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Writing the World Beyond Lockdown

Writing a novel in the Covid-19 Lockdown

Like everyone else, Coronavirus is on my mind and how it will affect us in the near (and far) future. The sense of uncertainty frightens me, and how politicians refer to “a new normal”, the way the country – even the world – will be changed, even when/if a vaccine is discovered. As an author, this uncertainty it makes it difficult to write a “contemporary” novel.

Three months ago, global travel was still the norm, we had never heard of a Lockdown outside Science Fiction and dystopian stories. The idea of social distancing, or shoppers clutching armfuls of toilet paper, and the empty supermarket shelves would have been laughable. The pandemic sweeping across the world is something one would find in Stephen King’s The Stand (although his characters never practiced social distancing – the survivors gather in one of two places – with Mother Abigail in Nebraska or with Randall Flagg in Las Vegas.) The idea of having private burials is found in Albert Camus’s La Peste and although here the plague is a metaphor for the spread of fascism, but the daily death counts, the mourners unable to attend funerals and the social and economic impacts are disturbingly close to what’s going on now. Two months into Lockdown and it’s starting to feel like we’re years away from being able to travel abroad or even hugging family members if we don’t live with them.

A contact on an online writers’ forum asked at the beginning of the Lockdown whether it was “too soon” to write about Coronavirus. I realised where she was coming from. There was a movement of writing about contemporary events. For example, shortly after 9/11, Iain Banks published Dead Air. It makes sense to write about contemporary events provided they’re relevant to the story. And if my contact followed this idea, she would be given daily “writing prompts” of how real life would affect her story. Genius – although potentially restrictive too.

There are less calamitous events that place stories in certain periods of time, like seeing characters smoking in pubs and restaurants, or having to run to the street corner road to use a telephone (or shared phone lines in the days before British Telecom …) Events like 9/11 change the world instantly. Before 9/11, Americans travelled across the continent with a couple of pieces of ID and almost no security checks. The New York attacks and subsequent connected events had knock on ripples: there are lengthy queues for intercontinental travel; our shoes are x-rayed, minimal liquids are allowed. To anyone under 20 the idea of having such freedom to travel must seem like a liberal fantasy. And so would travelling through rural Germany before the outbreak of the Great War. But those were the old normal. Like Empire. And Slavery. Change isn’t usually overnight.

The novel I’m working on is set in Paris. I had a problem with real life vs plot from the outset. The first scene is set in front of Notre Dame cathedral. And, while drafting the plot, I watched the news in horror as the flames engulfed the cathedral and then the gothic spire collapsed. However, the only reason to draw attention to this event in the novel would have been if the building was lost, and then it would have been strange not to mention it. However, my characters never enter the cathedral, it’s the square in front of it that’s integral to the plot, but it’s important that there are crowds of foreign tourists in front of the cathedral, and who knows when they’ll be allowed back? That said, currently the locations that my characters must visit – museums, restaurants, shops, even cemeteries – they’re all subject to a “fermeture exceptionnelle”. And when my character has 24 hours to get from Paris to England to find someone, must he then self-isolate for 14 days after he comes across the border? That would destroy any sense of a race against time …

In science fiction stories, there’s often a moment after which everything changes: the electro-magnetic pulse that wipes out all electricity, the revolution, the nuclear bomb, an unspoken holocaust, the ‘Snap’ … In these stories, it’s a single moment after which everything changes. Coronavirus might be one of those events, although the “moment” is lasting for months. A “local” normal may come soon, it appears likely it will take much longer for the “international” normal to return, if it ever does. While I don’t usually specify dates in my stories, its content is going to identify it as “pre-2020” OR (if/when we return to an “international normal”) possibly, “post-2022”.

Iain Banks’s Dead Air was published in 2002 and its power is the still raw shock of 9/11. Of course, the ongoing situation with Coronavirus is also still raw, but in a different way. There are those who feel aggrieved that their “civil liberties” are being taken away from them (like the events beginning the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale); there are those who feel this is something happening to other people – those who see the lockdown as a holiday and are holding parties; and there are those tens of thousands of families who have been affected by a tragedy either directly or indirectly.

To answer the question as to whether it’s too soon to be writing about Coronavirus, I have recently seen a play advertised by David Tristram called Lockdown in Little Grimley. I directed one of the Little Grimley plays some years ago - the idea that there is an Amateur Dramatics company that's SO BAD that their audience need therapy afterwards. I emailed the links to the original cast members and it seems that a read-through on zoom would be in order! If that isn't a lockdown performance, I don't know what is.

That's the local effect. However, if the knock-on effects of this situation becomes the new normal, if our plots require our characters to travel and to meet in groups, will we have to say: “And this was in the days before Covid-19” as if referring to a seemingly magical utopian past …”? Or perhaps the “new normal” will mean all contemporary writing will have to reference the “Covid-event”: the moment when everything changed. 9/11 although very much a global event, the impact, I think is much smaller than Covid-19 will be. Or perhaps it’s just that 9/11 happened two decades ago and the Covid-event is happening now.

I have leave booked over the summer and it would be great if I finished a draft of this novel. I can’t go to Paris to research my locations first-hand. And, at the time of writing, I can only place it in the world I knew – the world before Covid-19.

The truth, however, may be much, much stranger.


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