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Authors deal with a different kind of isolation

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The image is almost required in thousands of interviews, biographies and memoirs with or about authors. You know: How writers are portrayed as leading a cloistered existence of isolated artistic vision. There is certainly that aspect to it, just as writing is also a disciplined craft where self-imposed solitude is the only way to get any work done.

But the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to a writer's routine and begs the question whether authorial solitude — physically and mentally — can be sustained in business-as-usual fashion?

The home office

"Home sheltering? I've been home sheltering for 35 years," says Old Lyme's David Handler, the Edgar Award-winning author of the Stewart Hoag mysteries series, as well as the Berger and Mitry and Benji Golden books. "On a professional level, the pandemic has changed my life very little, particularly because I have a June deadline for my newest Hoag novel, and I don't have a moment to let my mind wander."

Similarly unchanged is Don Winslow, the internationally best selling author of the Cartel Trilogy, "The Force," "The Kings of Cool," "Savages" and his recently published first novella collection called "Broken." A native of Perryville, R.I., who still spends several months each year in South County, Winslow stays deteriminedly impervious to outside events.

"My routine has stayed pretty much the same," Winslow says. "I read the papers first thing in the morning and then maybe check the headlines after lunch, but that's it. I'm pretty much writing as usual. The only effect (of the shutdown) is that the 'Broken' book tour was cancelled. We did what we could virtually, but it was odd promoting myself because people are sick and dying and scared, and we're supposed to talk about me? Really?"

For James R. Benn, the Essex novelist whose 15th Billy Boyle World War II mystery "The Red Horse," comes out in September, the time-pegged nature of his stories helps his process move along in, for example, a business where it typically takes about a year for a finished manuscript to go through editing processes and end up in a bookstore.

"Writing about the past is a definite escape," he says. "I think writing in the present day would be hard; do you mention social distancing or not? No one knows what it will be like a year from now, so it's impossible to know if it should go in the story unless it's specifically set in early 2020."

Slowly creeping in

Luanne Rice, the internationally renowned bestselling author of 35 titles, who celebrated her first suspense novel, "Last Day," in January at The Day's first "Read of the Day" book club event, was working on revisions of her next manuscript just as the lockdown came into play. Though the new book is set in contemporary times, it was mostly finished before the pandemic hit and as such won't require any drastic changes. But, as she worked and the new reality set in, Rice says it began to have a psychological effect.

"At first, I thought, 'Well, it's not that different.' I'm home alone with the cats most or the time anyway," Rice says. "But the isolation has gotten very hard. Because I live alone, I go out for meals a lot — to see people even if I'm not sitting with them. I love the restauranteurs and staffs, and I enjoy nodding at or even chatting with my fellow patrons. More than that, I miss my sister, brother-in-law and nieces. I miss my friends. I worry that I'll never have another hug in my life."

At a certain point, Rice says the sense of social suffocation and the cause of it began to creep into the work. "Concentrating on my revisions during the early awareness of the pandemic was nearly impossible, and I came close to missing my deadline," she says. "There is so much to reflect on, and how can I write without letting it in? I can't and I shouldn't. I feel such a bottomless sorrow for the world — for the illness, the loss of life, and the fear that is affecting us all. Coupled with life in America under the Trump presidency — he is so callous, so without compassion in the way he deals with the pandemic and everything else — I think we're experiencing a trauma we'll never recover from."

"Hannah's War" is the first novel for New York City writer Jan Eliasberg, who was a virtual guest on a recent "Read of The Day" event. Although she's had a long and successful career writing for directing TV and film, she was excited about promoting "Hannah's War" when the virus hit.

In her "Read of The Day" interview, Eliasberg describes three distinct phases of reaction when the virus lockdown hit just after "Hannah's War" was published. At first, she worried about the direct impact on book sales and not getting to go on a cancelled national book tour to interact with readers. Then, Eliasberg says, "It wasn't that bad or different because I love solitude and I'm a writer. I love it so much that my friends sometimes give up on me (for scheduled social events) if I get on a roll."

The politics of plague

But by this point, as she works on her second novel, Eliasberg says, "My concentration has been terrible. I'll listen to the news and wonder if (the virus) is ever going to end. I worry about the people who are sick and dying, about friends who have it."

And she says she can't stop thinking of history repeating itself. She references "Hannah's War," based on a real life Jewish physicist who discovers the crucial component of nuclear fission necessary to detonate an atomic bomb. "I think of (President) Truman refusing to listen to his advisors and dropping the bombs," she says. "There's a parallel with what's happening now. (I find myself wondering) 'Is Anthony Fauci even going to be at the press conference, or is he going to be muzzled?'"

Handler says his impending deadline and a steadfast adherence to a rigorous schedule of daily exercise help him stay focused on his job despite the coronavirus and how the country has handled it. "I'm incredibly stubborn, and I refuse to allow that routine to change," he says. "Mind you, that's me on a professional level. On a personal level, I'm deeply, deeply saddened that the America I grew up in — the can-do, proud, triumphant leader of the free world ... has been exposed as an incompetent, corrupt, poorly educated, bitterly fractured, second-rate mess — and I try very had to keep that sadness from creeping into my work. Me, I put on my mask and keep my head down ... but I think better days are a long, long way off."

Benn, too, says ultimately there are moments when it's hard to concentrate. "I do find myself distracted by the horrors of our politics today," he says. "If I can limit social media, I can have a better writing day. For my characters, they are engaged in a struggle against fascism, and sometimes I wince at what they'd think of Nazi banners in our streets and our own incipient dictator. But then they shoot a Nazi, and I feel better."

As with the tone of much of her work, Rice tries to finds moments of optimism for balance. "There's darkness, but there's also light," she says. "I'm starting (a new book); I'm talking with librarians at (Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library) to come up with ways to keep readers engaged; and I'm working as a creative affiliate of (environmental group) the Safina Center ... And that's how it is. Life during a pandemic is very different, both good and bad."

r.koster@theday.com 

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