Last in our series of interviews with writers discussing the impact of the pandemic on their work and creativity, Aisha Phoenix talks to Abi Daré about online book clubs and juggling full-time work, homeschooling and writing.
At the time of writing, there have been almost five million cases of COVID-19 globally and more than 35,000 people have lost their lives to the virus in the UK. In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, the UK has been in lockdown since March 23. However, the impact on businesses and the self-employed has been devastating, with nearly a million universal credit claims in the first two weeks of lockdown. Many writers are self-employed and in a precarious position, dependent on teaching, and literary events that have been cancelled or postponed. For example, important events such as the London Book Fair, the Hay Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival are not going ahead. In our Writing In The Time of COVID-19 series, I talk to writers at different stages of their careers on the effects of the virus on their lives and work and their expectations and hopes for the future. In our final week, debut novelist Abi Daré talks about joining online book clubs, juggling work, homeschooling and writing, and the success of her debut novel.
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, The Girl With the Louding Voice, published by Sceptre Books. For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, can you tell us what inspired it and outline its key themes?
It was inspired by my childhood growing up in Lagos. I lived in a neighbourhood where it was very common to have young girls working in families as maids. These maids would do all the chores in the house while the families would get on with their lives. One thing I noticed growing up when I was eight or nine, was that many of those girls were about my age. Throughout my childhood, they were anything from eight or nine to fifteen, sixteen and slightly older women, but the majority were younger girls.
I also noticed that many of those girls were not very well treated. Some were abused. I used to hear some of them being beaten, shouting and screaming. Each time I went to visit family members or friends, it was easy to tell who the maid was. It was a cultural and social norm. Not everyone was treating their maids the wrong way, but the majority didn’t treat them well. There were different degrees of what that ill-treatment was. When my first daughter turned eight, it caused me to start to reflect on that aspect of my childhood because that was the age where you could see a young girl working.
I thought; I need to write a story, so I started to research. I read about a 13-year-old girl who had hot water poured all over her by the woman who employed her. It was quite graphic and her injuries were horrific. What really struck me was the fact that the girl was portrayed as if she was a nobody. It was just her first name that was given, there was no mention of her family or where she’d come from. Her face itself was blurred out by the newspapers reporting it. It seemed like it was just another statistic to report. I started to wonder, Who is this girl? What’s her story? Why did she become a maid? Where’s her mother? Where’s her father?
My daughter asked, “Mum, why would anyone send their daughter to be a maid?” and I said, “That’s a really good question. There must be a reason.” That led me to write a story focused on the girl. It does touch on the abuse that this girl suffered, but it is really a story of the journey of Adunni, a girl who is in pursuit of an education. When her mother dies, she is sold to be the third wife of a local man by her father. Tragedy occurs in the village where she lives, and she has to flee. She goes to Lagos and becomes a maid for a wealthy woman. Through that, Adunni doesn’t give up. Her spirit is never broken, she’s resilient, she’s funny. It’s a book about chasing your dreams, hope and not giving up. But it also touches on some of the issues that women face in Nigeria — the social divide, the class divide between the rich and the poor.
At the beginning of 2020, what plans did you have for your writing and professional work?
The year started off as very exciting. It was the year of the release of the book in the US and the UK. There were a lot of plans for the promotion of the book. Because of that, I was going to take some time off work. I was going to try and see if I could write the outlines of another book because I thought the year would be quite busy. I had quite a few invites to the major book festivals and I was very excited about those.
How has COVID-19 and the lockdown affected you?
Everything was cancelled or deferred, which was quite disappointing. I am someone who likes to be optimistic. I just said to myself that what really matters is that lives are saved. There was no point in going ahead with events and people being put at risk. It’s a book. It will not expire if it’s a good story. It will find its audience in one way or another. It might take a bit longer, but it will eventually happen at some point. I strongly believe that. I didn’t let the disappointment sink in for too long.
The paperback of The Girl With the Louding Voice is due out next year, do you feel that you have that to look forward to?
Yes, at least there’s that. We will see what happens with 2020 and we will see when the paperback will come out. Things can always happen with that. And there will be promotion. There’s the eBook as well and that can be downloaded anytime by readers.
How are you finding the space to write under lockdown given that you work fulltime and you have two daughters at home?
It is very challenging. I was never one who would write at home. I would always go to a coffee shop. I have a job that allowed me to work from home a few days a week. My routine before was: wake up, do my writing before I got the kids ready, drop them off at school and then go and do my day job. Then after that, I would do some more writing, pick up the kids and then I didn’t do any writing until the next day.
Now, it’s tough because there’s nowhere to send the kids. I am finding that being creative has been a huge challenge. I say to myself that even if I am not sitting at the desk writing, I am thinking about writing and reading books on the craft and taking notes. I have a guest room in my house. Until this happened, I never in my life thought that I could sit in there and work, but when the lockdown happened, I converted the guest room. I went on Amazon and bought screens and a lamp, all the things that I should have in a home office, and I set it up very quickly. I have got stuff on the wall where I am trying to plot my next book. I have put it there to inspire me to think about the act of writing the new book. I also try to shut the door. That tells the kids that Mum will not be disturbed right now. It’s hard because I still have to do my 9am-5pm and I can’t start anything on my writing until after 5pm.
It is a bit of organised chaos. There are no two days that are the same. I try to have a routine, but it is really tough with kids. I try to be flexible and I try to make sure my writing and my day job don’t suffer. It’s not easy, it’s a juggling act.
How have the pandemic and lockdown affected your ability to create work?
There are days when I feel I really cannot do this, even to read, to take in someone else’s work. I have books here that I want to read but I have had moments when I really can’t. There is so much coming at you from the outside world, reminding you that there is chaos going on outside and that people are ill. It’s really tough to be creative. I try not to watch the news any more for I find that it leaves an impact on me for hours.
When this first started I would sit down with my husband and we would stare at the news all day. We were taking on a load of information that was not helping at all. I found that that really weighed my spirit down, so I couldn’t do anything. I was quite down and the kids noticed it. I stopped doing that, and I have this space where I can work now. Even if I am not writing, I watch YouTube videos on writers teaching other writers to write — someone saying, try this exercise, try this scene. I found that quite helpful for breaking out of that feeling of gloom, that there’s no point in anything.
I belong to a writers group of former Birkbeck students and we try to meet once in two weeks and encourage each other to write. That has been tremendously helpful. For the first 15 minutes of conversation with the writers, we just talk about life. That has helped and I find that getting feedback on the piece I have written has helped me to go back and rework it, which is tremendously helpful. Take your writing group online, if you have one. If you don’t have one, find one. Use that to kickstart your writing. There are days when it will drag, but there are days when it will bounce back. It’s quite elastic.
Do you think that the challenging situation and the lockdown will lead to a rise in the number of people interested in writing creatively?
I think there might be people who would like to journal their feelings. I don’t know about fiction, because fiction is quite hard. You need to get to a point where you completely and totally love it to commit to it to the point where you finish your book. But I do think that a lot of people will start to journal their feelings right now because we are all stuck at home. My daughter, who is 11, has done that. The other day, I said, “Do you want to do some writing?” and she wrote about the coronavirus because it was on her mind. I think it will definitely awaken that spark of creativity. Whether it will be fiction or in some other way, it’s hard to tell. I think that a few people will probably discover their love of fiction and if they are able to stick to what it takes, in a few years we may hear that it all started during the lockdown.
What do you think the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown will be on writers and the writing industry in the short term?
It could go either way. In the short term, because of the fact that publicity as we knew it — events, bookstore signings, speaking opportunities — has completely come to an end, that is something that will have an impact, not in a great way. That said, I have had the opportunity to join a few online book clubs, which was amazing. I found that I was speaking to people in the US because my book came out in the US and became a New York Times bestseller. Because of that, I found that there was a bit of a landing ground for me because a lot of people had read it there. I had a few invites to join online book clubs to discuss my book. I had the first one last week and it was amazing. I left that feeling like this might cause a change in the book industry. I wonder if you could do a book-club signing online. Everyone comes in with their books and you tune in from Skype or Zoom and address the audience. It’s not ideal, but it’s a workable solution. It might cause publicists to think outside the box of how to promote books in the future.
Writers will always write. We are always going to need books. I understand that book sales have gone up, although the genres are non-fiction; cooking, gardening and stuff. But people are reading and that’s a good thing. What I do hope is that online indie booksellers continue to thrive after this. They are such an important backbone of the industry, a great support. I really do hope that every indie bookstore is able to weather this and come out stronger. The bookstore that invited me to their book club said, “We have never sold online. This caused us to start selling online.” That is an example of a change that has impacted their way of dealing with sales. I asked her how it was going and she said, “It’s been amazing, it’s been great.”
Do you think any demographic of writers, or kind of writer, is likely to be particularly adversely affected?
I think everyone, one way or another is adversely affected. It’s hard to tell. Things are so fluid, things are changing so often. Someone who might be adversely affected today, something might happen tomorrow and all of a sudden everyone wants to read their stuff. I don’t know if you heard about that writer who wrote a book about a virus and lockdown, the whole thing. He sent the manuscript to his editors and they said no, so he worked on other books. When this happened, his editors emailed him, “Do you want to resend it?” When he resent it, it was basically like he had seen the future. Now they are going to publish it and they are going to put a huge marketing push behind it.
What do you think the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown will be on you as a writer in the long term?
For me, the biggest change has been not being afraid to write at home. I used to hate the thought of being at home to write. I love to be around people. I love the noise and the buzz of a coffee shop. I was saying to my daughter the other day, “I don’t know if I’ll ever write in a coffee shop again.” I have been writing for many years. I have never written a whole piece in my house. That’s one long-term thing. The other thing for me, personally, is my expectations. This has taught me a lesson in resilience, a lesson in just keeping the momentum going regardless of what is happening around you: keep writing, keep going. I think that is something that I will carry on for the rest of my life.
When this thing first started, I thought; I have worked so hard on The Girl With the Louding Voice, why are my events being cancelled? But I said to myself going forwards, I will write for the love of writing because I have a story I want to tell.
Has anything about the response to the virus and lockdown given you a sense of hope?
Yes, it’s shown me that people can be wonderful and amazing and care for each other. I have seen so much kindness from my neighbours. We take daily walks as a family. Just walking on the road, people on the other side of the road are waving and saying, hello. When I go out with the kids on their bicycles, cars are stopping from a distance to let us go through. There’s so much kindness.
The dedication of the NHS has been phenomenal. Each time I think of the NHS and the people who work there I get quite emotional — it’s been amazing. There has been a lot of good that has come out of this. All we have is ourselves and we need to look out for each other. On the flip side, I have seen that people can be very greedy and unreasonable in terms of hoarding and stuff. To me, it has been a bit of a study in human behaviour and how people react to situations that we have no control over. That’s another thing, I realise that I have no control over anything. Life is just a gift.
To which outlets or websites would you direct readers interested in purchasing The Girl With the Louding Voice or finding out more about your work?
Please check out the Indies. There’s Pages of Hackney, where I launched my book. They sell online. There’s Bookers Bookshop. They sell online. Writers and readers, please patronise the indie booksellers first. It would be really wonderful if you kept that support up. The next obvious choices are the wonderful Waterstones, who have been amazingly supportive of my book. Amazon also has eBooks.
What advice do you have for emerging writers at this difficult time?
I would say that this is the time to attend courses on writing. I still attend courses on writing on YouTube. I watch videos on how to show and not tell. Buy books on the craft, read them. Try to see if you can pull together a short story. For those who are short story writers, try to give yourself a target — by the time I come out of this lockdown, I would like to have the first draft of a 3,000 or 4,000-word short story. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Have a goal for this time, if it works for you. If you cannot have a writing goal, have a goal to learn one or two things about the craft of writing. I think it’s so important to keep learning how to improve your writing. Another powerful way to do that is to read. If you can, read. This is a great time to learn from other writers who have gone ahead and done wonderful things with their books.
Are there any literary organisations that offer support to authors that you would recommend?
I believe that the Society of Authors has grant information. That’s one place to start and they do amazing things for writers. They have always supported writers and authors.
You mentioned the critical acclaim that The Girl With the Louding Voice has received. Before we end, could you say a bit more about that?
The novel came out in the US, and I thank God for that because I heard that it was unusual for books to come out in the US first. It got picked up by one of the biggest book clubs in the US, called Today Show, Read with Jenna. The Today Show is either the second or the most-watched morning TV show in the US and they have a book club that is run by Jenna Bush Hager. She picked The Girl With the Louding Voice for her February book. I got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be interviewed on the Today Show. It’s there online. It was an “Oh my gosh!” moment for me. That brought the book into the hands of millions of readers in the US. The third week that it came out, it was top 10 on the New York Times bestseller list. Recently Malala recommended the book. It has had great successes that I am so grateful for. When I think about what’s happened, I say you really can’t complain. It’s a glimpse of things to come — not just for me, but for other writers as well.
It’s wonderful to end on an uplifting note. Thank you so much.
You can buy The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Daré from Pages of Hackney.