Saturday, September 19, 2015

Coffee Shop Writing: You Want Fries With Your Fiction?

by Tim Hallinan

I always feel a pang of envy when I see the photo of some successful writer's workspace, with the mahogany desk, the rows of books, the immaculate, plumb-straight stack of manuscript pages, the professorial rack of pipes (for men, anyway). This is a space that exudes calm reflection and decisive creativity, a place where good ideas just hover in the corners, waiting to be noticed, a place that says serious work is done here.

And God knows I've tried to make one. I bought the desk, the swivel chair, and reams of extra-heavy paper to make the manuscript look thicker in those pitiful early stages. I put my books up. I put other people's books up. I put up books I've never read, never wanted to read, and will probably never read. And then I sat down to Create.

And, ten minutes later, found myself waxing the dining room table, or vacuuming the living room, or pouring Drano down some perfectly good drain and waiting thirty minutes for nothing to happen. Self-discovery dawned: I can't work at home. The first time a word is slow to show up, I've got a sponge in my hand.

So now I work in coffee shops. And since I write my Asia series in Asia, that means that the coffee shops in which Poke Rafferty and his family come into being are mainly in Bangkok and in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I'm writing these words in K-Coffee, an immaculate little coffee house on Street 214 in Phnom Penh. It's off the beaten track, which means it's not full of bored expatriates who think it's perfectly appropriate to come over to my table, look over my shoulder, read for a minute or two, and then say, “So, whatcha doing?”

(By the way what is it with people who think that writing is infinitely interruptible? Almost the only drawback to working in public is the stream of doofuses who figure that the poor lonely guy pounding away at that keyboard would much rather hear a stupid question or two? Or who settle in with the most dreaded phrase of all, “I could write a book if I just had the time,” and then tell you at great length about the book they haven't got the time to write, although they seem to have all day to talk about it.)

Sorry about that. Writing in Asian coffee shops has the following things to recommend it:

1. They're in Asia, which is where I generally want to be,
2. Many, many of the people in the shop speak no English, which makes it much more likely that I'll finish a paragraph – this one, for example – without interruption.
3. The help in Asian coffee shops is actually helpful. They don't, for one thing, think of themselves as baristas. They think of themselves as people who work in a coffee shop. And they don't feel compelled to estimate a customer's Hipness Index before deciding whether to trust him or her with that cup of organic, free-trade, shade-grown French roast.
4. They serve coffee, as opposed to organic, free-trade, shade-grown French roast or caramel-whip frappes with essence of raspberry that's been strained through the Unicorn Tapestries or something.
5. They serve Vietnamese coffee, which is stronger than lye and will dissolve the most stubborn writer's block. It's a sort of creative Drano.
6. I can always find a face. I hate describing faces. If I want an Asian face in an Asian coffee shop, all I have to do is look around the room: A hard-looking fifty, unrealistically black hair pasted back above ears like parentheses, a head set directly onto the shoulders without enough neck to make room for a Windsor knot, and the kind of eyes that make you wonder whether you could stand to look at what they've seen. That's the guy at the next table. I didn't even have to think him up.

What's not good about writing in Asian coffee shops is Asian pop music, which tends to be sparkly and fey, so unremittingly upbeat that it makes me suicidal. That's where the iPod comes in. Mine contains almost 6,000 songs, arranged in about 20 playlists. So my writer's workspace is a small table in an Asian coffee shop full of people who don't speak English, and an iPod with the world's best ear buds.

Eat your heart out, James Patterson.

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