up

Buy thank-you cards

M&M?s ? wings


Occasionally I dream up a line and record it in my book. ?In Afghanistan even the rocks cry.? Really? That?s just silly. Later I laugh and cross it out. Still, I?d rather lose my cell than my notebook.

I try and do what others writers say they do ? keep to a schedule or daily word count. I?m hopeless at it. Two things work: 1) I have a book contract and therefore a deadline and 2) an editor says, ?Sharon, if you don?t get it in you will have to give the advance back.? I have written at least twenty-five books (haven?t counted) and no one has actually said those words to me, but I trade in imagination and I run on fear.

The only advice I have ever given to young writers is, ?Put your butt in the chair and don?t get up.?

Today I am supposed to be working on Jack: Nazis at the Gate. I am writing this instead. Tomorrow I need to put time into a WWI graphic novel but the neighbours are coming over for dinner so?


Linda Spalding is the author of numerous books including the novels The Purchase and The Paper Wife. She lives in Toronto, ON.

A few days after I finally feel really finished with a book, I begin to clean my study. Studio. Work area. Office. It?s a biggish room on the third floor of the house and it?s stuffed with pieces of my life that go back to the beginning and even beyond, into the ancient times of my parents and grandparents. In this sense I?m a hoarder. In every sense I?m a hoarder. But the collecting of moments seems to be necessary to my writing. Sometimes I find myself gazing off into space and letting my focus fall on some memento ? a photograph of my grandmother as a child or of a cat long dead, or the red lacquer boxes I bought at a yard sale in Hawai?i or the coke bottle full of mysterious hooch I brought home from a ceremony in Chiapas. There are shelves full of books that I can peruse, all the old journals with their sketchy notes and drawings and a papier mache devil propped between Adam and Eve. None of this is absolutely necessary to me but as an accumulation it feels like a second skin I wriggle into, calling up reflections that set me on the path of responding with words. The house-cleaning is cursory, a rite to be performed after each book is done. During the course of writing, over some four or five years, I?ll have piled books and papers all over the room and now I must dismantle those piles or be buried in them. For a hoarder, it is a daunting task and it always involves more musing and reflecting and sometimes that leads me to start all over again. On another book.


Linda Svendsen is the author of the novel Sussex Drive and the short-fiction collection Marine Life. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

First things first. I?m a rehabilitated multi-tasker and am now a one-thing-at-a-time convert. I teach in the UBC Creative Writing Program where I?m involved with graduate theses and three workshops weekly, in three different genres, and one afternoon we?ll be discussing Walter White?s bad day in Breaking Bad and the next we?ll be in Writing for Children poring over a picture book such as Alexander?s Terrible No-Good-Very-Bad Day. After years of very tight deadlines, I don?t work on big-ticket projects while I?m teaching. When I?m engaged with student writers on a daily basis, I?m there for them, and I?m reading or viewing works that support their development.

I?ve only recently returned to fiction after a two decade hiatus (I worked on adaptations and original projects primarily for CBC television).

I wrote Sussex Drive very quickly with a flat-out passion and discipline. Random House Canada purchased the novel in October 2011 when it was less than half-written; my goal was to finish it at the end of February but didn?t start until the semester concluded (see above). The novel was my religion, six days per week. The only other activities were for children, my husband, exercise, sustenance. When I was close to submitting a draft, I block-booked the dentist, doctor, haircut, car maintenance, dog-grooming, so that I was dispatching these while the editors were reading. (Come to think of it, that may be multi-tasking?but in a good way.)

I practice keeping my own counsel. In the past, it could be challenging to find the mental space to write/navigate/create if I was involved in the life somebody else was writing for themselves.

I?m very fortunate to have a home office. It?s small, golden, and the window frames a lush and gorgeous and generous maple tree. I still use the desk chair I bought in New York in the early eighties and it?s been re-covered twice. On my doorknob: a hanger from a Sheraton--peace and quiet.


Alison Weir is the author of the novels Dangerous Inheritance, Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth. She lives in Surrey, England.

We converted a double garage into a library! Just over a decade ago, I lived in a three-storey house in Surrey with my bookshelves on the two lower floors and my desk on the top floor ? you can imagine how often I had to run up and down the stairs whenever I needed to look up something. For a historian, that was a nightmare. Then we moved to a house in Scotland with three large reception rooms, one of which ? oh, joy ? I was able to use as a combined library and study. It was a necessity really, as my collection of history books was expanding rapidly.

Scotland didn?t work out, and within two years we were property-hunting back in Surrey, looking in vain, it seemed, for a house with sufficient reception rooms to enable me to recreate my library. But the description ?study? usually meant a shoe-box large enough only for a desk and computer, even in large properties. After looking at sixty houses and coming near to despair, we at last found our otherwise dream home, and decided we would have to convert the garage, which was even bigger than my room in Scotland. Thus it was that I was able to tailor my environment to the needs of my profession. We had the space professionally converted, then I had the walls lined with shelves, which, even now, eight years later, are always crammed thanks to the never-ending flow of new titles.

It has been wonderful to have this room in which to research and write ? I spend my happiest hours here, and I?m not the only one. Everyone loves this room, with its soft and rich green tones, its spaciousness and comfort. But for me it?s more than that. As I sit at my desk, I am surrounded by inspiration in the form of the thousands of books that line the shelves ? most of them historical, arranged in chronological and subject order, as well as collections of books on art, portraiture, costume and ? wait for it ? rock memorabilia (in my other life!). Here too are paintings, including an exceptional copy of Miguel Sittow?s Katherine of Aragon, old prints, family photographs, historical mementoes and ornaments, CDs, LPs, DVDs, even a reproduction Duccio triptych and a model of Hampton Court done in sand by an iconic Sixties rock star whose autobiography I edited. There?s a sofa, a table and four chairs for board games, and the cat?s basket. It?s peaceful and quiet here, and I can immerse myself in my work. Heaven!


Jan Zwicky is the author of numerous works including The Book of Frog. She lives in British Columbia.

The short answer is: I moved to the country. Quiet, calm, the sense of time elapsing according to natural rhythms rather than business schedules ? these seem to be essential if I?m going to sink into a project deeply enough to find something real. So, I have a room of my own, with a big old desk, which looks out a generous window. And the window opens. This also seems to be essential: real air ? its scent, its temperature, its humidity ? and nonhuman sound ? leaves, birds, insects. There?s a phone in the room, but the ringer?s turned off. There?s also a second desk, facing the wall, for the computer. But I write and think longhand, looking and listening out the window.

When I can, I move right outside. At least half of The Book of Frog was written on a clipboard, sitting on the workshop porch. (It?s sunny and warm there in the afternoons. Up here, on the ridge, the mosquitoes aren?t too bad. Hummingbirds and dragonflies come and check you out.) I use a mechanical pencil so I don?t have to keep track of a pencil-sharpener; my eraser balances on the top of the clipboard. Back in my studio, I have a wall cabinet stocked with marginless, wide-lined stenographers? pads. But, truth to tell, I often draft on whatever?s to hand ? usually the back sides of sheets that have been through the printer.

Because I love books, I have a lot of them. And because I don?t love computers, or trust them, I have a bunch of filing cabinets. But probably the single most important piece of studio equipment apart from the desk and the window is my recycling bin: it?s big and round, woven from grass. Sturdy but lightweight and easily dumped ? which it needs to be, often.



Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the non-fiction collection Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears on Open Book Toronto.

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