I’m like Alex–for me writing is not Ass in Chair, it’s Ass on Cushioned Horizontal Surface. Mostly here, at the moment:
The monogrammed pillow is from my pal Mags, who got it for me from Land’s End, if memory serves.
The most important thing you need to write in bed are pillows… lots and lots of pillows.
Originally, when I moved into this apartment near the Arctic Circle last year, I planned to write here:
The desk is from IKEA, but the toile wallpaper I bought online. My daughter and I went to a garage sale last summer and they had two sets of large gold letters spelling “LOVE” for sale, for $4 each. I said, “hey, if we buy both of them, we can spell ‘EVOLVE’!” So we did.
I think maybe I’ve written exactly half a sentence at that desk. Finally, I told Grace to use it for homework and now it’s filled with a pile of Grace detritus. Oh well. It looks nice, in the living room. When I close the front flap to cover the Grace detritus.
I miss writing at my friend Sharon’s house. We used to write together at her dining room table pretty much every weekday. I was really productive there, especially for the first ten months when we couldn’t figure out the key code to get me into her wireless service. We would gossip a lot and stuff, but after an hour or so we’d get down to work, and finally I would be so in the zone that I didn’t even hear her kids when they came home, and would finally come up for air, most nights, when the family needed to set the table for dinner.
When I first moved to the Great White North, I thought I’d get a TON of writing done, since I didn’t know anybody and wouldn’t have to fight the urge to go out to lunch with people a lot and stuff. It turns out that talking to people and hanging out and non-writing social stuff is actually excellent fuel for writing stuff. You need to recharge your batteries, and often. That doesn’t happen so much here, unless I drive down to New York and hang out with pals. That’s about a five-hour drive. I go down whenever I get really stir crazy, which has been a lot over the last year or so.
At any rate, even after I got the pretty desk from IKEA, I tried to write at the cool dining room table I got on craigslist:
I got maybe the second half of that first sentence written at the table. But I spent two days painting the chairs dark green. Except for when Sharon came to visit–I got ten pages written then. It was almost as good as living in California again.
I took her to see Portsmouth:
And Salem, Mass.:
Which was fun but not writing.
And we went for a walk along the banks of the Mighty Squamscott, here in Exeter:
Which is pretty great. But not writing.
In fact, my writing–in terms of quantity and probably quality–has pretty much sucked for this past year. My pals try to reassure me that this is because the year itself was pretty sucky. Sharon is especially good at cheering me up this way. She’ll call from California and say, “well, let’s see–in the past year you’ve moved three thousand miles away to a town where you didn’t know anybody, because your daughter needed you; you got divorced; you had to leave your other daughter with your ex because you can’t physically care for her anymore on your own; your father committed suicide two weeks before your original deadline; your editor died of cancer; and you did publicity and touring for your third book; oh, and you tried to mediate amongst all the crazy relatives after your dad died. Look at it this way–you should cut yourself some slack, and you’re never going to be short of material.” This is why I love Sharon. But still, here is what my writing has been for the last year:
Now I seem to have the ball rolling, at least a little bit. Probably going to blow my new October 1st deadline, though. Especially since my Mom flew in on her way home from Greece last night, and wants to go on a roadtrip. I should stay home and write, but I have people here so seldom I kind of want to milk the opportunity for real conversation that doesn’t involve sixteen-year-olds, although the latter is not without charm.
As for methodology… well, no index cards, whiteboards, post-it notes (giant or otherwise, until we get to the copy edit stage of things.) I’m not an outliner, though I had to write a synopsis for this fourth book. My editor wasn’t crazy about my first three ideas for it, and I had so few pages over the last year that my new sweet editor asked if I could summarize what I was thinking of doing for the salespeople. Not sure they’re going to need that, now, as this book certainly won’t come out in 2011, but I guess maybe it was helpful–though the next twenty pages I wrote after the synopsis totally negated the synopsis.
I remember Lee Child once saying at a book signing that he never outlined, and when editors wanted an outline he’d make something up and then write what he wanted anyway. I suppose that’s a lot easier to do when you’re LEE CHILD. But I still raised my hand at the end and asked, “do they make you do that for every book?”
He said they did, pretty much.
I asked, “so since you never write the book that’s in the outline, can you just recycle the outline the next time they want one?”
He said he hadn’t thought of that, but that he’d definitely do it the next time he got asked for one.
I usually start a book with a scene in my head. It’s always something very place-specific, usually with a telling event at the heart of it, though the event may have nothing to do with the eventual mystery.
In A Field of Darkness, the opening is in my old apartment in Syracuse, New York, on the night a building on the next block caught fire for the second night in a row–which actually happened. It’s funny how many little things I just jotted down in the first draft ended up being themes that carried out through the entire narrative: fire, my heritage, and even photography. I said that walking into the next street to see the fire at first felt like a photograph by Weegee, by which I mean an image somewhat like this:
This is actually titled “Brooklyn Children See Gambler Murdered in the Street,” but it’s the kind of late-night spooky crowd scene I had in mind. I believe the description in Field was something like:
I cut across the tar-soft street and between the woodframe hulks facing ours. For just a second, coming out the other side, it was like stepping into one of that guy Weegee’s photos from a forties copy of Life: black-and- white, some police-scanner tragedy back when everyone wore hats and cars were bulbous as the Hindenburg.
I blinked and it was just my neighbors milling slack-jawed, tank tops and stretch shorts bursting with that translucent flesh I always attribute to Kool smoke and government cheese. I stepped in among them and chastised myself: no worse snob than a poor relation.
For The Crazy School, I thought back to the classroom I taught in at The DeSisto School in West Stockbridge, Mass, in the fall of 1989. The walls looked like this, except painted glossy mustard, and the general attitude on campus is well represented by that officious little note next to the thermostat:
In the first chapter, I wrote:
It was an ugly room. Demoralizing. I didn’t want to be in it, either, only you’re not supposed to say that when you’re the grownup.
I talk about mostly real places, in my books. Like the family cemetery on Centre Island, in Oyster Bay, New York:
That’s my favorite gravestone. It says:
Behold and see
As you pass by
As you are now
So once was I
As I am now
You soon must be
Prepare for death
To follow me
I’ve also written about the family camp, in the Adirondacks:
Here’s Dad, sitting on the porch outside the dining room last summer. We all thought that ceramic deer should’ve been thrown into the lake sometime in the Mid-Fifties. It’s fucking fugly.
My fourth book is set in Boulder, Colorado, and opens a day before my twin daughters’ first birthday. I’m cleaning the house (a lost cause) because my mother is due to fly in at any moment. It’s going to be a pretty sad book. The title is now officially Valley of Ashes. Here’s how it opens:
When we first moved to Boulder I was entirely too happy, a state of being so rare in my experience that I found it rather terrifying.
My twin daughters Parrish and India were beautiful, precocious, and brimming with health. My husband Dean was happily successful at his new job and my best, most trusted friend. We lived at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains in a cozy old house on the loveliest street of a charming university town. The air was fresh, the sky was blue–our yard a lush and maple-shaded green, our mellow brick front porch banked in spring with a cobalt-and-amethyst embarrassment of lilac, iris, and grape hyacinth.
Everything I’d ever wanted.
Sorrow is always your own, offering no temptation to fickle gods. Fucking joy, on the other hand? You might as well string your heart from the ceiling for use as a frat-party piñata.
Once I get that first scene established–in this case I’m standing in the living room of a rented house at 1913 Mapleton Street with a vacuum hose in my hand, despairing over the ugliness of the orange shag carpeting and the bomb-just-went-off housekeeping–I just hope that the characters start talking to me, or to Madeline,
my alter ego.
If you’d like to see the house we rented, go here: http://maps.google.com/maps?client=safari&q=1913+mapleton+street+boulder+colorado&oe=UTF-8&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=1913+Mapleton+Ave,+Boulder,+Colorado+80304&gl=us&ei=
Then click on the little pinkish-reddish pointer pin marked “A” and then click on “Street View,” under the little thumbnail photo. It was a pretty great house.
It’s kind of like lowering your face through the surface of a swimming pool and watching a movie, when the going’s good. I see everything that’s happening while I’m typing–the furniture, the choreography of everyone in the scene. I just try to get that down precisely without too many brushstrokes; just enough detail to make it take on three dimensions.
Either it comes or it doesn’t, and boy is it terrifying when it doesn’t, let me tell you.
So here I am, lying on this bed, typing this blog… and now it’s time to try to finish the scene I’ve been working on, at Alice’s Restaurant on the shores of Gold Lake, another 3,000 feet of altitude above Boulder. Madeline has just told a joke to her friend Cary. They’re at a business dinner with Madeline’s husband Dean. Now they have to start talking about arson. They’re both in danger, but they don’t know it yet….
Maybe today I’ll write a little on my sofa, so I can talk to Mom when I get stuck.
That’s a bottle of absinthe on the table. I may need it.