Ian R MacLeod has published five previous novels and four short story collections. Amongst many accolades, his work has won the Arthur C Clarke, John W Campbell, World Fantasy and Sidewise awards. He was born in the suburbs of Birmingham, England, and currently lives, works and dreams in the riverside town of Bewdley, Worcestershire. He maintains a website at www.ianrmacleod.com. He has no current plans to write any feelie biopics—at least, not until the right offer comes along . . .
Before I write anything about this room where I work, I should say how privileged I am to have such an arrangement. Virginia Woolf once famously announced that a woman needs two things if she wants to write: a room of one’s own (with a lock and a key), and some money to be independent. Woolf’s world-view was elaborate, but dated and limited. Forget about women and writers; few people in the world of ours are lucky enough to have either of these things, let alone both of them at the same time.
But here it is — this is the place where I do most of my writing, and I’m very lucky to have it. Not that I don’t spend a lot of my time thinking things through as I walk the dogs, or talking to myself in the car or the kitchen, or sitting working at writing or researching in other rooms, be they in our house or in public places such a bars, cafes and libraries, or doing all the other things which are necessary to lead a life, and also to help generate that other necessity which Woolf mentioned. But at the end of the day, for me and I suspect for most other writers, it usually comes back to one desk, and one seat, in one particular room. There are some things you can escape as a writer, such as the normal restrictions of reality and moral responsibility. But the place where you do your work isn’t one of them.
The view I have out of my window is actually rather a pretty one, even if it is just of a lawn and some trees and a garden gate. People even comment that it must be helpful, for “inspiration”, to look out on such a charmingly rustic scene. I don’t usually bother to explain that I normally write with the blinds at least half down, and that I often miss the arrangements of all my previous “writing rooms”, where my desk generally faced a wall and the views were less attractive. The main objective of writing fiction is to shut yourself off from the world you’re in, not to open yourself up to it.
Some writers need silence to help with this shutting off process, but I generally work with some music playing in the background. Most often it’s Radio 3, the BBC’s classical station. Not that I don’t enjoy music with a beat or recognisable lyrics, but I find that’s distracting when I’m writing. Sometimes, when I’m really pumped up, I can write to the jagged heavy metal of King Crimson. Most of the time, though, the timeless masterpieces that the great composers sacrificed their lives and health to produce simply drift by my ears. Like those half-drawn blinds, the music is just another way of blocking things out and keeping the bit of my mind that might otherwise notice something else occupied.
Obviously, there are many bits and bobs on display in this room of mine. Reference books, stationery tools. A Klimt reproduction that always reminds me when I look at it of Nick Roeg’s Bad Timing. That, and an out-of-date “Sexy Priests” calendar I got in Rome, which makes me smile, and a Cthulhu cuddly toy I was given a few years back by the people at Clarion West, which makes me smile as well. Along with pictures my daughter has done for me over the years, and photos of my nearest and dearest. But I’m noticing these things now — they’re really not there when I’m deeply involved in writing. In fact, I sometimes think that the ideal writer’s room would be an empty grey cell with nothing in it but the most basic tools needed for writing. A scary place, certainly, and difficult to enter of a morning of evening. But then, stripped of all its comforts and illusions, writing itself is a scary business. At least, it should be.
On a TV programme many years ago, Gore Vidal was touring the rooms of a Venetian palace. There, he was shown the desk where Henry James had supposedly sat to write one of his later novels. The desk faced one of those huge gilt mirrors you get in such places, and Vidal pointed out that the thing must have been moved since James had been spinning out those interminable sentences. No writer with the sole exception of Ernest Hemingway, he pronounced, could possibly sit writing at a desk facing a mirror. He’s right, of course. I can’t imagine anything worse, or less productive.
One of the main tricks of writing fiction is to somehow try to train yourself not to think too hard about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. This includes being conscious of yourself, your writing materials, and the room in which you happen to be sitting. Not that the walls are likely to dissolve, or your characters will emerge from a bookcase and start talking to you. But it does mean that, at least when things are going well, an amount of forgetting about yourself is going on as you are writing.
Like a mechanic deeply involved in working out a problem with a piece of machinery or an actor in character in a play, it’s a trick that most writers develop simply through hard work and repetition. Thoughts about whether you’ve put out the bins or what to have for dinner may still intrude, just as I’m sure they do for an actor on the stage or a musician in mid-performance, but you try to push those things aside. The great advantage and disadvantage with writing being that, unlike a musician in full flow or a salesman in mid-sale, there’s nothing other than your own willpower to stop you from being distracted and starting to do something else.
The fridge, the next cup of tea, jobs around the house and other far more urgent real-world tasks, not to mention that latest episode of Top Gear, always beckon. Worse still, or better, especially in these days of the internet, there often arises the genuine need to check up on a fact, or invent a name for a minor character. Next thing you, know, you’re sorting through the Spam in your e-mails, setting up pointless macros on Word, using cotton buds to clean your keyboard, reading the cooking pages of last week’s Observer, or looking at Facebook. But there should and most likely will be a voice at the back of your head telling your that this isn’t what you’re supposed to be here for, that this isn’t getting the job done, that this isn’t writing.
So, back to the page, or the computer screen, and a quick check of those notes you scrawled out before you started to remind you of what is supposed to be happening, even if it isn’t . . .
People meet and fall in love. Empires clash. Hopes are raised and destroyed. Time passes. Seasons fade. Snow sparkles. Rain hisses. Galaxies wither. All at the click of a key or the flick of a pen. Writing is a pretty magical business, when you think about it. I’ve had my moments of laughing out loud admiration at my own cleverness in this room of mine. I’ve punched the air and whooped like a sports fan. I’ve been close to tears. I’ve felt hot when I’ve been writing about hot places, and have shivered as my characters shivered. I’ve moments of delight, and at least as many of absolute emptiness. But I think you could probably say many similar things about most rooms where people do their work, at least if they care as much about it as they could and should.
For most of the time, and when things are going well, what I’m really hoping for is as I sit in this room of my own (which doesn’t have a lock and a key, although I have to keep it properly shut to stop the dogs from barging in) is nothing more than that same steady sense of progress I hope to get when any job is going okay and the wind’s in the right direction and my mind isn’t distracted. A sense of forgetful involvement, in other words, inside a space which I’m not really noticing.