Welcome to another edition of ‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.
Today’s guest is UK-based Australian novelist Susan Johnson, whose most recent book is Life in Seven Mistakes. She's now writing her seventh novel, My Hundred Lovers.
Well, the history of my writing tools is also the history of my writing life. Before I decided to commit myself to writing fiction, full-time, in 1985 when I was twenty-seven (I’m now 52) I think I just grabbed the nearest thing to hand: a Bix biro, a scrap of paper, anything. But once I decided it was going to be my life’s work (ahem. . ) the tools of the trade became like sacred objects.
I think all writers have funny little superstitions about their work practises - where they work and what they use and which circumstances are most conducive to the work. Recently I went to Victor Hugo’s old flat in the beautiful Place des Voges in Paris and there I saw his writing desk, which he had especially made, and which wasn’t a desk at all. He didn’t sit at it, he stood at it; writing standing up, the wooden platform for his papers and pen at chest level so he could comfortably lean against it. Marvellous. . .
As for my puny writing self, my superstitions and weird practises have changed over the years. When I sat down to write my first novel in 1986 after a year of research and planning, I used a pen and paper to write long-hand in the mornings, then after lunch I would type everything out on my little red portable Olivetti. At the end of the afternoon I would take a break, then in the evenings I would go over everything and re-type or re-draft sections that needed work.
In those far-off days, before computers, before Google, before refrigeration (sorry, I made that last one up), a writer had to take herself off to the library to do research. And I was in Sydney, which has the glorious Mitchell Library at the Library of New South Wales in Macquarie Street. Oh, what a pleasure to spend days reading in those lovely wood-panelled rooms (and how thrilled my younger self would have been to know that the day would come when the library would purchase those very same notes I was taking when it bought my papers for its collection).
I used to buy those cheap foolscap student notebooks to write in (not the ones with nasty metal rings at the sides, but the glued ones which folded over at the top). In those early days I don’t remember using a specific pen (I think I just had a Parker) but it wasn’t long before I couldn’t write until I was writing with my special pen. That was the one I bought in Paris (again!) in 1989, by which time I was finishing my second novel and living in the studio bequeathed by Nancy Keesing and administered by the Australia Council.
It was a Waterman pen of the most elegant shape, in a shade of rare blue, a mix of cobalt and azure and purple. I remember sitting writing with it at a café one morning, feeling blessed, my heart pulsing, as if everything lucky and happy might roll from it. I was in love, which helped, and I was also young enough not to fully understand how capricious and cruel life can be. I thought I did but I know now I was in my flowering summer and the pen was a beautiful bud.
I hung onto that pen right through the third novel (by which time I was using an enormously heavy, first-generation portable computer) but still writing long-hand on foolscap notebooks in the morning, and transferring onto the computer in the afternoons. But at some mysterious point during that third book I began to work directly onto the computer. My pen was kept for journals and notebooks (which will also go to the library one day, but not while I am alive I hope).
Then the pen was stolen, along with my passport and money which were in the same black leather purse, by pickpockets in Budapest. By the time I came to my fourth novel (which my publishers Faber didn’t want to take) I superstitiously began to conflate my change of publishing fortunes with the disappearance of the pen.
Then I had children, and any notions of special pens disappeared, along with notions of special creams, special lipsticks, special sunglasses (Caspar once cooked my favourite sunglasses. He used to love hiding things and put them in the oven, which I then turned on to pre-heat, only to open the door a little later to find my loved sunglasses looking like a relic from Mount Vesuvius).
I suppose it was around then that I transferred any magical powers from the pen to the cup of coffee I needed every time I sat down in the mornings to write. And it didn’t take long before the coffee had to be in a special magical cup, which for a long time was the cup Frances gave to me, an over-sized Alice in Wonderland, hand-painted cup from a shop in Melbourne. It was green, painted with pale, weaving flowers, and saw me through from the millennium right up until last year when I dropped it.
Now my special cup is a white fine China cup decorated with bruised plums and scrawling vines. Actually, they might be figs, but I am going to call them plums. It’s by an artist called Kari Tveite, who sells in a shop called Cosmo, here in London, where they make beautiful be-spoke hand-painted china.
I know it is not really the pen or the cup or the desk that allows one to write, of course. But every writer makes his or her preparations to calm the mind, to gather oneself up as it were, so that the confluence of thought and emotion and grace comes about. It is not only the reader who has to suspend his or her disbelief: the writer must suspend her disbelief long enough to be able to believe she can create a world as convincing as the one she sees before her.