The Woodshop is a feature examining the work spaces and habits of writers both big and small. Joan Didion spent the night in the same room as her work when it was almost finished. Don DeLillo kept a picture of Borges close by. When, and how, do you work? Our latest contributor is novelist and short story writer Erika Krouse.
1. Where do you do your work?
I work in two places—one is my home office, and that's boring. The other place is my friend's tree house. He’s a master craftsman, and he built the tree house on the side of a mountain outside Nederland, Colorado, a town I used to live in. It's about forty minutes from my house now, and I work up there on Sundays unless there's a blizzard.
It's a very luxurious tree house—propane heater, windows, electricity, a compostable toilet...It’s more like a Tiny Home in a tree. This time of year, I can usually see my breath for the first few hours of work, and I’m neurotic about checking the heater to make sure that the propane is burning instead of hanging in the air, killing me. I get more done in the first couple of hours there than I can in an entire day down in the flats.
2. Do you have any routines that help you get into the flow?
Getting up there is a routine in itself. I pack extra clothes, my computer, food. Produce is half-rotten in the mountain grocery stores, so I usually buy the owners fruit, since they won't take money. I drive up into the mountains, gaining about 2,500 feet in elevation—Nederland is at about 8,200 feet. After parking and chatting with the owners, I put on extra gear, load up my backpack, and hike to the tree house.
This time of year, the switchback trail is filled in with a few feet of packed and sliding snow. So I wear YakTrax over my Sorels, choose a line of trees to grab, and pull myself up the steep mountainside by walking sideways and clutching saplings and tree trunks. I have to stomp to post through the snow’s crust, and step near the tree trunks to get traction. It’s not far, and it’s worth it for the moment I arrive, separate from everything, the wind washing the pines and snow.
Once inside, I stomp the snow off and shed the YakTrax before they catch on the rug. Every surface is frozen. Space heater on, propane heater on, pull out laptop, food, water, power cords. Then I usually head up to the roof for a quick look at the valley below, unless it's too slippery.
After work, I head back down at sunset, clinging to trees, a little scared of mountain lions. My ending ritual is to stop by Barker Reservoir in Nederland on the way down. There’s usually a slight blue glow behind the Continental Divide. The water’s depleted, having been drained for the winter, so I’m essentially walking on the lake bottom. It smells rank, like rotten fish and frozen leaves. I like to throw rocks onto the ice. As it gets darker and colder, the lake begins to gently refreeze and shift, popping and cracking like bones as the water crystallizes below the surface. It sounds like plastic bags and cooling radiators and ice in a glass. I love that sound, the lake expanding upon itself as it changes form.
3. What do you keep on your desk?
At home, my desk is a disaster (stapler, pens, pencil sharpeners, dirty mugs and bowls, exploding papers), but at the tree house, the desk is empty except for lamp and a candle that I never light. The desk is one of those old kitchen-y tables that fold down, and it rattles when I type. I keep the space heater underneath in the hopes that it'll heat up the wood faster. I have to wear fingerless gloves, which make the words feel meaty and warm.
4. What's your view like?
I’m surrounded by windows and light and wood, lodgepole pines outside, and animals in the trees. Crows, woodpeckers, chickadees, and there are these cool black squirrels up here with tufted ears. The weather can get unfriendly. The donkey in the valley brays in the wind and sounds like a train. Massive gales sometimes blast from the Continental Divide, so the tree house shudders and slides along a dynamic connector the owner installed. My whole view shifts a few degrees, and it feels like I’m writing on a boat or in an earthquake.
5. Have you made any rules for how you use this space?
The owners gave me the wi-fi password but I conveniently lost it. I’m mostly unreachable. I keep teaching prep and grading to a minimum, and mostly write fiction. A spreadsheet keeps me on track with goals. On a practical level, since it’s hard to get up there for the owners, I make a rule of sweeping up before leaving, and try to leave nothing behind, not even a tissue.
6. What do you eat/drink while you work?
I have a magic thermos that keeps water hot (for tea) no matter the outside temperature. During the summer, I eat samosas at the Kathmandu Restaurant in town, but during these cold months, it’s easier just to pack a bottle of cold chai and a turkey sandwich with mustard (ridiculously good together, try it). Salmon salad, a hunk of cheese, apples, nuts, carrots, anything edible...I eat constantly when I work. My laptop is probably compostable.
7. Do you have any superstitions about your work?
They're more like anxieties—every time I finish something, I think, That's it, that's the last thing I'll ever write, I'm dry now. But I don't have any real superstitions. I don’t think I have that luxury, frankly.
8. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.
Lately I’ve been writing about Omaha:
“When you steal a car from a white supremacist, the safest place to stay is in a black area of town.”
Erika Krouse's fiction has appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, and One Story. Her novel, Contenders, was a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her collection of short stories, Come Up and See Me Sometime, is the winner of the Paterson Fiction Award and was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the year. Erika teaches at the Lighthouse Book Project and Ashland University's low-res MFA program.