Surviving (and Writing) During a Pandemic
Writing is never easy, not even under the most ideal of circumstances. It’s even harder during a virus-driven lockdown, no matter what your individual situation. Even if you have lots of time to sit down and write, the worldwide tension is so heavy that it risks coming through the walls of your house-turned-prison, crushing your urge to create in the process.
It was under these circumstances that Steve Weddle and I decided to edit an anthology of crime and suspense fiction, “Lockdown,” that’s out now from Polis since June 16. When we approached Jason Pinter, the publisher of Polis Books, about publishing it, he suggested that all proceeds go to support BINC, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, as it seeks to help booksellers recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
Jason Pinter, Publisher, Polis Books:
On any given day, I get around 100 emails, plus 25 or so submissions (agented or otherwise), then add phone calls, texts, social-media tags, pings, pokes, and DMs. But I rarely get one that just makes me stop and say, “Whoa.” But when Nick Kolakowski and Steve Weddle emailed me on March 20th to pitch the idea for a charity anthology, that’s exactly what I did.
As a publisher and writer, the effect that COVID-19 has had on independent booksellers has hurt my soul. I live for indies, am proud to sell both Polis Books titles and my own through them, and, as my ever-patient wife can attest, any time we travel to a new city I absolutely insist on making time to visit their local bookshops. The chance to do something to help them out was a no-brainer—and doing that while publishing a collection from an outstanding group of talented writers made it even sweeter.
Over the next week, Nick, Steve and I hashed out the details. We wanted the collection to be exciting and diverse, both in terms of the makeup of the authors themselves and the genres they wrote in. Something like COVID-19 affects everybody differently, even more so when taking social, economic, gender, and racial differences into account. We wanted to show the entire spectrum of how a pandemic might affect the world and the people who inhabit it. And when Nick and Steve presented me with the final list of 20 contributors, I was blown away. And that was even before I read their extraordinary stories.
All in all, this entire project came together in a matter of weeks. I first emailed with Nick and Steve on March 20th, the stories were done by mid-April, and the book will be published in June 16th. Now that’s a crash, and both the editors and writers ran like hell to hit their strict deadlines.
I’m proud to publish “Lockdown,” both as an outstanding work of fiction but also as a vehicle to hopefully direct some money to the independent booksellers we love so much. Enjoy the stories. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and secure, and we hope to see you all at a real bookstore in the not-too distant future.
Writing Through a Pandemic
How are the authors in the anthology dealing with the pandemic when it comes to their creativity? As it turns out, the pressures of a pandemic don’t always have the same effect on writerly output. Here’s what a few of them said:
Richie Narvaez, author of Hipster Death Rattle:
It’s not been easy. I find I can edit and revise under any circumstances. Noisy neighbors. Clanking radiator. Anxiety about toilet paper and the end of the world. But creating, coming up with the stuff—that’s been excruciating. I’ve had to go back to the lessons I teach in creative writing class, tips and methods I had internalized before this, and I’ve had to relearn them all.
Michelle Garza, author (with Melissa Lason) of Mayan Blue:
This whole thing hit me like a freight train, honestly. Things just escalated and before I knew it, I was standing in a Walmart looking at an empty toilet paper shelf, just asking myself: “Is this shit really happening?”
I realized I was one of those people in the apocalyptic movies who find themselves sorely unprepared for the chaos. I have been a fan of horror and sci-fi my whole life. I should have seen this coming, but like so many people, I had been so wrapped up in work and kids and everything else. I never dreamed this would happen. Life as I knew it was changed and my worries were no longer about things like making dinner, or my day-job woes, or making sure my kids were doing homework. They were about my husband and my sister still having to go to work, keeping my sons healthy, talking my father out of making a daily trip to the store. By day I tried to remain strong, but by night my mind ran wild with nightmares of everyone I know and love dying.
I was and, if I’m gonna be honest here, still am overwhelmed by this situation. In the past week I have been trying to combat the fear and paranoia just by keeping myself busy, writing, home-schooling my kids and creating reading videos for the children in the classroom I work in, cleaning my house over and over, spraying weeds in my front and back yards, disinfecting everything, but it caught up to me. The need to forget what’s happening in the real world almost broke me. I found myself exhausted and crying yesterday.
That’s when I realized I needed to disconnect a little while. I needed to turn off the news and spend some time doing something other than stressing, cleaning, and preparing for every horrible thing I could imagine. My fix was watching What We Do in the Shadows on Hulu for hours on end, and it helped a little bit. So, today I continue binging the show. Amid the werewolf feuds, vomiting of human food, and vampire orgies I find myself laughing and easing that crushing darkness swallowing me. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference, so look around and find your little thing, my friends, and take good care of yourselves.
Rob Hart, author of The Warehouse:
I was really very lucky; just before the stay-at-home orders started, I was hitting a groove on my new book, Paradox Hotel. So the work has been a good distraction, and I’ve written something like 40,000 words in the last few weeks. There are things I’d love to be doing right now: I’ve got a stack of books to crack, this is a good chance to finally watch Deadwood or The Wire. But this is a complicated book—time travel!—so I’m trying to put as much as I can into it. Honestly if I didn’t have the book filling my head at the moment I’d probably have lost my mind by now.
Johnny Shaw, author of Dove Season and Big Maria:
I had been in Portugal for one week when the country went into lockdown. It was my first time in the country and I had to make a quick choice between riding things out here or heading back to the States. Over a month later, I find myself living in Porto with my wife under a State of Emergency, leaving the house once a week to go shopping, butchering a new language, and in a war with the feral cats and seagulls on my small terrace.
I hadn’t been writing—more picking at a novel-in-progress—so when the opportunity came to write something for ‘Lockdown,’ I jumped on it. I needed to finish something. To step away from projects that felt like they were started on a different planet by a different writer. I needed something fresh. And I was curious what writing funny would look like in my current state of mind. The answer to that question is dick-jokey. That’s what my current state of mind translates to. Not much different than my former state of mind, which is comforting.
Hector Acosta, author of Hardway:
I mentioned this on Twitter a bit ago, but when Nick reached out to me about possibly contributing to this anthology, I was hesitant to participate. Not because I didn’t believe in the cause (I’m not a monster) or the people I knew where putting this together, but because I’m not sure I had a quarantine story in me. More to the point, I’m not sure I wantedto write one. For the last few weeks, I’ve steered towards lighter fare when it comes to my personal entertainment, as I’m sure many are doing, and just couldn’t imagine sinking into anything that reminded me too much of what’s going out outside my window.
So why did I say yes? Because sometimes I type faster than I think. And because I trusted Nick and Steve, as well as the folks and Polis, to put together an anthology that would be more than just quarantine porn. My story, Por Si Acaso, became weirdly personal, in a way I didn’t set out to write. It reflects a call for preparedness someone else has that I chafed against for a while, but have ended up being thankful for nowadays. But it also reflects a running humor, and I’m not talking gallows humor. I’m talking the dumb jokes and things you say with friends that crack up and also make you shake your head. And I think that’s what I think this anthology is going to show—that no matter how things have changed, how scary some of it can be, it’s important to retain some normalcy.
That’s why I still watch wrestling anyways.
Scott Adlerberg, author of Jack Waters and Graveyard Love:
Though it’s been a period of great uncertainty, the quarantine lockdown is also a unique situation, a hiatus from the rush of everyday life that will likely never come again. Knowing that, I have tried to use the time as productively as possible. Writing fiction, even when the world outside is a mess, remains an act I find fulfilling and restorative. The imagination remains a private place where you can make something from nothing. You have the satisfaction, as you play with words, of discovering tiny inspirations and amusements on a daily basis. Even a pandemic can’t take that from you. Writing is a way to engage with the world on your own terms and to escape, however temporarily, the world’s noise.
For my story in the Lockdown anthology, I opted to write a humorous story with a macabre conclusion. The ending has a touch of horror. Suspense and noir and horror are remarkably comforting during a time like this; they provide a kind of emotional sustenance because of their very darkness. You get darkness in a coherent narrative, in a recognizable form. You get, more often than not, resolution. It’s the oldest theory around, but it certainly applies right now: when well done, shaped and imaginary darkness in fiction provides a necessary catharsis.
V. Castro, author of Hairspray and Switchblades and Maria The Wanted:
I began “Asylum” (my story in Lockdown) after a spate of child deaths in ICE detention centers. It was determined they died from the seasonal flu, a very preventable and treatable ailment. Except these malnourished and dehydrated children slept in cages and on cement floors. As a Mexican American woman from Texas who grew up around Mexican Americans and illegal immigrants from Mexico, this broke my heart. I am also a mother of three and could not imagine watching or learning of my child’s death when all we wanted from one of the wealthiest nations was asylum. All of this despite people with illegal status feeding the nation in meat factories and the fields. They have also been blamed for bacterial outbreaks despite having no control over the conditions they work in.
Fast forward to 2020 and I’m reading about gangs in South and Central America enforcing social distancing because inept, corrupt governments cannot be trusted. A private flight of wealthy individuals heading to France are turned away and forced to fly back to the United States. Large governments are bumbling around like clowns trying to get out of a miniature car. This is not fiction.
As soon as I received an email about this anthology, I jumped at the chance for my story to be included. I’ll admit the anxiety and fear as I watched this pandemic unfold made ‘Asylum’ difficult to read through, however, I persevered because this virus has and will uncover the great disparity between the common folks and those with money and influence.
Writing in general is more difficult because the economy is crumbling and books cost money to create and distribute despite there being a need for entertainment more than ever. If you have to choose between a book and food, the choice is obvious. Creating something new takes time, but if you need to hustle and find a new job, you won’t be creating. Despite my worry I will continue because Latinx representation is extremely important to me. I have a novel without a home and I’m toying with the idea of publishing it myself with all the profit going to charities helping those in the fields who will not receive government help. If we don’t secure the food work force, there will be no food. I have a degree of privilege and I plan on using it for good because I am a food stamp and WIC kid.
Finally, brown folks have been hurting for a long time, forced to work with what little they are given. In fact, they are suffering more with death rates higher across the board. Some have tried to say this virus is a great equalizer. Nah, this is showing what is behind the bumpy wallpaper hiding chipped paint and the stinking bodies squeezed side by side. Do we plaster another ugly pattern of roses or do we rip the walls down and face grim reality of our many sins?
Ann Dávila Cardinal, author of Five Midnights and Category Five.
I have to admit, horror comes easy these days. As I said on twitter, writing horror during the pandemic is so very…meta. When I was trying to figure out what to submit for Lockdown, I had just hit that point of isolation where the novelty of meeting remotely and working in comfortable clothes was wearing off, and my anxiety level was soaring. I’m an asthmatic with an anxiety disorder, so being in the middle of a respiratory virus pandemic is a dangerous combination. I have to say, the writing of “Misery Loves Company” gave me an outlet for my fear, and to imagine the supernatural pressing down into this bizarre time, made the real-life horror and daily death tolls if not bearable, at least survivable.
Gemma Amor, author of Dear Laura and White Pines:
Some of us, many of us, will lose people we love, and those we love will lose people too, and so on and so on until a great daisy-chain of grief lies draped around the world, and we will wish we could have stood next to our darlings at the last, and we will wish we could have held their hands, but some things are just not possible, and in time, we will, with a lot of help, come to terms with that, because there is no other way. We will throw the cloak of grief around our shoulders and fasten it tight at our necks with an iron clasp and carry on, always moving forward, even if it is with a slow and heavy step, and if the cloak feels tight and uncomfortable around our throats, across or shoulders, we will eventually get used to it, and maybe in time we will forget, on occasion, that we are even wearing the cloak, and maybe, in time, we even find a little warmth in the memories the cloak is woven from, and the weight will diminish, the weave will soften against our tender skin.
And those of us who remain untouched by the indiscriminate hand of the reaper will bow our heads and mourn with you, we will try and understand the weight of what it is you carry, we will stand on our doorsteps and clap and whoop and cheer and bang pots for those of you who work on the front line, we will make art and music and literature and improvise movies and plays and skits in our houses for audiences imprisoned within their phones, for people with heavy eyes who are slaves to a rectangular, tabular glowing window to the world, and most importantly, we will STAY INDOORS, because we don’t know what else we can possibly do other than try and show you we care, we care by staying away from you, we care by trying to bring you a moment’s peace in your day, we care by cooking that stupid, extravagant meal, we care by letting that argument pass us by instead of engaging in it, we care by creating, we care by holding our children close when they feel lonely and confused, we care by cutting your hair badly with blunt kitchen scissors not fit for the task, we care by holding that movie watch party, by rolling around on exercise mats together, by closing doors in a house where once, all the doors remained open. We care by leaving toilet rolls on your doorstep because you cannot reach a shop without risking your life. We care by painting rainbows and sticking them to our windows, and it seems so trite, so futile, but we will hope that maybe one person will see that rainbow, and smile.
We will care by trying to bring a second or two of joy into your closeted lives, we will care by trying to offer a tiny distraction, in our clumsy, heartfelt ways, from the beast who scratches at all of our doors.
We will find joy in new, unexpected things. A moment to ourselves in the bath. A book. A ray of sunshine. A fresh food delivery. A call with a friend. A cuddle with our child. A downturn in statistics. A sugary cake. A bird on the windowsill. An email. A memory of a time gone by, all the more poignant in retrospect. Tiny things, tiny, inconsequential things, little, fragrant morsels of pleasure, but they will bring with them a new appreciation for life, and we will eat them up hungrily.
And eventually, the word will come.
It will come cautiously, but it will come. We will feel the heavy arm of authority and duty lift a little. We will creep out into the light, dazed and tired, but out we will come, like spring bulbs pushing for the sun, and we will hold each other again, and we will watch with a strange type of relieved sadness as cars and busses and trains and planes once again fill up our days, and we will know that we can never go back to how things were before, because too many of us have been lost, too much has changed, but we will nevertheless move forward, holding each other’s hands.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ (both from Down & Out Books) as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas (Shotgun Honey). His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. – – – His Love & Bullets will be published in Germany by Suhrkamp and will be out September 14th.