To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, a writer must have a room of their own if they are to create fiction.
But should that room be a carefully curated work of art in itself, or a spartan space to prevent distraction?
Should it come with locks and soundproofing, or an open door to invite in family life and inspiration?
And can the right interiors really help to summon the muse?
Initially, Rónán Hession, whose debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul was the 2021 ‘One Dublin One Book’ choice, didn’t invest much in his writing environment.
“Starting out, I wasn’t particularly precious about having my own music and the sound of water running and a lucky rabbit’s foot in my pocket,” he says.
“But I’m doing it a few years now and thought I better try and think about my writing environment and my posture or I’ll be doubled over with a curvature of the spine.”
Because of an Achilles injury, dining chairs were the only type of seating he found comfortable, so he ordered a vintage-industrial style leather chair (pictured below) from the craftsmen at Dublin’s Benmore Studio.
“I just liked the look of it. It looked like a brainy chair but not in a sort of psychiatrist’s office [way].”
All the desks he found were either “way overdesigned” or “too big and office-y looking”, so he chose a small oak dining table, also from Benmore. “Maybe I’m just hungry when I’m looking for furniture,” he jokes.
Rónán, who is in his mid-forties, hopes that he will use these beautiful pieces of bespoke furniture for another 50 years. “I am a romantic that way,” he says, adding how impressed he is by the unrushed love of craft displayed by the experts at Benmore.
His writing room is quite simple, with wooden floors and white walls, but once a joiner fits new shelves, Rónán’s collection of books will bring the colour.
“They’ve been in boxes and piles and stacks. It will be nice to have them out. You sort of feel like you’re surrounded by friendly things when you’ve got books in your room,” he says.
“You realise the standard as well… at times when you’re editing [your book] you think, ‘Yeah, that’s good enough’, but then you look at the books around you and you push a little harder.”
Rónán, who works as a civil servant and lives in Portmarnock, Co. Dublin with his wife and children, leaves the door of his writing room open so he isn’t cut off from family life.
“I really do believe in creativity being integrated into life, not something you compartmentalise,” he says.
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Catherine Ryan Howard
However, for bestselling crime writer Catherine Ryan Howard, delineation is key. Her writing space is integrated into the living area of her Dublin apartment, and she finds it vital to have a switchover ritual, “something that psychologically says, ‘this is the end of the working day'”.
When she finishes writing, she lights “a nice fancy candle”, changes the lighting and flicks on the TV.
It’s also very important that her writing environment is visually appealing so it coaxes her back to her work-in-progress each morning.
She likes to keep Jurassic Park memorabilia around her workspace to motivate herself, as it was this novel that made her want to be a writer. “I couldn’t believe someone had made that out of blank pages and, moreover, that it was his job,” she says.
She once bought a standing desk add-on (that can be put on top of a regular desk) but only used it twice before giving it away. “So much of writing is staring out the window and it’s not comfortable to do that if you’re standing up.”
Catherine, whose current novel 56 Days is set during the first lockdown in 2020, is now so accustomed to working from home that when lockdown came, she thought, “This is my moment, I’ve trained for this!”.
“I will say,” she adds, “I live alone and I cannot imagine working from home with children running around.”
The author Dermot Bolger, whose poetry collection Other People’s Lives was published last year by New Island, writes in the book-lined front room of his Drumcondra home. However, when his two sons were small, he worked in “a succession of rooms in strange locations”.
Two of his novels were written in the Baily Lighthouse in Howth. In fact, when Salman Rushdie was on the run at the height of the fatwa, Dermot secretly brought him out to the Baily. He couldn’t tell the lighthouse keeper who he was bringing, and recalls the “great courtesy” of the keeper when they arrived.
“The man thought that a funeral had lost its way when he saw the long black special branch cars descending the steep slope to the lighthouse,” Dermot recalls. Rushdie was then allowed to light the lamp at dusk.
Generally, Dermot just seeks peace and quiet and an absence of clutter when writing, “but often the rooms I end up using seem incongruous with the settings I write about”. For example, his recent play about the Dublin docks was written in a remote 15th century Renaissance castle in Umbria.
He says that to write novels and plays you need a workspace that gives you a sense of routine you can “sink into”. “Poems are the opposite,” he says. “They mug you when least expected.”
The poems in his new collection were first written on torn envelopes as he paused during nightly lockdown walks to “lean on people’s walls at midnight and scribble them down”.
Meanwhile, the London-based Irish novelist Emma Murray, has been working from home since quitting a high-flying banking job 15 years ago to pursue her dream of being a writer after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Her dream is now a reality: she is the author of a trilogy of satirical novels about motherhood, including Winging It, which was published just before Christmas.
These books, and the academic textbooks she also writes, were penned in the spare room of the London home she shares with her husband and two children.
Emma advises that the right chair is everything. She had an occupational therapist come round to make sure that her back was properly supported by her John Lewis office chair and that she had decent posture at the desk.
“Touch wood I’ve got pretty mild [MS] symptoms,” she says. “I just have to take more breaks than a lot of people would.”
She also advises people to make sure their background is clear of clutter when taking Zoom calls, having once jumped on a work video call only to realise that there were about six boxes of beer stacked up (in preparation for Christmas) and visible behind her.
Overall, working from home suits Emma so well that she would “never, ever” go back to an office environment. “I work better when I don’t have people around. I need complete peace.”
While she finds that peace writing in their spare room, her husband has a garden office they built at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s worked out for the pair of us.”
She says the garden office was well worth the investment, joking that it was “cheaper than a divorce!”
This article was published in The Irish Times in 2022