Anna Downes, author of The Safe Place, shares her thoughts on how it feels to be writing and releasing a debut novel during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A Debut In The Age of Corona, by Anna Downes
It’s 4.30am on a Thursday. I have coffee, my laptop and a firmly closed door. My family are asleep. Outside, the street is empty. Everything is quiet. My fingers hover above the keyboard and I wait for the words.
This is a very familiar scenario for me. When I first started writing, I wrote in stolen snatches, grabbing at the rare scraps of opportunity and making them count, because I was a mum of young kids. My days were mostly spent cooped up in a house with two extremely demanding little humans whose needs dictated my every step. But then I got lucky. I landed an international book deal, and my life opened up like a treasure chest. Instead of being something I did in secret, something I could get away with if conditions were right, writing became a job; a real one, with contracts and deadlines and a steady rhythm of daylight routine. The kids went to day care and I got shit done.
Now, though, due to unprecedented circumstances, I find myself sliding backwards. After a jolly start to preschool and kindergarten, my children are at home with me again – and even though our world has been stripped to the walls, life feels more packed than ever. Between homeschooling and the ordinary business of keeping the kids alive, I’m back to stolen scraps and early starts. It’s only temporary, I keep telling myself. Breathe. It won’t last. But for the foreseeable future, my precious time is gone. My rhythm is all off and uncertainty rules. So much has changed for me in the last few years and yet, somehow, I’m right back where I started.
It’s a weird feeling, especially after almost a year of such high velocity. The debut author experience is often referred to as a wild ride, an emotional rollercoaster – and even though the analogy is cliched, it is entirely accurate. There’s the anticipation of standing in line, waiting for your turn; the thrilling moment when you’re allowed through the gates. There’s the long drawn-out climb uphill… and then you’re plunging down, picking up speed. You scream and wave your arms in the air like a lunatic. You did it! You have an offer! You’re going to be published!
Deals are struck, champagne is popped, compliments fly all over the place: you’re wonderful, talented, charming – a dream author! People actually want to read your words, a vertiginous feeling. Better yet, they want to see them fly. Exalted professionals are handling your creation, your heart, with respect and care. You feel validated, seen and so fucking relieved. You made it. Success is guaranteed.
I’ll be honest: this phase, the up part, has been a lot of fun. Through the submission process, I have met the most incredible people – agents, editors, authors, oh my! – all of whom I want to work with and be best friends with forever and ever. The book community is full of warm, supportive people and finding them has been a real highlight; the pot at the end of the literary rainbow. And the events! As a new parent, I’d felt frumpy and doughy for so long that I’d forgotten the joy of putting on a nice dress and going out. Like, out out, to the land of free wine and thrilling conversation. For a long time, my confidence soared to new heights and life was sparkly again.
But with all of that, of course, came the down part. The brightness of this brave new world made everything else seem dull. Parenting is hard, family life can be tough, and in comparison, all the handshakes and back-slaps and gold stars felt like an invitation to run away with the circus. Believe me, my bags were packed. New requests were rolling in every day and I welcomed them with open arms. Yes, I can do that. Yes, let’s do this. Yes, yes, yes. By my other demands didn’t just go away; the kids were still there, they still needed me – and I still needed them. The mother-guilt kicked in and I felt more overwhelmed than ever.
Also, as my publishers and I went through edit after edit after edit, I began to appreciate the true length of the haul. Signing a contract may feel like the finish line but, as I discovered, it’s just the start. There’s a little bit of lag time during which you can rest and relax, but after that’s it’s time to get to work. And the work is HARD. I remember feeling at one point that the structural edits might actually kill me. I’m not the writer they think I am, I said to my husband. I’m going to let everyone down.
I started to feel like everything hinged on the success or failure of this one book. This is my shot, I kept thinking. I cannot stuff this up. I was suddenly gripped by The Fear. What if everyone hates it? What if it doesn’t sell? What if it’s a fluke and I can’t do it a second time? The parties and the free wine lost their shine. You have to work like the clappers, I told myself. You cannot rest for a second, because if you do this could all come tumbling down.
But sitting here today, watching through my window as the sun rises on a mad world, a world in which the streets are empty not just at 4.30am but at all hours of the day, I realise how easily that could happen, regardless of anything I do or don’t do. Success is never guaranteed. Life as we know it is fragile. I could work harder than anyone else and still fall foul of the unexpected. Who, for example, could ever have predicted a global pandemic, one that would bring social isolation and economic collapse? Overburdened healthcare systems, massive loss of life, and the comparatively much less important – but still heartbreaking – closure of bookstores; a situation in which my beloved book baby, and those of many other authors, would be born into radio silence? Who could have seen that coming?
Equally impossible to imagine is the universe in which the very opposite happens: the same book baby is released to great acclaim and taps into something unseen; the hive mind, the zeitgeist. It sprouts wings of unexpected size and flies further than I ever dreamed possible.
I can’t, it turns out, control any of that. The only thing I can do, as I am discovering through this strange and inconceivable period in history, is slow down once in a while. Get off the ride. Do one thing at a time. Spend time with the kids. Stay curious and connected to the community. And, somehow, do the work – even if that means stealing time again. Because, when all’s said and done, that’s the job. That’s all there is. Without the rollercoaster, it’s just me and the words. They are the real prize, my fistful of gold stars. They’re not going anywhere. No matter what happens, the words will still be there. And they will see me through.