Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the writer John Boyne has organised an impromptu short-story competition for children, with €7,200 worth of book tokens as prizes. He underestimated the demand and quickly had to rope in many writer friends, including Cecelia Ahern, Sarah Webb, Dermot Bolger, Donal Ryan, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright as judges.
The competition, which was due to close on Wednesday March 25th, was shut two days early on Monday evening, with a total of 4,034 entries. Boyne says he was very sorry to have to close it early, but he never expected so many submissions. “I’m not regretting it, but I’m regretting is not telling people to put all their details on the story itself and not just in the email because I have to go though each one and do it myself. It’s literally taking up every minute of my time.” He laughs. “As usual, I’ve no one to blame but myself!”
How is he getting on in his isolation in general? “Writers generally like solitude,” he says. “I tend to be working at home alone most of the day and that’s the way I like it. [So life] hasn’t changed much except, psychologically, I know I don’t have a choice now…. I have a little gym in the back of the house and I’m doing that more. I don’t just lie on the sofa and watch TV.”
His sister who lives nearby is calling that afternoon. “At least the weather is nice… I can sit in the back garden.”
What’s the hardest thing to cope with? “I was in Australia for a month or so and haven’t seen my parents since before Australia. My dad’s 85, my mum’s 79 and I haven’t seen them since January. And I literally started a new relationship, but he’s in London and we’re just at the early days. We’re talking every day but it’s a weird way to start a relationship where all of it’s on Skype or Whatsapp. In a way an interesting way to start it rather than going out to pubs all the time.”
How has this affected him? “I think you’re more conscious of the importance of your friends and your families, even those friends you might only see only once or twice a year.”
He thinks there are silver linings. “People are caring about their neighbours and looking out for each other… I’ve had neighbours saying, ‘I’m going around the shops do you need anything?’ It would be nice if that feeling hung around... And people are using [social media] in a positive way to get messages out… All those trivial things we argued about seem so pointless compared to not being able to see your parents.”
This is the first in a series of Isolation Diaries from well-known people in isolation around Ireland this week. John Boyne’s short story competition is closed but the winning entries will be announced and published on irishtimes.com on Tuesday, March 31st.