At the Desk: Deni Y. Béchard

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The view from Deni Y. Béchard's desk

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Deni Y. Béchard is a Canadian writer based in both Montreal and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His most recent book, Cures for Hunger (Goose Lane Editions), is a memoir which follows Deni's discovery that his father was not the man he'd always thought but in fact a daring and mysterious criminal. It was a discovery that threw the family into a life of constant movement, which Deni discusses in his edition of our At the Desk series, talking to Open Book about the gratification of writing anywhere and everywhere.

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When I was twenty-two, a published writer told me that each time he changed houses, he needed a month to get settled before he felt focused enough to write. I nodded, saying nothing, thinking that I must lack focus since my approach couldn’t be more different — that maybe, to do better work, I’d require a dedicated place where I locked the door and brooded. But fifteen years later, I still write everywhere, and the best spaces are often the most temporary: three hours in a Toronto café, four days in a Turkish hotel, two weeks house-sitting for a friend in Australia. And after a few months — whether in a Japanese Sakura House rental or a Montréal sublet — the air in the room feels too stale to breathe, much less to write in.

Before we analyze this too deeply, I admit to claustrophobic tendencies. Writing about prison and my father’s solitary confinement in Cures for Hunger, I broke a sweat. However, I prefer to see myself not as a claustrophobe but as an agoraphile, loving open spaces: city bustle with its white noise; or silent nature. My tendencies are no doubt a product of how I was raised, my only constant in the years my family moved — other than the moving itself — being writing. I scribbled stories wherever I sat down: our couch in BC, my aunt’s porch in Virginia, or at the kitchen table in our trailer, waiting for the ramen to soften. And I learned that moving, on a lesser scale, from basement to bedroom to the tree in the backyard, prevented conflict. People often saw my writing and reading as akin to loitering or laziness, and I, in defense, was excessively verbal and ornery. In my late teens, I found that the time it took to get bored with a home (usually two to three months) coincided with the time in which I made more enemies than I could handle. But writing and moving also had a deeper symbiotic relationship. Writing, because of my constant displacement, became my means of stringing the past together, of making my life coherent.

To this day, my desk is constantly changing, and I’ve come to see this as a way of staying empty, of making space for new influences, new images and ideas, of staying in the world as I work. Recently, in the Congo, I’d go into my hut, a threadbare lungi from India hanging in the door (serving at times as a sheet, a laundry bag, a towel, or a curtain — often the latter two simultaneously), and I’d write until my battery died. The race against time kept me focused in a way that I wouldn’t be if plugged in. But it’s not just the focus that comes with displacement. There is also freedom, lightness, the luxury not to think about anything but the work at hand. Hotel rooms are great for this, an intimate, carefree space as much for writing as for couples on trysts or vacations. I recently had a good writing stretch in a Rwandan hotel overlooking Kigali, though mosquitoes hatched in the alley puddles and squirreled in through the screens each night, reincarnations of Houdini, every last one of them.

In truth, my writing habits don’t seem particularly original, but the product of necessity. However, the pleasure I take in them is immense, and the vitality of the work I do on the road often outstrips that from my more sedentary periods. Even when I’m in Manhattan for longer stretches, I use the Writers Room, a shared office space at Broadway and Astor Place, on the twelfth floor, overlooking midtown and the Empire State Building. On my way there, I like to leave the subway a few stops early, to walk along unfamiliar streets and look at people, enjoying the motion and the words that rise with it. As for now, I am writing this on the Northeast Regional Express from Boston’s South Station to New York’s Penn Station. I plan to do some more work in the Writers Room afterwards, before I get some rest and fly to Minneapolis in the morning. I forgot to mention airports — great for writing so long as no one is sitting across from me, neurotically bouncing a knee or shaking a foot. So I’ll probably revise this at 5 AM tomorrow, in departures.

— Deni Y. Béchard

Deni Y. Béchard's first novel, Vandal Love, won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. His articles, stories and translations have appeared in a number of magazines and newspapers, including the National Post, Maisonneuve, Le Devoir, the Harvard Review, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. He has done freelance reporting from Northern Iraq as well as from Afghanistan, and he has lived in over 30 countries. When he’s not travelling, he divides his time between Montreal, Quebec and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information about Cures for Hunger please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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