First in our series of interviews with writers discussing the impact of the pandemic on their work and creativity, Aisha Phoenix talks to Jacob Ross about writing under lockdown.
At the time of writing, there are more than two million cases of COVID-19 globally and more than 11,000 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.
This week the celebrated author, editor and creative writing tutor, Jacob Ross, talks about the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on publicising his new crime fiction novel, Black Rain Falling, some lockdown-inspired digital innovations and the sense of community among writers.
Congratulations on publishing Black Rain Falling, the critically-acclaimed second novel in The Camaho Quartet. Can you tell us about the novel and The Camaho Quartet?
Black Rain Falling is the second book in a suite of four crime novels set in the Caribbean. The book follows forensics expert, Michael ‘Digger’ Digson, and his fellow CID detective, Miss Stanislaus, who kills a man in self-defence but their superiors believe it was murder. Digger is given just six weeks to prove that Miss Stanislaus is innocent. On top of that, a horrible roadside murder starts them off on a chain of discoveries: one of which is that Camaho has now become a stop-off point in the cocaine trade between Colombia, Venezuela and North America. Digger and Miss Stanislaus have to stop it.
Why the name ‘Camaho’? It is the original Amerindian name of Grenada, given to the island by the people who were there long before the Europeans arrived. Anyone who knows Grenada knows that the books are set there.
The year 2020 looked set to be a very exciting one for you. What plans did you have for your writing and professional work when the year began?
The book was sent out in pre-press format late last year. I think it was November, and there was a lot of excitement around it. I received quite a few invitations to various festivals, like Edinburgh and the Noirwich Crime Festival. There was also the Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad — not to mention teaching engagements and of course the launches. But obviously all of that had to be cancelled or deferred.
It’s not just me, other writers have had to find ways of promoting their books outside of doing readings, which are probably the most effective way to present your work: talking and reading to an audience. That’s not possible now.
What has happened as a consequence, is that people have been purchasing my book mainly in electronic format. I just heard this from my publisher who obviously has difficulty sending the physical book out to people.
A lot of possibilities have opened up since the coronavirus shut down. Some authors have been doing online launches. They have to have the technological know-how of course — being competent with the technology and confident in their use of it. There are other writers out there, like myself, who don’t have the facility to do an online broadcast.
Is that because you need someone to teach you how to do it?
I have never done a video broadcast on my own before; other people have set that up for me. I post on Facebook and on Twitter but doing a video broadcast, that’s really a big constraint.
What impact has living under lockdown had on you?
As a writer, I don’t have the kind of problems that the average person out there would have with being locked down, or being self-isolated, because that’s what I do normally. Most of my writing colleagues say, “Jacob, what’s the fuss about? We don’t have a problem with that.” And it’s true. I have been self-isolating most of my life as a writer. I stay at home and write over extended periods. What makes it different is the context in which we’re doing it because it’s a dangerous space out there. Under normal circumstances, when we didn’t have the coronavirus pandemic, you could go out at any point and take a walk, take a break, even socialise, but now you can’t do that if you care about your health and other people’s. That’s one of the key constraints.
Financially, do the next few months look difficult? Or have you got a good cushion?
There are people who are probably in a worse position than I am, but the next few months and maybe the next couple of years feel slightly more precarious. When I had just begun to freelance and didn’t have clients or a reputation, I used to be worried about what the forthcoming year would bring. Now that feeling of precarity has returned. There are people who owe me money, but obviously, they would not be able to repay money which they might need and I certainly won’t press them now for payment. Besides, I work part-time, as Associate Fiction Editor at Peepal Tree Press, and I get paid.
Do you think the pandemic and lockdown will affect the success of your novel?
I am worried though my publisher is working hard at promoting the book. It was voted by the Sunday Times and the Guardian, as the best crime novel that came out in March. The Sun newspaper also flagged it. That sort of momentum and publicity is likely to be compromised by the virus.
Have you had a launch?
No. I have not been able to have one. I know one writer who had organised a 20-gig tour of her book and that had to be cancelled.
The uncertainty is very stressful for everybody. Is the launch something that you will re-arrange as soon as things open up again? Or will too much time have passed for you to do a launch?
I will still try to do a launch. There are other big books coming out by people I know and whose work I care about. There is room for everyone. It’s not a competition. We, as Black writers, are at a point where we have created, and are continuing to create, a critical mass. In other words, something has happened in Britain that has made it possible to have some of our most gifted poets, some of the most interesting fiction coming out of this country now, both in the literary arena and in genre fiction, such as children’s fiction, and, in my case, crime fiction. Then there is the glorious achievement of Bernardine Evaristo in winning the Booker. Our friend, Roger Robinson won the T.S. Eliot prize for his wonderfully effective collection of poetry, A Portable Paradise. So there’s something really interesting happening right now with Black British writing.
Do you think the industry will be in a stronger position after the lockdown and the pandemic because there will be more interest in literature or do you think it will suffer because it won’t be seen as a priority?
It’s a really good question. I suspect it will become more fragmented. I foresee a rise in independent publishing and diversification of independent publishers: small presses that will be able to do what the big publishers can’t do or are reluctant to do, which is to take up and represent the multiplicity of voices that are out there, and the new voices that will come out of the coronavirus experience.
That was one of the questions that I was going to ask you – do you think that it will lead to a rise in the number of people who want to write creatively?
I think so and I think it will multiply the narratives because this time of lockdown is also a time of reflection and self-examination. Even if that self-examination is forced upon us, or happens unconsciously. I think also that the big publishers will probably be vying for the voice or the novel that encapsulates it all. The coronavirus novel, so to speak. There’s going to be a lot of competition there.
Do you think that the lockdown and COVID-19 will have a particular impact on some writers more than others? Is there a particular demographic that you think are most vulnerable?
That’s a good question. It depends. There’s a website that gives you a breakdown of how many people died in different areas of the country. It’s very interesting looking at the demographics of London in terms of who is most affected. Unfortunately, it still is the case that one’s economic status tends to conflate with one’s racial provenance or one’s migratory status. Is the impact disproportionate or not? I know in America that’s what’s going down at the moment. There are writers who are going to write about it, but some won’t even want to think about it. That’s fine by me too.
Do you think that there will still be a push towards greater representation of writers of colour and writers from marginalised groups?
I think so. I don’t know if there’s going to be an emphasis there, but we have the support infrastructure that I think helps make this possible and that’s the Arts Council, and literary activists that have been adamant over the past five, six, seven years that equal opportunities must be respected.
Thinking about responses to the pandemic and the lockdown, is there anything that has given you a sense of hope?
Yes. It has generally fostered a sense of community and not just a localised community. There’s a kind of levelling that I find extremely edifying and people are genuinely prepared to help each other at all kinds of levels. Specifically, where writing is concerned, I see more writers recommending and promoting each other’s work, which I haven’t seen before: people flagging and endorsing books other than their own on their social media platforms. That sort of reciprocity, I see it happening now.
There is also a genuine attempt to innovate the digital space, where the digital space is reaching out from behind the glass screen into living rooms, the way television does. People are launching books and teaching classes in real-time. It is no longer an individual’s engagement with him/herself and ‘friends’ or subscribers; it has taken on the qualities of public broadcasts.
Does that make you think you need to do an online course and launch your book that way?
I am seriously thinking of it, yes. I have a good friend, Rod Duncan, who launched his book online and it went well. He had a friend who was great at interviewing him. It worked brilliantly.
Monique Roffey launched her book last week and I was told at the office that it sold as well as if she had done it in a library or a town hall. She was in her home in London and was interviewed by one of our colleagues here in Leeds. It’s incredible. That’s the beginning of the future.
To which outlets or websites would you direct readers interested in finding out more about your novel and your work?
I would point them to my publisher, Sphere, which is part of the Hachette group. The bricks and mortars bookshops need to sell books, even if it means posting the book from their warehouse or their shops to readers. I would point them to the bookshops, independents as well as the big ones, to get the books from there and not necessarily from Amazon, which really dominates everything now. A lot of these bookshops are in a fragile space.
What support is available for writers who are struggling financially?
The Arts Council and the Society of Authors have provisions for writers who are struggling. For those of us who are freelancers, HMRC has touted a couple of initiatives.
What advice do you have for emerging writers at this difficult time?
Hold tight, don’t give up! It’s essential to hold on to the aspiration. It’s important to continue writing because this COVID-19 affliction isn’t permanent. Humans need stories in order to make sense of the world. It’s central to what it means to be human, so keep on deploying this amazing gift, the ability to create stories. Do everything that you’ve been doing, including getting in touch with agents and publishers. Keep in mind that things are changing out there, but just keep getting your work out there. Somebody will pick it up. Somebody will.
Thank you so much for your candid answers to these challenging questions.
Read the next interview with Louise Hare here
Jacob Ross is a novelist, short story writer, editor and creative writing tutor. His crime fiction novel, The Bone Readers won the inaugural Jhalak Prize in 2017. His literary novel Pynter Bender was published to much critical literary acclaim and was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Regional Prize and chosen as one of the British Authors Club’s top three Best First Novels. His latest novel, Black Rain Falling, was published by Hachette in March. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been a judge of the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, the Olive Cook, Scott Moncrieff and Tom-Gallon Literary Awards. Jacob is Associate Fiction Editor at Peepal Tree Press, and the editor of Closure, Contemporary Black British short stories.