Writing Spaces - from clutter to creativity

An Interview with Julienne Durber
by Michelle Newell 
This week, we talk to Julienne Durber, an aspiring YA and MG writer based in Rugby. He is represented by Gemma Cooper at the Bent Agency and received an honorary mention in the 2012 SCBWI Undiscovered Voices anthology for his novel Vengeance (previously Springpunk). He also had an honorary mention in the 2010 UV for a murder mystery Wind-up World. He co-runs the dark, dystopian Demention blog and is one of the Network Coordinators for SCBWI BI Central West. You can find out more about Julienne at dementionblog.blogspot.co.uk

You describe yourself as having “an obsession with all things dark and demented, otherworldly and odd”, and I wondered if that was just in your stories and illustrations, or if that was reflected in your environment?

That was fairly heavily to do with all the Demention stuff, and I was into all the dystopia bits and pieces. There’s bit and pieces here and there that are reasonably dark I guess. 

I was expecting to see in the background some kind of steampunkish clock hanging on your wall, or a black feature wall! 

Bear with me. (Julienne leaves the Skype screen and returns holding up an intricate model ship). This is a chariot I made out of clock parts. It’s a life size model of some characters in a book that I did before the dystopian book. This is the room of creativity. I don’t always write in it but it has creativity oozing out of it. There is a jigsaw on the wall up there that I designed for someone. And there’s more of these little models hanging up and lying around, and old sketches on pinboards. 

You seem like quite a visual person, do your characters and stories come to you more visually in pictures, and then in the models and drawings that you make? 

I’d been a graphic designer for 10 years, and I went along to SCBWI wanting to be an illustrator. Everyone at the Birmingham SCBWI was much more into the writing so I had a go at the writing. And I find that I can write better pictures than I can draw, if that makes sense. I can draw stuff, and it’s a nice realisation, but it’s not quite what was in my head. I can write down exactly what is in my head and develop it a lot further. 

So you don’t write in this room with all your inspirational, creative stuff? 

Sometimes I write in this room. But recently I’ve found a hugely useful tool is my phone. I write on my phone on the train. I get maybe 25 minutes commuting time. And it’s not proper writing but it’s notes and it flows really well, and I can then Bluetooth it to myself and write it up in the evenings. If I can, I sneak in an hour at work – at lunch time, obviously, not when I’m working (laughs) – and I try to fit things in in the evening, and I do have a life doing other things as well. It’s just any spare snap of time. 

I got the impression that you were busy from your website with your drawings and stories, and your work for the Demention blog... 

It’s a bit mad. A couple of years ago Marcus Sedgwick was at one of the SCBWI things and he talked about going to bed worrying about a problem in his writing and waking up the next morning and it would be solved, and I try to use that sort of technique. If I know there’s a plot issue or something with my writing I’ll try to think about it before I get to work, and then let it churn away, or try and think about it before I go to sleep. 

It doesn’t keep you awake? 

No, no, I just think about it. I know it’s there, and hopefully it just sorts itself out in the morning.

Will is the main character in Vengeance, the book that got you long-listed for SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices anthology. If Will had a desk to plot the downfall of his enemies, the people who killed his sister, what would his desk look like? 

His desk would be somewhere deep in a dank, slightly falling down concrete cellar in an area called Wasteland and it would be made up of two slightly rusty oil drums which haven’t been used for ages because of the lack of fossil fuels in Will’s world, with an old door across it. On top of it would be extremely battered but carefully folded and looked after schematics and maps of the areas of the Wasteland and the rich, nice area where all the bad people live, and in one of the oil drums would be a small alcove in which he had fitted a drawer, where he would be keeping all the ammunition for his clockwork gun, which is the one thing, apart from his sister, that he loves the most. 

If you had an ideal desk, what would it look like? 

I don’t have an ideal desk. I get very jumpy. Sometimes I’ll work on my big computer on its spindly metal desk that you’re sitting on (on his laptop on Skype) at the moment, and after a while I will then hop over to my drawing board. I will then go downstairs and sit on the sofa and write down there or sit cross-legged on the floor with my laptop on my lap, so I’m very non-desky. But of anything, I think my drawing board is my ideal desk, because it’s old, and it’s a little bit rusty, and it’s very sort of 50s styling, and it’s been sanded down, and varnished and it’s multi-use and it’s got a nice little foot rest. It’s normally completely covered in stuff so I can’t get to it. But absolutely the best thing about it is that because it was a drawing board it’s got at the top a winding handle connected to a cover that you’re supposed to put over your drawings when you’ve finished drawing for the day. 

Are you sure this desk didn’t inspire you to write dystopian steampunk? 

Well, no, but my predisposition towards winding things and mechanical bits and pieces I’m sure inspired me to buy this desk rather than a nice shiny brand new drawing board. 

Here are Julienne Durber's tips for increasing your creative flow...
  • Clutter is your friend - surround yourself with things you love that don't necessarily relate to what you are working on, or even to writing at all. It will give your area a safe 'nesty' feel. 
  • Mood boards - the idea of gathering images/textures/detritus that relates to the work you are doing - is a real ad agency cliche, but don't think neat, spray-mounted presentations, think postcards pinned to the wall, a slideshow of images as your screensaver set to come on after a minute of not typing, piles of autumn leaves or rusty metal on your desk (in between the regular nest-clutter).   
  • Whenever I'm stuck on a plot point or key event, I do the washing up. The minute my hands are in the water and I'm unable to type, the solution will pop into my head. I'll then work it through while I finish the washing up and rattle off a few hundred words as the plates drip dry.

If you find inspiration for your work in an interesting, strange or unique place, we'd love to hear from you. Please email writers@britishscbwi.org

Michelle was born and raised in a country town in Australia. She taught History at an all-girls school before moving to England a decade ago to take up the thoroughly modern job of designing new schools. 
Michelle still loves anything old, and has compulsively collected ‘junk’, as her bemused family call it, since she was a girl. Her flat in London is crammed with fluffy 1950s ball gowns, daintily painted tea sets, and well-worn children’s toys. 
The stories she imagines behind each of her vintage treasures ultimately inspired her to fulfil a long-held ambition to write novels with an historic twist for young adults.
Michelle is currently working on her first novel and is represented by Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates.


  1. A nice insight into your working methods and environment Julienne, and I never knew you were a graphic designer too.

  2. I love seeing how other writers work! That chariot is AMAZING Julienne!!!

  3. I need Julienne to get stuck in a plot point in my kitchen. My dishwasher is broken. What a wonderful workspace ... I want that drawing table.

  4. Nice one Julienne, any grown man that can still sit cross legged deserves enormous respect!

  5. Clutter is my friend too. As I've got older I've got untidier though I do have a clear out every now and again - I suppose my ideal state is ordered clutter.
    I'm definitely with Julienne on the 'safe nesty feel', though.

    I'm loving this series, Michelle.

  6. I love peeking into people's writing spaces! It's fascinating to see how differently people approach what is essentially the same task - capturing a good story!

  7. Thanks everyone for your great comments. I'm glad there are other nest-builders out there, but unfortunately, the thing I forgot to mention (Candy) is that washing-up inspiration only strikes for your own washing-up not other people's ;)

    And sitting cross legged is just matter of mind over knees, Alex.

    And thanks to Michelle for turning my ramblings into a great interview

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