Garlic As Big As Your Fist: Bill Kowalski’s Little Writing House

Last week, I posted about putting some final touches on what I called my “writing hut” in the backyard. After further thought, I have decided I prefer Little Writing House to Writing Hut, but will of course encourage all writers with the divine luck to be in possession of such digs to call them what you will. I got lots of great feedback on the post — ranging from decorating and outfitting tips to suggestions about writing schedules & routines to tales of unmet desires for little writing houses, or sheds, or whatever you shall call them. My old pal, novelist Bill Kowalski, sent me a few pictures of his writing shed, suggesting that one might devote a whole website to such buildings and their inhabitants, featuring a different one each week. So I threw together a list of questions, and Bill has gamely answered. And of course there are pictures.

How long has this been your little writing house? If you don’t call it your little writing house, what do you call it?

I’ve been using it for about five years. I simply call it “my shed.” As in, “I’m going out to my shed for a while.” This is a euphemism for “I want to smoke a cigarillo, stare at the ceiling, and pretend to get some writing done, please.”

How big (ish) is your shed? Amenities? (electric/water/heat/private parking/whirlpool tub) Where is it?

I feel that if I’m going to offer an honest appraisal of its physical characteristics, which can be uncomfortable even for the most emotionally secure and attractive of sheds, I should soften it first by saying this is the best damn shed ever. Shed, I love thee, but you are too damp, and you need new windows. And a new door. You are unkind to my books; you allow mold to grow upon them. Also, you are too popular with spiders.

My shed is about thirty feet from our house. It’s ten feet by fifteen feet, with a ten-foot peaked ceiling. It rests on a concrete pad, which reassures me that it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Some thoughtful soul wired it for electricity before I moved in. I installed a radiant heater on one of the rafters. It can get pretty cold in Nova Scotia in winter, but with the heat going full blast it’s good to about -5 Celsius. Below that, my fingers hurt, and it becomes difficult to type. I laid a laminated hardwood floor over the concrete. My shed has been winterized, although there are gaps around the door big enough to stick my fingers in, which renders the winterization largely ornamental. I keep meaning to get a new door. I keep forgetting. Artists are attached to their suffering.

I’ve been thinking about converting my desk into a kotatsu, which would mean installing a skirt around it and putting a heater underneath. Like most projects that threaten to interfere with my writing time, I haven’t gotten around to it yet, and probably never will.

Was it always a writing space? Did it used to be something else? Did it ever have other aspirations? Is it also used for anything else?

It was once a tool shed, and as a tool shed it was very fine—deluxe, even. It did well at holding tools, though it was somewhat overqualified for the job. I think that my shed was probably always expecting to be converted into a workshop. That’s how it was designed. It was surprised to find itself reincarnated as a writing studio instead, but it has adjusted nicely.

There were once barn doors in the north-facing end, through which one could have driven a rider lawnmower, or maybe even a small car. I had those sealed to form a wall. Then I had the whole thing insulated and drywalled. I did a kind of rough mud stuccoing on a couple of the interior walls, so that it would look like what I imagined a rustic French cottage would. (I was going through a French cottage phase at the time.) Then I painted it a nice, soothing yellow.

I swore up and down I wouldn’t use my writing shed to keep non-writing-related stuff in, but you can probably guess how that turned out. I keep my fishing rods and tackle in my shed now, as well as a bunch of random junk, including:

Today’s writing prompt: compose a poem featuring five items from this table.

* a didgeridoo I bought in Australia in 1998 and never learned to play

* a motorcycle helmet I wore on a cross-country trip in 1991

* a fishbowl (empty)

* a broken ostrich egg (full of trout flies)

* fluorescent orange hunting overalls

* a rock that somehow made its way in here (a lot of things somehow make their way in here)

In garlic-harvesting season, which is mid-July—though it came a little early this year—the writing shed doubles as a drying shed. Right now, therefore, my shed is redolent of garlic. Maybe redolent is too mild a word. It smells so strongly of garlic that it actually overloads the olfactory region of my brain and spills into my other senses. It’s a smell so powerful you can touch it. It will smell this way all fall and winter, until all of the garlic has been eaten, and even then it will linger. Goethe kept rotting apples in his desk; I hang garlic bunches from the ceiling. I am proud to say my shed has been vampire-free for over five years.


Anything disappointed you about the writing shed?

I have two shed-related regrets. The first is that because the door is nearly flush with the ground, I can’t put a raised porch on it. This means I track in a lot of dirt and pine needles. I dislike sweeping the floor, because sweeping is not writing, and any mundane task that isn’t writing strikes me as an annoyance that must be endured until I can write again. So, the floor is usually pretty crunchy until I get around to breaking out the broom.

My other regret is that my wireless internet signal leaks out of the house and through the shed walls. In one sense this is helpful, because I’m constantly looking for facts and definitions to keep my writing from descending into utter nonsense. It’s great that I can do this without leaving my chair. But, as you may have heard, the internet has a lot of interesting things on it, and can be distracting. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway did not have this problem. Now, I am no Joyce or Hemingway, but sometimes I wonder what I would be if there were fewer amazing things contending for my attention. Like most writers, I have mixed feelings about the internet. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I have a co-dependent relationship with it. My greatest fear for the future is that there is another Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, or Liz Ahl out there who is too busy texting her friends to sit down and write something.

Best/most necessary thing(s) in your writing shed?

My most necessary implement is my Salton electric coffee mug warmer. My mother bought this for me in my junior year of college, in 1993. It’s nearly twenty years old and still does a great job of keeping my coffee warm.

My other most necessary implement is my MacBook, which as laptops go is ancient. I’ve had to replace the keyboard (twice), as well as the hard drive (twice), the memory, and the top case. This might lead one to wonder whether it’s still the same laptop, just as one wonders whether a rebuilt ship that contains just one original, symbolic timber is still the same ship. This is a pleasant debate to have, but I feel no pressing need to arrive at an answer.

Any writing shed “rules” or norms? A schedule?

I try to get up and visit my shed around five a.m. This is a great time, especially in summer. It’s beginning to get light, but the night world is going to sleep, which means I often startle a deer or a raccoon, or nameless scurrying things I can’t identify. Sometimes I hear loons—the bird kind, not the other kind. Getting up this early means I have around two hours of peace. Opening the shed door while holding both laptop and full coffee mug was always a balancing act, but recently I discovered I can simply kick the door in (like I said, it’s not a very good door.) Then the scents of garlic and yesterday’s cigarillos waft out at me. This might turn some stomachs, but it wakes me up, and it keeps the riffraff out.

The rule is that no one is supposed to interrupt me while I’m in my shed. When someone does interrupt me, I politely remind them of this rule, and they agree to follow it. This lasts until the next time they bother me—typically about fifteen to twenty minutes later. That’s my life. Being a father and husband is more important than being a writer.

What’s next for your writing shed?

I think the next thing I’m going to put in here is a new office chair. The one I have now is one of those OfficeMax specials, which cost around a hundred bucks ten or twelve years ago and makes me feel like an executive when I sit in it. But the mechanism that allows me to adjust the angle of the back is broken, so it’s permanently reclined. When I write, with my arms stretched out in front of me, I feel like I’m driving a go-kart at sixty miles an hour. This is probably having some deleterious effects on my posture.

What’s next for your writing?

I’ve just started a new novel. It seems to be a genre book, a mystery-thriller, I guess you could say. I have no idea what I’m doing, but that’s how I know I’m really creating something and not just repeating myself. My shed and I look forward to learning about this book together.

This past spring, I finished a novel and sent it out of my shed and into the world, with instructions to write when it found work. I hear from it from time to time. It’s doing well, meeting lots of nice people and having fun, but still bouncing around, apparently unwilling to settle anywhere just yet. I was the same way in my teens and twenties, so I sympathize, but I hope it puts down roots soon. It’s a cold, hard world out there for books, and I won’t be able to sleep soundly until I know it has found love, and a permanent address.

Anything else we should know about your shed?

I had the privilege of meeting the man who built this shed. His name was Roy, and he was a Newfoundlander, small of stature but with an impressive mustache. Roy told me it was the best shed he ever built, and he was proud of it. It was good enough to live in, he said. He asked me what I was using it for. I said it was where I did my writing. This earned me a look that was part disappointment and part suspicion. I find most men look at me this way when they learn what my shed has become. They all seem to think it ought to be some kind of man-cave, with a stereo, a nice couch, and a keg chiller. I tell them that someday I plan to build a garage, and on top of that I will put my man-cave; or, since it will be on the second floor, a man-aerie. But I say it quietly. I don’t want my shed to hear and become jealous; and besides, I don’t really want a man-aerie. With a shed like this, I don’t want anything else at all.

William Kowalski is the author of eight books, including four works of literary fiction and four Rapid Reads for reluctant adult readers. His novel Eddie’s Bastard (HarperCollins) was an international best-seller. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. You can visit him on the web at WilliamKowalski.com, and you can Like (or merely feel ambivalent about) his author page on FaceBook.