The writers’ stuff

DAN CROWE is the editor of "How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors," which will be published next week by Rizzoli.

WHEN WE first started approaching writers, we felt slightly awkward. In the phrasing of our letter we tried to tread carefully: “Dear Writer. We would like to ask you to take some time to think about which object, picture or document in your study reveals most about the relationship between living and writing. It could be anything which can be reproduced in the book and that you feel strongly about.”

We felt a little guilty about this. Literature isn’t supposed to be about objects or comfort or furniture; it’s about big themes, wide ideas and tall emotions. Great literature takes you on a journey into the wide world, yet for our project we were asking writers to retreat into the narrow confinement of their own four walls.

In spite of our concerns, responses came fast and plenty. The first came from writer and film director Bruce Robinson. He wasn’t quite sure what we were after. There was nothing of real interest in his study, he said; to prove his point, he added a short description of his desk and the quotes he had stuck up on the wall, including one from James Joyce: “Write it damn you, what else are you good for?”


He apologized for not being able to get involved and wished us good luck. The letter, of course, was perfect -- personal, real, humorous, offering a brief glimpse of the real person behind the words.

In the end we received dozens of contributions, several of which are excerpted below. They were incredibly diverse and clearly illustrated the fact that there is no simple formula to writing. Just hard work. And the odd bolt of inspiration.


Ian Rankin

THE OBJECT IN MY OFFICE I treasure most is probably a framed photograph. It shows the battered signage above Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar. ... I’ve been drinking in the Oxford Bar since I was a student in the 1980s (a fellow student -- one of my flat-mates -- was part-time barman there). The first time I walked in, I was a stranger. By my third visit, my preferred drink was being poured before I needed to ask.

That’s the “Ox” for you: It’s like a private club, only with no joining fee. It’s also a democratic place: Everyone’s as good as anyone else, as long as they have the price of their next drink about their person. There are few frills to the Ox: no piped music, little in the way of hot foods (pies, pasties). It’s a place for drink and for conversation. I decided Inspector Rebus would like it, so he started drinking there, too.

... That sign helps me get inside the head of Rebus ... It keeps me grounded and also acts as a taskmaster: If I can get a good day’s work done, I can reward myself with a pint later on.

Ian Rankin is the author of the bestselling “Inspector Rebus” crime series.


A. S. Byatt

THE ATTIC I WRITE IN is like a cabinet of curiosities -- an idea that excited me the moment I met it. Or it is like Kipling’s Kim’s game, a tray of objects to memorize. I collect glass paperweights and bits of rock -- volcanic lava from Iceland, phantom quartz from Norway, rose quartz given to me by a Korean friend, a piece of chalky cliff from Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. I have a case full of brilliant South American insects....

The creature I found in a junk shop in Sevenoaks when I was 18. I paid seven shillings and sixpence for him. He is very heavy, like a French boule, and his head takes off to make an inkwell ... he must have held a pen in his hands. He has a strange tail curling up his back. I have no idea where he came from or when he was made, but he clearly belongs to the world of northern tales of trolls and goblins. He has never had a name.

A.S. Byatt is the Booker Prize-winning author of “Possession.”


Jonathan Franzen

THIS IS MY OFFICE CHAIR, which I’ve been using continuously since scavenging it off a street in Rockland County, N.Y., in 1982. It squeaks horribly and irremediably, but it’s been many years since I’ve been able to hear the squeak, just as I can’t hear myself talking when I write dialogue, even though, when I leave the office, I can tell from my hoarseness that I’ve been talking loudly all day.

Jonathan Franzen is the author of “The Corrections” and other books.


Will Self

I WRITE IDEAS, tropes, images, observations, snippets of dialogue, themes, factoids, descriptions on these Post-it notes and put them in relevant zones on the wall. Then I organize them into scrapbooks, then I turn them into books. Then I write more ideas, etc., on Post-it notes. And so it goes on: the auto-cannibalization of the fictive world. All creative artists fetishize their working methods -- but it isn’t ever nice to look at. At least I don’t think so.

Will Self is the author of many novels, including “The Book of Dave,” “Dorian, an Imitation” and “How the Dead Live.”


Neil LaBute

I’M A BIG BELIEVER in writing only when the mood hits me, when inspiration comes right up and kicks my ass back into a chair and says, “Get to it!” I hate staring at an empty field of white -- I’m only myself when it starts to fill up with glorious words (even semi-glorious words will do). One thing that I can always count on to inspire me, however, is the 50-odd minutes of musical woe that Frank Sinatra spins on his album, “In the Wee Small Hours.” It’s not just the music -- which absolutely takes my breath away -- but even the cover art can do the trick: Frank, with a trademark fedora tilted back on his head and holding a burning cigarette, looking down and forlorn as a Hopper-esque landscape spreads itself out behind him. Take another glance at his expression -- I know it’s only a drawing, but I’ll be damned if the real Frank wasn’t captured there with those pens and ink. It’s around that time that “Glad to Be Unhappy” begins to play. And then the magic begins to happen for me. Hey, if St. Francis can feel a little bummed at times, then all is right with the world.

Neil LaBute is a film director, screenwriter and playwright.