For some it is curling up on the sofa or sitting at the dining room table, for others it is a purpose-designed home office that gets the creative juices flowing. Four Irish authors tell Eithne Dunne about their ideal workspace
Agatha Christie liked to eat apples in the bath while composing her tales of intrigue; James Joyce wrote for a time while lying on his stomach in bed; and DH Lawrence wasn’t happy unless he had a tree to lean up against. Many contemporary writers may not be as eccentric, but they are no less specific about the conditions they need around them in order to get the words flowing. Novelist Jojo Moyes, author of the hit Me Before You, last week delighted writers everywhere when she offered her Suffolk cottage, free, for up to a week to a writer.
Moyes took to Facebook to offer published and unpublished authors the chance to stay at the fully furnished cottage, which she said is set in “deep countryside on the Suffolk borders”. She even offered to remove the television and turn off the wi-fi. Not all writers have their own cottage.
Melissa Hill: works in her specially designed writing room
Melissa Hill is a veteran in the Irish writing world, as she completes her 17th solo novel, Keep You Safe, which is due out next September. She lives in Ashford, Co Wicklow, with her husband and fellow author, Kevin, and their daughter, Carrie.
To say that she is happy with her writing space since she and her family moved to their new home a couple of years ago would be an understatement. Having spent years writing in poky corners, Hill was finally able to design and build the writing space of her dreams, and she knew exactly what she wanted.
The light and airy double-height room is filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and has a mezzanine level where Hill’s desk sits. A huge apex window, directly in front of her workstation, looks out at the mountains.
Hill says the space has made a huge difference to her, and her work. “When I come in the morning, or if I’m having a bad day, I walk through all those books and think, ‘You’ll get there; you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.’”
She works at an Ikea desk, while her chair came from an office-supply business years ago. “It’s clunky and horrible, but good for posture. I was tempted to buy something more colourful, but I went for function over style,” she says.
The author writes on an Apple Mac or, if she has to travel, a MacBook Air. Her surroundings have to be tidy before she can work. “My brain is a jumble of ideas, so this is my way of keeping order,” she says.
Hill’s office is full of photos of family members and beautiful places, along with her miniature dancing flamingo — she confesses to having a minor obsession with the pink birds.
As for lighting, her window takes care of that most of the time, but for winter she has a “quirky, starbursty light with loads of little bulbs”. She will also often light a candle; she starts a new one as she begins each book, which means she associates a particular scent with each. The scent that powered her through her latest was Orla Kiely’s Rosie.
Bernice Barrington: has a fondness for her sofa or dalkey cafes
Bernice Barrington, whose first novel, Sisters and Lies, was published by Penguin in March, has nomadic tendencies when it comes to writing locations. With no desk or office at her home in Dalkey, Co Dublin, she either cosies up on the couch or sets up her laptop at the dining room table, but has also been spotted in cafes and libraries.
“I’d say I’ve written in every cafe in Dalkey,” says Barrington. This was particularly the case when she was writing full time, as she was for a while on Sisters and Lies. “Sometimes I’d want to get out of house and be around people. Also, I associated being at home with leisure time.” When at home, Barrington follows the sun around her house. “If it’s gloomy in one room, I’d move to another.”
No matter where she is, though, one can more or less guess what she’s up to based on her posture. “I tend to slouch if I’m trying to be creative,” she says. “It’s as though if I’m too rigid and upright it doesn’t happen.”
She will plonk herself down on one of her two Laura Ashley sofas — a contrasting purple and beige. The two-seater, placed under the bay window of her Victorian home, can be the perfect sun trap if she wants to get some heat.
When editing, however, she finds it better to be in a more traditional, sit-up-straight position at a table, so she heads into the dining room, a darker space with plenty of oak wood.
“It suits me when I just want to get in the zone and work without having a view or thinking about who is walking past. The high-backed chair is good for my back, and also the table is right beside the kitchen so it’s good for grabbing snacks when the concentration is running low.”
Ultimately, Barrington would love a shiny new writing space for herself. “Some women fantasise about a new kitchen; for me it’s a library or office space.” With a section of their house ripe for renovation, she reckons that could be her work area some day, although she can’t quiet a sneaking fear that she may still end up back in the comfy embrace of her couch.
Conor Kostick: writes at an antique desk in his home office
Although not a stickler for interior design, the historian and writer Conor Kostick wanted a decent home office to write in, and this influenced him when he was looking to buy a house just off the Navan Road in Dublin some years ago. “This house has an extension converted into an office, so it was very attractive to us,” he says.
He writes mostly from his office in the home he shares with his partner, Aoife, and their young son and daughter in Ashington.
He’s also happy to work on his laptop in airports or on planes, something he became used to when he spent four years teaching and doing research for Nottingham University.
The room is lined with books and has a skylight. The walls near Kostick’s desk are decorated with pictures his children drew at school. “It has a good feel and is a friendly place to work,” he says.
One thing Kostick did not want from his home office was for it to seem too much like a work office. As an undergraduate he worked in a call centre, and was keen to get away from that type of design. So he went to an antiques shop and bought a nice wooden desk as an antidote to any sterile office feel.
Kostick believes in having a comfortable, adjustable chair; his is a Vilgot from Ikea. He once tried a kneeling stool, because he had heard it was good for the back, but found it hard on his knees, so he soon scrapped that idea.
As for technology, Kostick is happy with a modest PC. “I don’t want to get distracted by anything; I just want to be able to write,” he says.
While Aoife has a well-ordered workstation, his is the opposite. “It’s an absolute sprawl of stuff. I did get some organising folders, but they are all overflowing with bits and pieces now,” he says.
Kostick listens to music while writing, but nothing specific. “It just has to be undemanding, maybe something with a bit of a dance beat.”
Sinead Crowley: makes do with a laptop at the kitchen table
Sinead Crowley, who lives in a 1940s semi-detached house in Dublin with her husband, Andrew, and their two young sons, writes in the evenings when she has finished her day job as arts and media correspondent for RTE News — and when the boys are in bed.
She is working on the edits for her third book, One Bad Turn, which is due to hit the shelves next June. Crowley claims she is very much the “have laptop, will write” kind of author.
Without an office, she sits at her kitchen table, opens up her Lenovo IdeaPad, and taps away. “The kitchen is my favourite room in the house. We live in a 1940s semi, but when I was expecting our first child we decided to extend, so the kitchen is the same age as him — it was born in September 2009.”
It is at the back of the house, and is a light-filled space with cream units, brown tiles and bifold doors that open out to the garden. Crowley likes to fold them right back during the summer and open the Velux windows.
“I work at the kitchen table, opposite a large bookcase crammed with books, family photos and, because we have two small boys, stray Lego models as well. The kitchen also contains a toy Ikea kitchen, which is one of the boys’ favourite toys. It is a working, family kitchen and we eat all our meals there.”
The only thing she needs to help her write is a “decent cup of hot coffee”; her favourite cafe fix is a large vanilla latte — she has written in coffee shops, in libraries and on holidays in the past.
She writes in Microsoft Word, emails her work to herself nightly, and never has more than about 10 chapters in any one document.
The author says her laid-back approach to where she writes is a product of circumstance. “I started writing when I was working and had children, so I didn’t have time to think about it,” she says.
“Even my style of writing evolved to suit my circumstances; I can write intensely for an hour or two, but if you gave me eight hours I’m not sure I could write for that long.”