It used to be typewriters was one of the only ways to master something. Of course, almost every major book of the 20th century was written on a typewriter. And it was my ambition as a child to be a writer. So a typewriter was just a practical tool to do what I had to do.
In the 1990s, I met a woman who was an early adopter of the computer. She convinced me that I should have a laptop, that I should get rid of my old-fashioned typewriter and thus be able to write more productively. She taught me how to type, paste, drag and drop, and I did find it more productive – until a few years later.
Cut to 2007 and I got a call from American author Paul Auster. He told me he wrote something for me, a movie called The inner life of Martin Frost, about an author who has completed a book. Paul is quite an old school. He still writes everything on a typewriter, so I had him use during the filming. It was a fantastic machine. The ones I had before were from WHSmith or Ryman. But Paul’s model, an Olympia SM9, was like playing nice piano, and I started typing very well. I even asked him to get me one for my hotel room so I could work on my novel – it seems like inspiration comes faster when I use it.
After we finished filming, I found a typewriter with a similar look eBay. I realized that you could get it cheap at that point – often between £ 3 and £ 5 – so I started buying something like this every week. Some would be awful, awful; I will stick it out or use it as a yard. But every now and then I find one that was almost perfect. I learned how to repair a few things and got to know the best manufacturers – the Olympias, Hermes, Underwoods and Remingtons. But I was always looking for the Rolls-Royce.
Today I have about 40 typewriters, from the 20s to the 90s. They are all very good, and they are all quite beautiful. But I actually use it – I wrote parts of my new novel on one, simply because I do not like to sit in front of a screen for too long. You do not feel energetic enough at a computer. I write most of the time, but I’m too proud of my handwriting to be quick; I’m a little fancy. The fastest way to get my mind on the page is by using a typewriter. So this is what I do.
As with instruments, different typewriters have different temperaments, and the pleasure of writing on one is the feeling of it. It’s a machine; by using it, you become part of its engineering. Some are more enjoyable to write about than others – Olympia travelers are good for practical purposes, just like the Hermes Baby models. But none of them is perfect; there is always something better about the one than the other. And sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I have a blue and a green one, and today I feel like blue.”
Often I will look at what other writers have used as I know they have done their research. Carson McCullers wrote on an Olivetti – I have one, that’s fine. Jack Kerouac had a Hermes 3000, which is probably the most beautiful. I also own an Imperial Good Companion, the model John Lennon prefers. But I have never had one that was known to anyone, although I often wonder who wrote on my typewriters in front of me. Sometimes they come with small clues. Nothing scandalous, just letters or poetry.
People ask me, ‘But what if you make a mistake?’ I tell them that it does not matter that mistakes are part of the process. Then they usually tell me how slow it should be (it is not). And anyway, good writing is not about speed. You do not say, ‘How fast did you write it?’ You ask how bloody good it is! I like all the bugs, the stains, the crosses and the spilled ink. I have a few copies of old manuscripts – some Woolf, some Wilde – and I love seeing what was written first and what replaced it. The messier a page is, the better it usually is.
I still have not found Paul Auster’s Olympia SM9, the holy grail of typewriters. I have found models that are broken and broken, but models in good working order are rare, so I do not browse through eBay as before. Enough is enough. It will be weird if I get more. It’s actually weird – I’m storing my 40 in the attic. And they’re heavy, you know. I have to worry about my roof coming down.
Shooting Martha by David Thewlis is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson for £ 14.99