I am a very superstitious writer. I’m also a very messy one. That’s why I think it’s best I don’t share photos of my office, especially at the moment. I work in the attic of my Dublin house, with two skylights to my left, the ceiling sloping down on either side. From my desk, I can see only sky. Sometimes it’s blue or alight with a sunset, sometimes there’s rain, sleet or snow.
I’m at the fourth draft stage of my thirteenth novel. The floor is littered with research books, maps, notebooks and photographs. Under my desk is a large pile of early drafts, covered in red markings. On the desk beside me I have a collection of objects that relate to my new book in different ways. Again, superstition stops me from describing them, but perhaps in a year’s time, when the book is (hopefully) finished and published, I’ll happily share what they are.
I’m like this with each book. I get so immersed in my invented world that it starts to tip over into my real world. For example, when I was writing my novel The House of Memories, about a family with the surname Fox, I started doing what one of the characters did – collecting fox memorabilia. I began with one small porcelain fox. By the time I finished the novel, there was barely room for all the foxes on my desk. Around my office, on the floor, on the bookshelves, I had framed fox tea-towels, fox posters, fox toys, a fox mug. My ten-year-old nephew visited one day, gazed around, rolled his eyes and said, ‘You’re obsessed with foxes.’
With the following book, Hello from the Gillespies, it was birds, especially robins. The novel is about a too truthful Christmas round-robin letter. The writer of that letter, the Australian-based lead character, has an attachment to robins from her English childhood. I developed a similar attachment. It began with a life-size brass robin that felt perfectly heavy to hold and was beautiful to look at. That led to a collection of robin drawings. A hand-stitched robin tapestry from a charity shop. Robin cards. A cup with a painted robin on it. My desk grew crowded again.
But only temporarily. Once each book is published, it’s like coming out of a trance. I remember coming up to my office one day, a few weeks after The House of Memories was published, seeing foxes everywhere, and thinking, What are they doing here? In the following days, I gave many of them away, to readers on my Facebook page, to friends, to charity shops. My US literary agent has the beautiful name Gráinne Fox, and is the mother of two young daughters. Many of my foxy friends went their way. I kept just one fox for myself. I kept only one robin too.
I used to worry about this. Now I don’t. The collecting has become part of my creative process for each book. As I slowly realise what the themes or subjects are, and as my word count rises, my collection builds. Each new object and new arrival on my desk is like a bead on a necklace. They somehow keep me close to my story, help me find my way through the twists and turns of the plot. They comfort me. They keep me company. They remind me I’ve written a book before and can do it again.
Unfortunately, they have also triggered an unexpected new habit. It began when I was writing The House of Memories, and continued with Hello from the Gillespies and my most recent novel The Trip of a Lifetime. (My obsession during that book was the number nine.) Before I save and email my manuscript to myself for safe-keeping, I have to touch each of the objects on my desk. With my current book-in-progress, that’s not too bad. There are only six objects so far. It was much more time-consuming when I had dozens of foxes or flocks of robins.
But I know it helps me. I love the ritual. It amuses me. It’s also a way of bringing myself back from the world of my imagination to the real world. It’s a welcome pattern in my day. Working on my own, I don’t have the luxury of meeting colleagues in the tea room as a natural break, or even walking to or from work. My commute is ten seconds up or down the stairs. My object-touching ritual has become a way of marking the different stages of my writing day. ‘There’s another scene written,’ I think, as I tap them all. Or another chapter edited. Or my work day done.
I don’t have nearly enough objects in my current collection yet. But I have full faith I’ll find more. And then, with luck, persistence and a ritual or two, they’ll help me finish novel number thirteen too.