Isobelle Carmody, Children’s Author, in The Writer’s Studio

Isobelle Carmody is a writer who moves to her own rhythms. She has discovered her space and process  over 40 years as an author, having begun writing her beloved and greatly acclaimed Obernewtyn Chronicles at age 14. Here, Isobelle takes us for a trip around Europe (and the Great Ocean Road), taking us inside her writing space and life, sharing in images, words and video, where her stories come from. I love this post.

Where did you write your latest book? How important to you is the space in which you write?
I wrote the book I just finished, a collection of six stories called Metro Winds, over 12 years so I wrote in a lot of different places. Allen and Unwin have been incredibly, inhumanly patient with me. They did not even join that website called ‘Isobelle Carmody Hurry Up’. Can you believed here really is a site called that? I joined it on my last birthday because I want me to hurry up. too. The trouble is that things take as long as they take and I want to get them right. That is also why it has taken so long to finish these stories.

The title story was mostly written in Prague when I was first living there, and in Paris. The city in the story is in fact a fusion of those two cities. The second is called The Dove Game, and was written in Paris, when I was staying in the Keesing Studio at the Cite Des Arts on an Australia Council grant. One of the micro stories in it was something my partner saw and told me about. I loved it so much I asked him to ‘give’ it to me as a present, to use as I liked. It was a big ask because he is a writer too, as well as a musician, but he gave it to me. The Dove Game also contains a story that the artist Miles Lowry, who did the covers of the Billy Thunder books and Alyzon Whitestar, told me when I was in residence at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmarrig in Ireland. The third story, The Girl Who Could See the Wind, is set in Europe and in Australia and was mostly written in cafes in Australia.

Isobelle overlooking the caldera on the island of Santorini, Greece.

I write in cafes a lot because you can’t put your head down and have a little snooze there without embarrassing yourself and you can’t think of a dozen chores to do to get away from your desk when the going gets tough and no one can say they are bored and what should they do or they are hungry and what can they eat or, ‘I can’t find it, can you help me’. They are also great places for people watching and eavesdropping, important and useful activities for a writer. I always acknowledge the names of any cafes or places I work in very regularly, in the book, but I didn’t in this one because there were so many. The fourth story is set in Greece and I actually set it where I go to stay in a villa once a year on the island of Santorini. I wrote the first draft of The Red Wind here and I drew the roughs of the first and third Little Fur books here. In this story the guy is staying in the villa and he even reads a bit of the same old out of print travel guide as I did. The penultimate story is set in Venice – a sort of Ur Venice, actually. I wrote that in cafes in Prague where I am living now, mostly. I also wrote a bit of it in Venice because I go there once a year to the Bologna Book Fair and it is only a two hour train ride away. The last is set in Australia and Prague, and I wrote that here, too.

Do you transform your space in any way for each book? Do you ‘get into character’ at all?
I have a little study that opens right off the kitchen in Australia, and from it I can see the back yard, the front yard and the ocean. You can see my workspace from this little film Penguin made:

In fact I am mostly there in winter these days and and I tend to shift to sit in front of the fire on the couch. I have a lap top I can take anywhere. I hate being cold but I can’t be too warm or I will fall asleep. I prefer no music and no talking and absolutely never the sound of television or ads. I love it when I can hear no human voices. I do go into Apollo Bay and work a lot, and I have my favorite cafes to write in – I tend to write each new book in a different cafe, partly because I think the staff might be sick of sweeping round me by the time I have finished it, and partly because I need to signal to myself that something new is to start. I need a blank canvas. But I hate change. If the cafe changes too much, I will usually stop going there.

In Prague at home, I work in our kitchen which overlooks a complex of apartment yards which have been horribly given over to garages- it is all pitch roof and grey cement. When I showed it to my brother he was appalled. He called it The Gulag. I have a beaten up kitchen table and I am forever fighting to keep the paperwork at bay so we can actually eat there sometimes. The wiring in the kitchen is defective and is always blinking ot dimming or going off at the worst moment. I have to bring in the bedroom lamp when I want to draw.

I usually do the handwriting and some of the computing in cafes, and the main computing and drawing at home in Oz or in Prague, because of the mess. I work in black ink and I am clumsy and messy, as you see. I love when I can work in a hotel as I don’t have to cook. I don’t even have to eat, I can swim when I need a wake up call, and I can tell the desk not to let anyone disturb me. I can work very intensely there.

How has the place that you write evolved or changed since you first began writing novels?
I pretty much always worked roaming around the house. I think I used to work more sitting in bed but these days I find it makes my back ache and being in bed makes me want to go to sleep. I used to work more in cafes than I do now, but people can smoke in cafes in Prague and I hate that so I stopped going so much. I like working in cafes in Australia, but the music can’t be dopy pop or, worst of all, House or electronic of any kind. If there is music, I like modern minimalist Jazz, or quiet classical music or just real music- not something with a computer beat. I like people around but I don’t like it when they laugh or talk too loudly. I like quiet people. I like the coffee to be very very good as I am very very fussy. I only ever drink two coffees and I like it when the coffee shop people leave me alone and don’t keep asking me if there is something else I want. I love it when they know me well enough not even to ask what I want. Working in Apollo Bay it is lovely because no one pays any attention to me when I am working and I have written in basically all the cafes at one time or another.

Do you keep regular writing hours? If not, when do you write?

I start at about 7.30am, just before my daughter goes to school. I make her breakfast not because she needs me to do it, but because it seems sort of sad for her to get up and get ready and leave all alone. There is an intercom that goes down to the front door of the building and sometimes I miaow or purr at her through it. Sometimes it is not her but it doesn’t matter because the startled person at the other end does not know who made cat noises. For all he or she knows, it might be a cat. My daughter says severely, ‘Other mothers don’t miaow down the intercom.’ ‘You miaow back,’ I counter. ‘You encourage me.’ ‘Only because it would be rude not to answer,’ she says, with dignity. I write until about one in my pyjamas, then I shower and go for a walk. I take my computer and after the walk I sit in a cafe and work for another couple of hours, then I go home and work again, stopping to cook dinner, and right now it is 1am and I am still up, writing. Luckily I have always been a bit of an insomniac. Wanting to sleep when I am supposed to be working does not count because it is only a mind trick. Writer narcolepsy. The minute I start to work, I feel sleepy but I have to push through it and then I am okay. Basically I write all the time and squash life in when I have to.

Do you have a morning ritual? Roald Dahl was said to sharpen pencils. What settles your mind for writing?

After my girl leaves, I switch my computer on and I make a cup of tea. I give the cat some food or she bites me gently on the back of my knees. Sometimes I put some washing in the washing machine and dry the dishes from the night before but my rule is to be ready to work when the kettle boils. Once the tea is made I sit down and try really really hard not to look at my emails or Facebook page. If I do, which I do about half the time, there goes two hours. If I don’t, I am allowed to do that when I come back from the cafe in the afternoon. I stay in my dressing gown because if I get dressed I have to go out. If I need to be put into a certain mind set, I will read a chapter or two of something. I try to be reading the same book or the same author or the same sort of book the whole time I am working on a certain book. I have certain books which I read again and again and I take them everywhere I go in the world, when I am going to write- that is why I love my kindle. It contains a library of books I might need.

When I am drawing, I listen to audio CDs and I have to get out all of my pots and ink quills and nibs and sharpen the pencils and find the rubber because the cat steals rubbers and she often runs off with a pencil I am trying to use. She has a stash of them under the couch. I feel like I imagine an alchemist would feel with all the drawing stuff around me. If I am writing I use the same pen, which I always buy new for each new book. It is the sort that you have to suck ink into. The color of the pen had to be right for the book, as does the notepad I use (a thin B5 lined moleskin), and I always try to get or mix an ink to suit as well. At the moment I am writing The Cloud Road, which is the sequel to The Red Wind, on blue or grey or white Moleskine notebooks, and I have a pale silvery blue waterman pen and grey ink, which I hunted high and low to find. Mont Blanc is the only company that makes it and they have the most beautiful bottles for their ink that I have ever seen.

Thanks Isobelle! Next week, catch another writer in The Writer’s Studio.


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