Award-winning writer William Wall tells us about his favourite places to write and the desks he uses.
Once there was a desk in a little cottage in east Cork. It stood in front of a window that looked across a lightly wooded valley. There I saw foxes hunting and tractors ploughing and harrowing. Harvesting could go on all night, and in the interstices of industry, blackbirds and thrushes sang and mice capered across the ceiling boards. I wrote on a Brother portable typewriter and when my little son would ask me what I was doing, I would reply, ‘I’m making my fortune’. It was an old school desk with a leather inset, heavily ink-stained, with a drawer that stuck opening or closing. It has followed us through our lives. Our two sons used it in turn. Books and theses have been written on it. Now it stands looking out on our back garden on the outskirts of Cork city.
There is a desk in Italy, in Liguria to be precise, where I love to write. It stands before a window that looks down on the sea, and from it I can watch the fishing boats coming and going, especially the lampare—boats that fish by night using lights to attract their catch. In high summer there are slatted shutters to blind the light. It’s an old battered mahogany desk, once a side table or card table. Its extending flap is missing but the redundant fifth leg is still there. Between the desk and the sea there is a local road and below that again the Genoa to Pisa railroad. The noise of trains is a comfort, especially the slow rolling goods trains that pass late at night.
In a corner of the Farmgate Café in Cork’s English Market, back to the wall, a good vista over the other coffee-addicts, is a single solid table that used to be called my office. It was a good place to meet friends, and many writers and artists and musicians go there. The babble was somehow good for the imagination. Before that I used to work in Paradiso, the vegetarian restaurant, when that too was a café. People think writers need peace and quiet, but we need noise too. It’s no accident that one of my collections of stories is called Hearing Voices, Seeing Things.
Of course, for many years I’ve worked on a laptop and this makes writing in cafés possible—the battering of the keys of a typewriter would drive other customers crazy. This particular laptop holds everything I’ve written since the invention of personal computers. I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of words it contains and I don’t even want to think about how many punctuation marks! Every now and then I delve down into the old files and find something useful, but for the most part it’s as if they are in the furthest corner of the attic gathering dust. Do old disused computer files develop errors? They certainly go out of fashion. Every once in a while I get the message that ‘this file cannot be opened’ or ‘unrecognised format’. That also happens to me with handwriting.
I once spent three weeks in a London hospital on high doses of morphine. Naturally, I was anxious to make notes about the experience. So Liz brought me my notebook and a pen and I sat up in bed, wired into various machines that assured me of my continued existence, and several tubes that imported and exported salt water, and made copious notes on the weird morphine dreams and mild paranoia. I remember it was snowing outside, the yard of the old Middlesex Hospital whitened and softened by it. The heating was up full and I had a fever so I kept the window open. Ice cold air caressed my skin and I loved it. Some weeks later, back home at my ex-school desk, I retrieved the notebook and found not a single legible word. Unrecognised format perhaps?
I once wrote a poem called ‘The Ten Best Places to Write a Poem’:
on a footstool in the ladies lingerie department on a tomb in the protestant cemetery under the television in the railway station bar in the back of a Hiace van at a red light on a Sunday in a diving bell in a large old suitcase stamped Rio with a flashlight in a cherry tree among the blackening cherries on a brakeless bicycle going down in the basket of an escaped balloon in someone else’s underpants wherever the tenure is uncertain where the carnal & the hasty rule ok
I can attest to the truth of the last two lines. I’m sorry to say, however, that the poem makes considerable use of poetic licence since I have, personally, only ever written poetry in six of those places.
First published in Books Ireland magazine Sept/Oct 2019.
William Wall’s latest novel is Suzy Suzy (New Island and Head of Zeus)