‘Kestrel’ novelist Matt Gemmell embraces extreme minimalism [Setups]


Matt Gemmel pares down the setup to distill writing magic.
Matt Gemmel pares down the setup to distill writing magic.
Photo: Matt Gemmell

The classic writer’s garret, a small room where a tortured scribe toils over lonely hours to put words on the page — using a quill or a fountain pen or maybe a Smith Corona typewriter — has been tastefully updated.

Now it’s all about a 12.9-inch iPad Pro locked hard into the Ulysses text editor to prevent any distractions. There’s also a highly customized mechanical keyboard and really nice noise-canceling headphones. At least that’s how Scottish novelist Matt Gemmell limits his gear in a minimalistic setup, he told Cult of Mac.

It helps him focus on writing. That, and sitting his ass down in the chair for hours a day. The chair is a Herman Miller Aeron, by the way. The spartan surroundings need not lack comfort, after all. It’s about limiting distractions.

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Former Apple software engineer, current thriller-writer

But it wasn’t always quite like that. Gemmell (@mattgemmell on Twitter), who lives in Edinburgh with his wife, child and a labradoodle named Whisky, once worked as a software engineer and usability consultant for Apple and other Fortune 100 companies.

Now he focuses intensely on writing. Gemmell — the author of the “Kestrel” series techno-thrillers Changer and Toll (part three is on the way), Raw Materials (essays), numerous short stories, as well as writings for Macworld, MacUser, The Guardian — describes his past and current lives vis a vis technology below.

His remarks have been lightly edited. We hope he can forgive the American spellings.

In his own words: Matt Gemmell on work, setups and more

On his old setup and his new minimalism:

Regarding my minimalist office setup, it’s a big change from 10 years ago. My degree is in computing science, and I used to be a consultant software engineer and user experience designer. I did a lot of work for Apple on their internal apps, and I spoke at a lot of conferences and released many open source projects.

My home office used to have a big wraparound desk with a 27-inch iMac plus another huge monitor, a Wacom tablet, and a series of iOS devices for testing on, plus backup drives and all the associated clutter.

Switching careers was an opportunity for me to get rid of all that, and I quickly realized that I really just needed the 21st-century equivalent of a typewriter, where I could disappear into my work.

On how his ‘magical’ iPad influences his home office:

The iPad is a magical thing to me, and having written software and UI components for it hasn’t detracted from that feeling at all. I love the transforming nature of the device, and the way I can use it as a notepad or a sketchbook or a magazine, as well as a writing tool.

The iPad’s fluid, convertible nature is what inspired my home office itself; it’s not so much spartan as it is focused and transformable, like the iPad itself. It’s my office most of the time, but the sofa becomes a double bed for guests, and I built a projector mount that comes out of a built-in cupboard and onto the wall, turning the room into a home theater or a videogames room, too.

But it’s only one thing at a time, and that one current thing gets your full attention. That’s what I love about the iPad and iPadOS, and my working setup is testament that the same sort of focus and adaptability can extend into the real world, too.

On his 2021 iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard:

I’ve been iPad-only for four and a half years, which is maybe easier for me than it would be for most people since I’m a novelist. My current machine is a 2021 12.9-inch iPad Pro (silver, Wi-Fi only, 256GB). I’ve never used more than a third of its local storage, and I’ve worked from home continuously for the last 14 years, so I really don’t need the 5G version.

I have a white Magic Keyboard for the iPad, which is a big improvement in fingerprints-resistance over the 2020 black model.

When I’m at my desk — which means any time except the evening — I have a mechanical keyboard connected to the iPad, and the Magic Keyboard just serves as a stand.

On his highly customized mechanical keyboard:

The mechanical keyboard is very special to me because it was a gift from a reader of my novels, and was assembled with my own tastes and preferences in mind.

I wrote about it here, but in summary it’s a TOFU65 aluminum block casing with a brass weight plate on the bottom, and the layout is a “65%” 69-key ISO with a TADA68 PCB running QMK firmware.

The key functions were set up to suit my needs, including music playback functions. The switches are Kailh BOX whites, with the most perfect click sound and action. They were all hand-soldered to the board, and all the stabilizers were hand-lubricated. The textured caps are printed with an italicized typeface chosen because of my oft-mentioned nostalgia for the Apple Extended Keyboards I used as a young man.

The cable is braided and is purple with orange connectors, because the covers of first two novels in my “Kestrel” techno-thrillers series were purple and orange, respectively.

The most impressive part, though, is the least visible: The brass weight plate on the underside is engraved with the first line of Chapter 1 of my first novel. It’s just an incredible thing, and so meaningful to me. It makes me happy every day.

Here there is no escape from putting words on the page.
Here there is no escape from putting words on the page.
Photo: Matt Gemmell

On his Ikea desk and its upcoming DIY replacement:

Regarding the desk itself, it’s an Ikea Bekant, 140 cm by 60 cm, but I’ll soon be replacing it. I’ve designed my own desk during lockdown, and I’m about halfway through constructing it.

I bought lengths of timber from a local yard, cut them to size for the structure, and my next step is to get the wood router out to round the work-surface corners, run cabling channels down the back of the rear legs, and then start putting the pieces together with pocket-holed screws.

It’ll be even more compact than my current desk, at 120 cm by 50 cm, but the rearmost 10 cm or so will hinge upwards from the back to allow access to a bay beneath, with power sockets, USB charging ports, and storage for the things I put in my pockets when going out: wallet, car keys and so on.

There’ll also be a 1 cm gap between the rear flap and the remainder of the work surface, so that cabling can go down there instead of into a big hole at a fixed point, or down over the rear edge of the desk where cables can become trapped against the wall.

On his Herman Miller Aeron chair:

My chair in a Herman Miller Aeron, which I bought with the proceeds of a tiny ebook I wrote about using Markdown when writing.

On his Sony WH-1000-XM4 headphones:

My headphones are new, and a recent birthday gift from my wife: a pair of Sony WH-1000-XM4 noise canceling over-ear headphones, in the “gray” color which is really closer to beige.

They’re wonderful, with a warm and present sound and plenty of bass. I find that I prefer their sound profile to the somewhat clinical Bose equivalents, but that’s just personal taste.

On working with software tools:

I write in Ulysses on the iPad, with Guided Access enabled to stop my traitorous fingers from command-tabbing me into other apps while I’m working.

I brainstorm and outline with MindNode, and for freeform notes and when I’m working out the dynamics of a technical scene, I tend to sketch and annotate in GoodNotes. For any graphical work, such as web assets for book marketing and so on, I use Affinity Photo.

On discipline:

When I’m writing, I sit down at my desk at either 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. (the time varies because I have a twice-weekly video call with my Mandarin teacher in Tianjin, China), and I stay there for two hours.

I have a daily word count target, and Ulysses tracks my progress, including for previous days. 1,500 words is my goal for the day, and 2,000 or more is great.

I’ve learned the wisdom of deferring all editing until after a full draft is done.

On research and fan feedback:

Regarding research, I find it’s best to insert a placeholder and get on with the writing, then do the needed research and fill-in later in the day. For the techno-thriller series in particular, research is onerous — people will absolutely email to correct me if I get details of weaponry, physics, travel times and so on wrong!

On writing weekly just for his fans and followers:

Once a week I also write a mini-story that’s completely standalone, and usually in genres including sci-fi or horror. I aim for about a thousand words for each one, and then I send them out each Monday morning for free, to those who subscribe to my weekly email via my web site.

It’s fun for me, it lets me blow off steam and experiment with ideas and styles.

I also collect the tales into compendium ebooks two or three times a year, plus paperback anthologies once there are enough stories. I have four such ebooks and one paperback volume out already, and the project as a whole is called Once Upon a Time.

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