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A working space, right for the writer

October 19, 2006|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

ASK writers where they work and you're liable to hear things you weren't expecting. Certainly, the tools of the trade will be involved: a desk, a dictionary, a computer -- sometimes just a pen and paper. But where each writer creates is as idiosyncratic as that writer's voice, as unique as his phrasing, as unusual as her lyricism. Though authors may daydream of the perfectly designed space, for most, the realities are workaday. The writing simply must get done. These Southern Californians have found spaces -- sometimes eccentric spaces -- where their creativity can flourish.

Bernard Cooper

Essayist and fiction writer Bernard Cooper ("The Bill From My Father," "Truth Serum") converted what had been the basement rumpus room of his 1950s Los Feliz house into his studio. "I've been working down here for at least 20 years," he said, describing the space as spartan. "I like a bare desktop. Unless I'm so deeply in the middle of writing that I don't notice at all what's around me, I really need a sense of order." He likes a blank wall and a minimalist setting.

Though the room itself seemed perfect, the six yapping dogs across the street, coupled with the din of passing traffic, recently became a problem. "The noise drove me up the wall," he said. To combat the yapping, he started streaming music -- anything without lyrics -- but soon discovered that the pitch of the dogs penetrated whatever music he played. He next purchased Bose noise-canceling headphones, but the canine yelps simply overpowered them. Then he remembered how, when he used to write in coffee shops, the ambient sound actually had helped him to concentrate. "It's the abstract noisiness," he said. "It made me feel very contained."

Finally, he happened upon his solution, which he reveals with a self-conscious laugh, a bit abashed: very speedy electronica. "For me, it's like aural adrenaline." Ensconced in his bare-bones space, avant-garde electronica pounding a dog-silencing beat, Cooper works again, in peace.

Susan Straight

Susan Straight wrote 70% of her last novel, "A Million Nightingales," by hand on legal pads in a variety of locations: "In my car, in the high school gym, in school parking lots and sometimes just pulled over on the road somewhere," she said. Her writing places are so diverse because she teaches full time, is raising three kids as a single mother and lives in a Riverside neighborhood where everyone depends on one another for rides, food and company. At night, though, when her girls are asleep and the neighborhood quiets down, she's finally free to enter her office, a former parlor with sliding doors.

"It's crowded with papers and books that I love," she explained. "On my desk is a veladora of la Angel de la Guarda to keep us all safe, an empty green bottle that was once filled with home brew made by a relative in Switzerland, and oyster shells and moss I found near a former slave cabin in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana."

In this space, she needs only a cup of hot tea, some music -- "the same CD over and over depending on what I'm writing" -- and solitude. "I type into the computer what I've written earlier by hand, and I'm happy to be working."

Jim Krusoe

Though Straight writes a lot in cars, they're usually parked. Fiction writer Jim Krusoe ("Iceland," "Blood Lake and Other Stories") isn't so cautious.

"My favorite writing space is my Toyota Sienna van, moving down the freeway," Krusoe said, pointing out that he doesn't mean as a passenger. "It's very simple. I have a pad and when I need to write, I put the pad on the steering wheel, and I write a sentence." This approach never gives him a chance to write more than one sentence at a time -- a plus, as he sees it.

"I have to think about that next sentence for some time," he said. The inside of the van is spacious, Krusoe said, clean and neat. "The main trick is to keep your hand off the radio. Do that and you're lost."

For him, the whole process of writing is about slowing down. "I've got nothing to think about other than what I'm writing, and watching the traffic." He thrives on this anonymity and privacy. "It fits my short attention span."

Janet Fitch

Janet Fitch ("White Oleander," "Paint It Black") needs little in order to write: Just a computer and decent illumination. "It's not my eyes," she said. "It's the light." And finally, coffee. "I hate working at libraries because you can't have your coffee."

She keeps a picture of some inspirational figure on her desk in a cheap little frame, the subject of which changes from time to time. Last year it was singer Bjork. Before that, Tolkien's Gollum. "Don't ask," she said with a laugh.

Fitch doesn't like to face a wall because it makes her feel trapped. "A beautiful view is unnecessary, but a window is appreciated," she said. Like Cooper, she finds sounds from the surrounding neighborhood can be irritating. "Leaf blowers are the little barking dogs of upscale neighborhoods," she said.

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