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From shop windows to prisons, writers-in-residence find new homes

Author Isabel Losada smiles in the window of a Paris bookstore, where she took up a week-long residency last year to promote a French translation of one of her books. (Photo from the author's Facebook page.)

Parisians are unaccustomed to seeing barefoot women in peasant dresses waving at them happily from inside a shop window on the Rue de Rivoli, according to the person who spent last week doing just that: British "writer-in-residence-in-window" Isabel Losada, plying the new French edition of her bestselling self-help book, The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment.

"There were definitely some people tutting, saying 'This isn't Amsterdam, What are you doing in the window?' " Losada said after surviving her unorthodox six-day residency. "But the booksellers were very happy about it."

Now a veteran of two shop-window residencies, Losada does not recommend the experience for authors "who write what I call serious literature." But they and others are increasingly seeking out – and being invited into – equally improbable places to ply their trade.

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Once secreted away in the crannies of liberal arts colleges and assigned to the dull torture of reading undergraduate manuscripts, writers today are just as likely to be taking up residence in bookstores and libraries, prisons and scientific research stations, cruise ships, safaris and almost any semi-public enterprise that happens to include an extra chair in the corner.

Some seek a new version of the traditional sanctum where they can devote themselves wholly to their work – without paying rent. "I was honoured and thrilled to have a space with a door that closed," says Manitoba children's and young adult writer Anita Daher, author of Spider Song and the first-ever writer-in-residence at Winnipeg's Aqua Books. "It was a room of my own when I didn't have one, and there's nothing nicer for a writer than being surrounded by books."

Others, like Cape Breton-born Jean McNeil, pursue novel residencies in search of experience. "I've been writer in residence in the Antarctic, in the Falkland Islands, Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, and on a ship's expedition to the west coast of Greenland," McNeil said this week by phone from the banks of South Africa's Selati River, where she is undergoing training as a safari guide – "my own kind of bespoke writer in residence."

The London-based author first visited the polar regions as writer-in-residence at a British Antarctic research station, spending four months there – "the longest any writer has spent in the Antarctic" – and producing a literary novel, The Ice Lovers, in return for room and board.

"If you're a writer and you get a job in a university and you teach writing, what's your life experience going to be?" she asked, "surrounded by leopards and lions" as the sun set in Africa. "I don't do this to bolster my emotional or scientific knowledge, I do it because I'm hungry for experience."

North-of-England writer Chaz Brenchley first did it when friends saw a newspaper advertisement seeking a crime writer to establish residency at an ambitious public-art project – a mile of sculptures along the former industrial waterfront of the River Wear. Sculptor Colin Wilbourn "always feels there's a story inherent in his work," Brenchley explained, "but he doesn't necessarily know what that story is."

The writer was delighted to help. "It's the only time I've ever really been employed," he said. "Three days a week I sat in a porta-cabin on a building site while the boys were outside sculpting."

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In truth, the collaboration was a roaring success that continued long past the official one-year term of Brenchley's residency. The writer contributed fragments of text, etched in steel or cast in concrete, as clues to an unsolvable mystery semi-submerged on the river bank.

"Those are my words and they will outlast every edition of every book I've ever written," Brenchley marvelled. "I love it."

Brenchley followed up his sculpture residency with a similar sojourn in Taiwan, where he based his current novel, Dragon in Chains (written under the pseudonym Daniel Fox). But he has no plans to repeat the experience a third time. "There seems to be a division between writers who write and writers who are out there being a writer," he says. "I just want to write."

No such concerns inhibited the 1,200 writers who applied for one of five new positions created last year by Britain's unique Writers in Residence in Prisons program. The coveted prison residencies last a minimum of two years and require writers to spend two-and-a-half days a week working with prisoners in-house. "It's a very unusual job," says program co-director Clive Hopwood, "so we have a very thorough selection process to make sure we get the right people."

And it is the writers whose lives are most reliably transformed as a result of the experience, according to Hopwood. "We say to our prospective writers, 'We know you're not a renaissance man or woman, but everybody inside will expect you to be that,' " he said. "By the time they finish their residencies, without exception they come out with more skills than they went in with."

Currently ensconced at Cambridge University's Sidney Sussex College – the first writer-in-residence in the university's 800-year history, according to his publishers – thriller writer Ted Bell knows what that's all about. His duties, devised by Sir Richard Deerlove, former head of British spy agency MI6, require participation in some of the most timely, highest-level security briefings in the West.

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"For a spy-thriller writer to be sitting in these rooms is unbelievable," Bell enthused. "Within 24 hours of Gadhafi's death we were passing around gold platters embedded with emeralds in the shape of Libya that had been taken from one of his palaces. I'm sort of real-time with this stuff."

After a year in residence at Cambridge, Bell has published a new spy novel, Phantom, that explores the outer frontiers of artificial intelligence and cyber warfare. "I'm really not interested in another book about torturing some al-Qaeda guy to get him to tell you where he put the bomb in Chicago," Bell said. "That's just not my style of writing. I look for things that are coming down the road."

Whatever new threats may arise to challenge global order, one thing seems certain: They will come with a writer-in-residence.

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