I’m delighted to sharing a guest post from author Paul Maunder whose debut novel, The Atomics, is published today (3 May).
I wrote my debut novel, The Atomics, before the pandemic. Yet now, as it begins to find its way out into the world of readers, the book’s theme of psychological isolation seems particularly apt. The pandemic has done strange things to our brains. The Guardian recently reported a phenomenon related to lockdown called ‘brain fog’, which neuroscientists are beginning to study. The theory is that many of us are experiencing reduced cognitive ability, manifesting itself as an inability to concentrate, to think clearly, to access our short-term memory. We cannot read big books or follow complex arguments, we walk into a room and forget why we’re there. Though the science in this area is still in its infancy, one of the likely causes is the sameness of our lives in lockdown. Reduced to the same routine in the same place, our brains don’t receive the stimuli of our normal, more diverse, lives.
Stories have always been my escape pod. At the start of the first lockdown I thought about diversifying my reading; perhaps I would make an effort to read more fantasy or sci-fi. Instead I found myself drawn back to favourite old films and novels. I listened to the music of my youth. A cultural comfort blanket. The soaring consumption of boxsets, particularly psychological thrillers and crime dramas, is a darker variant of the same mindset. Fear – real fear of a new and invisible killer – pushes us back to the narratives we are familiar with. Part of the reason Covid-19 has been so unnerving is that it hasn’t followed any story archetype we are used to. The film Contagion, released in 2011, tells the story of a global pandemic and the efforts of scientists to contain it. At first the story is uncannily similar to that of Covid-19 but then the script has society falling into chaos, violence and ruthless survivalism. To get to the final scenes of redemption the audience has to be plunged into darkness – that’s a basic rule of drama. Following Matt Damon through two years of social distancing, low-level anxiety and sourdough baking just would not have been the same.
During the third lockdown (you know, the cold one) I’ve been listening to a podcast presented by Hattie Crisell, called In Writing. Crisell interviews writers about their process, where and when they work, and their writing history. Most of the episodes I’ve listened to were recorded during the pandemic and some of the guests are very clear that the pandemic has impacted upon their ability to work. Robert Webb, the author and television comedian, says that he’s found it impossible to work on something as substantial as a book during the pandemic. I can understand that. It’s difficult to take yourself off into a fictional world when the world is in crisis, and that crisis is coming at you through 24 hour news and social media feeds. Even if you are able to switch off the news, a fictional world that doesn’t feature the pandemic now feels redundant, even frivolous. Surely as writers we are supposed to respond to the world and its dramas?
On the other hand, if you do want to write about the pandemic, which part of that cliff-face do you try to grapple with? Reportage, journalism and diaries can respond nimbly to a crisis. Fiction cannot. A novel simply takes too long to write, edit and publish. By the time it hits the shops the crisis it describes will be history.
Perhaps short stories are a better form with which to reflect the pandemic – a small, hand-held mirror rather than a full-length hallway version. During the Second World War Mollie Panter-Downes wrote short stories and a regular column for the New Yorker entitled Letters from London. Though the stories have recently been republished by Persephone Book, it was the New Yorker columns for which Panter-Downes became well-known. Her fiction is compact, precisely written and touching. She presents to us characters who are lost in the emotional magnitude of war, falling prey to sadness or loneliness. Her stories reveal emotional truths, but ultimately they are ‘only’ fiction. Her columns, by contrast, have the saltiness of the real. Her American audience were hungry to know how the British people were coping with the Blitz, with rationing, with all the displacements and oddities of the war. If Panter-Downes were writing today, her columns would portray all the quirks of Britain under lockdown – our obsession with crime drama, Bridgerton, online shopping, baking and running.
I believe the pandemic will yield some great fiction, but it could be many years before we read it. Right now it is too immediate, too raw. Writers need a gestation period for their ideas. And when the novels come they are likely to come at the pandemic from oblique angles.
The Atomics by Paul Maunder is published by Lightning Books on May 3rd https://bit.ly/AtomicsPaulMaunder
Make sure you check out the other wonderful bloggers taking part in the The Atomics blog tour: