Updated: May 12, 2021
Where writers write. This thought has always fascinated me. As intrigued I am by the written word, I find myself thinking about the environment in which it was written. I'm curious about rituals and routines, the instruments used, and the inner workings of a writers' mind. It's the process and the behind-the-scenes facts behind the fiction that I long to hear.
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in six weeks at a desk in her bedroom. Daphne du Maurier's jotted down her ideas in pencil in small blue exercise books before being extensively reworked at one of her many typewriters. Agatha Christie worked on a portable typewriter on any old table, as she didn’t have a 'room of one's own' until late in her career. Apparently one of her secrets behind her productivity was that she usually worked on at least two books at the same time.
Michael Pollan built himself a tiny writing hut in the woods behind his Connecticut house. Danielle Steele, who has written almost 200 books, works late into the night. Her favourite quote: ‘What hath night to do with sleep?’ Neil Gaiman writes in a Gazebo in the trees. Julian Barnes has worked in the same home office painted bright yellow for the past 30 years. Dorothy Parker once said, "I hate writing, I love having written.”
This curiosity of mine has manifested itself into a new series called A Writer Profile - each instalment will examine the writing life of a writer
We begin with Bianca Marais, author of two novels Hum if You Don't Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh.
Where writers write.
Describe your writing space. What do you love about it?
We live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto, and so I feel incredibly lucky to have a den in which to write. I’m a bit like a vampire in that I don’t like bright sunlight at the best of times, and especially not when I’m writing. So, the lack of windows in the den is a huge plus for me.
My desk has a raised ledge on which I keep all kinds of fluffy toys and mementos that I’ve collected over the years. I also have tons of candles because I find that lighting a particular scent when I’m writing a specific scene can be very evocative. Above my desk are huge posters of my two book covers, as well as my two vision boards which I fill up with pictures of whatever book I’m working on.
They serve as my inspiration every time I look up, and so I don’t have any inspiring quotes or personal photos in my office. I want to be able to be completely immersed in whatever world I’m writing without reality intruding.
My podcasting equipment is also attached to my desk so it’s incredibly cramped in here. Plus, I have a three-layered cart with all the books on my TBR pile. The cart is now overflowing and so I’ll need a new one soon. My chair has a back massager which is a recent blissful addition because sitting writing for hours on end can really mess up your back.
How important is it to have ‘a room of one’s own’?
For a writer, it’s incredibly important. You need to be able to lock yourself away from the world and get to speak to your imaginary friends without interruption. For ages, I didn’t have a den and so I had to write at the dining room table which I found very distracting.
Any rules for when you’re in this ‘space’?
My husband knows that anything he says to me while I’m in my office will probably have to be repeated later as I’m almost certainly not listening to a word that he’s saying. I’m just smiling and nodding, so he’ll go away and I can get back to whatever dilemma my characters are dealing with.
What is your writing process like?
It differs with every book. I sold my second novel based on three chapters and a synopsis, and then was told I had six months in which to write a first draft. Writing that book was like a nine-to-five job. I’m extremely busy with teaching and my podcast at the moment and so I write whenever I can. Sometimes, that’s at 4am. Sometimes, it’s at midnight. It’s always over weekends which are now mostly free thanks to Covid. With my current novel, I’ve set a deadline to finish by August, and so I have to write 800 words a day, four days a week.
What is the easiest and most difficult part of the process for you?
I always find beginnings to be difficult. When an idea is just in my head, it’s this wondrous, perfect thing. I can see it clearly and it’s perfect. And then I remember that all I have to make that world come alive on the page is twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. And that’s it. And so, I never feel like my words do the idea justice. I’ll circle around an idea a lot to try and find my way into it, and that can sometimes take a while and it can be frustrating. But once I’m in and I’ve captured the voice, then I’m off to the races.
"Speaking with my characters is always easy. It’s like they sidle up to me at a bar and sit down next to me, wanting to tell me their story. I feel like a conduit between them and the world, and that’s always lovely, channeling them."
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I think I’m a publisher’s worst nightmare. I have no set genre that I want to commit to. My first two novels were fairly literary books about white characters coming to grips with their racism in South Africa in the 70's and 90's. I recently wrote a psychological thriller set in Chicago, and then a dystopian short story that’s Handmaid’s Tale meets Minority Report. And I’m currently writing a fantasy novel about six badass witches in their 80's who are bringing down the patriarchy. I hope that fans of my work will appreciate each of these books despite the fact that all they’re so different. No matter my genre, my books are always about strong women who’re going through tough times because it fascinates me how incredibly powerful women are, and how they often don’t even know their own strength.
Why do you write? What do you love about writing?
I write because I can’t not write. I have so many feelings about the world and I work through them by writing. Often, I have no idea what I think until I write it down and have others read it. And then they tell me. And I’m like: Yes! That’s exactly what I meant!
I love that writing means I can have a kind of conversation with people I’ve never met who live across the world from me. It isn’t as one sided as it sounds because being understood and seen, that’s the greatest gift you can give another person. And when my readers reach out and say they feel seen in my work, that’s a huge gift to me too.
What does success look like to you?
This is tough because I’ve always been an over-achiever, believing that my value was linked to what I was able to achieve. And the goal posts shift all the time. There was a time that I felt success meant just having an agent represent me. And then it was just having one editor publish one of my books. And now it’s that I would love to write a
best-seller. It’s tricky because I know I’ll never get to a point where I truly feel successful, but that’s true of so many women who feel like they never quite measure up no matter what they’re able to accomplish. And that makes me sad. But it is what it is. And it motivates me.
You recently started a literary podcast this past year. Tell us how that came to be and how it's going.
I’ve been teaching creative writing for quite a few years. And I’ve always had students and strangers reaching out to me for writing advice. And I found myself telling them the same kinds of things over and over. And then I thought how cool it would be to be able to reach more people with the kind of advice I wish I’d had when I was first learning how to write. And Covid meant I had more time on my hands then and so that’s what I did. It was a bit crazy because I hate the sound of my own voice. Plus, I don’t really listen to podcasts as I’m easily distracted. But it took off and I’ve been blown away by the generosity of my guests who were prepared to come on and chat with me. And now I have two amazing co-hosts: Carly Watters and CeCe Lyra from P.S. Literary Agency who’ve taken the show to a whole new level.
And I have people reaching out every day saying how the podcast has helped them have breakthroughs about their own work, and feel less alone in the process, which is immensely gratifying.
You're always connecting with readers through the numerous online book clubs you attend and hosting virtual author events for indie bookstores. Why is it important for you to have that author-reader relationship?
It never ceases to amaze me that there are booksellers and librarians out there who put my books in readers’ hands. And that there are readers who would choose to read my books over other books out there. I’m so damn grateful for it and it’s something I will never take for granted. Taking time to host events for indie bookstores and to chat with book clubs is my way of thanking booksellers and readers for their immense kindness.
"I love championing other writers."
Tell us a few things that would surprise us to learn about you: the person, the writer.
I’ve always been fascinated by the occult. I collect tarot cards, grimoires, Ouija boards, etc. I’ve had visions and experiences in my life that have never been explained and so I keep an open mind about things. People think I’m a huge extrovert but I’m actually quite introverted. While I love being around people, I get my energy from being alone and so events can leave me quite drained afterwards despite loving them. My first reaction to most upsetting things is rage, and so I used to play the drums and have a punching bag to work through that anger. Now I pound the keys on my keyboard, pouring everything into my work which is the best form of therapy. I also own a cat that I rescued from a serial killer in Soweto.
What can books teach us? How do they change us?
The very best kinds of books change us profoundly by making us see the world differently or allowing a shift in our perspective. They’re a crack in the ceiling of a room filled with light in which the darkness enters, or they're balm for our weary souls. Books teach us empathy and how we’re all connected, how very similar we all are, instead of what makes us different. They teach us how to live and allow us to walk miles in the shoes of hundreds of people whose experiences we might otherwise never know about. They’re utterly magical and transformative.
What books have you read this past year that has helped you through the pandemic?
I needed lighthearted, and warm and fuzzy reads for the most part. Reading The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune was like clutching a teddy bear at bed time. I also loved The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Writer & Lovers by Lily King was a book I was hoping would never end. The poetry collection, Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans was breathtakingly beautiful. And I adored The Guncle by Steven Rowley which comes out this month and I was lucky enough to get an early copy of.
If you were a bookseller what 5 books would you hand-sell to readers and why?
I tend to curate my book suggestions according to what I know certain people will enjoy. Nothing makes me happier than recommending a book that I thought would resonate and it turns out that I was right.
But in general, I love Three Junes by Julia Glass because she’s an amazing writer who makes characters come alive in a way that few writers can. Also, when Julia writes about the light, I squint because I can see how bright it is.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo blew me away. It’s a sprawling family saga which explores what it is to be a member of a family and how we carve out our own spaces for ourselves in the world.
I adored Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Kong which is about a young woman at a crossroads who returns home to take care of her father who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a masterpiece. I’ve read it five times and always learn something new about storytelling.
And Bird Box by Josh Malerman is the kind of book you’ll want to read in one sitting.
Bianca Marais is the author of Hum If You Don't Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh. She holds a certificate in creative writing from the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies, where she now teaches creative writing. Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans. Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband. You can listen to her podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere you listen to podcasts.