Writer’s Room Envy by Donald Hounam

I’m a big believer in envy. Particularly class envy. And writer’s room envy.

A few years back, The Guardian’s Saturday Review used to run a small piece called Where I Write. Every week this would feature a photograph of a writer’s workroom, and list its contents: the comfortable chair, the computers, the shelves of awards…

Impressive. Although not half as impressive as Terry Pratchett’s set-up, displayed during a BBC documentary about his struggle with Alzheimer’s. Huge twin monitors, like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise…

Not just impressed. Green with envy.

It’s nearly nine years since I knocked up my first notes on Gifted; in Microsoft Word, on a Hewlett-Packard laptop that’s now hosting a colony of woodlice under a wardrobe in the back room.photo

Subsequently, when one of the perks of the day job turned out to be a 17-inch MacBook Pro, I treated myself to Keith Blount’s excellent Scrivener software and mangled the story on an uncomfortable chair at a small table in a corner of the living room of a cramped, one-bedroom flat.

The Pro was a fine machine, but with one significant drawback: it weighed a ton. When I couldn’t work at home, I used to drag it around various local branches of the Caffè Nero. And when Irealised that I was doing my back in, I printed up an outline of what I’d assembled so far, and hand-wrote most of the rest of the book in a series of WH Smith school exercise books. On the three days a week that I worked in central London, I’d stumble out early and get in an hour or so before hitting the office. Other days, I’d traipse up to the high street and scribble away.

My point is, I think, that this must be pretty much the way most speculative novels and screenplays are written: in whatever space and through whatever medium is available; on the fly; on the sufferance of nearest and dearest; and in any free time that can be found between professional and personal commitments. It’s a messy, incoherent business; and it’s very easy to lose track of what you’re doing.

Desk 2 (2)In particular, the material can end up splattered all over the landscape. In my case, there were fragments in all shapes and sizes of notebook, and in files (“Gifted-v07-Jan2010-use-THIS-one”) scattered around several computers. I remember whiling away many happy hours flipping between different versions of the same text, wondering which (if any) was canonical…

At some point I decided that the Pro was, literally, too much to bear, and I lashed out some of my own hard-earned cash on a refurbished MacBook Air. This was a howling success: compact and light enough to drag around with me and still run Scrivener.

Eventually the book was done. And after we moved out of London and got ourselves a little more space, the writer’s room envy has receded.

I don’t have to hog the front room any more. I have a proper desk and a comfy chair. But I still find myself hopping between notebooks, computers, scraps of paper and the margins of newspapers. I can’t honestly say that it makes sense. It’s at least partly driven by the delusion that the grass is always greener elsewhere: that there’s another way of working — a special pen, a clever piece of software — that will magically cause everything to fall into place.

Fat chance.

In Gifted, my protagonist, teenage wizard Frank Sampson, is visited in his studio by his Master, Matthew Le Geyt:

He takes off this expensive-looking grey coat and he’s wearing this even more expensive-looking suit underneath it. He’s about to drape the coat over the back of a chair when he hesitates, runs one finger along the wood and peers distastefully at a smear of chalk dust. He sniffs the air suspiciously and looks round.

‘My God, this place is a mess!’

‘I’ve been busy.’

‘So I see.’ He doesn’t sound angry, just amused in a despairing sort of way. He’s at the bench, with the coat over his arm, staring down at the remains of the cat.

‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘I’m relieved that I don’t have to deal with this sort of business any more.’

Me, I’d rather get my hands dirty. I dread going post-peak.

Matthew sighs. ‘I never understood how you could be so disorganised, Frank, yet such a brilliant sorcerer.’

Frank’s brilliance is an author’s compensatory fantasy and a sort of genre necessity: I feel I have to big up my hero.Desk 1

But the mess…?

Let’s face it, I’m simply chaotic. Receipts, bank statements, cables, pens, notebooks, spare buttons (no idea what for), computers…

I could pretend it’s constructive chaos; but who’s kidding who?

Every time I clear space to work by pushing stuff aside, I tell myself that once Gifted is out and once I’ve bunged off a second draft of the sequel, Pariah, to the grown-ups, I’ll get it all tidied up.

Some hope.

I work like this because… actually, I don’t for the life of me know why. Every year or so, when it all finally gets too much to bear, I settle down and spend as long as it takes sorting through it all. The result is a spookily clear desk and an enormous sense of clarity and liberation.

But maybe I just don’t feel comfortable with clarity. Maybe I need the padding.


Donald Hounam’s novel Gifted is out today, published by Random House Children’s Publishers. We’ve got three copies to give away over on Twitter (@CBBookGroup). 


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