Anyone who takes writers and writing seriously has the same thought when visiting a famous author’s house: what would it be like to sit at the desk where the author did his or her work? How would it affect your own writing?
I had the chance to experiment with this, in a minor way, when Jane and I stayed in August at Bridge Cottage, the former Haida Gwaii summer home of my friend, the author, artist, and man of many talents, James Houston. The conditions were scientifically perfect, since James wrote in the early morning (check), in the summer months (check), by hand (check), and – above all – at the desk in the writing cabin that was constructed for him for that very purpose.
Obviously this piece of writing that you are reading is no “Kublai Khan,” but at this precise moment in its creation a Person From Porlock arrived to interrupt my writing. This person had every right to do so, since he was the unique Noel Wotten, the man who built the writing cabin for his friend Jim. This was in 1981, as the plaque outside, for “Hideaway Studio,” makes clear.
I have now resumed my experiment a full day later, after Noel took us fishing at Port Clements, further up the island. He is a noted expert at fly fishing, having cast weightless flies great distances on salmon rivers around the world, landing the fly gently on the ripple most likely to provide shelter for a lurking fish. I notice, too, that after the fly has landed, Noel leans eagerly forward, manipulating the coils of line in his left hand, imagining the fish just beneath the tempting fly. Far from being just a skilful mechanical exercise – cast, float the fly, swing it back, cast again – it’s an act of faith and imagination, making fleeting contact with that other world that lies beneath the surface.
These thoughts are, just possibly, channelled by the lingering spirit of the man who sat here writing. Often, as in the third volume of his memoirs, Hideaway, he wrote about fishing. He openly admitted that his addiction to salmon fishing was what brought him to the Queen Charlottes and to Bridge Cottage and the river Tlell in the first place. He wrote Hideaway, which I had the pleasure of editing and publishing, right here. And, in the same way as he did, I have just found myself getting up from his seat to check on the river.
The river dominates every moment we are here, only an underhand stone’s throw from its banks. Unless you are asleep, or deliberately turning your back on it and ignoring it, you always know which way the tide is running — upstream, or down the five kilometres to the salt water of Hecate Strait — and how high it has climbed against the bridge timbers, or how low it has fallen. The river dominates the view, decides our activities, and turns any thoughtful resident into a water creature.
Another interruption has left me with an extraordinary river moment. When the salmon are running, as they are now, all eyes are on the surface of the river, looking for the circle in the water that may precede a silver leap. So even tiny circles in the water catch the eye. Standing to watch them, I was like a dog on point as I saw five or six circles appear. Then the entire surface of the water was pocked with hundreds of such circles, a miracle of teeming fish. Until I realised that a cloudburst had just arrived, and that these circles came courtesy of raindrops from above, not fish from below. I wonder what the fish make of it all, when the ceiling of their world turns black, and full of noise, and fresh, cold water.
Clearly I had learned one of the great lessons of sitting at a writer’s desk. When you are there, you are in the same surrounding world. And if you are open to distraction, your distractions will be the same as his.