Looking Out, Looking In
By Jessica Gross
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I interviewed the children’s author Lois Lowry for The New York Times Magazine. My favorite bit of our conversation, which didn’t make it into print, came when I asked her to describe what she sees out her window when she works.
“My house here was built in 1769,” she said. “I look out from it onto a meadow and gardens and apple trees and sometimes deer in the meadow and sometimes wild turkeys walking through the grass.” It was this image of Lowry — who in my mind had been a supernatural force — that made her appear to me as real.
It was with great excitement, then, that I learned Penguin would publish a book called Windows on the World: Fifty Writers, Fifty Views. Authors including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Teju Cole, and Sheila Heti have written short texts to accompany line drawings meticulously executed by artist Matteo Pericoli. The writers live in towns and cities across the world, and their windows look out on treetops, rooftops, mosques, churches, private gardens, and other people’s windows.
This project, conceived of by the artist, ran on The New York Times’ Op-Ed page from August 2010 through August 2011, and continued in The Paris Review Daily as well as in other venues. Pericoli, who was born in Milan and moved to New York in 1995, is trained as an architect; his background comes through in his work, rich and exacting, drawn from many images of each window. In every illustration, the window floats on the white space of the page, absent surrounding walls and details. “It is crucial that these window views should be rendered in pen and ink, in lines, rather than in photographs,” Lorin Stein rightly notes in a lovely short preface.
Labor, it seems to me, is one of Pericoli’s hidden subjects. That is part of the meaning of the hundreds of leaves on a tree, or the windows of a high-rise: They record the work it took to see them, and this work stands as a sort of visual correlative, or illustration, of the work his writers do.
While Pericoli’s mission is clear and uniformly expressed, it seemed to me, at first, that the writers could have been given more direction (a frame, if you will). We don’t know how Pericoli chose or approached them or what he had in mind: in his introduction, he states that he simply asked writers “to describe their views.” The result is that the whole lacks cohesion, and some texts complement the drawings better than others.
But perhaps, in a way, this is appropriate to the material: what comes through is how differently these writers approach their varied windowscapes — which comes down to their approach to the work itself. Some intentionally avoid looking out the window in order to dwell in their imaginations. Daniel Kehlmann writes from Berlin: “I try to ignore this view. When I’m at my writing desk I turn my back to it.” Etgar Keret, in Tel Aviv, does the same: “When I write, what I see around me is the landscape of my story. I only get to enjoy the real one when I’m done.”
This approach is best described by Nadine Gordimer:
My desk is away to the left of the window. At it, I face a blank wall. For the hours I’m at work I’m physically in my home in Johannesburg. But in a combination of awareness and senses that every fiction writer knows, I am in whatever elsewhere the story is in. […] I don’t believe a fiction writer needs a room with a view. His or her view: the milieu, the atmosphere, the weather of the individuals the writer is bringing to life. What they experience around them, what they are seeing, is what the writer is experiencing, seeing, living.
Other writers live somewhere in between: they shun the window while they work, but use it to reset. “I turn away from the window. My desk faces a wall covered with images, notes, timelines, vaudeville photographs, and playbills,” Marina Endicott writes from Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. “When my eyes blear and I cannot focus any longer, the window is a way for my mind to blink, to clear my vision.” And from the late Elmore Leonard, who lived in Bloomfield Village, Michigan: “Distractions are good when I’m stuck in whatever it is I’m writing or have reached the point of overwriting. The hawk flies off, the squirrels begin to venture out, cautious at first, and I return to the yellow pad, my mind cleared of unnecessary words.”
Of course, no one can simultaneously look outside and write, an act that requires the mind be elsewhere and the eyes be pointed toward the page or screen. But some writers purposefully use their views for inspiration. In Lagos, Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie claims, “When my writing is not going well, there are two things I do in the hope of luring the words back: I read some pages of books I love or I watch the world.” She describes her view as “choked with stories, because it is full of people. I watch them and I imagine their lives and invent their dreams.” And Andrea Levy confides:
When I was young my mum used to complain that I spent too much time daydreaming. That was because I liked to stare at the sky. She thought that while I was dreaming I could be doing something useful as well, like knitting. Now that I am a writer, I have the privilege of daydreaming as part of my job. And I still love to gaze at the sky. The view from my workroom in my North London house has a lot of sky, and I couldn’t work without it. There are never any structured thoughts in my head when I look up. They just come and go and change shape like the clouds.
My attraction to Windows on the World is part of a larger obsession with artistic process. Often, when I interview a writer or comic or actor or singer or chef, I harp on the how: How did you know where to begin the story? How did you learn to sing in a southern accent? How many versions of this joke did you go through before you hit on the one that worked?
Admittedly, I’m analytical by nature, but this proclivity to investigate the mechanics of creativity appears to be widespread, as evidenced by the excitement that accompanied last year’s publication of Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, and the fact that Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings post on writers’ daily routines was the most read and shared in her website’s history.
The obvious motive — to discover how artists work, as if we might successfully copy their routines — is only part of our fascination; we’re also driven by fear. Art holds sway over us in ways that we don’t understand. This is what gives it power, of course. But the urge to deconstruct it, to decipher not only its meaning but also the conditions in which it was created, is a way for us to wrest some control — or to imagine that it’s possible to do so. We want to know how the trick is done.
Then, too, it’s reassuring when artists allow us to see their imperfections: perhaps there is hope for us after all, despite our many faults. At their best, the drawings and texts in Windows on the World make writers real and human — the Lois Lowry effect — while still leaving room for mystery and fantasy. Shelia Heti, a writer I particularly admire, lives in Toronto. Pericoli has drawn her rectangular, double-hung window, with what look like vines stretching across its panes. Beyond them is a street, and on the other side of it is a house with a planting bed in front of it. “Can you see that beautiful shrub?” Heti writes. “It has no bald patch, right?” She tells us that the “shy, moustached Portuguese man” who lives across the street has stood staring at the hedge’s bald patch for hours a day, and Heti would periodically look out at him looking at the shrub. Finally, this summer, the patch disappeared. “He stares at his shrub as I stare at my computer,” Heti writes. “Our bodies are opposite each other every day, and we stare at things, and wait for the emptiness to fill in.”
This seems as apt a companion to the drawing as any, and as apt a description of the writing process. Heti’s window, pictured on the opposite page, stands alone, urging us to imagine the wall space and the room that surround it. We imagine the man, who is not depicted; we imagine Heti, writing. There is no color, so while the lines are meticulous, they also urge us to fill in the view in our minds. Heti’s text, short as it is, presents a snapshot of her, looking over the screen of her laptop at her companion, the stranger — but only that. We know enough to feel reassured our writers are real, but not so much we can’t fold them into stories of our own.
Read from the LARB website: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/looking-out