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A sidelined novelist copes with deadlines, dread and family in quarantine

Anna Solomon reads Helen Phillips' novel "The Need" in quarantine in Massachusetts.
(Mike Burger)

The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Anna Solomon tries to manage the COVID-challenged rollout of her third novel, “The Book of V.,” builds a raft inspired by “Treasure Island,” dances to Lizzo and works on a new novel with a little help from Flaubert.

Tuesday, April 7


My alarm clock pings at 6:30. Part of me can’t believe I’m doing this to myself, but I’ve got two kids, freelance work, and a novel that will launch in a month, and it will be a struggle to write with sustained focus later. I write until 8, when I transition into helping my son make a schedule for his day. My husband helps our older daughter with hers, and then away we go.

At 9 I’m with my son as he signs into this morning’s Zoom with his second-grade class. He can do it himself, except not really. He “leaves” the room, ostensibly by accident. So I check the day’s first emails while listening to his teacher. She reads poems, talks about red-winged blackbirds and asks the kids what emotions they’re feeling today. I manage a couple responses before the call is over and my son and I head outside.

We left our apartment in New York City almost a month ago for Cape Ann, Mass., where I grew up — a fraught choice but one that’s given us more space and brought us closer to my family. Our plan today is to build a raft. The idea is inspired by “Treasure Island,” which my mother and her husband have been reading to my son over FaceTime. As we gather sticks, I remind myself to feel the sun, feel your health, watch your son as he runs. I also worry about deer ticks — I found one behind his ear last night — and my mind wanders to my computer, which I long to be hunched over, attending to myriad tasks large and small.

Anna Solomon's shared workspace, with turkey feathers.
(Anna Solomon)
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Back inside, I set up my son for a special one-on-one with his teacher. Nothing is going as planned. Not the raft. Not my book launch. An eight-city tour was in the works. I know my loss is minuscule in the scheme of losses right now. Still, my novel, “The Book of V.,” took years to write. I take a deep breath and email with my publicist about which bookstores are open to doing something virtual.

Over lunch, we read. I’m in the middle of “The Need” by Helen Phillips, which I find so wonderfully weird and terrifying I forget my real fears for a while. My kids are reading “Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes” and “Because of Mr. Terupt,” respectively. My husband reads the news.

While the kids are outside, I clean up and talk with a friend who also has a book scheduled. Her publisher might push hers back by a couple months and we talk about the pros and cons. Maybe bookstores will be open by then? But what if all the books are pushed to summer? Will we ever again fly to a book festival? Are we allowed to care about any of this right now?

My son has an “end-of-day” Zoom at 2:45. Our schedule has dissolved, I’m anxious to finally get in some kind of groove, and my son needs nothing more than to wrestle with another kid. I tell him to go outside but he wants to wait until his sister is done with her virtual school day, so I turn on a nature series, “Wild North,” and answer emails and update my website. I check the news and see that John Prine has died. I put on “Angel from Montgomery” and let myself sit for a bit, listening. Tears rise in my throat and I realize they’ve been with me all day. My daughter walks in and asks for a snack.

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John Prine accepts an award in Nasvhille, Tenn., in 2018.
(Mark Zaleski / AP)

My husband, freed of a commute, has been cooking dinner. While he cooks, I jump on a Zoom with a group of other writers with new books to brainstorm ways to reach book groups. I know only one of them, but the call is full of warmth.

After dark, we walk down to the cove to look at the supermoon. It’s so big and bright we can see individual pebbles on the road. We watch currents of water pass each other, sparkling.

A little later, my husband and I watch Alicia Keys, in her home studio, sing to Stephen Colbert, in his living room. It’s tender and silly. I get into bed with Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” and read about New York in a different crisis, until I drift off.

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Authors like Lionel Shriver, Alexander McCall Smith, Laura Lippman and Steph Cha are under coronavirus quarantine too. Here’s what they’re reading.

Wednesday


I wake early again to write. I’m in the early stages of a new novel. This morning I use a prompt from Suleika Jaouad’s wonderful Isolation Journals project, but not for myself; for one of my characters.

My son and I make matzoh balls for tonight’s Passover seder. I call my mother a couple times, to see if I’m doing things right, and we schedule the next “Treasure Island” reading. Many of yesterday’s beats repeat themselves. But today it’s raining, so my son and I try a dance class on YouTube. We are very bad and we laugh a lot. We look out the window and see that the raft is sinking.

I send out an email blast saying that I hope everyone’s OK, that my book is still coming out and that I hope they’ll consider pre-ordering it from their local bookstores, which will ship or deliver.

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Octavia E. Butler.
(Cheung Ching-Ming)

A number of friends forward me emails from Amazon letting them know that my book may be delayed because they’re prioritizing necessary supplies. I thank them and try to pretend I don’t know this. I get on a quick phone call with a member of my marketing team, then I check in with my sister, who has gone back to work at her non-COVID hospital in Chicago. I pull down “Madame Bovary” and give myself a few minutes to look at the book’s opening — a first-person omniscient narrative strategy I was trying to recall earlier this morning. Then I make the mistake of checking the news and grow so angry I feel feverish.

I work on a short essay whose deadline has passed, but it’s hard to get my mind to settle, so I open up R.O. Kwon’s “The Incendiaries,” which I’ve been rereading for its deft handling of fanaticism and violence, key threads in my own novel-in-progress. This morning I ordered Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower “ — also for novel research — from two local bookstores here. I close the book, figure out the first couple paragraphs of my essay, and go roll the matzoh balls.

Our virtual seder is short but sweet. Afterward, we play Spades and listen to the Alabama Shakes. Also, “O-o-h Child,” which brings up the tears again.

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Thursday


My writing time is fitful. I make some exciting discoveries, but I’m also thinking about how the current epidemic will change the trajectory of the book. It’s set 10 years in the future.

I talk with my agent. I’m worried, obsessing over minutiae. She helps me refocus on the big picture and on the things we can count on: the extraordinary creative energy my publishing team is pouring into the book; the superhuman efforts by booksellers; people’s everlasting need for stories.

The day’s beats come and go. My son reads to me from “A Guide to Bird Behavior,” which my father dropped off; he leaves things for us on the big rock outside. My son and I are excited about the way bald eagles roll and touch talons. Then I hand him “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” another wonderful book with an omniscient first-person narrator, and turn to my emails.

Naomi Alderman accepts the Bailey's Prize for "The Power."
(Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images For Baileys)
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A friend texts, looking for a good book, and I suggest Naomi Alderman’s “The Power.” I ask another friend for thoughts on navigating grocery shopping and she responds with a link to an illuminating essay by Atul Gawande.

I snap at my son about wanting another snack, then I snap at him for jumping when he can go outside. Then I apologize and we go for a bike-walk. Back inside, I turn on “Wild North” and work as my son watches. “They cut each other’s heads off!” he cries with glee.

We have a dance party. We all miss home and don’t know when we’re going back, but we’re also healthy tonight, and sheltered. We dance to Taylor Swift and Lizzo. Then we check ourselves for ticks and go to bed.


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