Arts·Where I Write

Omar El Akkad often dreams of writing at a 'fine mahogany desk,' but he loves his space

The Canada Reads author shares the story behind where he wrote his first novel American War.

The Canada Reads author shares the story behind where he wrote his first novel American War

Omar El Akkad's workspace looks out into a lush forest. (Supplied by Omar El Akkad)

Leading up to Canada Reads, CBC Arts is bringing you daily essays about where this year's authors write. This edition features American War author Omar El Akkad.

Few relationships are as tenuous and coldly pragmatic as that between a young adult and his furniture.

In the fall of 2005, as a 23-year old journalism intern just starting out at The Globe and Mail, I was the beneficiary of the dissolution of one such relationship. Another intern from our cohort had just received a job offer at a paper on the west coast, and with a very limited moving budget, opted to get rid of his meagre household possessions, holdovers from his dorm room days. 

He offered me his computer desk — a plain slab of pus-colored wood, sturdy but otherwise totally unremarkable — for free as long as I could get it off his hands before move-out day. I jumped at the deal, which also included a free IKEA fold-out couch which proved a nightmare to disassemble and of which, in almost a decade and a half, I have folded out perhaps twice. But I was young and broke, and only awful people turn down free stuff in their 20s.

Today, I still write at the same desk. It's where I wrote my debut novel, American War, as well as the three unpublished and unpublishable novels that came before.

Omar El Akkad's debut novel is American War. (Peter Power/CBC)

At various milestones in my life, the latest being the arrival of my first royalty cheque, I promised myself a brand new writing space — one of those fine mahogany desks full of secret drawers that require tiny keys to open, a new office chair with little rounds of fat cushioning along the back, a reprieve for my pretzeled spine. But I never buy these things, never feel a need for them. I like my old, beaten possessions.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a small house 20 minutes south of Portland, Oregon. This was right around the time the city's reputation as a hipster paradise started to infect its real estate market, and we soon found we couldn't afford anything half-decent anywhere near downtown. So we settled on a property nestled among the vineyards and rolling forestland that mark so much of the landscape along the Willamette Valley. It's quaint and quiet and a two-hour walk to the nearest town.

There's a one-bedroom unit a few feet removed from the house proper, too small to sublet but too nice to use as storage space. This has become my writing room — a place exclusively mine. My desk faces a wide window that overlooks the half-acre of forest at the southern edge of our property. Here live at least two deer, a deeply persistent red woodpecker and countless squirrels and chipmunks, all of whom come and go as they please, particularly during blackberry season.

From where the writing room stands, the land slopes downward to a dry creek bed. As such, the view from my window is laced with a vague sensation of floating among the necks of the trees. It's a comforting thing, to hover this way.

At various milestones in my life, the latest being the arrival of my first royalty cheque, I promised myself a brand new writing space — one of those fine mahogany desks full of secret drawers that require tiny keys to open, a new office chair with little rounds of fat cushioning along the back, a reprieve for my pretzeled  spine. But I never buy these things, never feel a need for them. I like my old, beaten possessions.- Omar El Akkad, author

There isn't much in the way of decoration. Along a small shelf that runs half the length of the room, I store various keepsakes my friends and family have given me over the years — a pocket Quran from my father, an engraved pen given to me by my staff the year I co-edited the student newspaper, my best friend's birthday gift: a spider in a jar.

In truth, none of these things carry any emotional meaning for me beyond their weight in time. They are markers of a sort, and in their presence I am reminded of what vastness this business of living entails, and how unbearable the distance would be if covered alone.

I keep two framed pictures on my desk — one of my wife, the other of my parents. Both are old photos: my wife's college graduation portrait from almost 20 years ago and my parents' engagement picture from almost 40.

On the other side of the room sits the useless IKEA couch I mooched from my friend all those years ago. When I am in the middle of a project, I use it to lay out printed copies of chapters and editing notes. When I run out of space on the couch, I use the floor. I keep markers and pens and Post-It notes everywhere and use them liberally and arbitrarily.

The only recent addition to the writing space is a small mural to my own insecurity. On a counter in the middle of the room, I keep all the different copies of American War that have been published since the book first came out. Here stand copies of the German, French, Italian and Japanese translations, the U.S. and Canadian and British hardcovers and paperbacks, the Book of the Month edition. Like everything else in my writing room, they are artifacts in the making, vain and desperate telegrams sent to some future version of myself.

Some days I enjoy looking at them; some days they feel like quicksand.  

About the Author

Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian-Canadian novelist and journalist. When he was 16 years old, he moved to Canada, subsequently completing high school in Montreal and college at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. His first novel, American War, was published in 2017. Currently, he lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Oregon.

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