A Room of One's Own
Sanctuaries of four Ann Arbor authors
by Anita LeBlanc
Ernest Hemingway composed his novels seated on a cigar-maker's chair in a converted carriage house in Key West, Florida. Emily Dickinson retreated to her bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts, to pen over 1,800 poems at a small wooden desk. Virginia Woolf--who insisted that a woman needs "a room of one's own" to write in--brought her own literary works to life in a toolshed in the garden of Monk's House in Sussex, England.
In twenty-first-century Ann Arbor, writing sometimes seems like a spectator sport, with authors composing in coffeehouses and libraries, on park benches and buses. But some of the city's literati still heed Woolf's advice, writing in rooms of their own.
Steve Amick, author of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake and Nothing But a Smile, both Notable Michigan Book winners, clatters down the open steps of a nearly empty 1929 white Cape Cod on Jackson Avenue to a marginally musty basement. In August, he'd just moved out of his office here, a bare room half-paneled in rough-hewn wood. Upstairs there are a few pots and pans in the kitchen, a folk art buffet and coat rack he built, an antique upright piano across from the fireplace in the living room, a few lamps and boxes. Most household items and furniture are in the family's new home in a rural area near Zeeb Road, but the bedroom that will serve as his office there is still a mess--he jokes that his wife, Sharyl Burau, "would kill me if I showed it to you now."
Amick bought this house when he returned to his native Ann Arbor in 1997 after earning a master's from George Mason University. He set his desk kitty-corner to the doorway--"I've got gunslinger syndrome," he confesses--and put up a framed tribal map of the U.S. and a signed poster of the Clash. (He met the band backstage as a teenager.) These, along with Amick's vintage toys, tchotchkes, and kitsch--including the "old cheesecake photo" that inspired
Nothing But a Smile--are now stored in the family's new house.
Though he did most of his composing in his office, Amick says, he tended to wander around the house while he wrote. He occasionally worked in a bedroom alcove (at a Victorian secretary that once served an ancestor in the Maine Senate), in the home's guest room, and even in the bathtub.
Amick admits that he doesn't set an alarm, but says he won't go to bed, even if it's five-thirty in the morning, until he's satisfied that he's met his daily work quota. "The last day I didn't write was five-and-a-half years ago, when my son Huck was born."
The ascent to the third-floor apartment of V.V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan begins on a wood staircase in the foyer of a white brick Victorian edifice near Kerrytown. An apartment house for many years, the building was originally the Misses Clark's Seminary for Young Ladies, established in 1839 by Mary Clark and her sisters, Chloe and Roby. More recently, a high school friend of Ganeshananthan's lived with his girlfriend (now wife) in the apartment. They recommended it to the Sri Lankan-American journalist and fiction writer and also passed on several pieces of furniture.
Ganeshananthan writes in the early morning, after walking over to Zingerman's for coffee. Her office is a bright yellow room with white crown moldings, a hardwood floor, and a single window. "I'm able to look out at the trees and not feel isolated. I don't see the street, but it's not totally quiet," she says. Currently the U-M's Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing, she also writes book reviews, essays, and media criticism and is working on her second novel. Her first, Love Marriage, the story of two Sri Lankan Tamil families joined by marriage and tradition over four generations, was named one of Washington Post Book World's Best of 2008, and long-listed for the Orange Prize.
A black-framed poster of Salvador Dali's "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening" hangs above the large particle-board desk she bought from her friends. A sparse, modern shelving unit holds a map of Sri Lanka, family photos, a printer, stacks of notebooks and research materials, a white teapot, and a geometric wooden sculpture, a rougher take on Rodin's The Thinker. In the center of the three shelves rests a grouping of books that she rotates in and out depending on what she's using at any given moment. These include Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Anne Carson's Nox, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. "I keep the ones I really like close to me," she says. "I'd love to have enough space to keep all of them near me."
"Privacy and silence mean a lot to me. I can't work in my U of M office," says Nick Delbanco as he leads the way to his second-floor study. Framed pen-and-ink and pencil portraits of poets line the stairwell, as if to offer challenge and inspiration.
The Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English, director of the MFA writing program, and chair of the Hopwood Awards program has lived in this Geddes Heights home since moving here from Vermont in 1985. The half-shuttered windows of his study give a serene, tree-house feel to the room. One of the built-in bookshelves displays the twenty-six books Delbanco has published since 1966 (the most recent is Lastingness: The Art of Old Age) as well as those written by his brother Andrew and daughter Francesca. Others hold books personally inscribed to him and his wife, Elena, by their authors.
An enormous L-shaped wood desk dominates the main room; an open door, decorated with a tongue-wagging leather Javanese mask, leads to an alcove with a small writing desk facing a window. Paintings, photographs, and drawings, acquired during years of world travel, fill the walls. "If we were to leave this town, this is what I would miss most," says Delbanco, surveying his space. "I'm unwilling or unable to write in public spaces. I love this room. It's full of rich and resourceful things. I don't feel confined so much but wouldn't mind if it were twice the size."
Delbanco says he comes to his study no later than five-thirty each morning, when he goes to his desk to compose 500 words. "One must have a habit, be regular in one's pattern," he says. "I don't believe in inspiration arriving in the wind."
"I have everything I need here," says Natalie Bakopoulos of the light-green room with a hardwood floor that serves as her writing space. Bakopoulos and her husband, Jeremy Chamberlin, have offices across from one another, former bedrooms in their comfortable white house on the city's far west side.
Her computer, two small lamps, and a stack of books that include Eyewitness Greece and The Rape of Greece rest on the massive IKEA kitchen table she uses as her desk. She took down the map of Athens that hung above it after she finished writing her first novel, The Green Shore, which came out in June. Bakopoulos used pushpins to track the movements of her characters, a widow and her children, during and after the 1967 military coup d'etat.
Bakopoulos has taught Modern Greek and writing at U-M since earning her MFA in fiction here in 2005; her short story, "Fresco, Byzantine," won an O. Henry Award in 2010. "I used to work in coffeehouses," she says, "but this space tucked up in the back of the house gives me the room I need and makes me feel cozy. I like being able to look out the window at the yard and to take a walk outside." She typically starts writing at five a.m. "My husband and the rest of the world are asleep and the house is mine."
She admits that she is not a particularly visual person and that her husband prompted the addition of most of the artwork on her walls. One oil painting, though, is hers: her grandparents bought it in the 1940s from a street vendor.
An old school desk purchased from Craigslist, next to a utilitarian file cabinet, holds an array of perfumes and makeup and a floral hatbox. "I also use this as my dressing room," Bakopoulos says.
"It's easy to think [that] if I had a better desk or chair, I'd have a better novel," she adds. "But I think it's important to drop the need to go to IKEA or Pottery Barn, and just write."
[Originally published in October, 2012.]