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Seven writers invite us into the rooms where they sweat out words.
This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue. Photographs by Zack Arias.
Writers tend to present themselves as hardy flowers that bloom wherever planted, when in fact, most of them more closely resemble hothouse orchids in their finicky sensitivity.
Some probably do dial the thermostat way up (or down) in their offices and insist on those conditions. Many are fanatically neat and organized and dust-averse in their filing systems, explaining that so many other, messier characters teeming within their imaginations require crowd control and cleanup. Others embrace the creative chaos of clutter that could conceal a dead body—and just might, at least metaphorically.
A select few love—and command fat enough contracts to afford—a panoramic view of some body of water, while others effectively hunker down in monastic cells devoid of any sunlight. Looking at old photographs and travel souvenirs may inspire productive musing, as may poring over passages from canonical role models. Some scribblers, though, eschew reading or gazing at anything altogether during a project—too much potential contamination of “voice.” Music helps some and distracts others. That one guzzles coffee like a Peterbilt consumes diesel; this one practices yoga or at least displays a barbell beside the bookcase. And of course, writers in general have been known to drink now and then, and grow loquacious and loud in their shoptalk. Orchids need liquids and fertilizer, too.
They all differ in these details, but they are alike in their obsessive commitment to their art, to the process of honing every word the way a prisoner fashions a lockpick or a shiv. After all, writing sentences alone can feel like just that—a sentence, in this case to solitary confinement. Environment affects the recidivism rate, for better or worse.
So come in and make yourself at home with them. Psychoanalyze their knickknacks and totems. Just don’t touch anything.
1. Tom Junod, Esquire writer at large, Marietta
Junod is an eleven-time National Magazine Award finalist and has won twice—both times for feature writing.
“I’m not a talisman guy, and I don’t have any rituals, and I’m not particularly quirky,” Junod says, by way of shrugging apology. “Writing is one of the more sacred things I do, but it’s largely demystified at this point. More like hammering nails.” His small and tidy home office is dominated, though, by a large, framed collage his mother crafted with obvious parental pride, a compilation of headlines and bylines from the places that first published his work—alumni and trade publications, then Atlanta magazine, then GQ. Since 1997 he’s been at Esquire, where his stories—which are somehow humanely warm and knowingly cool at the same time—have earned him a place in the canon alongside his early role models. Read “The Falling Man,” Junod’s contemplation of 9/11 filtered through an unforgettable photograph. Or “Mercenary,” a frightening look at the consequences of deception.
Junod points to a shelf with titles by Joseph Mitchell, Lester Bangs, Tom Wolfe. “Those were the books that cast a spell over me, that I used to read over and over,” he says. His window offers a view of Lake Fjord, in a sedate subdivision, and the room is organized into “queues,” he says. “So many queues these days, from the books I’m reading to my inbox to my iTunes—I shuffle from 23,000 songs, from George Jones to George Winston. Sometimes music functions as a good distraction.”
He also displays photos of Vince Lombardi among family shots of himself playfully boxing his “old man,” both shirtless, and hoisting his little girl, along with a porcine paperweight souvenir from China, where his daughter was born. Junod often labors at night in the mellow company of his old dog, Carson, a pit bull rescue. “Boredom kills people, and writing is a great boredom defeater because you learn about different worlds,” he says. “Writing is the reckoning, but the learning is great fun, too.”
2. Kathryn Stockett, novelist, Buckhead
The Help, Stockett’s novel about African American maids working in white households, was rejected by sixty
literary agents before it was published, becoming a blockbuster bestseller and inspiring an Oscar-winning movie.
It figures that Stockett, perhaps the most demonstrably Southern writer working today, would have some bucolic flourishes in her home environment, including some plump, arrogant-looking hens—a handy source of fresh eggs—in the corner of her backyard. “I grew up on a horse farm in Mississippi with a variety of animals, so this makes me feel more at home,” she says. She usually ends up working at the loafer’s bench in front of her pedigreed poultry. “This house is where all of my daughter’s friends congregate in the afternoon, so I find myself migrating all over the place—wherever it’s quietest—and by the end of the day, I’m here at the chicken coop.”
Like Stockett herself, the decor of her home is sleekly modern and manicured, with a few gracious but insistent nods to a sepia-toned past. (“I don’t understand why Northern women don’t clean their houses before having company,” she says, straightening a book.) Before she alights at her roost, Stockett likes to gaze at old photographs, read plays by Beth Henley and other dialogue-centered dramatists, and let her fingers hover for a moment over the keys in her prized collection of antique typewriters. One is a Braille instrument (“that form of the printed word always fascinated me”). “I love the loud noise these machines make and feel a little sad that kids today don’t even know what they’re for,” she says. “I guess I’m old-fashioned that way.”
3. Jim Grimsley, novelist, memoirist, and playwright, Decatur
Before winning laurels for his semiautobiographical book Winter Birds, Grimsley worked for almost two decades as a secretary at Grady Memorial Hospital.
“Best yard-sale purchase ever, in New Orleans for five dollars,” Grimsley says, pointing to a much-thumbed Oxford English Dictionary. His office is bunkered in the daylight basement of a labyrinthine, bohemian house he shares with a couple of his collaborators. “It’s cave-like because I need the feeling of a cave,” he says. “If I had a big picture window with a view, I would get utterly lost in it.”
His surroundings offer other stimulating visuals, though: Brightly colored, nervous-looking figures peer from paintings by artist friends. “I like to look at those faces and make up stories about them,” he says.Other reveries are inspired by his shrines to family. He has a photo of his mother by his primary keyboard (eight computers and a laptop anchor the room), and one of his late brother on a box painted with dogwood blossoms, along with the food dish for his late cat. His grandmother, however, is represented by a jade Buddha totem. Why? “She was big and fat but not jolly, and this figurine just reminded me of her,” he says. “I draped it in silver necklaces to propitiate her, and it must have worked because I haven’t noticed any signs of her being upset.” Kinfolk are always on his mind, especially now, when he has just returned from a research trip to his native North Carolina; he’s working on a memoir about desegregation.
Grimsley also surrounds himself with exquisitely lacquered containers and pillboxes, a deck of tarot cards, and a small sculpture of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet. “I try to keep the clutter to a minimum because I have a relative who makes me worry about the potential of becoming a hoarder, but stuff still accumulates.”
4. Karin Slaughter, novelist, Atlanta
Slaughter has sold more than 30 million copies of her books, which have been translated into more than thirty languages.
Among her reference books on sexual trauma and lethal violence is a shelf of knickknacks in happy-go-lucky counterpoint: more than thirty Snoopy figurines. “My sister started giving me those when we were kids,” says Slaughter, whose gory, character-driven crime fiction has crested the bestseller lists since her debut in 2001. She has painted these walls a soothing neutral called Stonington Gray. “It’s a napping color,” she says. “Most of my books begin with a nap on my couch here, when I dream up characters and story lines, and then I write on my laptop in the recliner and handle the business side of email at my desk, which is sagging in the middle—maybe from so many words?”
A large flatscreen television enables her to mull over pilot scripts since Hollywood has come calling, and her window looks out at a leafy urban garden, which prompts musing on her favorite subject, local history: “Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate, used to live in this neighborhood and brought back exotic animals from safari, so there were complaints about giraffes and other animals running wild here—those became the basis of the zoo.” More recently she went through what she calls an “awful, terrible monkey phase,” indicating a postcard of a wild-eyed simian creature on her bulletin board. “I got fascinated with them because they’re such frightening, nasty animals, and then people started giving me monkey crap to the point where I had to ask them to stop.”
Slaughter, whose work enjoys a devout following in Europe, also collects coins and displays a sprawling map of the world, with colored stickpins marking the dozen or more countries where she has toured. The surrounding area is also neat as a pin, in contrast to the messy lives of her blood-spattered characters. “Oh, I’m completely OCD about neatness,” she says.
5–6. Tananarive Due & Steven Barnes, both writers (she of horror and supernatural fiction, he of science fiction), Smyrna
Due holds the humanities chair endowed by Bill Cosby at Spelman College, while Barnes has written several episodes of The Outer Limits.
She has only to swivel about 90 degrees in her chair to reach the grand piano catty-corner to her desk. “If I’m feeling blocked, I’ll play a little jazz, salsa, or gospel, and the music seems to open a conduit for me,” says Due, whose first name pays tribute to the capital of Madagascar. In her Tennyson Hardwick series, Due opens each book with a suggested soundtrack of downloads, heavy on old-school hip-hop and Nine Inch Nails. Her desk also holds a bell that belonged to her mother, with whom she cowrote a memoir of the civil rights movement, and a spiritual icon from Ethiopia, given to her by another collaborator, actor Blair Underwood. Atop all of this is her NAACP Image Award trophy. Due’s eyes light up when she retrieves a crystal, a small quartz charm presented to her by a psychic who predicted her first book and, in a sense, her relationship with Barnes, her husband, muse, and frequent cowriter, whose office is downstairs in the basement.
His lair is also appointed with meaningful objects, including a framed leaf from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree. “It’s both totally worthless and ineffably precious because it reminds me that my only job is to wake up in the morning,” says Barnes, who meditates and practices yoga regularly in his workspace. He also has a DVD collection of every Shakespearean play produced by the BBC, which he watches weekly “for creative input,” and framed photos of his glamorous parents—his mother was a model, and his father was a backup singer for Nat King Cole. “I have my mother’s ashes on this bookshelf, and sometimes I look at them and ask, ‘Am I doing okay, Mom?’” he says. “They also remind me that our time here is limited, so we need to make the most of every moment.”
7. Blake Butler, novelist and short-story writer, Marietta
His intown residence was devastated by a tornado just before he wrote the acclaimed There Is No Year,
a family drama presented as a narrative puzzle.
Before he took to writing, Butler was a numbers guy at Georgia Tech and a card shark. He still has a nifty slot machine that he won in a poker tourney, and his office is strewn with scraps of paper crosshatched with statistics. “About half the papers here are notes for revisions on my novel due out in April, and the other half are notes for my online betting on various sports,” says the wiry up-and-comer, thirty-four, who often gets tagged with the label of l’enfant terrible, despite his Southern manners. “Gambling has always been a sideline stream of income for me.”
Butler is back in his Cabbagetown loft, but to do his writing, he returns to the Marietta home where he grew up. The room is crammed with his plastic toys from childhood, even an Xbox. He is comfortable with clutter. “I keep intending to put that stuff on eBay but haven’t got around to it,” he says, noting that his mother, a retired art teacher, is the one who painted the walls purple and hung crimson curtains. “I like that red glow because it gives the room a David Lynch feeling,” he says. “I keep the curtains closed because the outdoors is too distracting—I get annoyed by birds singing. I just need to know when the sun goes down so I can stop writing.”
A prophetic-seeming reminder of his past: a storybook he and his mother handcrafted from poster board when he was only a toddler, called “My Book by Blake.” “It starts off raining cats and cookies and eggs and then gets really weird toward the end, which is sort of how my novels and stories tend to go now,” he says.
This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue. Photographs by Zack Arias.