It’s been an incredibly strange time for all of us, strange and complicated and challenging, defined by fear, uncertainty, isolation, unity, unexpected blessings and unplanned burdens. In the first month or so of shelter in place, I found it difficult to get my scattered thoughts down in my journal, much less to work on any new fiction projects. One day I had a wild few hours of inspiration, several pages’ worth, and then it petered out. I have a major revision waiting on my latest book draft, but haven’t felt motivated to work on it.
I’d just published a new book at the end of March, two weeks after my day job moved me to working from home, and even the final steps of getting my author copies and submitting the paperback version for copyright took me weeks to accomplish. I spent some time feeling like anything I would write ever again would forever ring false — any story that wasn’t set during this deadly and disturbing pandemic. Characters out in the world, traveling, even eating lunch at a restaurant, meeting for a coffee or going to a concert seemed to be a sick kind of fantasy.
At some point, though, as I continued to read and re-read fiction set in all eras, during World War 2, a few years ago, in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s up to current times, I realized what a fallacy that is. Of course this has changed our reality, and will always have changed it, but that doesn’t mean any experience before it isn’t just as real or relatable, nor that things won’t go back to a normal (“new normal” is our new catchphrase) that has more familiar elements than unfamiliar.
I wrote my early books in 2010, when smartphones were only an expensive toy; while my characters were somewhat limited in what they could look up and lived in a world without apps, this really didn’t impact the story. And yet smartphones have changed everything we understand about communication, convenience and personal technology, creating a dramatic revolution in daily life.
It’s been somewhat profound as a novelist to recognize this, to understand in a personal, immediate and tangible way the timelessness of a story told with integrity, authenticity and intention. It seems as though I needed to go through that spell of dismay and disillusionment in order to move past it, and see beyond the limitations of these months.
Another catalyst in this was that my dad, with even more free time than usual in retirement, started reading my novels for the first time. For his birthday last year, I presented him with the paperbacks of eight of my books; the rest were only available in ebook format. He isn’t really a novel reader, for the most part, but loves Jane Austen and Cold Comfort Farm, and after he finished all 600+ pages of Tom Jones, he decided to pick up Strangers on This Road and give it a read.
When I started publishing paperbacks of my older titles, soon after Kindle Direct Publishing took over CreateSpace and made it a much simpler undertaking, I began with the first three and the last three in my suspense series. As I published my most recent non-series novels as ebooks I simultaneously created the paperbacks, so those were also done. All that remained were books 4 through 9 of my original titles, and there was no rush. It wouldn’t be hard to do, since I had a MS Word template for the interior pages and an Adobe InDesign template for the cover, but it would take time and was somewhat fussy.
And then my dad started book 3, Enemy at the Wedding, having raced through the first two with, I hope, even more enjoyment than he expected, and suddenly it seemed ridiculous not to publish those last six in paperback format. KDP makes it so easy, I already had everything set up, what the heck was I waiting for?
So I did it. Two arrived at his house last week, books 4 and 5, so he can continue the series in order, while I’m in the process of reviewing the last four proofs. I’ve dipped in and out of them as I’ve formatted, remembering things, editing here and there, feeling inspired and proud, believing they’re stories that, however imperfect, stand the test of time. I’m also taking the opportunity to convert all of the ebooks to Kindle Create format, something I’ve been meaning to do and, again, kept putting off.
And, just as my dad was emailing me that he’d binged and enjoyed my first two novels, my mom passed on praise from a 90-year-old friend who finished a borrowed paperback copy of Saints and Enemies, book 11. The friend had loved the book, and said how true to life it was about the setting, Marseille, where she (the friend) had spent considerable time. Praise like this is rare and sweet and validating and encouraging. My cup ran over.
Thanks to these events — to shelter in place providing my dad with the time and motivation to read the paperbacks I’d given him, and my mom’s endless championship in loaning her copies to her friends and passing along positive feedback, and my sudden and urgent desire to see all 15 of my published books in a row on a shelf as physical proof of my creative work — I’ve started to make it happen. They aren’t all in the row yet, but in about a month they will be. Not scrambled heaps of copies shoved onto the bedroom bookshelf, but a purposeful display in our living room.
The pandemic has taken so much from us, has upset so many plans and resulted in such loss and suffering and confusion — but it’s given us a great deal, too. People have begun looking for and sharing good news, have taken care of themselves and each other in new ways, have found new purpose and contentment in their homes and families and time together, have restructured their schedules and priorities, have inspired kindness, creativity, generosity, appreciation and innovation. In the midst of this and in response to brutal tragedies, we have run out of patience for the institutionalized racism that’s been perpetrated and sanctioned for too many generations, fearless and united in standing up against the things that aren’t acceptable and standing up for what we believe in. From isolation has come a deeper sense of community and civic responsibility, anger and grief and joy and gratitude.
It’s hard to say, while we’re still living with the immediate impacts of this time, what we’ll take away from it, all that we’ll learn, all that we’ll gain and lose. But mixed up with everything else, the masks and the Zoom and the frustrations and fears, it’s moved me to do something relatively small yet extremely meaningful that might otherwise have taken years to accomplish. Something that might never have been a priority with so many other things demanding my attention, and no pressing reason to do it.
And I know that I’ll be publishing my next book this fall, on schedule, regardless of the pandemic happening after it was written, and writing another after that as soon as I’m inspired to, and another, as many as I have in me to write, filling as many shelves as I can.