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A piece of solitude, on loan

Author Adeline Yen Mah and her husband understand what writers need, so they've opened their Laguna Beach residence as the ultimate retreat.

October 19, 2006|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

ANDREW WINER has characters and dialogues and plot lines in his head that get drowned out by the distractions at home. So each weekday afternoon, the author of the coming-of-age bestseller "The Color Midnight Made" kisses his wife and toddler goodbye, bundles up his laptop and notes for a second novel, and drives to a place where he can conjure an imaginary world.

E.L. Doctorow said that all he needed to write was a blank wall. Eudora Welty created all of her fiction in her family home. Winer has found that he prefers the foreign silence and solitude of someone else's house to get the job done -- a fact he has discovered as the first person to be invited by author Adeline Yen Mah and her husband, Bob, to use their weekend residence in Laguna Beach as a writer's retreat. No cost, no interruptions, no time limit.

When Winer finishes his book, the Mahs plan to open the six-bedroom dwelling to other writers. For the couple, who had lucrative careers in science before retiring, the gifted space fulfills their dream of supporting emerging and established writers. In their starkly modern retreat, Winer has found a place where he can compose and revise his complicated story about art, marriage, religion and false identity set in Vienna during World War II. He credits an increased flow of prose to working in this expansive, almost empty place that lets his creativity roam.

"I can't be left alone in our cottage because my daughter will find me, and I worked for years at the public library, but I found I was always shushing loud talkers and cellphone users and that got my heart racing," says Winer, standing in the Mahs' elevated living room with soaring windows that frame a Zen garden and the ocean.

"But here it's 'A Tale of Two Cities,' such a different world. It's quiet and the angles of the house draw me out into the canyon, air and space. I feel as if I'm floating on the edge of something, and there is a sense of limitlessness and potential."

Though it may seem counterintuitive to start a deeply personal endeavor like writing in a place that by definition isn't personal, Winer says the Mahs' gesture inspires a sense of purpose and has become a symbol of encouragement -- from one writer to another. "It's not just any other house," he says. "It's about writing."

Winer likes to work at a table in the dining room, facing a wall of glass, but after a while he no longer notices the view. Instead, he's transported into whatever scene he's constructing.

"I have New York agents who ask, 'How do you ever get anything done in California? You just want to surf. You write, then walk on the beach,' " says Winer, who also teaches at UC Riverside in its master's program in creative writing. "I tell them that I don't want anything to affect whatever emotion is called for, but I also don't believe that a writer has to be in a banal or ugly place to work."

When the momentum stops, Winer simply walks out to one of the terraces. "This place makes me feel a little more free," he says. "Unencumbered."

THE house, as Adeline envisioned it, needed privacy but also a sense of community, a colony where storytellers could gather and share their struggle of capturing the right words on a page.

"Writing is a solitary experience and although writers are not all alike, I think many of us would like to have a serene environment," says Adeline, 68, a former physician who spent decades scribbling thoughts in hospital dining halls before quitting medicine to complete "Falling Leaves," her 1997 million-selling memoir about growing up in China, unwanted by her family. "For myself, I also need the company of interesting people for intellectual stimulation between bouts of writing."

The couple bought this contemporary house from a developer before it was completed in 2004, with the intention of making it a writers retreat. They spent a year redesigning it with architect David M. Parker. The floors are polished concrete, the Modernist furnishings selected by Adeline. On the walls are abstract paintings by Bob, 73, a UCLA microbiology professor who started painting after he retired.

The decor is spare, even austere in places; some rooms look as blank as a new sheet of paper.

"Writers need to have a place that is uncluttered and aesthetically appealing to inspire what comes forth," says Adeline, who writes in a white-walled office in the couple's longtime Huntington Beach home and spends weekends in the Laguna Beach house hosting dinners for artists.

Instead of showy furnishings and finishes, this house shines with its unpredictable architectural lines.

The galvanized-iron roof rises and falls in seemingly random fashion. The largest window in front is an angular oddity, slanted at one end and wedged into place like a geometric jigsaw puzzle piece. Inside, steel supports lean at 45 degrees, corridors jig and jag, and railings bow like actors after a performance.

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