The Crime Readers' Association

Coronavirus and Creativity, by Antony Johnston

30th March 2020

‘Self-isolate? You mean stay indoors, don’t leave the house, and don’t socialise with anyone? Why, I’ve been practising for this my whole life!’

Every author has cracked some form of this joke over the past week, as we all go into ‘lockdown’ during the Coronavirus pandemic. There’s truth in it – we already spend long periods shut away from the rest of the world in order to work. Being able to do that without losing our minds is one of the author’s lesser-appreciated skills.

I have two vested interests, as it were, in this subject. The first is a book I have due out later this year, The Organised Writer, aimed at helping authors stay on track. One of its pillars is the importance of maintaining a schedule, and shutting out real-world distractions to focus on writing. The second is my current situation, as I’m supposed to be outlining the next Brigitte Sharp novel. But I’ll be honest, it’s a struggle.

Why is that? After all, another common wisecrack is how everyone suddenly forced to work from home now has time to begin that novel they’ve always dreamed of writing. If authors are used to this, shouldn’t it just be business as usual for us?

But this isn’t business as usual. Normally, as we’re hiding out and bashing our keyboards, the rest of the world is getting on with life. In many ways it’s a comfort that everything keeps ticking over while we voluntarily self-isolate. That’s not happening today; instead the world is on pause, holding its collective breath, waiting to see how long we’ll have to stay inside, how good or bad it’s going to be, and which if any of us will contract Covid-19.

This situation makes it hard to focus, and has a real effect on creativity. Authors may not technically be in danger of losing our jobs, but all our festivals, book launches, and store appearances have been cancelled. My own next book, The Tempus Project, comes out in May but every event and festival appearance I had planned for its launch has been (rightly) called off. Some new titles are being released only as ebooks until the situation becomes clearer. Meanwhile independent bookstores, many already in precarious financial circumstances, must now rely on mail order to stay afloat. What will the publishing industry look like when all this is over?

Fiona Veitch Smith is already seeing the effects. ‘I am writing a new book in my Poppy Denby series and was hoping to get a contract for it soon,’ says Fiona, ‘but new contracts are not being processed while [my publisher’s] staff are on furlough. There is no certainty of when or if my contract will go through as cash flow and production schedules will be knocked on, reassessed, and possibly trimmed down at the end of this. So I am writing this next one on faith.’

Even that isn’t easy. ‘I now have a full house at home with my partner setting up his office in the living room and on regular conference calls, and my daughter home schooling. I am used to working in silence and solitude, but the house is noisy now and I’m struggling to write. Also, the time I used to spend mulling and pottering – so important for my creative process – is hard to do. I feel I have to justify my work time. So I’m doing a lot more admin than I normally would and far less actual writing.’

Martin Edwards, this year’s CWA Diamond Dagger winner, is a thirty-year veteran author with dozens of books to his name, but even he’s affected. ‘Like many people, I’ve found the surreal nature of the current situation in the world distracting, to put it mildly,’ says Martin. But he’s working through it: ‘Life is always full of distractions. I am getting some creative writing done, if not quite as much as usual.’

After many years of writing his contemporary Lake District mysteries, Martin recently turned to historical crime. In fact his next book is due out very soon, and his plans have also gone up in smoke. ‘A few short weeks ago I was wondering how I was going to fit in any writing this year, because I’d lined up a long list of events to promote Mortmain Hall. No such dilemma now, since all those events have been cancelled!’

Writing historical mysteries, like Fiona with her Poppy Denby mysteries, at least isolates Martin from worrying about the world changing under his feet. But authors work so far ahead of publication that the best laid plans can go awry, as he’s found. ‘On the day of the last general election, which now seems a lifetime ago, I started The Crooked Shore, a new Lake District mystery. I haven’t yet figured out how to address the impact of the virus, and of course things are changing so fast at the moment that it’s too soon to decide. But it’s definitely a question in my mind.’

For some authors the predicament is even more immediate. I write spy thrillers that deal with modern technology, cyber-terrorism, and geopolitics. I should be plotting the next such book at this moment. But how can anyone predict the global situation next month, let alone next year? Our own Prime Minister has been diagnosed with C-19. Kosovo’s government has fallen when it most needs a national effort to curb the virus. America now has the highest number of recorded cases in the world. What will international travel look like in 2021? What will travel at all look like? Are we facing a worldwide depression, with global unemployment? Will this all have blown over with a sigh of relief, or will we, as some models predict, have to regularly go back into isolation for long periods? Will every restaurant and cinema insist on checking our temperature? And how can I imagine what a future terror threat might look like when the ‘enemy’ on everyone’s minds right now isn’t an ideology, but a virus?

One seemingly obvious answer is to write a book based around just such a threat. But we simply don’t know how bad this thing is going to be. If the C-19 death toll is as high as some worst-case scenarios predict, it could decimate entire terror groups as easily as towns in Italy. Besides, will readers really want a book that reminds them of such horrible times?

Tony Kent, another author of politically charged thrillers, has faced that dilemma in a more intense fashion than most – because he contracted Covid-19 himself a few weeks ago. ‘I haven’t yet been able to get back into the writing rhythm since finally feeling better at the beginning of last week,’ he says. ‘For one thing, while I was sick I made the decision to scrap the book I had been writing, and so for the past week I’ve really been focusing on what I’m going to write in its place.’

Tony scrapped that book because, in a horrible coincidence, it was about ‘an attempt to prevent a pandemic in the United States, with the lethal illness being a biological weapon wielded by a rogue state. So, not exactly what we’re going through right now, but a little too close for comfort. And let’s be realistic, if a book with that subject matter were released early next year, it would be deemed “a pandemic book” regardless.’ Tony felt he had no choice but to abandon the part-written book: ‘Having experienced this illness, I am sadly aware that a lot of people will not survive it. So I took the view that I should not be profiting from a book that even touches on that subject. And before I make myself sound too self-righteous, there’s also the fact that I’d struggle to write about this subject, now that we’re all living it every day. Where’s the escapism in that?’

This touches upon a further issue, that of mental health. Writers are by nature reflective, empathetic people. Our careers are built on our ability to imagine ourselves in the minds of others, and sympathise accordingly – which not only makes it difficult to write about a situation in which real people are currently suffering, but can also make us susceptible to paralysis.

Wendy Dranfield is a relatively new author, having published her debut novel The Girl Who Died in 2015 and quickly following it up with four more books since. But despite this natural productivity, she finds the new situation difficult. ‘I already work from home as a full-time writer,’ she says, ‘and spend a lot of time indoors and alone. With my husband now having to work from home, I’m learning how distracting it can be to have someone sitting in the same room as me when all they want to do is chat and drink copious amounts of tea! But more worrying is how draining everything feels at the moment. The constant news announcements and death rate updates are scary, so it’s hard to focus on being creative.’

These are strange and turbulent times. But, as Wendy found out, there’s hope: ‘I’ve also felt guilty for being a writer. It’s not like we’re on the front line helping anyone. But when I said this on Twitter I was reassured by readers that they need books now more than ever, to escape from the awful reality we’re living through.’

Perhaps that’s the silver lining to console authors. The pandemic is indeed a global problem, affecting everyone on the planet, which means readers themselves will be all too aware of it, and cut us some slack. It seems inevitable that we’re about to enter a period of time when our fiction won’t match the reality around us. But readers are living through the same uncertainty. We can only hope they’ll be so eager to lose themselves in a story, they’ll understand when our characters shake hands… while sitting close to one another… in a busy restaurant… at an airport.

So long as they wash their hands afterwards.


Antony Johnston is the creator of Atomic Blonde, and author of the Brigitte Sharp thrillers. His next book, The Tempus Project, is released – hopefully! – on May 25.

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