Perhaps I’m alone in this, but when I read about a writer’s office, or see a picture of the room in which they undertake the majority of their work, I wonder how they heat it. Only occasionally in photos can you glimpse a white painted radiator attached to the wall (in Will Self’s study in his Brixton home, for example – or Beckett’s Parisian study). Sometimes it’s obvious that the room is designed to heat itself to some degree (George Bernard Shaw’s rotating writing hut, which allowed him to follow the sun). Otherwise you’re forced to assume that, somewhere in the writer’s room, the process of heating is taking place, but that the writer thinks it’s none of our business how it’s done.
You may think my obsession with writers’ heat sources a little peculiar, but to me it’s quite a practical preoccupation. For the last five months or so, I’ve been writing a non-fiction book about Dublin. Much of this time has been spent in a box room in the rented house I share with my girlfriend on a south Dublin housing estate. The room is smallish, but big enough to accommodate two desks (a large desk – mine; a smaller one – hers). As my girlfriend mostly works from an office in the city centre, I’m habitually the sole resident here, sitting in my cheap office chair, trying to hammer out a substantial word count on a daily basis. A lot of this writing has taken place during a quite icy winter.
On cold days, I had initially tried working without any heat source at all – but my hands would freeze up, mangling the words I typed on the keyboard. I had a choice: either find some heating or fall considerably behind with my writing. Because it seemed wasteful, not to mention costly, to heat the entire house, I thought I’d try and find a small plug-in heater.
When you’re interested in literature, you begin to wonder how certain writers would do certain things: you become obsessed with writers’ working methods and try to emulate their approaches in the hope that a little of what you irrationally assume is the magic of their compositional process will somehow elevate your own tawdry routines. Don DeLillo composes each new paragraph on a new page. Nabokov wrote on index cards. Hemingway wrote standing up. Perhaps I could do these things too? (Many of these examples are drawn from Brian Dillon’s excellent I Am Sitting in A Room, a wry commentary on the obsession with writers’ rooms.)
While in this frame of mind, I wondered what kind of heater a great contemporary novelist – like Philip Roth, say – would buy if he was in my position. And by ‘my position’, I mean: attempting to buy a reasonably priced plug-in heater that would keep a twelve foot-by-twelve foot room warm.
But I’m sad to say that the literature on this topic is sorely lacking. I combed the Paris Review – usually the go-to source for information about the minutiae of writers’ habits – and discovered nothing.
Eventually, though, I found the dearth of literary commentary on the question of office heating somehow liberating. With no anxiety of influence to overcome, I unselfconsciously chose a decent heater and have been writing fairly steadily ever since.