Sense of Place:

Kim Barnes

9780099559276

All artists have places that matter to them. Be it where they work, the setting of their latest piece, or where they go to think. Our Sense of Place feature invites you to the places that matter to our authors.

Today Kim Barnes takes us on a tour of the places that matter to her, from her writing desk and bookshelves, to the beautiful scenery that surrounds her home in Idaho.

Kim’s most recent book is In the Kingdom of Men, which is the Waterstones Book Club Book of the Week.

Perhaps it is because of my childhood spent in the isolated logging camps of the Pacific Northwest that I so dearly love living in the mountains. My husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, and I have chosen to remain in the American West, where we feel connected to the landscape and are able to write in solitude.

Our house sits on the south-facing flank of Moscow Mountain. My office, which was our youngest son’s room until he moved out on his own (since I had been using his older sister’s empty room up until that point, I often joke that I write in abandoned places), looks out over the rolling hills of the Palouse Prairie, which has some of the deepest topsoil in the world. Early in the summer, when the wind blows across the fields of wheat, peas, and lentils, it looks like the undulating surface of the sea. This is the view out of my office window as I write on this blustery spring day.

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When I’m struggling with a scene or section of dialogue, I sometimes move from my desk to sit at the window, gaze out, and clear my mind. There’s something about all that open landscape that allows my imagination to expand.

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The painting in the upper left is by my closest friend, the author Claire Davis. You can see the bird riding the Magic 8-Ball, used for fortune-telling and advice, but you have to look closer to make out the barely discernible lettering that scripts the blue sky: Write your heart out and In your dreams and Yes No Maybe. I love looking up at it from my desk when I need to remember to take chances in my writing.

My desk was given to me by my younger brother, Greg, an electrical engineer, when it no longer fit his needs (and so it is that I write on abandoned desks!).

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In the upper left is a bullfighting poster that (after the date had passed) we peeled off of a telephone pole in San Miguel, Mexico, where my husband was teaching a workshop. Next to it, on the right, is the Governor of Idaho’s Proclamation of my being named as the state’s writer-in-residence. Below is the US cover of In the Kingdom of Men, which my mother framed with various family trinkets and Arabian memorabilia that my aunt, who spent several years in Saudi Arabia, provided.

As is the case with most writers, my walls are lined with bookshelves. This one contains a few of the historical texts, novels, and memoirs that I read while undertaking the years of research that went into writing In the Kingdom of Men.

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The small camel-hide purse on the lower shelf was given to me by my aunt as a gift when she returned from Saudi Arabia. The insulated Thermos on the top shelf – an Arabian-American Oil Company Safety Award – was an eBay find. At the bottom right is a small bottle of sand from the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali) – a treasure from a lovely woman who worked for Aramco in the 1960s and shared her wonderfully vivid memories with me.

On another wall is my shrine to Hemingway and my other passion: fly-fishing.

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The placard is at least half-a-century old and was used by schools to teach basic reading skills. I found a stack of the cards at a second-hand shop and have them scattered throughout my office. Like Hemingway’s writing, they remind me of the simple beauty of clear expression.

And, of course, every office must have a mascot.

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This is Opal, our Australian Shepherd, who watches me with great patience and curiosity and herds me on when I need direction.

The fields outside my window are green now, but in the fall and winter, the late light takes on a whole other palette of colour, and the hills turn apricot and tangerine.

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The shorter days of the colder seasons make for good writing time, and I often watch the sun set and the moon rise from my desk chair.

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When, after teaching and writing through three seasons, summer finally arrives, my husband and I take to the high mountain rivers. We pitch our tent beside the water, and, when not fishing, we read, dine al fresco, and toast our good fortune with wild huckleberries dropped into glasses of champagne.

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This is where we let the wells of our imaginations refill, where new ideas for stories and poems come to us. We each carry notebooks in our fishing vests, and you can often spot us, standing in the middle of the river, jotting down lines and sentences and bits of dialogue that will make their way into our stories and poems once the fishing is done.

In the Kingdom of Men is out now, published by Windmill.

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Windmill is the online home of literary publishers Windmill Books, William Heinemann and Hutchinson. Part of Penguin Random House UK.