Second in our series of interviews with writers discussing the impact of the pandemic on their work and creativity, Aisha Phoenix talks to Louise Hare about being a debut novelist under lockdown.
At the time of writing, there are more than 2.5 million cases of COVID-19 globally and more than 18,000 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 debut novelist Louise Hare talks about the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on book sales and creativity and discusses how readers can support debut novelists.
Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, This Lovely City, published by HQ in March. For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, can you tell us what it’s about?
It is mostly set in 1950, with some flashbacks to 1948. It’s about this new community growing up in Brixton in the Windrush era. The two main characters are Lawrie and Evie – it’s partly a love story told from both their points of view. At the end of the first chapter, Lawrie makes a grim discovery as he’s crossing Clapham Common and basically gets caught up in a murder inquiry, becoming a suspect. It is a murder mystery/ love story/ commentary on the time.
That sounds fascinating. What inspired the novel?
I wrote it while I was doing the MA at Birkbeck. It started as a short story. If you go to Clapham South tube station you can do tours that take you into the deep-level shelter, which was an air-raid shelter during World War II. I did the tour and when I got down there they had pictures of Windrush passengers. I hadn’t realised that since a lot of the Windrush passengers didn’t have a set place to go when they arrived in the UK, it was arranged for them to go there. A lot of them stayed there for the first couple of weeks until they got jobs and found somewhere to live. Brixton was one of the first of the Caribbean communities because it was the nearest labour office to this shelter. I had never made that connection before, so I wrote the short story, which is now a chapter in the novel.
At the beginning of 2020, what plans did you have for your writing and professional work?
The plan this year was that I was going to be very busy. My publicist Joe is amazing. He had booked me so much stuff. The first weekend after publication, the 14th and 15th of March, I was not going to have a second to myself. There was radio, I was doing two different festivals, going up to Glasgow for Aye Write, and all this kind of stuff. I left work at the end of January, and anything that needed to be done I did it in February because I was not going to have time in March. My book launch was supposed to be on the 12th. My parents came down from Warrington and I had a friend who flew in from Australia. On the evening of the 11th my editor rang me and said, “We have to cancel everything!”
We still did a few bits. I had a couple of radio interviews on launch day, a lot of my friends still came out for drinks on that Thursday night, but everything that weekend got cancelled. The two festivals were cancelled. I’ve probably had about ten things cancelled so far. The only reason it’s not more is that everything else in the calendar is in October. Those events might still be cancelled. It depends on how it pans out.
I guess I’m luckier than some people in that I actually got to see my book in a bookshop before the bookshops closed, but it has definitely had an impact on what the potential sales would have been. It’s hard to access books at the moment, especially physical books.
Where can readers access books currently?
Bookshops like Waterstones are still operating, but it’s a slow process. The suppliers have to make sure that their employees can still maintain social distancing, which is why it is taking so long to get books to people.
Hive.co.uk which I often use to buy books, closed down for a week because the two big wholesalers that deal with independent bookshops closed. They have re-opened but at a very diminished capacity.
Are you doing anything to mitigate the losses in sales from traditional avenues?
There is a promotion on Apple for my audiobook, which came out in February. The publisher has dropped the price for the promotion.
Everybody is trying to film themselves and put it on Twitter at the moment. It’s hard to know what’s going to work and what’s going to get through because there is so much stuff on social media.
Are you in a good situation financially at the moment?
Yes, I’m okay at the moment because I got the next bit of my advance the day the book came out. I am lucky that I’m okay for a little while, but it has made me very aware of how careful I need to be going forward now that I am self-employed, because it is scary.
How much support are you getting from your publisher and agent?
As much as they can offer really. It is so difficult at the moment because everyone is so scattered everywhere. People are not just working from home, sometimes they have ended up going back to parents’ houses or to stay with a girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s like doing everything on Zoom or on email. Publishers are reacting really quickly.
It’s difficult because you’ve only got so many avenues. A lot of people are thinking, well there are still eBooks, so then loads of people dropped their eBook to 99p. It’s hard because obviously a lot of publishers spent a lot of money on advertising. In the first week of lockdown, a lot of publicists were posting pictures of tube posters that they had paid for, thinking that people would see them, and they were like, “Nobody is going to see these now, so look at this picture.” I think they are trying to change strategy. I was really lucky that I had a good blog tour lined up that went live around the launch date.
A blog tour – Can you explain how that works?
My publisher has a list of bloggers that they work with. They sign up and commit to reading the book and posting a review on their blog on a particular date and then that is publicised through social media. My blog tour ran for five or six days. We had quite a good social media plan in place. I guess it’s keeping up momentum, which is a bit trickier. It would have been nice to go to some festivals, chat to some people, get to know more people in the industry, which is what I’m most regretful about, that I don’t get to do that.
I am quite lucky that this is the hardback and there is still a paperback to come out, so we do get another shot at launching the book, which hopefully will be in February next year. We have to see what happens with the virus.
It’s a really interesting time, I’m trying not to get too stressed about it and just focus on what I can actually do and go from there.
Is the lockdown an isolating experience?
I live on my own, but I’m in a Whatsapp group with a few other women in my block who live on their own. We have been checking in with each other and trying to keep in contact with people. I have been having quite a few meet-ups on Zoom with friends and my old workshop group from when I was at Birkbeck, so I still speak to people.
To be honest, it’s not that different. It would be nice to go out to the pub with a friend, and I miss the gym, which I never thought that I would say. I’ve been trying to keep busy and do stuff. I find that my attention span is quite short now. I keep getting distracted by Twitter, checking the news and things like that.
Do you find that you are able to work creatively at the moment?
The first couple of weeks I found really difficult. The really annoying thing is that I was writing my next book and because I thought I would be really busy in March and April, I put my foot down and said I need to finish this draft by the end of February, so I did that and sent it to my editor. Now I’ve got nothing to work on. The next book idea was something that I had started way back on the MA as well, so I was trying to look through that, but it was really difficult to concentrate on it.
What helped was that I wrote a story for MIR’s COVID-19 series. I wrote a fictional short story about a woman who lives on her own and how she’s coping and trying to communicate with the outside world. It’s not based on my experience, per se. It was quite nice to write something that is completely different from what I normally would write. Now that I’ve written that it has been a lot easier to go back to the novel because I’ve kicked myself out of the rut. It’s quite slow going, but at least I am writing again now.
Do you think that the lockdown will lead to a rise in the number of people wanting to write creatively?
Because I have spent so much time on Twitter in the last couple of weeks, I think overall people have struggled to write or do anything creative. Loads of people have said, “I can’t even think about writing. I can’t even read at the moment.” In an ideal world, having this time, you would like to think that you could write a novel or a play or read a book that you always meant to get round to reading, but I think a lot of people are struggling mentally with the situation. If you’ve got kids, no chance. A lot of people are trying to work from home and also home-school kids. It depends on your individual circumstances.
I’m quite lucky in that respect, living alone. I can choose what to do with my time. I don’t have to worry about other people, but anyone living with family, if you didn’t have time to do it before, you’re not going to have time now. Whether it inspires people in their work later on, maybe.
I have a friend who is a consultant at the Royal Free and he has been writing a novel about a pandemic for three years. He recently sent it out to ten agents and by the end of the week, four of them had asked for the full manuscript. The last time I spoke to him he had three offers from agents.
What do you think the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown will be on writers and the writing industry in the short term?
I hope it will teach us how to communicate better. You’ve got publishers where everyone is having to work from home, so how do you reach people? A lot of publishers send out these proof copies before books come out to get reviews. How do they get those review copies to people now? Those old-school ways of working, maybe they’ll have to be updated, depending on how long this goes on for. They will have to think more creatively about how to get information out to people.
It really depends how long it goes on for. If it’s another couple of months and then happens again in the winter, as some people are saying, it’s going to be interesting. It’s made me a lot more confident in using technology. I would normally have shied away from ever filming myself on my phone or doing Zoom meet-ups. I hate that sort of stuff normally. Having been forced to do it, I feel a bit more confident in doing stuff like that.
We’re all quite social beings, so I do miss face-to-face interactions. I don’t think things will change hugely. For a lot of people who work in offices, things will be different, because it shows that a lot of people can work from home.
The first week before the bookshops closed, sales of fiction books went up. It shows that people still want to read and that people still want to escape. That is really positive. Obviously sales are down now, but that is the physical impact. A lot of book launches have been pushed back to next year. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with that. Whether that means that books that have just come out will get longer in the spotlight, remains to be seen – it’s too early to tell. In the next couple of months, we will find out a bit more about what will need to happen.
Do you think any kind of writer is likely to be particularly adversely affected by the pandemic and lockdown?
Realistically, the people that are probably going to be most affected are the people who don’t have a big publisher behind them, potentially, because getting word of your book out there is so important. Quite often I’ll go into Waterstones and I’ll have a look round and sometimes I might pick up a book I’ve never heard of because it looks interesting, but if I shop online I know what I’m looking for. So potentially those smaller books that don’t have the marketing spend behind them that somebody might have picked up off the bookshelf will get missed now.
The cover of my book is really striking. The hope was that people would see it in the bookshop and pick it up – I guess the more emotional side of buying a book, something jumps out at you. When you’re buying online those are things that you miss out on.
Debut novelists will be affected because their names are not out there. If you are putting out book six of a series, then yes, your sales are still going to be impacted, but the chances are the people who have bought five of your books already are going to know that the sixth is coming out and they’ll go and look for it. But if your name isn’t known to anybody, they’re not going to search for it. A debut is probably the hardest.
Has anything about the response to the virus and lockdown given you a sense of hope?
There have been quite a few hopeful things. The clapping for the NHS has been quite nice. I like the free things that have been shared. For example, the National Theatre now show a play every Thursday. Neighbours messaging to check if you need anything – there are these little anecdotes that you come across where people are going out of their way to make sure that other people are okay. The reason we are staying in our homes is to protect other people. That in itself is quite positive.
Is there anything specifically about writing or publishing that you are hopeful about?
It’s hard, but if you can write through this, then there’s hope in that. I was quite surprised that I managed to write a story about something that I was going through because it did seem a bit close to home when I started. I was quite pleased that I did manage to get something together. It’s something that everyone is going through, so you don’t think you’re going through it alone. Because of that, it gives you a bit of permission to just write if you feel like it. People seem to be being quite kind and they are encouraging other people to be kind, which is nice.
To which outlets or websites would you direct readers interested in purchasing your novel or finding out more about your work?
In terms of buying, probably Waterstones is the best because they are still open, but obviously it is on Amazon, though you have to wait a bit. There are quite a lot of reviews online and a lot of the papers did review the novel online the week before the crisis started. There is also my personal website too.
What advice do you have for emerging writers at this difficult time?
What got me out of a rut was trying something new. If you’re trying to get something finished, just write when it works. There’s no point in flogging yourself if you don’t finish something by the time that you thought that you would. Everyone is in the same boat. If you want to submit to agents – because there has been a lot of talk on Twitter about agents having a lot of time on their hands – don’t send your book out until it’s ready. Don’t rush it because you want someone to get back to you quickly. If it’s not ready, it will just be a “no” that you get quickly. Take your time and make sure it’s perfect. The agent will still be there. Also, don’t rush to write a pandemic novel right now. It worked for my friend, but he is a hospital consultant and was writing it for three years beforehand.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I would love people to buy This Lovely City!
In terms of how people could support debut writers, reviews are always a good one. If you’ve read a book and you like it, it’s really helpful to leave reviews on Waterstones, Amazon, Goodreads. That is free marketing for us. A lot of people will read reviews before they buy. If there are a lot of reviews people think that a book is popular and they should read it.
Carry on buying books. It might take a while for them to come physically to you, but the books are still for sale: Waterstones, Hive and a lot of independent bookshops are delivering. In Hackney, they are cycling books to customers. All Good Bookshop are hand-delivering books in their area as well.
Thank you so much for reflecting on these difficult questions and for offering valuable advice to emerging writers.
Read the next interview with Golnoosh Nour here