Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Marianne Apostolides

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Marianne Apostolides' desk

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

In Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth about the Writing Life (Bookthug) Marianne Apostolides toys with the limits of the non-fiction genre.

You can catch Marianne reading at the BookThug Spring Launch on May 22, 2012 in Toronto.

Read on to hear about Marianne's unexpected connection to the desk chair that came to her by way of her grandfather's restaurant, and how it and the rest of her workspace inspire her.
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I used to have a fancy office chair. The thing was grey with black plastic levers that stuck out, spastically, at various angles. It looked like a beetle. For three years, I would occupy this chair every morning at 5:30 a.m., a mug of coffee goading me to get to work. I’d ignore the disheveled bed behind my desk, and I’d pick up my pen. Sip the coffee, slide the chair into place: start to write. On occasion, the seat would descend toward the ground, for no apparent reason.

I trashed my chair three years ago.

I was writing “Like a Cat,” a story set in a Greek restaurant where I worked as a belly dancer. I was attempting to convey the absurdity of that place: the flaming cheese and overexcited tourists from Missouri; the unflappable Sri Lankan busboys bossed by an Athenian waiter, whose furry uni-brow was impressive and creepy; the luscious, buxom bartender who chewed gum (open-mouthed) while drinking red wine... But the pacing of the scene was all wrong. Increasingly frustrated, I tried to adjust the height of the chair. Unfortunately, I grabbed the wrong lever; the chair tipped forward, ejecting me.
      My string of curses was poetic.
      “Mom?” my son called from the bedroom. “Mom, you shouldn’t curse.”
      “Good morning, baby.”
      “Good morning, mom…. Mom?”
      “Yes, my love.”
      “What are you doing?”

I was dragging the chair through the apartment, past the kids’ bedroom, onto the front porch from which I bounced it onto the sidewalk. Its grey seat was still tilted forward as I placed a sign in its centre: Please Take Me.

“Go back to bed,” I told my son. I kissed his cheek and tucked him into the bottom bunk; his sister was still asleep on top. Closing the door, I returned to the main room of my apartment. I stopped to take in the view: the desk in the corner; the coffee and pen; the unmade bed, beside which yawned a beautiful open space where the beetle-chair had been. Oh, I felt lightened. I felt exuberant. In a rush of perfect madness, I had rid myself of a monstrosity. Finally, I was ready to tackle that scene.

But I had no chair.
      “How long till I can get up, mom?”
      “It’s only six in the morning! What child gets up at six in the morning!”
      My son paused before answering. “Me?” he said.
      “Go back to sleep!”
      Time was not on my side, so I resolved to get to work. I grabbed a well-worn wooden dinner chair and plonked it at my desk. The height was perfect; adjustments were unnecessary. Which is good, because adjustments would’ve been impossible.

I inherited this chair from my grandfather’s restaurant. It was called Robinson’s Steak House, located in Jersey City, New Jersey, back when that town was run by Boss Hague. My grandfather devoted himself to that restaurant, although he was not the eponymous Jim Robinson. He was Yiorgos Livitsanos, an elegant, uneducated Greek immigrant from a desolate mountain village on the Ionian Islands. My grandfather jumped ship after volunteering for the Greek Navy in the First World War; he was 17 when he landed in New York. By the time the Great Depression ended, my grandfather had saved enough money to buy the restaurant. He decided not to change the name.

Robinson’s Steak House is long gone, overtaken by the Port Authority when it built the PATH Rail System, connecting Jersey City to the World Trade Center. Before the demolition, my mother took some plates, glasses and wooden chairs. She grew up in that restaurant, she said: Friday nights with steak and soda-pop, topped by a long-stemmed maraschino cherry; teenaged years when she worked as a maître d’, observing how her father helped his patrons feel at ease; late-night hours listening to Greek men talk politics — listening and contributing, since her father encouraged her to voice her opinions, articulate her ideas.

Yes, I love this chair, where I sit to write these words. My desk is a functional piece of ugly grey melamine. But this wooden chair, with a heart carved on its back: this chair has stories all its own.

— Marianne Apostolides

Marianne Apostolides is the author of four books, including Swim (2009) and The Lucky Child (2010), which was long-listed for a ReLit Award. Apostolides is a recipient of the 2011 Chalmers Arts Fellowship.

For more information about Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth about the Writing Life please visit the Bookthug website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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