Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Patricia Westerhof

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Patricia Westerhof

Patricia Westerhof is the author of The Dove in Bathurst Station (Brindle & Glass).

The Dove in Bathurst Station tells the story of Marta Elzinga, who is searching for a sign in downtown Toronto, from the islands to the titular subway station. Prone to magical thinking, Marta finds herself exploring the dangerous geography far below the city with a mysterious former student of hers. This urban adventure reads as a love letter to the city, joining the ranks of unapologetically Toronto-focused novels by Atwood, Ondaatje and others.

Today Patricia joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers speak about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them, telling the stories behind the books that sits on our shelves and in our hands. Patricia tells us about writing in a recording studio, an almost-hourglass and advice from Hemingway.
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Having a desk of my own is relatively new to me. I wrote my first book, Catch Me When I Fall, in my head during my kids’ swimming classes, piano lessons and play dates. I typed the stories up on Saturdays at my husband’s recording studio, working alongside a recording console as vast and intimidating to me as an aircraft control panel. Because even playing a CD was about a seventeen-step process that involved knobs, sliders and buttons, the console was no distraction. Black theatre drapes concealed the windows, so there was no view to tug my attention away from the computer screen. The fridge was empty except for beer and Jägermeister, neither of which appealed to me. The room was not mine to clean. The only noise was the drone of the heater in the winter and the drone of the air conditioner in the summer. I was alone, with nothing to do but write. I enjoyed very productive days there.

Now I have a study at home. At first, this seemed like a dream come true: the much-lauded room of one’s own. I decorated it in restful shades of Delft, ivory and periwinkle, furnished it with an old wooden desk, paintings by artists I know, a brocade throw that my daughter hand-sewed for me. It should have been ideal.

What I failed to anticipate was the commotion, the disruption, all the available diversion that comes with working at home. My study is smack dab in the middle of the house. It’s far from soundproof; I can hear the music practice proceeding below me, and the discussions about Saturday chores. I suppose I could wear earplugs, but I’m nosey and like to know what’s going on in my own house. The door doesn’t latch, and the cat wanders in at will, plops himself on my desk and paws at my keyboard. The laundry room is just steps away, and on a bad day — a day when words come haltingly or not at all — laundry beckons with the allure of easier labour and more tangible results. (Do you need to be a writer to understand how laundry can be a temptation?) And then there’s the kitchen just down the stairs, with a full coffee pot, a stocked fridge, and people I like.

So I have added two things to my desk that I didn’t need in the silence of the studio. One is a note I wrote to myself while I was composing The Dove in Bathurst Station. I folded an index card in half and printed the most inspiring words I could think of: “Keep Going.” I glance at these words often. The other object is an hourglass that I salvaged from a dusty sale shelf at Home Sense. It’s a cheap one, so it clocks some random amount of time — less than an hour, more than a half hour. I use it only when things turn dire. Rather than deleting the chapter I’m battling or giving up the book entirely, I turn the something-less-than-an-hourglass upside down and tell myself that I just have to persevere until the sand runs through. And then I write. Almost always, by the time all the grains have hit bottom, I surface to find I’ve made progress and know the way forward.

Ernest Hemingway is not my favourite author, but no one has surpassed him with this insight about a writer’s workplace: “The best place to write is in your head." I feel blessed to have a lovely writing room, but I know that what I have surrounded myself with are merely props to help keep my thoughts focused on the real setting of my writing: the world of the story.

— Patricia Westerhof

Patricia Westerhof is the author of The Dove in Bathurst Station and Catch Me When I Fall. Her work has been published in Room Magazine, the Dalhousie Review, and the anthology Trees Running Backward, and she is the co-author of a textbook for creative writing students called The Writer’s Craft. Patricia lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters, where she teaches English and creative writing. Please visit http://www.patriciawesterhof.com.

For more information about The Dove in Bathurst Station please visit the Brindle & Glass 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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