The Arm-Biter Wins! Meet Heathrow's New Writer-In-Residence

Queue of aircraft for take-off including jets ...
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Here’s how to win a book deal. Be a big fat pain in the ass. Yeah, baby! Oh, all right, Alain de Botton does bring fancy credentials to becoming the first ever writer in residence at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Talk about re-branding; Terminal 5, much heralded, was a loathed disaster when it opened. Now de Botton, whose books tend to the cerebral, is spending a week at the terminal, given total access and free rein to write whatever he pleases, his laptop open and his words projected on a screen so passersby can watch him at work. The result will be published as a book.

My friend Rachel sets up her easel and paints portraits on-site in some pretty unlikely spots, from a nursing home to a hardware store to a fire station. This week she’s painting a portrait of a communications tower. Many people, she tells me, love having a chance to watch creativity in motion, meet an artist and ask questions about what she’s doing and why.

It’s a fun idea. Of course, a Canadian did a fictional airport portrait decades ago, becoming one of the era’s best selling authors in the process,  Arthur Hailey’s Airport came out in 1968. As someone who took her first flight alone, to Antigua, at six, and who lives for the smell of jet fuel and the next chance to fly away somewhere exotic, I totally get the attraction of airports. The stories-high departures board at Heathrow, its little metal panels clicking constantly in the roll call of departures to all the places I’m dying to see — Oslo, Palma, Abidjan — makes me practically burst with desire.

Some of my favorite airports? Seattle — whose elegant terrazzo floors have brass salmon figures embedded in them, one of whom carries a briefcase; Vancouver, Canada, with exquisite wooden totem poles and a waterfall; Bastia, Corsica, where sheep graze outside the terminal; Mae Hong Son, Thailand, where the only sound is the bells of the Buddhist temple across the street; Santa Barbara, CA, about the size of a suburban living room, with a red-tiled roof. I don’t mind my local Westchester airport, as I get to walk across the tarmac the old-fashioned way and step up into into what I affectionately term the cigar tube, a 12-seater prop plane that wings me home to Toronto. Makes me feel like an out-take from Casablanca every time.

Do you have a favorite airport?

5 thoughts on “The Arm-Biter Wins! Meet Heathrow's New Writer-In-Residence

  1. ksihra

    Charles de Gaule in Paris wins my vote… and now that Indira Gandhi Airport has (finally!!!) been renovated it’s pretty great too!

    Oh, and Dubai’s airport is pretty rockin’, with Gold everywhere (plus, I met a lovely guy there once upon a time!).

    I think it’s really sad that the process of writing a book has become a selling feature. Are we truly at the end of our creativity, where we can no longer simply sell a beautiful story?

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    I think de Botton is too… do anything as prosaic as blogging. What he seems to be doing is opening up his notebook and sharing the first drafts of his book, which I think is potentially pretty interesting — although maybe not (as much so, if at all) to non-writers.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Interesting you think this is sad…As a writer, I’d actually welcome the (brief) socializing with civilians while writing in an airport terminal. I’m always really interested in the process of how creativity happens, not just the final polished product. But maybe that’s me.

  4. ksihra

    perhaps sad is a bad word, but as an academic writer, i feel the process i engage to write should be of little significance to the ideas presented. the process is interesting in its own right, but i don’t think is necessarily relevant to the story being told…. i leave my house and become that annoying person who writes on her laptop in coffee shops just to get out of the house because of my need to be social, but rest assured that there will be no mention of this when i try to sell the dissertation as a book. it’s the ideas i want people to pay attention to… that’s all i was getting at… maybe i’m seeing things in absurdly dichotomous and structured way… i’ll go slap my own wrist for that!

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