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Five top London authors tell us how they’ve been working from home

Heloise Wood
·9-min read
 (ES Composite/Matt Writtle/Esther Freud/Daniel Hambury)
(ES Composite/Matt Writtle/Esther Freud/Daniel Hambury)

‘Writing from Tracy Chevalier’s house has been life-changing’

Esther Freud, north London

The first lockdown I was quite happy working from my house in Kentish Town because I was editing my novel and reading up on another idea I had. Then in September I started writing some short stories in the house and it felt very different in the second lockdown.

My son was having to do home-schooling instead of playing the guitar all day, my daughter was home from university and had started a business so the doorbell was constantly ringing with deliveries, the dogs were barking and my boyfriend was working in the house.

I was walking down the street looking longingly thinking there must be an empty room somewhere and I bumped into my friend Tracy Chevalier, who lives nearby.

She said: “I’m just about to head off to the country where I’ve been spending lockdown,” and suddenly I had the idea that her house would be empty. I’ve been going there for the past three months and it’s been absolutely life-changing. It’s probably doubled my output.

Crowded house: Esther FreudEsther Freud
Crowded house: Esther FreudEsther Freud

Her house is just five minutes’ walk from mine. Usually I take an apple, some teabags and some extra jumpers because it gets very cold writing in a house that hasn’t been lived in.

I like to be at work by 10, I do a dog walk before and sometimes an exercise class. I purposefully haven’t connected to the internet and I don’t know how I managed to write anything ever before, it was like writing at a bus stop with hundreds of people waving at me.

I water Tracy’s plants but I got over conscientious and water was leaking out on to the room so I had to empty the plant holders.

I worked in Tracy’s son’s bedroom before Christmas because her study felt too intimate somehow. But the study is much smaller and warmer and she had this amazing ergonomic Herman Miller chair — I sat down in it in January and there was no going back. I’ve ordered my own.

Around the desk there are beautiful printed-out quotes about Venice by Jan Morris so Tracy’s clearly writing about the city. It crept into my story – a character had moved to Venice, which was totally incongruous with the story so I changed it to Florence.

I Couldn’t Love You More will be published by Bloomsbury on May 27, £16.99

‘I leave my phone out of sight’

Caleb Azumah Nelson, south London

Early bird: Caleb Azumah NelsonDaniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd
Early bird: Caleb Azumah NelsonDaniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

I was living with my family in Catford but a month ago I moved into a flat with my partner in Gipsy Hill.

It’s a one-bed flat, big living room with a large bay window and tall ceilings. It was the light in here which drew me to it because I’m a photographer as well. I have the desk by the window, with Norwood Park at the end of the road, and there’s a massive bookcase and cosy kitchen because I love to cook.

I always did my work outside of home. I wrote a lot of my novel (Open Water) at the British Library and I’d get there at opening time. If I couldn’t manage going all the way there I’d go to Arlo & Moe cafe in Crofton Park.

You have to think of new ways to divide spaces up. I really try not to work from bed. I normally work at the desk in the living room at one specific corner and I look out at the garden at intervals. Finding a routine is helpful because it helps your body and mind get into the right space.

I’ll be out of bed by about 8am, read for a bit and eat something — eggs most mornings so I am set up for the rest of the day. I’ve been running a lot which is a nice way of getting outside or it’s just a case of putting on Netflix and tuning out.

I tend to work in the mornings. I get up, have breakfast and get started and then mid-afternoon I’m done. I tend to always have the record player on when I’m working and listen to the record all the way through so I’m less distracted, or if that’s not working then I stick my wireless headphones on. I leave my phone out of sight.

Open Water is published by Viking in hardback, £12.99

‘I’d never believed I’d end up renting a flat to write’

Lisa Jewell, north London

‘A crazy luxury’: Lisa JewellMatt Writtle
‘A crazy luxury’: Lisa JewellMatt Writtle

By renting a room, I’ve done something that no other writer I know has done. I’d written 3,000 words of a new book but then I got Covid just before lockdown. I locked myself in a room for 10 days, away from my children, and lost half a stone.

Then I realised I couldn’t get back to work, even before I’d thought about the implication of having two children in the house all day. I couldn’t get my head around returning to some characters living in 2018 with the Nirvana of pubs and freedom.

I don’t have a study or a desk in my bedroom, I normally write at the kitchen table. Finally when I started again, my 17-year-old daughter did her college work next to me and wouldn’t stop talking, she was just using me as a distraction.

Then I remembered across the street from me, near Finchley Road, there was a new apartment block advertising studio rentals.

Lisa Jewell in the kitchen of her house, where she normally writes outside lockdownMatt Writtle
Lisa Jewell in the kitchen of her house, where she normally writes outside lockdownMatt Writtle

It’s essentially a nice hotel room but the only bit I use is the desk. It’s £75 per day so I paid £4,000 for the eight weeks I rented it last year. I thought, “I can’t just go on Facebook”, and I just cracked on with it.

I became really productive and went there every afternoon. I wrote almost the whole novel there, around 107,000 words. I need lots of tea and coffee and my snack bowl which I top up with sweets from the petrol station next door.

I’ve had some teasing about it from my family, definitely. It’s a crazy luxury but it’s allowed me to do my job.

Before 2020, if you’d told me I’d be renting a studio flat to write in across the road from my nice house I’d never have believed it.

Invisible Girl is published by Arrow (£8.99)

‘I have huge trouble drawing professional boundaries’

Naoise Dolan, west London

Going all Marie Kondo: Naoise DolanNaoise Dolan
Going all Marie Kondo: Naoise DolanNaoise Dolan

When the first lockdown started I didn’t have a permanent address; I’d been living out of my suitcase mostly and needed to find somewhere to live so I moved back to my parents in Dublin.

I started a short let in London in the summer and now I finally have a longer-term lease in west London with my best friend.

The walls and carpets are various shades of beige and off-white and we’re slowly adding our own accents to fill that out.

I have quite a plain desk and I just work from my laptop and that’s the biggest difference I find with myself and older writers — I don’t lay out any photos for inspiration. It’s facing a beige wall because windows have things outside of them I’d rather look at rather than write.

I have the capacity to be both tidy and messy. By nature I have a tendency to be lazy but slowly I’ve become more Marie Kondo over time, to the amazement of my mother. I sent her videos of my bedroom and she’s comparing it to my teenage bedroom, the fact that you can walk across the floor she found astonishing.

I have huge trouble drawing professional boundaries, especially at the moment because there’s not much else to do. What am I going to do now? I say, “I will stop working at 8pm so I will watch this Netflix series — also in my room.” What if I’m having more fun writing a novel?

I tend to have a stack of books beside my bed because I think if they’re immediately available, I’m more likely to get around to reading them. If I don’t have the concentration for that I might do something a bit crafty. I like to sketch. Usually I look up pictures on my phone but I’m going to buy some books of photos so my eyes aren’t continually ravaged 24/7 by screens.

Exciting Times is published in paperback by W&N on March 4, £8.99

‘A squirrel broke my window’

Sophia Money-Coutts, south London

Café culture: Sophia Money-CouttsDaniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd
Café culture: Sophia Money-CouttsDaniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

I sold my flat in west London last year because I wanted a change of scene and moved in with my sister who lives in Norwood — though she says it’s Crystal Palace because she’s a snob. I ended up living with her for six months last year and thought this is absolutely where I want to be: the hills, the scenery, Crystal Palace Park – which has a great street-food market on Sunday.

I moved in last September and had to finish my last book so I still haven’t unpacked. It’s a three-bed flat with a huge living room, 15ft ceilings and is part of a massive Victorian building on a quiet road near the park and the train station.

It was owned by the same people for 40 years but I wanted a project. The kitchen is really old-fashioned and needs to be completely redone, so do the windows.

I was inspired by my mum to buy a bird feeding tray that sticks on the window – she lives in the country. One day there was a huge crash because all these squirrels kept jumping up on the seed tray and the window broke because it was so old, right when there was a massive cold snap.

My writing habits have changed dramatically in lockdown. I used to be one of those writers who spent their days in coffee shops on my laptop.

Sophia Money-Coutts with her new 32-inch monitorDaniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd
Sophia Money-Coutts with her new 32-inch monitorDaniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

What has really changed since moving in here is I got a proper desk and got an enormous 32-inch LCD monitor for £100 from Currys so I can have multiple notes up. It has absolutely revolutionised my writing.

I can’t stand listening to music in the morning but when my energy levels are lagging in the afternoon, I really need music.

Spotify told me I was in the 0.1 per cent of Van Morrison listeners because I just have him on repeat, that’s the way I recreate a café (and have a very strong cafetiere). I have recently got hooked on Yorkshire Tea Biscuit Brew and worry about it being discontinued — I recently went to the Waitrose Beckenham specially.

I’ve got in the really bad habit of making a Pound Cake a week in lockdown and working my way through it. To get a handle on this recently I ordered some dumb bells and sometimes I do Barre Coreclasses online.

The Wish List is published by HQ, £12.99