Where I Write: Katherine Ashenburg

Katherine is a prolific and prize-winning author and journalist. She works in a study painted bottle-green with red trim, "womblike and perfect for writing."

"This picture came about because the photographer and artist Mark Raynes Roberts came to my house to take some pictures of me, more formal than this one. When he saw my study, he was charmed and had to take its portrait. So it is totally un-fluffed, including the rucked-up rug. The only fancier-than-usual note is me, as I normally work in an old sweater and jeans. The study is on the second floor of my Cabbagetown house in Toronto, about eight steps from my bedroom. I start the day there in my pajamas, and gradually get dressed. 

"Right now I am writing two books at once, and I'd like to excuse the messiness on those grounds, but it wouldn't be true. Mess in my study expands to fill the space available, no matter how many books I'm writing. The first book is a children's version, for nine-to-12-year-olds, of a grown-up social history I wrote called The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. It's a history of washing our bodies, which I thought kids would like as there is much grossness in the book. As a matter of fact, the title is Gross! and I believe it lives up to it. Annick is publishing it, in 2016. 

"I can say without exaggeration that it is the hardest writing I have ever done. There's a new way of writing kids' non-fiction — chummy, humorous, anecdotal — that has been a challenge. The other book I'm writing is my first novel, which takes place in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Sweden, among a group of painters. So the study includes a lot of Swedish maps and histories.

"My desk is my former dining room table, a 19th-century pine table that was probably originally meant for a kitchen. The black desk chair is a Staples cheapie. They are hopelessly badly coordinated for avoiding repetitive strain — the table too high, the chair too low. But (knock wood) when you are a really, really slow writer, repetitive strain does not seem to be an issue. But getting a good, ergonomic chair, at the right height, is on my to-do list.

"This is what passes for a storage table in my study. It's a naturally 'distressed,' i.e. old, green leather club chair that was in my parents' house. A brother couldn't believe I wanted this cracked and peeling thing, but it has a nice old-library look to me.


"This is a shelf above my desk, featuring a recent drawing by a four-year-old grandson, and a little Day of the Dead statue I bought in a market in Mexico City. My second book was about mourning, The Mourner's Dance, and I decided that I could not write it without going to see some real, untouristy Days of the Dead. That's when I bought this little angel weeping at a tomb."