BEST-SELLING author and actor Jessie Burton, 36, is the brains behind books including The Muse and The Miniaturist, the latter of which was turned into a TV drama last year, as well as new children’s story The Restless Girls, which she wrote in her garden shed in south London.
Although as sheds go this is quite high-end, with lots of glass, electricity and a heater — and she designed it herself.
‘I drew it on a piece of paper with a biro and ruler and sent it to a shed-building company in Nottingham,’ she says. ‘They assembled it, took it apart, put it on a trailer, drove it to London, parked outside, trudged it through the flat and built it again. It was done in two days but it was very muddy.’
Jessie and her then-boyfriend started house-hunting in 2013, when their landlord told them to get out of their rented flat as he wanted to move back in himself. Times were stressful. ‘I was classed as self-employed, and as I’d been working as a temp they wouldn’t let me have a mortgage — my boyfriend got it for us.’
Jessie had a criteria in mind when she first began the search. ‘I knew I wanted either a two-bedroom flat with no garden — and to use the second bedroom as my study for writing — or a one-bedroom flat with a garden so I could build a writing shed.’
Jessie looked at over 30 properties and found it a depressing experience.
‘You walk into a hovel and they want £250,000 for it,’ she reminisces.
They eventually found this one-bedroom garden flat in Zone 3, and Jessie was immediately bowled over by the 47ft garden that was big enough for her writing-shed dreams to be brought to life.
‘When designing it I wanted light and cosiness, and cost was a consideration — I couldn’t have had it any bigger because I couldn’t afford it,’ she says. Also, anything taller would have required planning permission. ‘It’s electrically wired, there’s a heater and I could have wi-fi in there if I wanted it — but what’s the point? I wouldn’t get any work done.’
‘Psycho-geographically speaking, it’s nice to have a separate space to work in but I still find myself coming back to the house to procrastinate and make 200 cups of tea even though there’s a kettle in there.’
Jessie describes her taste as ‘kitsch and colourful with, hopefully, a touch of class’, and her shed reflects that — with colourful decoration, including a dark-pink Christ the Redeemer statue, and a mid-century armchair.
Her living room, a cosy and peaceful space opening on to the garden, has a similar theme. She has a couple of 1950s armchairs she found online, an original Ercol nursing chair she found in a skip in East Dulwich, and a large variety of artworks.
Jessie found many of her decorative pieces on her travels: skulls from Mexico, coral from a Tasmanian beach, candles from Los Angeles, a ceramic unicorn from Rye Pottery and cushions from Paris, Heals and TK Maxx. But perhaps the most unusual item is a plastic bulb that she’s attached to the wall — which houses a taxidermised budgie by artist Polly Morgan.
One of the first alterations that Jessie made to the flat was to have wooden bookcases installed in the alcoves by the chimney — but you won’t find any of her own books on display.
‘I don’t think authors should do it,’ she says. ‘The Miniaturist has been published in 38 countries and I’ve been sent all the different editions. I’ve kept them under the bottom shelf with the spines turned towards the wall. Once you’ve done a book you’ve done it, and you need to move on…’
Jessie will also soon be moving on from her flat. Her literary success has meant she’s in the process of buying a four-bedroom, semi-detached house elsewhere in London.
‘There’s an assumption when you have a successful book that you’re given a big cardboard cheque — but you get it in little slices and I’ve saved it.’
After making her writing-shed vision a reality, won’t she miss it?
‘I love my shed — it’s such a place of peace and creativity and going into it is different to just walking into any old room. When I move, I expect I’ll be staring out of the window plotting where to build my next sanctuary away from everything else…’
■ The Restless Girls is out now, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books