I wrote a novel during lockdown and I set it during lockdown too. Sorry about that

Catherine Ryan Howard on her new lockdown thriller, 56 Days

 

I wrote a novel during lockdown and I set it during lockdown too. I’ve been telling people this for months now and it always gets the same reaction: they nod and smile and make the sounds of polite interest, but their eyes can’t hide their abject horror.

The writers among them casually enquire, “Is this the first or second book in the deal…?” and I watch their shoulders drop with relief when I confirm there’s still one more to go. I know exactly what they’re thinking: this lockdown novel will definitely be DOA – because who in their right mind wants to relive that horror show? – and I can’t stop her, it’s too late, the torpedo has already left the sub. But sure look, at least her publisher is contractually obligated to give her another chance.

I say: worry not. If it turns out that I’ve spent a year of my life writing a book that no one wants to read, trust me when I say it won’t be my first disappointment rodeo. I’ve published four novels and, to date, it seems like people have really only been interested in two of them: the last one, and the one that was a finalist for A Big American Award. That same book had the word “girl” in the title so, handily, I’m also well-versed in people completely disregarding a novel of mine based on one arbitrary detail that actually has next to nothing to do with the novel itself (she writes while silently screaming). I can handle this.

Lockdown is merely the setting here, not the story. Let’s be clear: no one in my novel gets sick. No one thinks they are sick and has to go get a test. No one bakes banana bread or parents a sourdough starter or takes up yoga with Adrienne although, disclaimer, there are jokes about people doing those things.

There is a couple, Ciara and Oliver, who meet just days before Ireland goes into lockdown and then decide to move in together to get around the no-mixing-between-households rule. She sees it as a way for the relationship to flourish without the scrutiny of family and friends, but he sees it as a way to hide who and what he really is. Insert the end-of-an-episode-of-EastEnders-style dramatic percussion here.

Still, I understand why people would be hesitant to read such a thing and I know many are – because they are saying so, repeatedly, on social media. I happened upon one post written by An Influential Book World Person which said they would never ever (ever ever) read, watch or listen to anything set in lockdown (EVER), only with much more vehemence and sweary language than that.

For those of us in the creative industries, the irony of 2020 is that while many if not most lost income, it was also our work   people turned to for solace and escape during  lockdown

No one has to read anything they don’t want to, which is why I unfollowed them. (Petty! I know.) What made me a little sweary, though, is that this very same person had spent much of lockdown highlighting the plight of the artist and campaigning for some sort of state intervention.

For those of us in the creative industries, the irony of 2020 is that while many – if not most – lost income due to live events being cancelled, productions getting shut down, bookshops closing, etc. it was also our work (books, movies, TV shows) that people turned to for distraction, solace and escape during the interminable days of lockdown. The arts were simultaneously more important than ever and suffering like never before.

Lockdown is merely the setting here, not the story. Let’s be clear: no one in my novel gets sick. No one bakes banana bread or parents a sourdough starter
Lockdown is merely the setting here, not the story. Let’s be clear: no one in my novel gets sick. No one bakes banana bread or parents a sourdough starter

Anyone who was able to carry on working and creating was exceptionally lucky, and I count myself in that. Is it fair then to summarily dismiss this work, the creations made in spite of everything 2020 threw at us, just because that work reflects how life really was at that time?

This is also why I wrote a novel during lockdown: it’s my job. It’s what pays my rent and for all the Lego that got me through 2020. (I’m still buying it even though restrictions have started to ease, but ssshhh.) I had to keep doing it, just like everyone else had to keep doing their job.

The difference is that I had always worked from home so there were no big adjustments to be made, I live alone so I had a quiet place to work, and the restrictions took most of my distractions away. If anything, it was easier to do it than it had been before. Writing a book is bloody hard, yes, but I wasn’t risking exposure thousands of times a day manning a supermarket cashier desk, or trying to keep people alive in an ICU, or attempting to teach 30 children via a computer screen. I make coffee, I sit down at my desk and I make stuff up. Let’s not lose all perspective here.

The only murder that took place in my apartment during lockdown was my diet – bottles of M&S rosé and share-size bags of Tayto Waffles are currently awaiting trial – but I did drop little bits of my real lockdown life into this novel. My 2km was in Dublin’s city centre and seeing it deserted was an experience I’ll never forget. Grafton Street empty. The gates of Stephen’s Green shut. All the cranes frozen like stopped clocks in the sky.

My novel ends on May 1st (the day they announced our five-phase reopening plan that started, as you may recall, rather confusingly, with the straddling of two of those phases instead of creating six to begin with – but I digress), so it also serves as a kind of time capsule for the earliest days of this, the ones whose little details we might have already forgotten. Tiger King. The Great Paper Products Rush. An Post sending us postcards. Leo trolling us with movie trivia.

I’ll understand if people don’t want to read a lockdown novel. But I’m happy I wrote one. I’m glad I was able to. I’m very grateful to still have this, my dream job. And sure look, whatever happens, my publisher is contractually obligated to give me another chance.

56 Days is published by Corvus on August 19th

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