Dickens had his chalet. Roald Dahl had his shed. Maya Angelou, hotel rooms. Edith Sitwell wrote in bed.
All of my books have been written nowhere in particular, and in transit, between jobs and very late at night. My first book, The Truth About Babies, was written while traveling with a baby in a pushchair on buses in central London (mostly the 259 and the 29, from the Holloway Road). My first novel Ring Road was written at my kitchen table, sometime in the hours between 10pm and 6am. The Mobile Library series of novels were written in Bangor Public Library, Bangor, Co. Down (late night opening Thursdays). Paper: An Elegy was written on the 08.37 to Belfast, and on the 16.36 return. The Norfolk Mystery was written in the basement of a B&B in Coventry.
But my new novel! My new novel, A Death in Devon, was written in an actual office! In a bookshop! Or to be more precise, in an actual office above a bookshop.
My friend David Torrans runs the famous No Alibis Bookshop at 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast, a couple of doors down from the Mexican takeaway and opposite Costcutter. Unable to find the time or the peace and quiet at home to be able to write, I asked if David might let me use the storeroom above the shop. The room is and was a mess – it’s a bookshop storeroom, and you know what they’re like. Strip lights. Peeling wallpaper. A thin grey filthy carpet. Cracks in the wall that are large enough to keep your pencils in. I love it.
It took me and my sons a day to clear the room of boxes of returns and overstock. Now I have a Black and Decker workbench as a desk and I’m allowed to use the toilet downstairs when the shop is open. Pure luxury.
Death in Devon is the second book in The County Guides series of novels – 43 books in the projected series, one for every English county, plus London, all of the Ridings, and the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey – in which Spanish Civil War veteran Stephen Sefton sets off with ‘The People’s Professor’ Swanton Morley and Morley’s untamable daughter Miriam to solve crimes and confront the bigotries and prejudices of 1930s England.
Staring out of the high window above the bookshop at Belfast’s rain-soaked streets I imagined Sefton and Morley and Miriam setting off once again in their white Lagonda, packed as always with Morley’s writing requisites and his Hermes typewriter wedged into its stays so that he can type while Miriam drives and Sefton despairs of the entire enterprise. In Devon the doughty trio enjoy cream teas and encounter a group of surfing Satanists.
More writers should write in bookshops. Perhaps Waterstones should establish a country-wide writer-in-residence scheme? I could set up shop in a shop in every county. Bookshops, after all, are a writer’s natural habitat. Go on. Take us in. Give us house room.
Blog by Ian Sansom
Latest book: A Death in Devon