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James Hunter

Espresso and white noise: on writing in cafés

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Apparently people who take their laptops to cafés and write are pretentious. On his blog John Scalzi writes: ‘I mean, Christ, people. All that tapping and leaning back thoughtfully in your chair with a mug of whatever while you pretend to edit your latest masterpiece. You couldn’t be more obvious if you had a garish, flashing neon sign over your head that said ‘Looking For Sex.’ Go home, why don’t you. Just go.’

I am addicted to writing in cafés. And I hate to disillusion John Scalzi, but it has nothing to do with sex. (Frankly, I had no idea that the ultimate drawcard of editing galley proofs was supposed to result in days of hot libidinous sex.)

I work part-time as IrmaGolda freelance editor. I work full-time as a mother. Yes, I realise that doesn’t seem to add up and now I’m going to throw another factor into the mix. Somewhere between marking-up other writers’ creative works, and the million small and large things three children between the ages of nine and almost-two require, I attempt to claw back some time for my own writing.

Cafés, I tell you, are my salvation. Every Wednesday afternoon when my partner comes home from work early (and sometimes at weekends, too) I escape to a café to do my own writing. It is a sublime kind of bliss. So when Us Folk magazine recently asked me to write about my favourite place in Canberra, there was no contest.

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But why cafés? Well, for starters there’s no Internet. I can’t possibly be distracted by Facebook or diverted by the emails constantly pinging into my inbox that relate to ‘real’ work. But it’s more than that. As I wrote for Us Folk, being surrounded by the diversity of humanity, the very stuff of fiction, is energising. Cafés are perfect for those writerly necessities of eavesdropping and people watching. Then there’s the white noise of hissing espresso machines and the buzz of conversation which provides the perfect backdrop, somehow concentrating the mind. And let’s not forget caffeine to feed the muse.

I’m not a fan of JK Rowling’s work, but when it comes to cafés we’re of the same mind. Rowling says: ‘It’s no secret that the best place to write, in my opinion, is in a café. You don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement and if you have writer’s block, you can get up and walk to the next café while giving your batteries time to recharge and brain time to think. The best writing café is crowded enough to where you blend in, but not too crowded that you have to share a table with someone else.’

As you can see from the Us Folk pic above, they shot me in one of my favourite cafes, A Bite to Eat. Pretending to do what I do when nobody’s watching was an odd experience. To one side of me was the photographer’s assistant holding a large silver reflector, on the other side was the photographer (the very talented Ash Peak) clicking away. Naturally everyone in the café was watching, openly or in snatched sideways glances. I’m used to being anonymous, but there I was, outside my comfort zone in a place where I’d normally slide right into it. I guess I was literally leaning back thoughtfully with a mug of whatever while I pretended to edit my latest masterpiece. Have I just proved John Scalzi’s point?

Us Folk also interviewed two other Invisible Thread authors, Jack Heath and Omar Musa, and the filmmaker of the Thread book trailer, James Hunter. If you buy a copy of the mag you’ll notice that all three of them are young, good-looking twenty-somethings. That’s because Us Folk’s audience are in their twenties and thirties. So, let’s be frank, I’m really pushing the upper limit. Us Folk is a beautiful new magazine that has just celebrated its first birthday. With gorgeous production values and quirky, interesting content, it’s well worth a look.

Now, please excuse me while I head to a café for a flat white and the company of my muse.

All about the process

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Filming The Invisible Thread trailerThere’s something deeply thrilling about being on a film set. Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer and used to solitary work, but being in the midst of a collaborative creative process, watching something take shape before you, is fascinating. Even more so, when the work in question is a trailer for a book you just happen to have spent three years labouring over. That’s right, I’m talking about James Hunter’s The Invisible Thread trailer.

I first came to James with some ideas that were deliberately broad in scope. I was looking for a filmmaker with a strong visual aesthetic who would bring a unique vision to the project. He came back to me with a two-page script. It was perfect, and we set about making it happen.

James, his Director of Photography, Michael O’Rourke, and the actor, Chris Delforce, set up in Paperchain after the store closed and worked through to midnight two nights in a row. I was there the first night and I brought along my artistically inclined nine-year-old thinking she’d find the whole experience interesting. She did, but not in the way I’d expected. Faced with unrestricted access to an empty bookshop she immersed herself in books (who wouldn’t, right?). At one point I suggested she come and watch the filming, which she dutifully did for a few minutes, before returning to all those books.

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My daughter dutifully watches filming
My daughter dutifully watches filming

I, on the other hand, enjoyed every minute of the filming, though at one stage I was tugging books attached to fishing wire off the shelves which felt a little bit wrong. Outside, passersby looked in through Paperchain’s glass doors. ‘Bet they’re shocked this is what happens after dark,’ Michael quipped.

As my own signed copy of Marion Halligan’s beautifully designed Shooting the Fox, crashed down in front of me for the third time, pages awry, I had to prevent a groan escaping. I like to think I sacrificed my books for the good of Paperchain*, though I neglected to tell the bookseller, Maxeme, that we weren’t using her stock until the end of the night. Later, I pictured her sitting in her office listening to books committing suicide. Bookseller torture.

As little more than a voyeur, the whole evening was a great deal of fun. My favourite piece of direction from James to Chris went something like, ‘Walk in gingerly. It’s not a Toby Maguire stride.’ Not having seen any of the Spiderman films myself I was perplexed, but James demonstrated a finger-pointing swagger that may or may not have enlightened me.

If you haven’t already watched the trailer it’s about time you did. At the end you may notice that I’m credited as the producer. This still gives rise to a wry smile every time I see it. I have never been entirely clear what a film producer actually does. In this case I coordinated the shoot, organised finances, made arrangements with Paperchain, organised writers to record readings, and threw a few books about. When I was watching a preview and saw the title I’d been assigned I joked to James, ‘Now that’s a trumped up title if ever there was one.’ He assured me that I’d done more than many producers do. So what is that exactly? I’m still not sure. But I had a good time doing it.

* Thankfully the books sustained little physical damage. However long-term psychological damage to the owner may be another matter.