Write Place, Write Time

If you look at anything long enough, say just that wall in front of you -- it will come out of that wall.
- Anton Chekhov

John Minichillo

One of the things that attracted us to this house in East Nashville, was the stone façade and the way it was tucked away in trees and greenery, despite being in the city. My writing room was beyond this window, in what was supposed to be the master bedroom. I didn’t notice until after we moved in, but there’s a cross above the window, so the room has a holiness about it, the outer look of a chapel. I’ve always imagined if there was a ghost in our house, this is where she would reside, and that she would approve of my writing there. While working on The Snow Whale, my young son was often in a playpen next to my desk. Now the room is his, with his toys everywhere, and my office has been moved to a room in the back that I haven’t used, not yet. I’m in transition and intend to use part of a Tennessee Artists Fellowship to get an iPad, and to use it for writing, anywhere and everywhere in this house. 

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The Snow Whalea contemporary retelling of Moby-Dick, is John Minichillo’s first novel. He lives in Nashville with the writer, Katrina Gray, and their son.

Lish McBride

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When I was a kid I had this idea of where writers write—a big dark wooden desk, probably in an office with giant bookshelves stacked with books. Somewhere quiet and smart looking where they could have Deep Writerly Thoughts. Classical music might be playing in the background. You never know. I thought someday, when I was a writer, I would have that.   

You should probably know that I was about the age of seven when I was thinking this. Around the same time I would try to write stories at my own desk (light wood, covered in books and Garfield figures) or in “inspiring places” like sitting on a rock by the sea. That’s when I realized something—the place might be inspiring, but a rock by the sea leaves you cold and with a sore butt. Also, your legs fall asleep fast and it’s hard to write like that.  

When I was in grad school, as a gift to myself for getting into grad school, I bought a proper desk.  And though it was made of compressed wood and lesser-than materials, I was proud of myself. I’d made it this far—I was a writer because I had a desk and it had bookshelves. Hell, it even had a filing cabinet. Clearly, I was a professional. Anyone could see that by my desk and my ergonomically shaped chair with wheels. And I had a three-hole punch. Nothing screams professionalism like a fancy office supplies. Never mind that I hadn’t actually had anything published.  Details, folks, just details. 

My new desk had a proper chair and proper supplies and I was going to write  everything at it. And for a time, the love continued and I did write at it, mostly short stories for school. So what if my office was a spare room with a bed and the bookshelves were particleboard and there was no classical music at all—I felt progress had been made.  

Then I started my novel. And I suddenly understood why so many writers write in coffee shops—something I’d somewhat mocked up until this point because it was such a stereotype. But here’s the thing: I was writing a lot to get the novel done so I could graduate, sometimes at twelve-fourteen hour stints…or longer. And when you spend that much time in a room by yourself you start to go a little wack-a-doo. First, you start talking to the cat and then you start talking to your computer, and in general it simply wasn’t a good idea for my book, my sanity, or me. 

And that’s the thing you don’t understand when you’re a kid dreaming of your fancy desk and wondering if you can pull off that black turtle neck and beret that you always picture authors wearing—writers are all different people and so we need different places to write.  

So, while I desperately miss that office in New Orleans where I probably lost part of my mind, I have no such place in Seattle.  I write in coffee shops. I write in bars. I write at friend’s houses. I write at my kitchen table. I’ve become nomadic. I’ve gone rogue. I’m writing off the reservation. 

Basically, I’ve become free range.

Like a cow.

Or a chicken.  

And it’s kind of awesome. There’s a wonderfully free feeling when writing in so many locales, sometimes with other writers so I can lean across the table and say things like, “How do you feel about this line?” or “What would you name a battle gnome?” and get an answer that isn’t “meow.” (Unless my writing partner is a jerk.) 

My last book was written in three different cities and in two different countries. I love that.  

And yet… 

I do sort of wish that someday I have that kind of office that I dreamed of as a child, with the desk and the bookshelves, and some nice windows so I can look outside. And while I’m dreaming: a mini-fridge, a tea pot, a big dog snoring on the floor, posters on the walls, no classical music, and, since we are after all dreaming, a unicorn to eat all my pages that get cut. Wouldn’t that make editing fun? Sure, I have to cut a whole chapter, but I get to feed it to a unicorn! (I would also accept a dragon for the same purpose.) 

C’mon science. Get on it. I need someone to build me mythical office supplies. Because I feel that would be way more professional than a desk. The unicorn could also fill in as a hole-punch. (See, scientists—I am practically doing your job for you.) 

Lish McBride is the author of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and the forthcoming Necromancing the Stone. She is the graduate of the UNO MFA program and lives in Seattle with her family, two cats, and one very put upon geriatric Chihuahua.

A book walks into a bar…

            

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Joey Comeau

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I write in my bedroom, on the edge of my bed. This is also where I read, watch television, and play video games. When I’m struggling with a problem in a book, I turn on some familiar music and lay down and look up at the ceiling until my brain figures it out. You are supposed to have a separate area for sleeping and working, I think. It helps your brain develop a pattern. “When I’m here, I go into this mode.” Like, in the bedroom go into sleep mode. In the office go into work mode. But my brain doesn’t do that. I sleep for hours during the day, then wake up at 3am to finish a chapter. On the wall there’s a picture of me and my dad, one of those fake old time pictures from Niagara Falls. There’s a Jim Henson stuffed mouse from the Bear in the Big Blue House, you can see my two big Patricia Highsmith biographies on that shelf, along with 5 seasons of Criminal Minds, and about a dozen chess books. Up higher is a Dinosaur Comics book and Taiyo Matsumoto’s GOGO Monster. On the bed are a book on AI methods, a dummies guide to Statistics, and a Kindle, along with pills and mail. On my desk you can see my computer and a bowl of candy. 

Joey Comeau creates the comic A Softer World with Emily Horne. His novel, One Bloody Thing After Another, was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. His previous books include Overqualified, Bible Camp Bloodbath, and The Girl Who Couldn’t Come. You can read his newest project online, a book with illustrator Jess Fink, about best friends, called We Are Become Pals.

Clark Knowles

My office. I found the desk on the side of the road. It’s my first grown up writing desk. I used to write on a sheet of plywood streched across two sawhorses. Then I upgraded to a table from a yardsale. Then I found this. I hadn’t been writing much for about a year, but as soon as I saw this desk, I wanted to write. We’d had weeks of hard rain and the desk appeared on the first sunny day, bearing a sign that said, “Free and Dry.” I swerved my van over and backed up the street. Luckily, it came apart and fit into my van. Homer is above and to the left, my muse. Current reading list is stacked to the bottom, on the right. Computer is there, but I’m doing most of my drafting by longhand. Three of the eight stories I wrote last summer have been accepted by good reviews: Glimmer Train, Conjunctions, and Harpur Palate.

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Clark Knowles digs for treasure in his backyard. His work can be found in numerous literary journals. He is writing something about zombies.

Elif Batuman

Finding the right workspace, for me, involved a lot of trial and error.  In the end, this workspace turned out to be in some undergrowth.  

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It might not look luxurious, but there’s room for everything I need: a cup of tea, a reference volume or two, a spiral notebook and pen, and of course my IMAGINATION.  I just scooch down there in the peat and let her go wild. 

It has often been observed, and rightly, that a writer must be an insider and an outsider at the same time.  I have never felt closer to this elusive and desirable condition than when hunkered down in some bushes.

Because most people tend to spend their time in cars and buildings and such, places like hedges and shrubbery are usually pretty underpopulated, so you can get plenty of peace and quiet.  On the other hand, people walk past bushes all the time, having their conversations and arguments and whatnot—so if you get stuck for dialogue or characterization, why, all you have to do is sit tight and keep your ears open!

 I won’t say there are no disadvantages down here, but, for a writer, it all balances out.  The other day, some kind of groundskeeper started jabbing around my workspace with one of those litter collectors, knocked over my teacup, and almost stabbed me in the eye… and when I politely requested him to be more careful, he started yelling and carrying on as if was the invasive one!  This would have been really trying for most people, but for a writer it’s not as big a deal.  I’m just gonna put him in my next book.

Elif Batuman’s first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (FSG, 2010), was a 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist.  She writes for the New Yorker and is currently writer-in-residence at Koç University in Istanbul, where this photograph was taken.  Information about Elif Batuman’s life and thoughts can be found on her blog, My Life and Thoughts.  

 

Jennifer Gilmore

Here is my space.  It’s also a closet, though it does have a window. I look out of the window often, and have relationships with other people who are doing the same.  I have a lot of stuff around my desk, I realize looking at this now, even though this is a time when there is little of the stacks of papers and manuscripts that usually clutter it.  Just above my desk hangs a  a drawing by my husband, which hangs, and propped against the wall is a video still by my sister and a Kaethe Kollwitz print of a woman working at a desk in the dark.  There’s a rolodex on my desk, which I hadn’t noticed—I haven’t used it since 2007.  Do people throw those out?  And I imagine this sounds grim, but my dog’s ashes are in a tin in that green bag—I haven’t decided what I want to do with them yet, and I guess a lot of things I care about are on my desk.  Above is a shelf I’ve hung too high to notice while working, and on it there are photos of my grandparents, old perfume bottles, a wooden elephant.  But I can see the whole shelf as I stand, before I turn to walk away from my work, which I do way too often…

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Jennifer Gilmore’s second novel, Something RedNew York Times Notable Book of 2010, is just out in paperback.  She is also the author of Golden Country, a 2006 New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Jewish Book Award. She has taught writing and literature at Cornell University, Eugene Lang College at the New School and New York University.  She plans to get another dog soon.

Lev Grossman

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When we bought our house about two years ago the real estate agent pointed out the ivy-covered brick wall at the back of the garden and said, “Isn’t it magical? It’ll look different every different month of the year. It’s an ever-changing tableau of the seasons!”

Much later, after painful meetings with architects and structural engineers, we used to recite other quotations from the real estate agent in ironic tones. Such as: “You could have a dinner party here tomorrow night!” But the thing about the back wall turned out to be completely true. It really is a nice wall. A Chekhov wall.

This makes it sound like I don’t love our house, which is where I do most of my writing. I do love it. It’s an old brownstone in Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. It has most of its original details intact – it spent much of its life as a flophouse, and nobody cared about it enough to rip out all its beautiful moldings and replace them with boring modern fixtures. And now, thanks largely to the collapse of the housing market in 2009, it’s ours. And I love this room, which is the one where I write.

I picked this room because it has built-in bookshelves, and because it’s connected to the master bedroom by a little pass-through corridor. I imagined that if I woke up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea I could race through the corridor and type it out in my study. In fact most of the traffic through the corridor goes the other way: me dragging my weary ass to bed at night having run out of stuff to say.

The other most prominent feature of the room is an enormous old work table, which I bought at a flea market. It was salvaged from an abandoned factory near Allentown, PA, and has a nice air of late-industrial twilight about it. It has a metal top which I always worry is going to have bad static or magnetic interactions with the various laptops that get placed on it, but so far there haven’t been any disasters. And anyway we had to take it apart to get it through the door, so unless it turns out to be covered with radium paint or something, it’s staying. No one wants to go through that again. 

So far I’ve had good luck writing in this room. I wrote most of The Magician King here in about two years flat, which is pretty much a land-speed record for me. When I get restless I move to one of the two armchairs in front of the windows. A time-lapse video of the room would show me ping-ponging from chair to chair to desk in a triangular pattern.

But mostly I write at the big table so I can see that ivy-covered brick wall. In fact it made it intoThe Magician King — there’s a scene in Julia’s bedroom, where she’s looking out the back window, and rain starts rippling the ivy on the wall at the back of her parents’ garden. That’s how she knows fall has arrived. That’s how I know when fall arrives, too.

Lev Grossman is the author of The Magicians, which was a New York Times bestseller and one of the New Yorker’s best books of the year in 2009, and the sequel, The Magician King. Grossman is also the book critic for Time magazine.

Alan Heathcock

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My writing studio is a 1967  Roadrunner travel trailer that for most of its life was an Idaho State Police surveillance vehicle, and is now packed with books and trophies and random oddities.  Inside, there’s old beautiful wood paneling, which smells like woods and feels like wood and feels cozy and connects me with reality.  

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With my wife’s help, I took pages from my favorite books and decoupaged them over the kitchenette area, so every time I get a drink of water, or heat up some tea, Hemingway and Joyce and James Dickey and Joyce Carol Oates stare me right in the face.  I’ve hung framed letters I received from authors I admire, my prize being a type-written letter Joy Williams wrote me after she’d read my book. 

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Another favorite piece is a picture of “The Preacher” from the Charles Laughton movie, The Night of the Hunter.  The Preacher hangs over my head, glowering down over me, H-A-T-E tattooed across one hand, L-O-V-E across the other, him always watching, always making sure I’m writing what’s right and righteous.  In short, the VOLT-mobile is a space that transports me from my side-driveway and deep into the recesses of my imagination, into all its fear and whimsy, its questions and concerns.

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Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review,VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and The Harvard Review. His stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. VOLT, a collection of stories published by Graywolf Press, received starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, was named by Publishers Weekly as a debut to watch for 2011, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, featured as one of three notable debuts to watch on The Huffington Post, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as for inclusion in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series. Heathcock has been awarded fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.

 

Tobias Carroll

Something I’ve learned in the last few years: when I want to sit down and write, it helps to have a window nearby. My desktop computer dwells in my office, the one room in my apartment without any windows, and for far too long I’d wondered why I was more prone to distraction in that particular space than anywhere else. A month or so ago, the desktop tower I’d used for the previous five years called it a day; I replaced with with a Mac mini, and used the occasion to reorganize my office slightly. (What I haven’t done yet is to raise the posters — a print of Jay Ryan’s cover artwork for Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution and a poster from a 2006 His Name Is Alive/Oxford Collapse/Lavender Diamond show — on the wall behind the desk. You may have noticed that, ultimately, this serves as a fantastically longwinded explanation of the actual angle on the desktop.) 

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For a while, I tried to forego writing at home altogether, instead bringing something electronic — first a PDA with attached keyboard, later a laptop — to a bar or coffee shop nearby. After a while, these arrangements stopped working as well as I’d have liked: I ended up short on cash and either too jittery or too tipsy to write anything of note.  

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Not long after that, I got a small laptop and decided to bring it out into my living room; that’s worked well for me so far. It helps, if nothing else, to have sight of the sky and the clouds in it. Sometimes the view from the window will work its way into the piece I’m writing, as it did in “An Apolitical Song.” Generally my office is where I’ll end up doing my editing; it’s not always an ideal arrangement, but it’s worked out well enough so far.  

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The project I’ve been working on recently, though, has required more planning than anything else I’ve worked on. As I’m currently conceiving it, I’m going to need to sketch out a shared history for the three primary main characters — including former bandmates, families, classmates — as well as a small town near the Pennsylvania border in northwestern New Jersey. I keep a Moleskin notebook around, but more recently I picked up a half-dozen Field Notes notebooks so that I could keep things project-specific. All of which means, ultimately, that I’m beginning to head back into coffee shops and bars, sketching out words and maps and timelines whenever the urge takes me, and watching the light’s progression.  

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Tobias Carroll lives in Brooklyn and writes damn near everywhere. His fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, featherproof’s “Light Reading” series, Metazen, 3:AM, Word Riot, Storychord, and more. He makes his home online at The Scowl, and contributes regularly to Vol. 1 Brooklyn

Jonathan Maberry

 

I’m self-employed as a full-time writer, so I can work wherever I can sit down with my laptop.  I often divide my workday between writing at home and writing in coffee shops.  I’m a caffeine nomad, and will frequently spend a couple of hours at a Starbucks then move to the coffee shop in a bookstore, then go back home. Breaking up the day refreshes my mind and gives me time to think. My office at home is crammed with all sorts of oddities, including a bobble-head statue of Edgar Allen Poe, a genuine cat skull, a rubber brain, a bottle of Holy Water and another of garlic; gargoyles, various rubber ducks (I have a mummy, vampire, zombie, and mad scientist), a carved crystal alien head, zombie finger puppets, my Bram Stoker Awards, a statue of Shaun of the Dead, wind-up robots, lots of action figures of super heroes, and a Malaysian good-luck bat.Being inside my office is a bit like being inside my head. Fun, a little spooky, and cluttered with interesting curios.

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Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times bestselling author and Marvel Comics writer.  His works include the Pine Deep Trilogy, Patient Zero, Dust & Decay, Wanted Undead or Alive, The Wolfman, and Marvel Universe vs Wolverine.  He is a writing teacher and lecturer.  Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara.

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Jami Attenberg

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I live in a crumbly old loft building in Brooklyn, where people are always coming and going and leaving a trail behind. I bought this table from a neighbor across the hall from me who was moving out and selling everything in his apartment.  He was some sort of musician/interior designer/con artist, and I will admit he had a lot of nice stuff. He was very masculine and overbearing.  He told me how he was moving out to go work on a dairy farm in Oregon for a summer, and when he came back he was going to move in with his wife, who lived elsewhere in Brooklyn.  He said that sometimes they lived apart, but sometimes marriages worked better that way.  I could not argue with him.  I could barely stand to be in the same room with him, so maybe his wife had the right answer.  

But I did like that table! The top of it was actually the floor of a back patio from a house he owned in Seattle, and he had built the base of the table himself. He wanted me to buy the chairs that he had been using with the table, even though they were not a matched set.  They were tiny and wooden and expensive.  What am I going to do with a tiny chair? I have a tremendous ass.  He was really insistent I buy them, like he was actually a total dick about it, but I held my ground. When he finally moved the table into my apartment he was still angry that I had not bought the chairs.  He had gotten another neighbor to help move in the table - it’s extremely heavy - and after he deposited it in one location he had said, “That’s enough. We’ve done enough for her.”  And then he left without a goodbye.

The morning after I bought the table I got up early, probably around 7 AM, to go for a walk and I saw this young woman sneaking out of his apartment.  She was wearing a bodysuit under a pair of cut off denim shorts, and the bottom of the bodysuit was a thong, and the shorts were pulled down low.  Our apartments are at the intersection of three different hallways and it can be a bit confusing even for a sober person, let alone a wasted girl, who was also probably getting minus brain points for the bodysuit.  I watched her take a few steps in one direction, stop, then turn and take a few steps in another direction, then stop, and try another way.  She was like a lost little windup doll.  I finally took mercy on her and pointed her toward the exit.   

It has taken me a long time to be able to claim the table as my own. His personality vibrated on it for months.  I just started using this as a reading table this spring.  For about a year the table was totally empty all the time, and then it became a place where I dumped my mail and my purse.  Occasionally I ate at it.  I have finally given it a promotion to reading table and now I sit at it in the mornings and also late in the afternoon.  I think I needed to spread books all over it to finally feel comfortable with it.

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I wrote my first two books on this desk. It was originally painted yellow, and I bought it at a junk shop for forty bucks in the East Village, where I lived for my first six years in New York.  I can’t bear to throw it away even though I have a new writing table now.  So I painted it white, and now it’s a ghost desk.

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In 2008 my entire apartment building got evicted for various safety reasons not the least of which was there was a matzo bakery in our basement that apparently could have exploded at any minute. (Who knew?)  Five months later we were all able to move back in, and I decided to get a different apartment with my boyfriend at the time.  As with many apartments in the building, there was some furniture left behind by the previous owner. (Many of us had just fled when we were evicted and took only what we loved.)  So this table was there when we moved in, and I immediately claimed it as my new writing table.  I love it. It’s the perfect size and height, and it’s so solid and industrial, but still very light and easy to move around.  When people visit, they always want to sit with me at this table with their own laptops.  I had always hoped the ghost desk would be the guest desk, but I guess it’s nice that people want to sit close to me.

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My apartment faces the Williamsburg Bridge, and I can watch the cars and the JMZ subway line go by all day long. I can see the top of the Empire State Building, and some of midtown Manhattan.  I like it when it rains, I like it when the clouds move fast, I like it when the sky turns all peachy right before sunset.  I love the first big snowstorm of the year when there’s a whiteout, and the bridge disappears before my eyes like some magic trick. I do not like any of the snowstorms that follow, however. It can sometimes feel dire here in the winter months, a big window onto nothing but gray and white.  But mostly this view inspires me.  I can write here.  I keep thinking I should move, that I can’t live in this environment forever.  I should be more of a grown-up.  But I don’t know where I would go, or how I would find a view that would make me happier than this one.  If you find a place you can write, you should probably stay there forever.

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Jami Attenberg is the author of Instant Love, The Kept Man, and The Melting Season. Her fourth book, The Middlesteins, will be published in October 2012. She has been blogging since the late 90s at whatever-whenever.net.

Dana Stabenow

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My workspace used to be two folding tables from Costco and my bookshelves press-board put-togethers from Fred Meyer.  Now, I have a desk and shelves specifically built for the purpose.  I feel like a real writer for the first time in my life.

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I have two gods and one goddess who watch over me at work and keep me on track; Sebastian, the calypso crab from The Little Mermaid, a turtle with a bobbly head from Mexico my friend Sharyn gave me, and a clay goddess from Cappodocia in Turkey.  

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There is also the Lucite paperweight with the drop of Prudhoe Bay crude oil in it that I’ve had ever since Oil In Day, June 20, 1977.  It wouldn’t be my desk without that.

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Dana Stabenow is the author of 29 novels, including the Edgar-awarding winning Kate Shugak series.  She lives the bliss of perfect solitude on ten acres on lower Cook Inlet in Alaska. 

Jessica Anya Blau

This is the studio where I’m currently writing at a writers’ colony in Virginia (VCCA). The horses wander around outside my windows all day and a toad appears outside my door every night. I talk to the horses and they respond with snorts and head bows. When I talk to the toad he completely ignores me—I think I’m being shunned. This is a beautiful and peaceful place to write without the interruption of phone calls, grocery shopping, laundry, driving, bill-paying, etc.

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Jessica Anya Blau’s highly acclaimed novel, DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, was featured in TARGET stores’ Breakout Author series. Her novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, was picked as a Best Summer Book by the Today Show, the New York Post and New York Magazine. The San Francisco Chronicle picked it as one of the Best Books of the Year.

Cherie Priest

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I don’t really have an office, just a portion of wall in our living room. (Tiny downtown Seattle apartment. You know how it goes.) But there you go, and that’s what it looks like. Yes, that’s a cast iron candelabra. The framed images are line art from the interior illustrations of my mosaic collection DREADFUL SKIN (courtesy of Bill Schafer at Subterranean, artist Mark Geyer). The anchor is a cheap thermometer that originally belonged in a Florida giftshop circa 1985, but I found it in Archie McPhee and it reminds me of home.  As you can see by the filing cabinet, I am a Real Grown Up.

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Cherie Priest is the author of eleven novels (so far) - but whenever anyone tells her, “Hey, I read your book!” she knows they mean BONESHAKER. Not that she’s complaining.