Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksOctober 26, 2021

We ask locked-down writers the worst question in the world

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It’s a bad question at the best of times and a diabolical one right now. We asked it anyway, picking on writers who seemed to thrive during the first lockdowns last year.

Eileen Merriman

During the first level four lockdown we resorted to a day camp in the back yard, and sat in deckchairs, me with a laptop and my daughter with a Chrome book. I was working on the final book in my YA fantasy trilogy. It was harder to concentrate than usual, due to constant checking for Covid updates and reading horror stories from overseas colleagues on Twitter, fielding worried questions from non-medical friends, trying to entertain bored children and worrying about an impending war-zone-style crisis at the hospital (not to mention contracting Covid from a patient). However, I had a goal — the trilogy had to be finished! The publishing contract was signed during level three, and the first two books, Violet Black and Black Wolf, were released this year; the third, Black Spiral, will be out in March 2022 and South Pacific Pictures has optioned the series for TV. 

This time around, my brain has turned into Covid mush. I am making very slow progress on an adult novel, as I’m constantly distracted by thoughts of the dismally low number of ICU beds in New Zealand (not to mention nurses to staff them), the fact that my kids may not get back to school this year, and surge planning at the hospital, not to mention I just have … ennui. Many writers will tell you that life fuels their writing, and at the moment, at least in Auckland, each day is much the same as the other. I had two books released during level four lockdown, at a time when no one could sell them — Black Wolf and my third adult novel, Double Helix. However despite the initial difficulties in getting books out of warehouses and into stores, Double Helix has featured on the NZ bestseller fiction charts for the past four weeks, and my fellow authors and readers have been so supportive. 

A woman on a beanbag, reading a book of poetry, in a tent
Writer’s retreat, Auckland’s North Shore, lockdown 2020 (Photo: Supplied)

Rachel Buchanan

For 10 weeks during Melbourne’s second lockdown (112 days from July until October 2020) I enjoyed the best writing conditions of my life. I did not cook or clean or go to the supermarket. I did not do any housework. I did not have to answer any bamboozling questions about year 10 maths or how to restart a crashed computer. I did not do the washing. I did not stop what I was doing to watch funny videos of cats and babies on someone else’s phone. I was so absorbed in my writing about the Motunui Epa, five 17th century Taranaki carved panels that once formed the back wall of a pātaka (BWB will publish the book next year), that I didn’t even really listen that much to the four other people I live with – my bloke Mike and our three teenaged daughters.

So this was what life was like for male artists and writers of days gone by, the men who enjoyed the full domestic-service scenario courtesy of a wife or obliging lover? It really frees up your time when another human being is there to meet your every need and the needs of your children! 

For those 10 weeks, Mike became “the butler”. We all called him that. The Victorian government had closed down landscape gardening so Mike was unable to work. After he got over the stress of losing so much time and income, the butler was born. He cleared out the garden, painted the hallway and the lounge, kept the young people on track and cooked delicious meals. I loved my butler so much! Those innocent lockdown glory days now feel very long ago. On Friday 22 October 2021, Melbourne is about to exit lockdown number six. We’ve spent more days in lockdown than any other city in the world. I think it’s 270 days as of today. Let me flex. I am crawling towards the finish line, a wobbly wreck. The butler left at 6.30am today. He’s rebuilding someone’s fence. 

Moea he tangata ringa raupa. Marry a man with calloused hands.

Bryan Walpert 

Two things occurred during that first lockdown that were shocking to me. The first was, of course, lockdown itself, though it’s getting harder to imagine when that seemed beyond imagining. The second was that during that period I had three books accepted or contracted in very short order. What that unprecedented (for me) streak of luck meant was that in fact I had to buckle down to do quite a bit of writing work and maintain my focus as Auckland moved in and out of lockdowns. My novella about music and memory, Late Sonata (Brio Books, Australia), came out in September 2020. My poetry collection, Brass Band to Follow (Otago University Press), managed to thread the needle, with most editing completed just before the February 2021 lockdown and then a launch when we were blissfully in level one in June. As for my novel Entanglement (Mākaro Press), there were several rounds of final editing to do during this latest, lingering Auckland lockdown, while level four slightly delayed its printing and level three dashed plans for an in-person launch, as it has for others. (Entanglement has a time travel element, and I did often wish over these months that I could go back to the innocent days of 2019.)

All of which is to say that revising and editing and deadlines have kept me very pragmatically focused on writing through the ups and downs of the past 18 months. But with Entanglement complete (and coming to a bookstore near you in November!) I’ve had to take a breath, refocus and start again, which is a whole different animal. It’s one thing to carry through projects fully in motion and with deadlines pressing, but a standing start requires a different sort of focus, and I do feel the effects now of an attention span that apparently has been fraying. I’m trying to get my mind into essay-writing mode as I work on a collection-in-progress, and I’m facing the beginnings of a new poetry collection and a new novel. I’m slowly easing into them, which is more difficult with my head in the news, wondering whether we’ll be able to live something approximating normal lives in Auckland this summer.

Four book covers
New Zealand novels of lockdown (Images: Supplied)

Jacquie McRae

One lockdown is not the same as the other! Last year, I used the time to rewrite parts of my novel The Liminal Space (Huia, 2020). It was a gift, to know that I didn’t have to be anywhere and that no-one could call in and disturb my peace. Perfect conditions for a writer. 

This time my enthusiasm for lockdown has evaporated. It feels harder, and I’ve really struggled to write. Perhaps I’d be in the same predicament without a lockdown, but I feel a pressure to write because I’ve been given the gift of time and I don’t want to waste it. 

I came across a quote from Margaret Atwood: If you’re struggling to write, you’re afraid of something. I had to work out what that was and then I switched tack. I put aside the novel I was trying to work on, and started playing with a short story. This doesn’t mean the work is any easier, but it feels lighter somehow. I am looking forward to our restrictions being eased but I’m also thinking of making a sign for our gate that says “Writer in lockdown, please don’t disturb”.

Charlotte Grimshaw

Auckland’s first hard lockdown sent me into a state of intensity that was perfect for writing. The city was silent, there was an atmosphere of crisis and calamity, and a liberating sense that everything had changed. We could write the truth, say the unsayable. What did we have to lose? I remember my neighbour telling me over the fence, “I saw a plane today. A big one.” We nodded like a couple of yokels in a drama about the end of civilisation. Another neighbour told me her husband was applying for a gun license. The Auckland drought went on and on, and I took photos of strange and vibrant colours, the high blue sky over the mangroves, the grass turning yellow, an increasing number of fallen trees. The book I wrote – the product of all that intensity – was my memoir The Mirror Book, published in April this year. Before the latest lockdown I spent a lot of time talking publicly about The Mirror Book, a hugely intense experience in itself, while at the same time dealing with the fallout caused by the material in the book.

The book is about family and I discovered that readers wanted to tell me about their own experiences. This was wonderful; I was enjoying it very much, and then Covid shut us down again. At least we’ve got Zoom. Last week I gave, via live stream, the 18th Annual Frank Sargeson Memorial lecture, in which I talked about writing The Mirror Book. The lecture is on YouTube, along with the award of the Sargeson Prize, judged by Patricia Grace.

In the past, the way I’ve mapped out the next project is to travel solo to London and spend time roaming around by myself. This puts me into the right kind of trance for a book to form. Now we’ve been in lockdown in Auckland for months, all my festival appearances are cancelled or postponed, and I’ve adjusted to that. I can be found walking through the mangroves with my dog, planning a new non-fiction work, which will cover the extreme experience of publishing the memoir. I’ve also got a notebook of short stories to develop, and the prospect of beaming in to various parts of the country, talking about The Mirror Book on Zoom.

A dog swims in mangroves, high tide, buildings of Tāmaki Makaurau on horizon
Philip, mangroves, lockdown 2021 (Photo: Supplied)

Paula Green

April 2020 feels like a decade ago. I was hard at work editing Roar Squeak Purr (Penguin, due 2022), an anthology of animal poems for children, scarcely sleeping, planting microgreens, making sourdough bread, yoghurt, almond milk, sprouts. I would pick up a book and put it down, unable to find bridges into fiction, poetry or nonfiction. Nothing worked. But I wrote, I wrote myself in and out of fret and fear, and each week the NZ Herald published one of my Covid poems. Reading my way through my extensive collection of Aotearoa children’s poetry books was also a lifesaver. 

My book of a lifetime, Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women’s Poetry (MUP, 2019), missed out on cancelled festivals, and slipped into the shade. I felt sad, but it was also an epiphany, and reminded me of why I write. In the time of Covid, I would write for the love of writing, with no thought of publication or public appearances. This year I have still been making sourdough bread and almond milk, planting seeds, and writing to dissolve dread, uncertainty, corrugated days. I am now back in lockdown and writing is again a way of surviving. I have drafted a pocket-book poetic memoir that I have no intention of getting published, and am working on a children’s novel and a new poetry collection. I write in A4 notebooks with sharpened pencils, and have just selected a notebook for a children’s poetry collection. Each idea feels necessarily risky and difficult to do. Not the process. I love that so much. But a challenging premise. How can I pull this off? I am the traveller with no idea what will happen as I write, and that is the most glorious thing. Each week I find myself scratching my way out of black holes fuelled by the state of the world, especially if I have overdosed on social media and news, and writing pulls me to the light. Writing is my miracle source of joy and energy, and I can’t take it for granted.

Nicky Pellegrino

I had a broken ankle during New Zealand’s first national lockdown so was literally stuck on the sofa and writing my latest novel – To Italy, With Love – was an escape from the whole situation. I wanted it to be a happy, uplifting story because that was what I needed, but inevitably it was affected by what was going on so it’s also a novel about loneliness, friendship and the importance of connecting. 

This time round has been very different. Like everyone I’ve been feeling discouraged and disheartened that we’re here again and it seems worse than ever. But also I’ve had two book launches disrupted by the pandemic now and it’s left me feeling extremely disinclined to do the 4am wake-ups and the weekend working necessary to combine producing a novel a year with working as a freelance journalist.

Instead I’m being nicer to myself, going for long walks (no broken ankle this time thankfully) and, now we have a bit more freedom, catching up with close friends. I will start writing soon. The idea is there, ready and waiting. But I’ve asked for an extension on my deadline. And I’m pretty sure that the ways I’m thinking and feeling right now will find their way to the page, as they almost always do.

Three book covers, all bright and breezy-looking.
Three novels that sprang from lockdown 2020. Will there be any from this one? All signs point to: unlikely (Images: Supplied)

Stephanie Johnson

A satirical comedy, my novel Everything Changes was published this year. One review was amusingly headed “Cashed-up Aucklanders Lose it in the Sticks”, which certainly covers one aspect. Late last year as I went over the page proofs, I made one important alteration early on, which was to insert the year of the action, 2018, i.e. before Covid-19. Recently I finished a kind of crime novel set during the first lockdown. It’s called Being Kind, and all going well will appear next year. 

Life has changed so radically in such a short time that these eras have become distinct. The worry, always, is how long lasting these changes will be, and how necessary it is (or not) to have characters wearing masks or dealing with fresh outbreaks or whether, in fact, it would be better to put a red pen through any mention of the pandemic because aren’t we all sick to death of hearing about it? 

So that my daughter can work, this lockdown, I look after my little granddaughter Una, who has just turned one, two or three days a week. Of course I can’t write on those days. They pass more happily than my writing days, even though I spend time silently fretting about the world she’ll grow up in. I have to remind myself I did this when my own children were growing up – nuclear threat, climate change, acid rain, over-population etc etc – it’s just that now we have more to angst about. 

Rosetta Allan 

During the 2020 lockdown there was a mix of panic and novelty. I wrote in a frenzy and completed my third novel, Crazy Love. Skip to 2021, August 17, and during the book’s launch, the nationwide Covid alarm swept through my audience’s phones. Within hours we were in lockdown again and have remained so in Tāmaki Makaurau. 

I could have focused like last time and powered into my next novel. I have all the notes. Research is done. The first five pages written. And yet, I just can’t. Within these last two months, four dear friends have lost family members — three to suicide, one to a sudden heart attack — it’s difficult not to be able to be there in the flesh to support their loss. There is a sufferer of chronic pain in my own house who was due a procedure the first week of lockdown. We waited two years to reach that appointment date for reasons that don’t need mentioning. He has now experienced two extra months of unnecessary physical pain. And I have to admit, with my book launching the night before lockdown, I spiralled into my own dark territory here and there. 

The difference this year is that life is stalled by Covid-19. We live in a beautiful country and have been one of the least affected countries in the world, and I am grateful for that. But this time around, it’s not like a holiday. It’s not just “We should do this more often because it’s so good for the soul, for the planet…” This time, it feels like life is on hold, and the energy is slowly draining away. Soon, we will reopen. Soon, enough of us will be vaccinated to keep our children safe. Soon life will reboot. Until then, no, my writing probably won’t happen.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

A new documentary follows Scribe’s grim past, and looks towards a hopefully brighter future. Image compilation: TVNZ/Tina Tiller

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