IMRAAN COOVADIA

Image: Karl Rogers & Aubrey Jonsson

Imraan Coovadia is the author of five novels: The Wedding, Green-Eyed Thieves, High Low In-between, The Institute for Taxi Poetry and Tales of the Metric System. He has published a study of VS Naipaul as well as a collection 
of essays, Transformations. Coovadia has won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the University of Johannesburg Prize, the M-Net Prize and a South African Literary Award for Non-Fiction. 

He is the director of the writing programme at the University of Cape Town. Coovadia wrote his last two novels in this room. When asked what he’s working on at the moment, he says, “When I know, I’ll be almost done with it.” He lives in Cape Town. “The room I write in changes from time to time. I’ve written in many rooms. It’s defined by time rather than space – usually it’s where I am in the morning. You know, I have a dedicated study in our house.

I hardly ever use it as a writing room. Go figure. I write on a laptop. Well, a Macbook. “I write in the mornings for a few hours, maybe not more than one or two, when I’m working on something. It’s important to work every day, at roughly the same time. For two reasons: it satisfies the desire to work regularly and also to get off work as early as possible. No writer is that structured, unless they’re making a lot of money.

But I think we like the reputation of being extremely structured. “From where I sit I can see my neighbour’s lemon tree. The swimming pool. A section of Devil’s Peak. I prefer as little as possible to be around. I’m untidy by nature, but internally as tidy as I can be, therefore I hate clutter. “There are lots of stories behind many of the pieces of furniture, but I don’t think they’re relevant to me. There are some posters, and a clock with cats done up in Abba costumes (a gift from my brother-in-law), but nothing that’s meaningful in terms of writing, which is basically a process of abstraction from the immediate environment.

“Before I start working I make sure that nothing has changed on the internet. Actually, the fewer rituals you have – no matter how attractive a ritual it is to brew a careful cup of chamomile according to a traditional formula – the more steps you’ve put between yourself and getting anything done (and then getting off altogether).”


INGRID WINTERBACH

Image: Karl Rogers & Aubrey Jonsson

A multiple-award winning author, Ingrid Winterbach is also a painter and for many years was a university lecturer in fine art, Afrikaans and Dutch. She has been writing and painting full time since 2002 and is the only novelist to have won the M-Net prize three times. Last year, her award-winning novel, Die Aanspraak van Lewende Wesens, was translated by author Michiel Heyns as It Might Get Loud. In this writing studio she completed her latest novel (started in Durban three years ago), Vlakwater.  

She adds: “It Might Get Loud, the translation of my novel, was finalised here. And I’ve slowly started working on a new novel.” She lives in Stellenbosch. “My writing room is a dedicated study-cum-studio. When we built the house in 2013, the room was designed as a studio for both writing and painting. It is a large room (more than 50m²), with a high, sloping ceiling, big windows on the south and a balcony overlooking Stellenbosch mountain on the east.

There are tables, bookshelves, easles, two couches, an easy chair, a drawing cabinet, various skulls – including a rhino, warthog and hyena skull – shells, a small music system. And an nguni skin on the cement floor. The one couch and the easy chair are part of the lounge suite that my parents bought when they got married in 1945. “At the moment I have a poster of Mantegna’s Dead Christ on the wall, and five small dinosaurs on a Roy Lichtenstein postcard on the table where I write.

It’s very quiet here in the mornings. I mostly hear dogs barking, birds, sometimes the neighbours’ voices. “When I turn my head to the left and to the right I see endless paraphernalia: paintings, drawings, prints, shells, skulls, stones, corals, books, objects, drawing and painting material. STUFF. There’s so much stuff in this room that I have to keep my desk tidy and clutterless.

“My reference books are on the shelves. Close at hand are The New Oxford Thesaurus of English, an Oxford Concise Dictionary, the HAT (Handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal), the Pharos Afrikaans-English/English-Afrikaans Dictionary and an Afrikaans thesaurus. “I have always written in the morning but I seldom write more than two hours a day. Before I start writing I delay. Check my e-mail. Read the paper online. Do Facebook (a huge waste of time and the death of writing).

The first 50 pages or so I write longhand, after that on computer, with endless notes on bits of paper – anything at hand when a thought comes up. Two thousand words would be an excellent day. No music when I write, only when I paint. One tea break. “I guess what connects me to my writing is being busy with it – rereading and rewriting.

The first 50 pages or so I write longhand, after that on computer, with endless notes on bits of paper – anything at hand when a thought comes up. Two thousand words would be an excellent day. No music when I write, only when I paint. One tea break. “I guess what connects me to my writing is being busy with it – rereading and rewriting.


LAUREN BEUKES

Image: Karl Rogers & Aubrey Jonsson

Lauren Beukes is the multiple award-winning author of Broken Monsters, The Shining Girls, Moxyland and Zoo City, for which she won the Arthur C Clarke Award. She also writes comics and TV shows and is a journalist. She is working on a new novel “which I’m not telling you anything about”, and lives in Cape Town. “I work in three different places: upstairs on the enclosed balcony looking over Table Mountain, with a standing desk; downstairs in the kitchen, when it’s warm; and in the dining room when it’s cold and I can have a fire going.

“My dining room/lounge has a huge floor-to-ceiling bookshelf (with a ladder!) containing my favourite books and my dad’s old office book cabinet with all the different editions of the books I’ve written, a 1940s medical cabinet from Brazil containing my collection of 2000AD month lies from the 1990s and various artefacts that somehow connect to my work, including an Applejack My Little Pony from 1984, which is the same as the one in The Shining Girls.

“I’ve got various artefacts, including awards, like the knitted Red Tentacle I won for Zoo City or the Arthur C Clarke Award, which I’ve pimped out by adding a white crocodile to the stand, a variant of the Zoo City Bare custom vinyl toy Willeen le Roux made for the charity auction we put together, the original stuffed bear Moxy from the first edition Moxyland cover, the Yale & Towne key from The Shining Girls and a Takashi Murakami plush art skull, just because.

“The two pieces that particularly resonate with me, which feel like a reflection of my creative process, are a work by Jordan Metcalfe depicting a monster pulling seed pods out of its belly and examining them to see if they are any good, and an illustration of a girl who has pulled her heart out of her chest and is eating it. I have a bunch of cards that were hand-drawn for me by the kids at St Matthews school in Soweto when I went to read my Wonder Woman comic set in Soweto to them.

They’re awesome and full of kid superhero drawings and lovely messages . “While I work I listen to electronica – Amon Tobin, Markus Wormstorm, Sibot – anything upbeat and surprising and lush and dark that makes me want to dance in my seat. It’s a great pace-setter. I drink coffee and break to make lunch. Sometimes my six-year-old (daughter) sneaks in to watch a funny cat video. Her cat, Miss Ivyness of Doom, likes to come and knock pencils off the table.


DIANE AWERBUCK

Image: Karl Rogers & Aubrey Jonsson

A novelist and teacher, Diane Awerbuck is the author of Gardening at Night, winner of the Commonwealth Best First Book Award for Africa and the Caribbean, Cabin Fever, a collection of short stories, and Home Remedies. “In this room I have written two revisions of a doctorate that the Americans can’t decide about publishing, a collection of short stories; some poems; a South 
African gothic novel (Home Remedies); and a cowboy/apocalypse novel with Alex Latimer under the name Frank Owen (South).

At the moment I am working on North.” She lives in Fish Hoek. “The room I write in is a halfway station between the lounge and the bathroom, so when the children are screaming and splashing at 6pm, my husband can yell, ‘Are you on Facebook again?’ I hate this room because it’s cold, dark and noisy, but I need to be able to keep tabs on what’s going on in the house.

It has green walls (the colour of contemplation, according to the early monks and the entire Arab world, which is one of the reasons gardens feature so prominently across cultures); kids’ forbidden DVDs (for blackmail purposes); black pens (for signing myself into indentured servitude); a very large and lovely hardcover diary from the British Museum (a mistake, in retrospect). “I write on a PC but there’s nothing else special. Writers need to be able to write wherever they are. It’s not magic.

“On the wall there is artwork by Paul Painting, Patrick Latimer and Edward Gorey (reminders that the reason we make things is for love and fun and beauty); a votive Saint Clare of Assisi (the patron of screens and television) and a seed catalogue . There is also a giant photo-statted map of Colorado given to me by Alex Latimer, because that’s where South is set, and he is tired of my appalling geography.

I sit on one of those gym balls instead of a chair because I had an interesting youth and I don’t like to exercise. Core body strength is everything. “Before I start writing I clear the desk of other people’s crap. If I had to look at the suicidally banal admin that I often need to get through in a day it would drive me demented. Clutter is for the weak. A terribly useful thing that my old head of department told me was: ‘Touch a piece of paper once.’

Her other piece of advice was: ‘Don’t get married.’ “I like short stories because they take about a week each to write, all told. I’m trying to stretch to about 3 000 words per story . I have notebooks in which I keep brief notes on phrasing, because strangers often say the most ridiculously offensive and revealing things. “Ideally, I would live alone on the hillside in a wooden cabin, with cats who admired me. It could still happen. Only 15 years to go.”


EKOW DUKER

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Ekow Duker is an oil-field engineer turned investment banker turned part-time author. His novels include White Wahalla and Dying in New York. He is currently working on a novel about a married gay black man. “This is the story of how he comes to terms (or not) with being gay, and what his wife goes through.”  He lives in Joburg. “I write in a dedicated study in a house we’ve recently moved into. The previous owner used it as a home gym.

It was a choice between this room and another room in the corner of the house. But my partner appropriated that one. It still has wall-to-wall mirrors that make it look bigger than it is. “The desk is quite neat. You won’t see any loose papers lying around. But the space itself is quite small, so I work at one of those staggered computer desks: one level for the screen and one for the keyboard. My memory stick is one of those bendy men with a round head.

The head comes off and that’s where the USB is. I don’t really use it for anything; I just like to have it there because he sort of looks at me as I write. “What I did in the old space, and thought I’d bring them across, is I framed the covers of the books I’d written, and I stuck those on the walls. So there’s one of Dying in New York and there’s one of White Wahalla, and there’s a third one of a book I started – I finished it actually – and then I decided to scrap it. But I framed it before I decided to scrap it.

“There is also a picture that I really like of a sleeping woman. I saw it when I went to Vienna a couple of years ago. It was such a beautiful painting. It looked so lifelike. I like the peaceful-ness about it. When I got back to SA, I hunted for the print online. The print I’ve got is much larger than the original. “Because I work at a bank, I can’t really write during the day. So I wake up at 4am. I set the alarm for 10 to four, and then I go and write in the study. I write from four to six, if I’m able to wake up at four. It’s not always that easy.

“I write straight onto the computer. I normally keep my phone next to me, and I look up stuff on the phone. “I used to aim to write two pages a day. That’s what I did with the book that I scrapped. I think at the end of the day, my publisher and I agreed it wasn’t a very thoughtful book. So I stopped doing that. Now I just write and I try not to count the words or count the pages. Sometimes it’s easy; sometime it’s not. I usually write with music. Not usually loud music. When I write, usually it’s R&B.”


FINUALA DOWLING

Image: Karl Rogers & Aubrey Jonsson

The author of four novels – What Poets Need, Flyleaf, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart and The Fetch – Finuala Dowling is also a multiple award-winning poet. Her collections of poems include Doo-Wop Girls of the Universe and Notes from the Dementia Ward. In this room, Dowling has written “three 
collections of poetry and many uncollected poems, three novels, about 25 text books and study guides, thousands of e-mails and diary entries, hundreds of thousands of words”.

She is a senior lecturer in the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Cape Town. At the moment she is working on a new novel. “I feel desperately unhappy about it, which is a good sign.” She lives in Kalk Bay. “I used to work in the spare room inside, but then someone died and left me enough money to build this outside study. My brother, Sean, did the building work. He died suddenly in 2007, so of course the room now has an added significance.

“It’s a small, bookshelf-lined room. The walls need repainting and there’s quite a lot of clutter. I don’t know when or how half this stuff got here. I have a view of a wall and a drainpipe. From the window I can see inside the kitchen. I can see the tins where we keep the rice and the oats, and two shelves of dishes. Sometimes the cats sun themselves on the kitchen overhang. “I can hear the sea, always. I know what tide it is, even if I can’t see it thanks to my neighbour blocking up my little chink of view.

After big swells there’s a smell of kelp or even redbait. I can hear the train when it reaches the level crossing . I can hear workmen and, sometimes, earth-moving equipment. “When I’m in the midst of a novel, this desk is a disgrace. Pages of research notes, scraps of paper with ideas, reference books, notebooks, all stained by coffee rings and sprinkled with toast crumbs.

“There are Mother’s Day and birthday cards on the pinboard; a poster that says ‘A Studio of her Own’ that a friend bought me from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; a painting and a perfect grey stone (sometimes a paperweight, sometimes an object of contemplation) sent by another friend.

“When I’m at a loss, my eye likes to fall on a small antique chair that dates way back in my family. I love it because it is miniature, a replica of an adult chair – which is what writing is for me, a miniature form of something big, and an extension of child’s play. “Even though a part of me longs for a space with more light (a space with more space!) I have a deep fear of writing anywhere else. I associate this small, enclosed room with thought, with books and poems that get written in a way that is still something of a mystery to me.”


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