History can’t have got the memo. The virus destined to put the world on pause has had us glued to the news: first with the exposure of right-wing government incompetence, then with the spotlight on racism we can no longer ignore. Whether this depresses or delights us, it’s hard to keep up. What’s the role of the writer – particularly writers like me with a tiny readership – in historic times? Should novelists switch to facts from fiction? Should we try to shape historic discourse or step back and observe?
Yet, although I have finally completed my edits and handed in my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, I’ve struggled to focus on writing fiction. While part of me argues I should simply accept it and embrace a summer break, another part feels I’d be happier juggling a story, if only in my head.
Coming across this lovely quote about the difference between literature and news (The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, p12), I thought I had it sussed. None of us need feel guilty we haven’t spent lockdown writing The Great Pandemic Novel!
Yet my muse wasn’t listening. Even as I shared this quote on Twitter, the cogs were wheeling. In fact, some had turned, stopped, and spat out not just a seed, a germ, but a tiny plantlet: a green shoot of a covid novel that would serve as a sequel to the one that won’t be published until this time next year.
Oh my! The intoxicating allure of a new idea! It feels like madness, like spirit possession, but how to distinguish a manic attempt to fix the unfixable from the beginnings of a beautiful bloom? It turns out I blogged about this just over a year ago (incidentally, on emerging from a different – but possibly related – debilitating virus), when I’d galloped through a couple of chapters of a brilliant new novel time has subsequently wiped from my mind.
Do I learn from my own mistakes? Of course not! And it gets worse! I’m compelled to confess that I’m now nurturing not one but three covid novel seedlings. I blame Boris Johnson, but I must be completely off my head.
Okay, but there are mitigating circumstances. None of these have sprouted in completely virgin soil. I’m still averse to creating brand-new fiction from events that aren’t yet processed, but might the pandemic breathe new life into already incubating ideas? Our minds are in constant flux, as is the world in which we dwell. As I’ve said before, inspiration comes from a dance between inside and outside; each time we return to a WIP we’re a different person, even when history’s supposed to be standing still.
1. A covid-set sequel to Matilda Windsor
My forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is about a brother and sister separated for fifty years against the backdrop of the longstay psychiatric hospital closures. While there are three point-of-view characters, Matty, a seventy-year-old woman with “delusions of grandeur” is the star.
As the novel is set around 1990, and a lifetime of drugs and incarceration isn’t a recipe for longevity, I’d assumed she’d be dead by now. What if she wasn’t? What if she was living on in a care home, approaching her hundredth birthday, wondering what the hell was going on?
I’d enjoy spending more time with Matty and the thirty-year gap would leave ample scope for developing some characters and excising others. On top of that, I’m already inadvertently researching the setting as I learn about government neglect of staff and residents of care homes, and it would provide a productive vessel for my rage.
But while I can tick the boxes for setting and character, I haven’t a clue about plot. And I don’t yet know whether readers will warm to the younger Matty enough to want to know about her thirty years on.
2. Covid as a context for my maybe-YA dystopian novel
Almost two years after its inception, at the end of last year I had a draft of my possibly YA novel ready for other eyes. Snowflake, about a teenager with a noise phobia, set in a dystopian near future where empathy has disappeared, is informed by Brexit, but it was never clear if that was sufficient to explain the material, as well as intellectual, poverty of my imagined Britain. It wouldn’t require much tweaking to make the pandemic a secondary cause.
But, overall, this novel needs more than tweaking, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to return to it just yet. Although both early readers were positive about the story, one raised multiple issues I can’t so easily to fix.
3. Covid as a context for a wacky time-travelling historical novel
Setting out my real and fantasy writing goals for 2019, I wondered if I needed to write a series to have the slightest chance of generating sales in four figures (books, not dollars or pounds). I had a crazy idea about a time-travelling therapist based in the Peak District, which would draw on my existing knowledge and skills. That thought quickly fizzled out, but re-emerged at the end of last year minus the therapist but with a choice of historical figures with connections to the area, meeting in place but across time. How would that work?
The pandemic might provide a wacky explanation for the time warp, and lockdown clearing the moors of contemporary visitors so that only the ghosts of the past remain. I’d need to research my characters more, but it might be fun to write. On the other hand, what would be the point of this story? Where would I find the plot?
A cosy crime, or another kind of mystery, might do it but, unless it were completely whimsical, I doubt I could pull it off. On the other hand, my (provisionally) chosen characters come with ready-made motivations, partly coronavirus related, to provide conflict between them and individual story arcs. If I could somehow anchor these to the setting, would that be enough?
If you’ve read this far, thank you … and I’d love to know what you think. Although this is partly yet another of my multiplying coronavirus blog posts, it’s been helpful in ordering my thoughts. And perhaps a bridge, between raging about politics in a way that proper journalists can do much better, and composing the stories that, regardless of whether others want to read them, only I can write.
But I have a confession to make! Since I drafted this post almost two weeks ago, I’ve moved forward with one of these options, I wonder if you can guess which.
In her post presenting the prompt for this week’s flash fiction challenge, Charli wrote about the trials of finding an outfit for her son’s forthcoming nuptials. Although I’m not going anywhere right now, I feel her pain! The sartorial code might be more flexible these days, but some occasions can still take us beyond our comfort zone, a theme that
crops up in my fiction, including my short story “The Neck”, about a bride facing an unusual problem.
And I must’ve fed my own (fortunately mostly expired) presentation anxieties into “A Dress for the Address”, one of the stories in my collection on the theme of identity, Becoming Someone.
Then there’s poor Janice, the young social worker in my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, whose long-distance relationship ends abruptly over an argument over what she should wear for the job interview that will introduce her to Matty:
The last year of snatched phone calls and hours on the M6 was bound to be stressful. Juggling essays, lectures and placements, while Stuart grappled two hundred miles away with his first grown-up job. But it wasn’t only geographical separation that strained the relationship. Feet in different counties, their politics had drifted continents apart.
Janice wriggled in her seat, peeling her cotton trousers from her thighs. It wasn’t the weather making her sweat: officially summer, the sun was a mere phantom in the clouds. Nevertheless, she’d have felt more fragrant if she’d followed Stuart’s advice and worn a skirt.
But how dare he challenge her choices? You’re not my mother, she’d said, although Janice’s mother would never ridicule her for dressing like a student. Ten months of ironing a clean white shirt every morning had consolidated Stuart’s conservatism.
With this post already drafted, I thought I’d get mine in early, but life’s other priorities intervened. I’m glad in a way because, whilst I’ve been busy on other things, my unconscious mind has been contemplating the meaning of those three words. It threw up enough for a separate blog post, but I’ve disciplined myself. Oh yeah?
I was thinking of this song in terms of common ground between the pessimists (me) and optimists/meliorists (almost everyone else who visits this blog). Without denying the enormity of the negatives, it celebrates the joy and power of being alive. This aligns with what the object relations school of psychoanalysis labels the depressive position – unfortunately so, given that it’s worlds away from what most people think of as depression – being about relinquishing EITHER/OR in favour of BOTH/AND. Happy AND sad. Hopeful AND concerned. Well, imagine my excitement when Wikipedia informed me it’s actually a medley of TWO separate songs!
But I got life, so I show up at my computer and I sing. I sing despite missing the surround-sound of better voices. I sing despite repudiating the Christian sentiment that pervades this composer’s work. (John Rutter, conducting in the video.) I sing because not singing would be worse.
I think that’s what I got life means to me. But my 99-word story approaches the pandemic’s new normal from a different – and more serious – angle. When the virus has seen off so many, aren’t you grateful to still be alive?
Nine weeks, they told me. Could’ve been nine years. Suspended in a solitary space capsule. Crashing violently to earth.
Resurrection bewildered me. Scarred throat sore from the breathing tube. Limbs learning gravity anew. Homegoing a second culture shock. Staff in scrubs a guard of honour down the exit corridor. Wheelchair-bound, I cringed at their applause.
I couldn’t scale the cliffs to seize the media moniker. I didn’t want to be a heroine. Lazarus. I wanted to be me.
Then sobbing in his arms, I got it. Comeback wasn’t me alone, it was everyone. I got life. We all did.