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Question of the Week: Your Space.

by Susan Henderson on September 4, 2006

Where do you create your art, write your stories, compose your music? Describe that space to me and how you inhabit it.

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On Wednesday, Roy Kesey will tackle this question with the help of his five-year-old daughter, who will also share some opinions about her father’s newly-published novella.

What is a novella, you ask?

Officially, a novella is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel, and yet perfectly complete. The best novellas are not remembered for their quirky length but for the power of the characters and the journey they take. Think Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, Nathaniel West’s THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART. And now add Roy Kesey’s NOTHING IN THE WORLD to this list.

George Saunders says this about Roy Kesey’s novella:

“A beautiful, powerful book: mythic, vivid, heart-rending. Kesey reminds us anew of how much power there is in an open heart and the simple declarative sentence. He also reminds us that war is a viral madness, infecting everyone it touches.”

NOTHING IN THE WORLD is the story of Josko, a Croatian teenager, called to war against the Serbians. Josko is hardly concerned about the issues that have led to this war. He notices a vague bitterness his parents and others in his village feel toward the Serbians, but Josko is more concerned with girls, comics and spearfishing.

When he puts on his uniform, he finds himself in a disorganized battle – and unclear of his mission or even who is the enemy – he fights out of an instinct to survive. The next moment, he is declared a hero, and soon after that, he is the only surviving member of his army, wandering the country with shrapnel in his head.

In this novella, there is a thin line between hero, survivalist, escapee, villain and madman. As Josko tries to find home, it is clear that the devastation from the war is shared by both sides. One destroyed village, with its grieving and angry villagers, is just like another ”“ and only the accents and uniforms give away which side is which.

Oddly enough, NOTHING IN THE WORLD is also a story of the enduring spirit of mankind – how very difficult it is to extinguish all hope or love, and how something as simple as an over-ripe pear, an open view to the stars, or the memory of someone you love can mean a great deal more than the wreck around you.

NOTHING IN THE WORLD is a small and brilliant little book. You can read it in one day but it won’t leave you in a hurry.

Thanks for stopping by and see you Wednesday!

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg September 4, 2006 at 1:36 pm

Answering your question: Like most people, I think, I get my ideas on the street. I keep different color notebooks for different subjects, and am known to carry 3-4 of these at a time.

But I do most of my actual writing at my desk. I’m a computer guy. When I come to a stop, I lean back and look over my 20-odd concert posters that I’ve tacked above my desk. Their bright colors and fun images seem to bring me back into the fold.

Music used to be a necessity, but lately I’ve kept it quiet while I type.

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Lance Reynald September 4, 2006 at 2:36 pm

ah, the writing room, the lair, the ding-bat cave.
I too do lots of sketching in notebooks. I have two faves, thin 4X6 moleskeins that fit in my passport case and classic Composition notebooks. They are pretty much everywhere I go and most of my life ends up in them, any thought that crosses my mind- just jotted as a reminder;fieldnotes. Lately I’ve also taken to talking into a digital voice recorder and making insane camera phone videos. So, all that is my office on the go. Now the physical space is my writing room/ home office. it is ever evolving…the desk is a counter height butcher block slab that is home to my best friend, my Mac. Countless candy jars and hurricanes full of pens and pencils (I’m a bit neurotic about all pencils being the same style and sharpness and general length) Several rice paper lanterns suspended from the ceiling, many hats on hooks on the walls, my coatrack with cozy sweaters and hoodies that I like to write in, and there always seems to be another bulletin board added when the work is intense- covered with everything from snapshots to fourtune cookies to sentences written by hand in Sharpie felt. There is also a lean contemporary sofa for the times I need to sleep with the work….or just nap in the middle of a thought. The walls are the one thing that took the longest to get right. I made the guy at the paintshop crazy with that one. The only thing I could think of that would make me happy and provide a true haven/shelter was the colour of the cafe con leches in Madrid. we had to mix the paint 6 times to get it just right, now it is perfect. Yet I still cover the walls with just about any postcard or magazine clipping that strikes me. Oh yeah, and always wearing the iPod headphones. Blasting whatever I’m playing on a loop to get through the next 5000 words.

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Frank Daniels September 4, 2006 at 2:40 pm

I’ve got to get ahold of Roy’s book. I’ve long had an obsession with Balkan history and culture, and inside views are always fascinating.

As for the question: I’m almost identical to Greg. Used to write with music on, though not so much now. And while I do try to carry around a small notepad to jot down ideas or even specific sentences as soon as they occur to me, I write almost exclusively at the computer. Which in a way sucks ass because there is always the temptation to check email, news, etc. It takes a singular fortitude to force oneself to ignore all possible distractions and just….write. I’m trying to do that more now. But there’s still so much else to do.

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Aurelio September 4, 2006 at 2:51 pm

I need to put Roy’s book in my reading list.

My workspace: We bought a house with a separate guest house, which we both use as our office (and it occasionally reverts to guest house to accomodate company.) It’s quiet, which is the most important thing for me when I’m writing. We each have our own desks and work in shifts so as to not disturb each other. It works out well because I like to write in the morning and he’s an afternoon person.

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Susan Henderson September 4, 2006 at 4:36 pm

Greg – Hey, glad you’re here! Did you ever read Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook? I’m not necessarily suggesting it – but except for her, I’d never heard of anyone writing different themes in different color books. I want to know what concert posters are on your wall.

Lance – That’s a great description. What kind of candy is in your jar? I like to picture these lairs completely. And is my postcard on your wall?

Frank – You made it! And yes on that big email distraction. Although I find that’s part of my process of getting ready to write – I have to bounce all over the internet a little before I can settle down.

Aurelio – Wow, a guest house – I’m jealous! How different do your workspaces look? (Thanks for being here!)

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N. Mallory September 4, 2006 at 5:31 pm

Dear Susan:

I write with a pencil, on one of three old masonite clip-boards which are usually balanced on my lap. It’s a nineteen-twenties laptop. I write very slowly, with many ( dozens, even hundreds) of revisions and many complete re-writes.

When I feel I have hold of something, I put it on the word processor/computer then brood over it for a few hours or days. At last I start the final polishing.

My initial writing is done on paper with a pencil because A. I can do it anywhere, without electricity B. Like certain “primitive” peoples, I fear having my ideas and images captured by a machine, and worse, lost by a flushing of cyber-bits during a power loss or other calamity. I also tend to write too fast on a machine.

I draw and paint anywhere, though not plein air as much as when I was younger, using an easel for oils
( which are thick and gummy) and working on the floor or ground ( something I learned from the Asian masters) with watercolor.

Long ago I learned to draw anywhere. My writing proceeds from my drawing– I need a board, a pencil and paper– that’s all.

Thanks for asking.

Your friend,

–K

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Stephanie September 4, 2006 at 5:48 pm

I read Roy’s book in the Portland airport waiting for a flight and was stunned by how powerful it was. I couldn’t read anything else for days. It’s an amazing novella.

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Susan Henderson September 4, 2006 at 7:37 pm

K – Hey you. That’s fascinating, your comment about writing too fast on a machine. My best writing always occurs on paper and out of the house, but out of habit, I’m usually typing.

Stephanie – Yes, isn’t it powerful? I’m like you in that way – when a book really whammies me, I can’t pick up another right away. My all-time favorite writer is William Maxwell, and after I read him I just want to curl up and stay with his words and his world as long as I can get away with.

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Joe September 5, 2006 at 12:44 am

Where do I write? I have a nine month old little girl to take care of during the day so any writing space I have I inhabit… tentatively. Did you ever read the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut? Writing and taking care of an infant is like wearing headphones that randomly blasts high decibel noise through your cranium. For my next trick, I will write while suspended upside down over a shark tank.

Other places include rooms with locks on the door and lots of porcelain, my car while driving down the NJ Turnpike (thank god for cruise control and snoozing troopers), late at night on the couch while snacking on whatever finger food I find stuck in my hair or in the folds of my clothing and the ever popular standing on line at the doctors/supermarket/DMV/psychiatrists office.

I write things on random scraps of paper which I then shove into my pockets. If I retrieve them before they end up in the wash, I transcribe them into note files on my laptop. Usually it’s a fragment of an idea like “PENGUINS!” If I remember what I meant when I wrote “PENGUINS!” then it proceeds to the next stage: putting the penguins to work. I’m still working out the kinks. At least I’ve gotten the penguins out of my head and my pants. Any advice from professional writers would be most welcomed.

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Robin Slick September 5, 2006 at 11:40 am

Okay, let’s see if this takes photos so everyone can see the nuthouse where I actually get things done:

If that doesn’t work, oh well. Just picture a room filled with 97 guitars, two drum kits (one of which is usually being played by my son right behind my head while I’m trying to write), and a dog.

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Susan Henderson September 5, 2006 at 2:27 pm

Joe – Wow, I think we are twins with our writing styles – especially while driving.

Robin – Oh, shoot, I want to see the picture.(And I thought we were bad with 12 guitars.)

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Gail Siegel September 5, 2006 at 3:11 pm

Where I write has evolved over time. I used to write in a coffee shop in little notebooks. Now I have a desk in my son’s room that I use when he’s at college (except times like now, when the entire attic has been emptied into that room for re-arrangement).

Most of my drafts or initial writings are on paper. Scraps of napkins, receipts, etc. Composition books that I use in bed or sitting at the dining room table. When I have something to go on, I transition to my laptop.

For me, the controlling factor is an empty building. I can’t seem to write when other people are inhabiting my imaginative space, though the dog doesn’t bother me.

If I’m lucky, and I get to work early, I can sometimes pound something out in the emptiness here.

No music. Music siphons off a bit of my brain.

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Maria Headley September 5, 2006 at 8:59 pm

I have an office in the basement of my house. It was necessary that I work in the basement, because my husband is a writer too, and he is in the attic. There needs to be a floor between us, because I like music. All music. Loud music. Especially Tom Waits and Greg Brownand pretty much any other grizzly-voiced story telling singer-song writer you can name. He likes silence. All silence. And Solitaire. My office has a wall full of bookshelves, a sewing machine, boxes full of glitter and glue, my great great grandfather’s leather briefcase (he was a newpaper publisher – all photos of him include his ink-smeared apron) and a Chinese sewing box full of idea-scraps, which i dip into when I’m desperate. It’s the vessel that I unload my pockets into when I’ve been on a plane, or otherwise separated from my computer. It’s also where I deposit scraps of overheard dialogue. The walls are painted cherry blossom pink (some have called it “the womb” and like Lance, I drove the paint store insane) and has, major luxury, a heated green tile floor. Warm feet do wonders for my ability to write. I also, of course, have 68 composition notebooks in a variety of rainbow colors.I carry an enormous bag everywhere I go, just because I carry these notebooks all the time. Glamorous colored notebooks make me think I’ve written something great, even when they’re still empty. I also have a rainbow set of Sharpie fine points. The joy of the Sharpie for the left-handed writer cannot be underestimated. I used to have ink up to my elbow, and now I just have the occasional semi-purposeful I’m-really-writing blot.

Back to packing for the MacDowell, my writing room for the next month.

A book of writer’s descriptions of writing rooms would be very interesting.

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Susan Henderson September 5, 2006 at 9:42 pm

Gail – It’s so great imagining everyone’s writing space. And since I’ve been in that room you describe, I can see it clearly – right down to the bear (I mean dog).

Maria – I can’t wait to hear all about MacDowell when you get back. And what an absolutely movie-like description of the basement and attic spaces. Maybe you should be the one to run with this idea for a book. I would buy it in a heartbeat.

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Terry September 5, 2006 at 11:05 pm

I’m in the basement. There’s a spider that has moved in next to me, and I’ve taken a picture of her. There’s also a dartboard above the web, and a window, so I can look up and see the sky. Sort of. But the window is very dirty. So it looks like a very dirty sky. Also, there is a border collie at my feet, wondering why she has to be in the basement when there is a world out there. She can see it. A dirty world, but a world nontheless.

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Patry September 6, 2006 at 12:07 am

My office is long and narrow. The second most important piece of equipment is my computer; the first is my CD player. When I get an idea, I turn on some music and pace up and down the room while the idea grows and expands inside me.

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Susan Henderson September 6, 2006 at 1:58 am

T – I have a doberman at my feet. And I love your description and how very distractable you are.

Patry – What do you listen to when you write?

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Greg September 6, 2006 at 2:37 am
Greg September 6, 2006 at 2:39 am

Hmm… I just tried posting a picture of my poster-covered wall, but it appears that it might not work on here.

The posters are mostly from shows in Cleveland and Fargo, and almost always from a show that I’ve attended.

I’ve never heard of Debra Lessings, but I’ll have to look for that book.

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PD Smith September 6, 2006 at 9:07 am

Hi Susan,
Litpark looks fun!
At the moment I work in a smallish room on the third floor of a 1930s apartment block in West London. It overlooks a wonderful square (actually it’s more of a triangle) of private gardens. In the spring I love to see the magnolia trees covered in their rich blossoms…it’s a little bit of Eden in the metropolis! But soon we’ll be moving and so I’ll have a new room with a view…
Otherwise I need a comfortable chair with a CD player (Keith Jarrett, Brian Eno, something atmospheric…) and a notebook – or sometimes a laptop with Windows Journal which allows you to write directly on the screen. And that’s all I need. Oh and a plentiful supply of tea. Well, I am English after all…
Peter

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Susan Henderson September 6, 2006 at 12:28 pm

Greg – Make sure you look for DORIS Lessing. I can’t vouch for Debra. Thanks for posting your photo over at MySpace – I loved seeing that. (Hey, t, any way to make it so folks can post photos in the comments section, or does that open up a can of worms?)

Peter – My house is 1930’s, too, but I’ll bet it translates into something very different in America. Your view and everything about your space sounds so peaceful.

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Lance Reynald September 6, 2006 at 1:16 pm

lol. candy jars tend to get filled with reeses peanut butter cups and whole foods truffles.

when I’m deep in a story those may be the only things I eat for days. and a lot of coffee.

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Susan Henderson September 6, 2006 at 1:24 pm

Lance – We are twins, I tell you.

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Noria September 7, 2006 at 12:02 am

I often write in bed. I suffer from vertigo and sometimes I’m too dizzy to sit upright, so I write lying down, laptop on my stomach, otter-style. The bed: Victorian curlicued cast iron, with lots of feathers.

My office is in my kitchen: there are black cats–salt & pepper shakers, creamers & sugar bowls–a dragon-shaped teapot, and a fortune-telling teacup; there are old postcards of fruit in over-saturated colors and a scene of San Francisco’s Chinatown at night; there is a picture of a bearded lady fortune teller, sideshow banner fridge magnets, and a poster of Barnum’s human oddities.

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Susan Henderson September 7, 2006 at 1:24 pm

Noria – I’m so glad to see you here. Your room and your kitchen sound wonderful and inspiring. I had a bout with vertigo a while back – even when I was lying down; it was awful – but acupuncture fixed it in 45 minutes. I was so grateful.

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted September 10, 2006 at 3:04 pm

Basement. I’m thinking of forming a union so I can demand a window.

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