Long Read: Lockdown literary society

The pandemic drove many over the edge, but it drove wordsmiths to write books. There was enough time — and ambience — for creative impulses to take shape on paper.

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Sat 20 Mar 2021, 9:38 PM

Last updated: Sun 21 Mar 2021, 8:22 AM

The first animal that greets me in Hwange National Park is an old fox dragging his feet past the dying bush. My maternal instincts kick in. I am all for adopting the animal and nursing it back to life. The safari driver reading the female mind all too well cleverly changes tracks and heads straight to a clearing where kudus frolic in the morning sun. A sight as heartwarming as that put the dying fox out of my mind.

I brighten up suddenly.”

...so reads an extract from my upcoming book A Roar and A Drumbeat. But when the world shut down, I felt like that fox in Zimbabwe, for nothing could drive home the feeling of powerlessness and frustrations for a travel writer than the memories of heroic journeys into the African wild. Not wanting to let the lockdown frustration tell on me, I decided to write down my experiences in the wild. It was also a way to feel alive. And free.

Of course, as only writers will understand, there were lapses in memory. Lockdown and its related uncertainties stood in the way of a clear and functioning mind and I was often forced to twist my tale to reflect the contrast of a life in and before the global shutdown.

There were setbacks too. Sometimes, my artistry came to a despairing halt. I couldn’t tell the difference between eland and kudu. Days blurred. I was defenceless against the Covid gloom. I found myself staring at the blank screen, paralysed for lack of words. Clearly, writing was not always the way out in a pandemic situation.

But the nucleus of a writer is made of different stuff. So, I shook myself out of growing melancholy to focus on pleasant memories. The result of that self-discipline was a 120,000 words manuscript detailing the ultimate test of self-restraint in the African wild, ready for publication.

Perhaps if the virus had not made an appearance, I’d probably be struggling to learn Spanish in preparation for my next adventure and the book would exist as snippet of memories to eventually get lost in time.

The only distraction worth mentioning were phone calls and emails from random acquaintances asking for help, suggestions or opinions about writing, plot creation, editing and finding publishers. Often their gush of optimism fizzled out, they having moved on to “other hobbies that were far more rewarding and with faster turnaround time”.

But some, left alone to navigate the strange silent waters of life in lockdown, (I tweak Ernest Hemingway here) opened their hearts and bled over their keyboard.

Rising above the murky swamp of grief

Boston-based author Marci Darling tapped into her life experiences, successfully wrote and published two of her works during lockdown. Her books, Champagne Scandal and Divorce Diva, were published in June and December 2020 respectively. She is currently on her third book.

For Marci, writing was cathartic. In one year, she lost her father to cancer, marriage to infidelity, and her best friend to suicide. “I didn’t know how I was going to survive. Then Covid hit, all outside distractions were gone, and my quality of life became deeper and richer. As a result, I got more time to write. Through it, I found connection with other people who were also grieving. It was my way of trying to keep my head out of the murky swamp of grief.”

She admits the biggest struggle for any writer is procrastination and self-doubt. When the world slowed down, removing distractions, she sat with herself and focused on her writing, removing self-doubt, and making writing a “reward”, instead of a “job”. Covid or not, Marci has no intention of stopping. “I will always write,” she says, while busy developing Divorce Diva into a television series, mixed with her travel stories.

Making hay while the sun shines

India-based Mahul Brahma, author of The Luxe Trilogy, seized the pandemic-created opportunity and used it to write a book he believed would resonate with his readers. “Being locked down was the raison d’etre for Quarantined: Love in the Time of Corona. I started planning for the book when India was experiencing the first phase of lockdown, resolving to publish soon so as to give the readers a unique experience of reading a book about a situation they were facing. It was the lockdown that made the book a reality. I usually take a few months to complete a book — from planning to publishing. But this had to be relevant in the current situation, so I had to act fast.” The book was launched in April 2020, in a virtual lit-fest.

His book is an anthology of six short stories on dark love of people who are stuck during lockdown, and their recalibration towards survival. Mahul opted to release Quarantined: Love in the Time of Corona on Kindle as no publication or printing presses were functioning.

Power of combining professional skills

UAE-based journalist and stand-up comedian Liz Bains recently turned author with America Through A Train Window (December 2020), a recount of her seven weeks of travelling through the United States on a train. She’d been working on the book for five years, and the lockdown gave it shape finally.

“I had left my job as an editor of a leading business magazine to write the book, but I took on freelance work that took over my life. So, in February 2020, I decided to give it all up in order to complete the book.” Her main struggle was writing for a living while trying to write a book. Often, writing all day to earn her living left her with no desire to work on my book, as “all my creative energy was expended during the day”.

The lockdown followed immediately. Most of her freelance work came from conference reporting; with lockdown, all events were put on hold, so all her freelance work ended. All comedy shows were cancelled too. “We weren’t allowed to leave the house — I basically had no excuse not to sit down and focus on finishing the book.”

Hobnobbing with fictional characters

Having started writing just before lockdown in January 2020, Dubai-based Kumkum Ramchandani published her book of fictional stories Dadiji and Other Stories set in different countries. Not only did she conjure up the fictional settings, she also managed to illustrate her book.

“When my publisher suggested doing the illustrations, I was sceptical. But I gave it a shot — and it was rather therapeutic over lockdown. Then I went a step ahead and did the cover design too. I am a rather gregarious person and the forced isolation made me very lonely and anxious. But I calmed myself down with my writing and, of course, meeting and interacting with my characters in my stories made me feel alive and not so lonely. I am determined to soon complete my next book — a memoir based on how Indian girls are raised.”

Tackling the lockdown, three books at a time

For UAE-based American author Courtney Brandt, it was “kind of fun to get into a groove and tackle different projects that had been on the back burner for years”.

“Getting through manuscripts was a nice way of accomplishing something when the world was in chaos. I could show up to my computer every day and control something in a fictional space,” admits the author of Twenty Year Reunion, Take One at Mulholland High and Confessions of a Teenage Band Geek.

“I published four books in 2020, with the first before lockdown in January 2020. Without travel, there was a lot of uninterrupted time. While I’m usually a food writer, without dining out, I could focus on my fiction writing. Honestly, with some of my additional unpublished manuscripts which are waiting, I could keep going for another few months!”

Writing provided the best therapy

UAE-based Pakistani poet Huma Adnan’s first book Blooming Scars was published in July 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Although she has dabbled in writing before, it was during the lockdown, when her workload as a teacher reduced, that she finally managed to complete her book.

“Writing was a way of beating mental stress,” she says. “I struggled to proofread and edit as I was unable to find a coffee shop or a library to work in — I work best outside the comforts of home. Secondly, it was hard to find anyone to read my manuscript because everyone was struggling with Covid-related stress. My reduction in salary meant I couldn’t hire a designer or a proof -reader — so I had to do everything on my own.” But she kept asking herself if she wanted to come out of this pandemic as a depressed person or a winner. “The answer was surprisingly easy.”

Key to a fantasy

Sharjah-based 11-year-old Rishi Vikas Batheja, author of How One Key Changed My Life, says his interests in theatre, public speaking and reading made him plunge into writing during lockdown. When schools shut in summer of 2020, his journey into the world of fantasy began — and his book was published in December.

“As I was e-learning, I had plenty of time on hand and decided to explore my creative side. I invested my free time doing something productive. The pandemic situation was academically dull too and writing helped keep me motivated and focused. There perhaps could not have been a better time for me to write and publish my first book.”

A fan of Harry Potter and Roald Dahl books, Rishi considers them his inspiration and is working on his second book.

Writing, Bollywood-style Dubai-based first-time author Rohit Jayakaran (The Almost Impossible Bollywood Quiz, December 2020) had the most dramatic experience during lockdown. What began as an online quiz on Bollywood trivia became a book, for which he had to watch 50 iconic Bollywood movies multiple times, over a period of three months, to glean the toughest questions. “It was just as much fun, considering the lockdown had left little chance to do anything outdoors.”

He had never imagined writing his first book against the backdrop of a global pandemic. But he did, and followed it up with editing, proof reading and formatting. “I have always wanted to write a book and the pandemic gave me time and space to work on it.”

Rohit is currently working on his second book. It is far removed from the drama of Bollywood and deals with digital technology and digital marketing. “Pandemic or not, I will continue writing.”

Building a legacy

Dubai-based management consultant and first-time author Sandeep Gupta admits he had a collection of blogs that he turned into a book. The Memoir of Business Management started in March 2020 and was published seven months later.

The idea of converting his blogs into a book occurred to him two years ago when he lost a friend and a cousin. Initially, he struggled. He had no experience of writing or publishing a book, knew no author in his wide network of family, friends or acquaintances. “With a pay cut during lockdown, I didn’t have a lot of money to back my book. But I was determined to see it through. The uncertainty of the situation propelled me into completing it. I worried the virus would get the better of me and I wanted to leave this as a legacy for my daughter. Now that I have published my first, I am keen on publishing more.”

Meanwhile, I wait in anticipation for the day I’ll hold my new book in my hand and inhale the aroma of fresh ink. I hear the Dubai metro whizzing past. My mind conjures up an image of a solitary masked man in it and suddenly a story takes shape in my head. Soon it takes over my evening and into the night landing me in a creative frenzy. I am aware that new travels are a distant dream — so how about I coax out another book? Fiction, perhaps? Like that imaginary masked man on the metro. That would make for an interesting read, wouldn’t it? I wouldn’t know unless I tried, right?

Suddenly I am alert. I am mentally sorting out events that can take on interesting twists and turns in my new book — after, all I

am a writer. Maybe, just maybe, the pandemic will continue a little longer, and to misquote yet another historical figure (Winston Churchill), every good writer must make use of a crisis (forced or otherwise) to their advantage.

Anjaly is a published author and travel writer. She may be contacted at anjaly@anjalythomas.com

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