Writing setups

Writing setups are part curiosity and part nerdery. They’re pure ‘shop talk’ and ‘inside baseball’.

I enjoy reading about the writers I’m interested in, piecing together the life-jigsaw-puzzle that might have informed their work, learning about their writing experience and process — and their writing setup.

I wrote a post about old editions of The Paris Review (from the mid-1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s), which included interviews with writers. During that time writers enjoyed a much higher profile than they have nowadays. They were invited onto popular talk shows and they were profiled in mainstream magazines. Today’s late night chat shows almost exclusively feature celebrity actors and, to a lesser extent, popular musicians. It’s a palpable indication of how the role of the writer in society, writing, and publishing has changed.

The Paris Review interviews began with an introductory description of the writer within his or her environment. These descriptions were often based on the interviewer’s first impression when they met the author for the interview: the writer’s appearance, his or her demeanour, their home, the room they write in, their writing desk, and if they write by hand or use a typewriter.

These sections allowed readers to virtually meet the writer. It was a substitute for meeting the author in person, for readers who would probably never meet the author in real life. They were part fan info, part voyeurism, and part collegial experience sharing — setting the scene and tone for the remaining interview questions.

I found it interesting that Raymond Carver was driving a new Mercedes. He’d gone from ‘working class hero’ to middle-class success story. I was intrigued by J G Ballard’s discipline and his warning to anyone who was seriously thinking about writing. It’s reassuring to know that someone like Jack Kerouac (even after his success) struggled to fit his writing into a daily routine, having to creep around the house in the middle of the night. These details can be telling or they can be banal. They’re often both.

Either way, having a peek behind the scenes, tends to humanise revered writers while also revealing their quirky rituals. In a strange way, they affirm that writing comes from the mind and not from the type of desk or the brand of typewriter the author owns. And yet, as useless as this information is, it’s also weirdly compelling. It’s the stuff of detail that writers inject into their own fiction to create authenticity.

I have to admit that I’m curious about the writing setups of other writers. Most of the details are fluff, but they’re interesting. I think it comes down to a feeling that we have a privileged insight into an author’s life. It’s like being allowed into someone’s home. We have literally crossed a threshold between public and private. There’s always the hope that we are going to gain a precious insight. With writing, because it’s a usually a solitary activity that involves sitting in a room somewhere behind a closed door, it feels like getting a VIP pass backstage at a music concert or visiting Graceland for an Elvis fan.

These days, work setups are now more likely to be shared by designers and coders. It’s more of a geeky tech thing. These setups provide a production record, a technical snapshot of a particular moment. They have a diary-like utility to them, a personal record, a document, a history.

Writing setups remind us of what writers used to do. And what our peers are doing now. They inspire and motivate us. They are part of publishing myth-making and legend. Every creative endeavour has its tips and tricks, and its sacred objects: a special brand of Japanese pencil, a German Leica 35mm film camera loaded with Kodak Tri-X Pan, or an Italian notebook.

It’s possible to take writing setups even further. To make them part of the business. For a while, photographers have acted as ‘product ambassadors’ endorsing particular cameras, monetising the behind-the-scenes insight and turning it into a marketing tool.

Some writers have combined the behind-the-scenes insight with their personal brand by moving into merchandising, selling t-shirts through an online store or by using affiliate links to the things that they own.

It’s one thing to be interested in Lee Child’s writing setup, but it’s another level of curiosity and fandom to want to buy Lee Child’s officially approved coffee. Where there’s publishing success or the aura of cult literary status there’s always a hunger for authentic details about a writer.

For readers who write, this informs an interest in learning about trade craft and tools, for others it’s the perceived celebrity status of the writer, meeting them at talks and personal book signing appearances, or reliving the experience of a fictional character through the purchase of merchandise, t-shirts, and drinking ‘Jack Reacher’s coffee’.

Whether its fandom, technical curiosity, or the allure of literary stardom, writing setups and behind-the-scenes insights are banal records, and yet they present us with highly satisfying, tangible, historical ephemera and artefacts that infer an authentic connection, however tantalising but ultimately elusive those may turn out to be.