J.K. Rowling penned her first “Harry Potter” novel in a walk-in closet she converted into a writing space. James Joyce liked to write in bed. And Alice Hoffman repaints her office a different color every time she starts a new book.
Writers are like sponges soaking up everything in their environments, and whether it’s small desk in the corner of a room or a remote cabin in the woods, writers need a place of their own to brainstorm, to dream, to ponder and create.
Three Birmingham area authors recently took us inside the spaces that get their creative juices flowing.
The World at Her Fingertips:
Well-traveled Writer Finds Focus at Her Forest Park Home
By Keysha Drexel
That’s because Liza Elliott has filled her historic Forest Park home with things she loves and things that remind her of all the people she has met on her journey to becoming a writer, publisher, professor and painter.
“In my house, every item tells a story,” she said. “When I look around the room, I see my life, where I’ve been and where I still want to go.”
A native of Chicago, Elliott is a graduate nurse with a doctorate in sociology and is an adjunct professor at the Sparkman Center for Global Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
She has worked on refugee health issues for more than 20 years–both onsite and as a consultant for the Red Crescent Society in the Middle East.
Her first book, “Finding Palestine: One American’s Trek from the Midwest to the Middle East,” was published in 2002. In 2010, she founded Red Camel Press and published her second book, “30-A Supper Club,” in 2012. Elliott is also a painter and songwriter.
“I have to do something creative, to release that creative tension, and my house gives me the ideal place to do that,” she said.
From the brightly woven tapestries she was given during a trip to Palestine to the cushions hand-embroidered by refugee women she worked with in Cairo, Elliott said artistic inspiration is never more than a few feet away in the 1927 English Tudor-style home she shares with her husband, Peter Glaeser.
Elliott moved to the historic residential neighborhood on the northern slope of Red Mountain southeast of downtown Birmingham 17 years ago after spending several years in the 1980s and 1990s living in Egypt.
“I loved my home in Cairo so much that I brought the whole thing back with me,” she said, laughing.
While the exterior of Elliott’s home features elements like herringbone brickwork, a steeply-pitched roof and other Tudor revival stylings characteristic of Forest Park, visitors are transported to the Middle East once they walk in the front door.
“It needed some refreshing when we first moved in and we already had all of this wonderful stuff from traveling and living abroad, so we went to work to make it our own,” she said. “My husband is a woodworker and loves to have a project going, so this was the perfect house for us.”
The couple did all of the “refreshing” work themselves, Elliott said.
“An old house is a good house, and we’ve enjoyed making it our own,” she said.
While her husband is in charge of most of the carpentry and gardening projects, Elliott said she likes to add creative touches like the window treatments she made that look like Middle Eastern awnings.
“I used to love to sew and do stuff like that and when I couldn’t find the window treatments I wanted, I made them myself,” she said.
The foyer and living and dining rooms are painted a warm yellow-orange color that Elliott said reminds her of the sun and sands in Egypt.
For the main living area, Elliott said she and her husband chose to go bold with the wall color.
“My husband loves color, lots of color, so we went with a bright teal for the walls in here. Psychologically, the color cools you down and relaxes you,” she said.
The color also ties in the jewel tones found in the tapestries, cushions and pillows from the Middle East, Elliott said.
“It all kind of fits together somehow, and it feels like home,” she said.
At the far end of the living room is Liza’s workspace, which features views of the neighborhood through several large windows.
“We decided to paint the walls purple there because it suits the sunniness of the area. It’s an invigorating color for a workspace,” she said.
The workspace includes all the usual tools a writer needs–a desk, computer, pens and notepads–and also indications that writing isn’t the only art Elliott practices in the space.
“I keep a keyboard here in case musical inspiration strikes, and I have a few of my paintings in here, too,” she said.
But the writing area near the windows isn’t the only place Elliott likes to work.
Most mornings, Liza said, she can be found perched on a bench near the waterfall feature her husband created in their backyard.
“My husband is also an avid gardener, and he created this whole little retreat right here in our backyard,” she said. “I spend a lot of time out here when the weather is nice.”
There, among the sounds of the flowing water and with the hummingbirds for company, Elliott said she takes up pen and paper and goes, well, anywhere she wants.
“When I write, I am free. Although I am well-traveled, writing helps me escape to the farthest places, all in the comfort of my home. It is like my personal time machine,” she recently told a crowd gathered at a mixer she held for bloggers, authors and poets at Homewood’s Little Professor Book Center.
And her ultimate goal as a writer, Elliott said, is to take her readers with her on that trip in the “time machine.”
“I want the readers to come along with me and hopefully learn something along the way,” she said.
The desire to learn about places and people different from her is something Elliott said she has had since she was a young child growing up in Chicago and later, Indianapolis.
Her father was in the import-export business and would send her packages from his trips across the globe.
“I would get an opera program from Paris, and it made me want to learn French, to learn everything I could about France and to go there someday. He would send me postcards with one letter on each one so that by the end of his trip, I had postcards that spelled out a special message like ‘I Miss You’ or ‘I Love You,’ and those packages and postcards fired my imagination and made me want to see the whole world,” she said.
After she earned degrees in nursing and sociology, one of Elliott’s former professors told her about a job opportunity working with Palestinian refugees in Cairo with Project HOPE, a global health education and humanitarian assistance non-governmental organization.
“I was 26 years old and I thought ‘Why not?’ so I packed up and moved to Egypt,” she said.
That’s where she met her husband, who was a technical advisor on a project Elliott did to help educate nurses about emergency medical care.
“We joke that I got to be his boss for about six weeks,” she said.
Elliott said her work as a nurse and social worker was preparing her for her life as a writer, even though she didn’t know it at the time.
“Working in healthcare, you’re always asking people their histories and you learn a lot about them, and working in sociology gives you a chance to get to know people even better,” she said. “I’ve always had a fascination with other people’s stories and experiences and points of view.”
While in Cairo, Elliott learned a little Arabic and immersed herself in her surroundings.
“I walked everywhere and got to know a lot of people. I lived there, I wasn’t a tourist, so I really got to see how people live and realize that a lot of the perceptions we have in the West about people in the Middle East are just not correct,” she said.
Those experiences led Elliott to write her first book.
“I had always liked writing, and after we moved here to Alabama for my husband’s job, he suggested that I write about my experiences in the Middle East,” she said.
While the book does deal with political and social issues, Elliott said “Finding Palestine” was not meant to be a political statement.
“It was my personal story. I never set out to be a political writer,” she said.
For her second book, Elliott said she knew she wanted to go in a completely different direction and write fiction.
“It was time to lighten up, to take all of the bits and pieces of people I’ve met and places I’ve been and mix it all up and see what I came up with,” she said.
What she came up with was “30-A Supper Club,” a mystery set in the Florida panhandle involving family secrets that date back to the Civil War.
The idea for the book came to Elliott during a walk on the beach in Seagrove Beach, Fla.
“I was looking out at the ocean and thinking about what would happen if I found a gold cold washed up on the beach,” she said. “From there, I started thinking about how the coin would have made its way to the beach. That made me think about all the relics and artifacts of humanity that have traveled for centuries over those waters, and by the end of my walk, I had the plot of the book.”
Thinking about how a gold coin could end up on a Florida beach led Elliott to wonder if there was ever Confederate gold that was lost and never recovered.
“That led to one of my favorite parts about writing–the research. I talked to a friend of mine who writes about the Civil War and then learned everything I could about Civil War history. I wrote that history into the book,” she said.
Using historical information is one of her favorite literary devices, Elliott said.
“A good story has detail in it. You have to understand the context and get it right or the readers will know,” she said.
Those details were equally important as Elliott set about creating the multitude of characters for “30-A Supper Club,” she said.
Elliott created a biography for every character in the book, handwriting on index cards her ideas of what each person in the book was like.
“My characters are kind of a mash-up of all the people I’ve met and known,” she said. “I’ve been lucky enough to get to know so many different kinds of interesting people that I will never be short on inspiration when it comes to developing characters for my books.”
The book was the first one published by Red Camel Press because Elliott said she wanted to test her foray into the publishing world on her own work first.
A companion cookbook with all the recipes from “30-A Supper Club” is due out in September, she said.
In the meantime, Elliott continues to draw inspiration from her community and all the places that she has lived in the past.
“As for what inspires me, it is people, their stories and the contexts of their lives. How persons–individually, in a community or in a society–interact alone or together under a variety of circumstances presents endless story possibilities,” she said. “The true ones are often more fantastic than any made-up story. So, I listen to or read about people with stories of good times, bad times, heroism or foolishness. Mix it all up and voila–a story.”