Fourth in our series of interviews with writers discussing the impact of the pandemic on their work and creativity, Aisha Phoenix talks to Patrice Lawrence about the disruption caused by the lockdown and sources of hope.
At the time of writing, there have been more than three and a half million cases of COVID-19 globally and over 30,000 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 Prize-Winning YA Novelist Patrice Lawrence talks about pandemic-driven creative inertia, writing through it, and writer communities as a source of hope.
Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. You’re an award-winning writer who has won both the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Children and The Bookseller YA Book Prize. For readers unfamiliar with your work, can you describe the kind of novels you write?
I write predominantly for children and teenagers. I have a contract with Hachette Children’s for two more books for young adults. I have written three, plus a World Book Day novel for teenagers. I have one coming out called Eight Pieces of Silva, hopefully in August, and one still to write, which is coming out next year. I have also written for Scholastic and Barrington Stoke. Books commissioned by other publishers may be delayed because of the impact of COVID-19 on book printing in China.
At the beginning of 2020, what plans did you have for your writing and professional work?
At the beginning of 2020, I had the two remaining books to deliver for Hachette; a picture book and a book for younger teenagers, which had all already been commissioned. I also had a big piece of work for Hay Festival Sustainability called Trans.MISSION. It is a project that matches up writers, illustrators and animators with scientists and film-makers. The aim is to bring the science to life. This year there was one project in Peru, one in Colombia, and I was the UK writer matched up with scientists funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) conducting research into grassland, forecasting the impact of drought and water shortages. I have written a short story called Day Zero and Chips, about a teenager in fifty years’ time, getting ready for a date to see the last ever potato to be made into chips. It explores how things are different when there are water shortages. The original project manager has been furloughed. Yet we have to make a film based on the story and are trying to work out how we can do that under lockdown.
I was supposed to attend the Hay Festival for two days — the schools’ programme on Friday, and on Saturday I was meant to do a presentation about this project. Of course, that’s all stopped, but will now be online. I was due to be at the Edinburgh Festival, that’s cancelled and I was supposed to be going to Russia for a week with the British Council for a YA event. Obviously that’s been cancelled too.
I’ve been awarded a Hedgebrook Foundation residency for five weeks in September and I still don’t even know if that is going to go ahead or not. The Hedgebrook Foundation is a foundation supporting women writers and every year they welcome around forty writers in residence. They have six ‘gingerbread house’ chalets based in Whidbey Island, which is just off Seattle. You can go for one week to six weeks — you have your own chalet, you can walk, you can write, you can think and you meet other writers from around the world in the evening.
Have all of these cancellations had a financial impact on you?
It is hard to say at the moment. I’d saved some money as I was planning to move out of London. I am completely freelance and you never know what your situation is going to be in terms of commissions.
I was booked to teach at Moniack Mhor, which is like Arvon, on a week-long residential course. I was co-tutoring with Melvin Burgess. It will possibly be postponed to next year. I was also due to do a workshop for The Literacy Consultancy in May. They said, “We can either pay you on the day and you can do it at a later time, or you can do it as an online offering and we will pay you the same amount.” They have been fantastic. A lot of these smaller organisations still need to keep going, so they are finding ways to survive online, while still paying their writers. I was due to go to YALC, the Young Adult Literary Convention in July, but I think they will cancel.
Luckily, the shutdown came just after World Book week, so, like many writers, I delivered school events. I only had two more school events to do this school year, one that is cancelled and one that will probably be cancelled. If schools are open in October, I hope I can deliver Black History Month events, but everything is still so uncertain.
The future is the issue. We don’t know what publishers will do, or if they will be even more risk-averse. The publication dates for a lot of books have been put back to next year. They won’t want a bottleneck. We don’t know if things can actually be printed at the moment. The uncertainty will be the 18-months afterwards because publishing has got a long lead-in. Publishers will be thinking have they taken losses on books that have come out in March, April, because people can’t do the normal promotional tours. We can’t go to schools, we can’t go to festivals, we can’t have launches. I think the repercussions will be felt in about 18 months’ time.
Do you think publishers will be more reluctant to take a chance on emerging writers?
Most big publishers are pretty risk-averse anyway. I think the smaller publishers will carry on doing what they’re doing if they survive. It’s always been the smaller publishers like Jacaranda, OWN IT!, Peepal Tree and HopeRoad that take chances with emerging writers and I think they will continue doing that. Children’s publishers don’t know what they’re going to do at the moment. Over the past couple of years, they have cut their PR and marketing and they have put a lot of work onto the editors. I don’t think there’s much more capacity there. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the publishers.
Advances might shrink from bigger publishers. The smaller publishers can’t pay much anyway. They have always had to hustle. If you look at Crystal Mahey-Morgan at OWN IT!, she’s always hustled. She used social media platforms like Instagram efficiently and wisely. Knights Of are also excellent at using social media because they have tiny budgets, so they have always had to make the most of low-cost platforms because they curate a list of books they care deeply about.
How has this pandemic and the lockdown affected your ability to write creatively?
I think that like many other children’s writers, it’s hard to focus on anything at the moment. There is this anxiety-based inertia. I can’t write fiction. I’ve tried. I’ve started the new book that’s due out next year. I thought if I can do 400 words a day, that’s good, but there’s part of my brain that says, it doesn’t matter, who cares, there’s all this other stuff going on. I have this other book due out in August, Eight Pieces of Silva, about a black working-class Lesbian girl in London. Because publishing is not particularly diverse in terms of experience, I don’t know how they are planning to market it if we are not able to do publicity work. My editor was furloughed for three weeks just as the final proofs needed checking. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to find energy. We have been sucked into this big hole of fear and anxiety.
I’ve put in an application to the Society of Authors, not their emergency fund, but the one for works in progress, because I want to write a middle-grade series set in Georgian London. One thing I have managed to do is read loads of non-fiction books on Georgian London! I am making lots of notes about potential storylines on that.
With the exception of your Georgian London series, would you say that even the things that are ongoing feel like a bit of a slog at the moment?
It just feels like it doesn’t matter. Who cares! I have tried really hard to avoid social media, but it is really hard. You end up looking through Twitter without meaning to. You think, Oh my God, so many people have died! They are building a temporary morgue on Wanstead flats. It is hard to avoid thinking about that in order to write a story. It just sits in your head and crushes everything.
I do need to go through the proofs for my new young adult book, Eight Pieces of Silva, because I need to own my story. It matters because there are going to be queer Black girls out there who might never see themselves represented. I want to do them justice.
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 hope so, but I suppose it depends on everybody’s individual situation. My friends, Kathryn Evans and Candy Gourlay, have set up Our Corona Diary, a website to encourage young people to bear witness to their experiences. For young people, there’s going to be anxiety about schools and exams.
I think certain young people will have the room and space to think about writing, but if you are cramped up in a tiny flat in a block where you have got noisy neighbours and little access to outside space, it’s going to be harder. Everyone needs the headspace to be able to write. When people come out of this, hopefully, there will be a big surge of creativity.
Do you think any demographic of writer, or kind of writer, is likely to be particularly adversely affected by this pandemic and lockdown?
I suppose people who are financially insecure. For debut writers, it might be a bit of a struggle. There’s the fantastic writer, Danielle Jawando, whose debut YA book And The Stars Were Burning Brightly, was launched on the 5th of March. I think she will win prizes, but I don’t know whether she will get the book sales because the bookshops are closed and she can’t do the promotion. It’s such a pity. It’s debut authors whose books came out just before the lockdown who will really struggle and people who financially need the backup of school visits, who haven’t got a rich partner or parents to rely on. Nurseries are closed, schools are closed and women quite often have the bulk of the childcare. How are you writing if you’re supposed to be homeschooling and holding everything together for everyone? So, many different people will be affected by this in lots of different ways.
What do you think the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown will be on writers and the writing industry in the long term?
The big publishers have shareholders, so they will be thinking about whether they need to restructure as a result of a loss of profit and whether they need to narrow down what they do in certain spaces. Will they rely on celebrities even more because they are going to get their money back? Hachette has just signed a six-book picture book deal with Simon Cowell. Will there be more of that? They will be looking at their structures to see how they can survive, like any other industry.
As for writers, we write whether or not we are going to be published. I am quite lucky in that I can write across genres. I will look at writing adult crime and the potential for writing podcasts or dramas for Audible, which is a new big market. I will be relatively flexible.
Publishing has been struggling anyway. There is such a big dissonance between big publishers’ staff and the potential readers of young adult and children’s books. It’s a chance for publishing to have a look at itself and how it operates.
Do you think that some of the opportunities you missed this year will be open to you next year?
I think some events will be postponed, others will go online. Online events are accessible to a wider audience. Because Eight Pieces of Silva is being published in August, I’ll be promoting it mainly through 2021 anyway. The Hay Festival have asked me to film a talk for their Schools Day that will be shown online and I will still get paid for it. A lot of the festivals are about coming together as writers or people who enjoy writing. For them, they are finding ways of survival.
What do you think of online innovations, such as digital launches?
A digital launch relies on having a good clique of people who will support you. People are definitely doing that. What’s really nice about children’s writing is that people are really supportive. If somebody says my book has come out, we will retweet it. We really support each other.
The proof of my new book is coming out as an electro-proof. It’s not quite the same, you can’t hold it up and take a photo of it, but everybody is in that boat at the moment, so we really have to deal with it.
Has anything about the response to the virus and lockdown given you a sense of hope?
In terms of hope, I’m quite good friends with Catherine Johnson and we’ve actually ended up phoning each other more. With some other writers, we have a WhatsApp group and we share advice and recipes for dhal. I’m in Facebook groups of writers who are comforting and caring for each other when we’re scared and anxious. That human connection has strengthened in some ways. Writers often don’t want to compete against each other, we want to support each other and that support has come out.
To which outlets or websites would you direct readers interested in purchasing your novels or finding out more about your work?
I would say Google me because I have written various articles about the things that are important to me. In terms of purchasing my novels, if people have local bookshops, they can buy vouchers, and then buy the novels when bookshops are open again. If you can get it through local bookshops that would be fantastic. For example, my local bookshop, Pages of Hackney, are able to send things out at the moment. Waterstones online are still sending books out and I think Daunt is as well.
What advice do you have for emerging writers at this difficult time?
Keep a diary. It can be anything really, even on a page where you write something that you see that is different, the way light falls, a noise that you hear, a moment – keep a diary of your feelings or experiences. It doesn’t have to be big. Because we are experiencing something so intensely at the moment, trying to keep a record of that would be such a gift in the future when you want to add those layers of emotion to your characters.
Are there any literary organisations seeking support that you would recommend to readers?
Have a look at literary organisations’ online courses, which are really important at the moment. Arvon has always done one-to-one tutoring. Look at the workshops that literary organisations like The Literary Consultancy are running online. My workshop for them, Finding Power: Finding Your Voice, will be in the form of free resources — videos and writing exercises, downloadable on 19th May. Perhaps, if you can, buy something from them as well. A lot of organisations will have ways that you can support them. They need to survive and they are trying to find ways of managing this.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
What’s interesting is that in 18 months probably nobody will want to read anything about the virus because they will still be struggling to process the consequences of it. Some agents are saying that people might want to read something that is more uplifting. If you want to write for publication, think about what people might want to read in a year’s time, 18 months’ time. It might be something that has hope in it.
That was fascinating. Thanks so much.
Read the next interview with Jenny Downham here
Patrice Lawrence is an award-winning writer. Orangeboy, her debut book for young adults, was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award, won the Bookseller YA Prize and Waterstones Prize for Older Children’s Fiction. Indigo Donut won the Bristol Crimefest Prize for YA and was a book of the week in The Times, Sunday Times and Observer and one of The Times’ top children’s books in 2017. Rose, Interrupted, published in July 2019, was children’s book of the week in the Sunday Times. Her books for younger readers include Diver’s Daughter – a Tudor Tale, part of Scholastic’s Voices series inspired by the UK’s Black and Asian history. Her adult short stories have been published in anthologies including New Daughters of Africa (Myriad) and Closure (Peepal Tree Press).