I do most of my writing in the back corner of a coffee shop, so on my desk are cream and sugar (the place puts them there—I drink my coffee black). I’m a few years into compulsively drafting a novel. The pile of chapters and revisions from its current incarnation (as there have been many) sits next to my bed in a wooden box and measures fourteen-and-a-half inches tall. Across from the bed, under a table, is a cardboard box with the drafts of a story I’m almost done with. It’s about an anti-Semite in a made-up town called Greenheath. Being a short story, the pile is shorter. Thirty drafts later, it has left behind a stump four inches high.
I’m working on a novel about a Hungarian Jewish architecture student, set in Budapest and Paris in the late 1930s. On my desk are a lot of French architecture books and old photographs and maps. I love maps. I have a passion for orientation. I like to know where my protagonist is going, even when he’s lost. My grandfather, on whose experiences the novel is roughly based, was rarely lost. He walked everywhere. “I had a garret apartment in Rue des Ecoles,” he told me in a recent interview. “I didn’t have furniture, so I took what people left in front of the building. I found a bed of steel and bought a mattress. I didn’t have money to buy coffee every day, so I made a sweet tea. I had a glass for jam; I used it for a mug. I made one cup of tea for breakfast with a little sugar, and a croissant. And after that I went to my school, l’École Speciale d’Architecture. It was a mile and a half from my apartment. I never went in the Metro because I wanted to see all the houses. I was walking in the dry leaves on the ground. It was fall.”
At the moment, I am trying to finish a memoir about my father, Anatole Broyard, family secrets, and race. When my dad died in 1990, I found out that he was black—or at least part black—although he didn’t identify as such during much of his lifetime. The book considers what his African ancestry might have meant to him with the hope of figuring out what it means to me. And so on my desk are cassette tapes, a hulking Marantz tape recorder, minidiskettes, and an itty-bitty Sony Minidisc player, all of which have been employed for the last three-and-a-half years to record interviews for this book as well as for a radio documentary about passing that I’d like to make one day (before yet another, more improved recording device appears) because I think it would be cool to hear people talk about race and identity without actually knowing what they look like. But, back to my desk. Over it hangs a collection of photos of my paternal ancestors, none of which I’d seen before starting this project, including one of my great-grandmother from the early 1870s: a slightly angry-looking, rather homely, walleyed young woman with straight black hair (from her Choctaw grandmother), a pug nose, lovely full lips, and extremely large hands and ears. Below my desk are piles of books and dissertations on subjects ranging from the slave market in New Orleans to the Beat Movement in New York to the fiction of race as written by our DNA. And somewhere above the mess, floating in the atmosphere near the region of my brain, is the narrative arc that I hope will bring all these elements together.
OK, on my desk: Two Martian narratives: One is the Cambodia novel which creeps along in the dark. The other is a sun-squintingly bright nonfiction piece, currently called “Golf Is Vile,” which is about four days in Augusta—which sounds like Three Days of the Condor, or Raid on Entebbe, both of which have a level of darkness to them that is unfair to associate with a golf club or a golf tournament. But what can you do? This piece of reportage-riffing-essay keeps getting longer and longer as I keep jumping up in the middle of the night to add little details. But now I have banned any more work on it for a while, because at a certain point you become your adversary, or at least your subject, and I don’t want to become golf. I exhausted myself on the vagaries of the Cambodia book and took refuge in a call for alumni submissions from the Cambodia Daily, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this August. I wrote about my watch, which has Hun Sen on its face, and Francois Bizot and Henry Kamm and their Cambodia books. Pieces of all this are on the periphery of my desk, figuratively. What is literally on my desk (though it’s not literally my desk, it’s Yaddo’s desk) are a bunch of typed pages. I Velcro’d my manual typewriter to the white table so it doesn’t slide forward and every day there are more white pages with type on them which can be scribbled on but not endlessly revised the way you can on a computer, and if they get blown away and disappear they’re gone forever. It is a piece that picks up a few years down the road from something called “Vas is Das?” from The Sleep-Over Artist.
On my desk is some writer’s revision of a screenplay I wrote, which now includes the unfortunate line “For instance, I hear there’s a price on the head of your old partner Jack McCadden.” Also on my desk is a list of alternate titles for my next novel—which already has, in my opinion, a good title—but which the publisher thinks should include the word “wedding,” because people don’t buy books with the word “divorce” in the title. (Although I think even my editor would agree there’s a pretty big difference between those two words.) Somewhere under all this mess is a script for a short film I plan to direct this fall, the title of which is OK. Not great. Then there’s a beat-by-beat outline for a television series I’ll be pitching in the fall. Everybody smiles, offers me water. Small talk. Small talk. Under my desk is a collection of ice tea bottles and a brown dog. Where did she come from?
I’m working on a novel set in Argentina and Brazil. It follows a young man on his search for a schizophrenic older brother, who’s disappeared while studying at the University of Buenos Aires. It’s tentatively titled Searching for Gabriel, and I finished a draft last fall. I write (or more correctly, rewrite) in a university library a few blocks from my apartment, so the desk I use is not actually my own—and is often not even the one I used the day before. I bring a few personal items to make it feel like my desk: books, photos from a recent trip to South America, a wooden Guatemalan snake-pen my wife gave me. If I get to the library early, say by 9:30, I’m almost guaranteed a coveted, nearly enclosed area at the far corner of the top floor. I call this area the War Room, because the shelf that separates it from the rest of the library is filled, end to end, with books on war strategy: Urban Guerrilla War Tactics, Winnable Nuclear War, frightening titles like that. (For a brief period in the winter I moved from the War Room to a well-lighted space I called the Writing Room because it was adjacent to a shelf of books on novel writing—How to Write the Best-Selling Novel, How to Write Books People Will Love—but in the end I found these books even scarier than the war books, so I moved back.) Last month they renovated the whole top floor of the library. I had to work in the basement for a few weeks. But I’m back in the War Room now, and while the new carpeting—dark gray with tan, wormy squiggles—is a bit disconcerting, the sage-green paint is nice. (Why, though, one has to ask, did they keep the old banana-yellow bookshelves? Was it a budgetary decision? Shouldn’t I have been consulted on any of this?) If all goes well, I’ll have finished another draft of the novel by the time you’re reading this.
I’m working on a novel about a woman who is surprised by how deeply affected she is by the death of Princess Diana, which sends her into a little midlife-crisis affair with a guy who photographed Diana giving him the finger. I’m calling it His Lovely Wife. I have all kinds of Princess Diana kitsch on my desk—shot glasses (doubles!), a Charles and Diana puzzle, commemorative plates, wineglasses (for toasting the wedding), a sachet, all the trashy biographies of her, pre- and post-mortem, paper dolls in which baby Prince Harry is an accessory, and a Saint Diana magnet.