Thursday, March 26, 2009


Where do you work best at home?

I am selfish and obsessive about the place I work, and always, always
have a room in the house that is designated "my study." I'm
surrounded with books, the bricabrac of nostalgia, photographs of
family, and one wall densely decorated with lapel pins from various
magazines, mottoes ("A victory for anybody is a victory for war" --
GB Shaw, "It doesn't have to be calm and clear-eyed, you just have to
not give up" -- David Mamet), objects that represent what I have in
the past worked on (a dried real seahorse, a prehistoric cutting
stone), business cards and post-it notes, a Namibian dollar, a brass
zebra. For a long while my younger son Alex was jealous of the
typewriter, then the computer, the phone and all the paraphernalia of
my study. Though there were three phones in the house, he preferred
mine. I would go to work and find the papers subtly rearranged. One
day my vocabulary calendar turned up the word "adytum" -- "a sacred
place that the public may not enter." I took Alex with me to the
trophy shop and had him pick out a brass plate, the lettering, the
edge design for a plaque of that word. We screwed it on the door of
my study. He enjoyed it. He understood. And continued to take his
phone calls on my phone, shove my papers gently into new configurations.

What time of day would we find you there?

You might find me there at any hour of the day or evening (I no
longer pull all-nighters), but you might also not find me there at
any hour. I work all the time and I also invent many reasons not to
go to work. But generally speaking, I start the day with breakfast
and the NY Times, do my exercises (bad back: I need them before I
sit), then answer my email, read around a little, reread what I'm
working on, scribble and despair. Sometime between ten and two I
decide to begin in earnest. If the work is going well, I may be
there with a break for supper till nine or ten. If not, I may escape at three.

What is your favorite comfort food while you work at home?

In my study I usually only have ice water and Altoids "curiously
strong mint" gum. When I detour to the kitchen I'm likely to nab a
cookie, a handful of salted nuts (deluxe, please), a chocolate. How
I do wish the answer were "carrots, celery sticks, and broccoli
flowerets." Well, I like those too.

How does home feed into your writing?

Home feeds into my writing in every way. First there is the
conflict: as a teenager I had two images of myself, one a strong
stout woman in tweed striding through the woods making great poetry;
the other a comfy cookie-baking mother with the kids gathered around
her feet for a story. I was perturbed about the choice between them,
and sometimes desperate. I did not suspect that I would never
choose, that the tension between the two images would remain forever,
and that my strong domestic streak would nevertheless becomes the
background and the spine of my writing self. Then there is the
confluence: My children were the constant in a life often otherwise
in flux or disorder. Other teacher/writers I knew wrote at the
office to avoid the kids. I worked at home (a door with a window
onto the living room) because only there was I at ease. Now, my
husband the wonderful Hungarian cook frees me to my haphazard
schedule by cooking every night. One of the hand-written scraps on
my wall is from Judith Ortiz Cofer: "If you don't cook, and you get
people to love you, you will be fed." Actually, I cook pretty well,
and like to do fancy dishes for parties, but Peter relieves me of the
daily distraction. Home is my subject matter, my metaphor, and my
model for both war and peace; the paradigm of comedy, of tragedy, of
tenderness and rage.

Janet Burroway is the author of eight novels, the most recent Bridge of Sand from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Among her recent works are the play Parts of Speech; a collection of essays, Embalming Mom; and new editions of her texts Imaginative Writing and Writing Fiction. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Visit Janet's website.

Recent At Home profiles:

Jen Bryant

Gabi Swiatkowska

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