Writers at Home is a series that explores how writers’ creative work and writing practice has been transformed by the coronavirus pandemic. Spread the Word has commissioned five writers from the London Writers Awards scheme to share their personal stories with emphasis on their writing practice. Here’s Caroline Gardiner’s story…
My novel, the first full-length work I’ve attempted, is about the aftermath of a pandemic. I started writing it more than a year ago, which now feels like another lifetime. It was meant to be an adventure story for young adults, set in a dystopian world where children seem to be immune to the plagues, but are locked up for the benefit of the adults. As events in the real world began to mirror those in my book, with entire cities closed down, my writing came to a stop. There was no joy in it.
So, for most of March, I wrote nothing.
I only ever meant to entertain the readers of my book. Now I find myself wrestling with huge ethical dilemmas. Is it wrong to depict a world so close to reality as “just” entertainment? Am I in danger of trivialising the real suffering of millions of people by setting a fictional story in a world that is now all too recognisable? If I was writing a serious work of literary fiction about a pandemic, then I might be able to engage with the grief and horror. But the more I tried, the more it felt wrong to be writing this story at this time.
Sitting at my desk, while ambulances sped past on the road outside filled me with overwhelming sorrow and guilt. I turned off my computer.
Two things changed this, and got me back on track. The flow of words has been unlocked, and from no words, and a loss of confidence, I’m now building up to 1000 words a day.
The first was the critical feedback group I’m part of through the London Writers Awards. The group has always been supportive, and now they’ve convinced me that a story of how young people find courage and purpose, when their world has been turned upside down, will be resonant for readers in the next few years.
I remembered the strong emotions I’d felt reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” The book is partly a response to the events of 9/11, but it’s also about the trauma of losing loved ones over several generations. Reading the book helped me come to terms with the recent loss of a close friend. Books have the power to speak to readers directly, even on the most difficult and troubling themes.
The second spur to writing again came from one of the characters in my book. I’m used to characters surprising me, saying things that I didn’t know they were going to say until the words actually appeared on the page. There’s a very young boy in my book. He has lost his family, and he’s trying to find his way in a dangerous and hostile world. There’s a moment of quiet, when he and the girl he’s travelling with find temporary sanctuary in an abandoned house. And he surprised me by saying to her, “Tell me a story.”
We all need stories to help to us try to make sense of the world. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell you a story.
Caroline Gardiner has published a novelette for young adults, had poetry featured on London buses, dramatised ghost stories for audio books, and created adventure games for the Natural History Museum. She’s an award winning filmmaker, with films broadcast on Channel 4, optioned by the BBC, and bought by Tate Modern. She was joint winner of the Jerwood First Film Foundation Prize for screenplays, and long-listed for the Red Planet Screenwriting Prize. Previously, Caroline worked as a theatre director, with shows produced on the Edinburgh and London Fringe.
The Cure, which she is currently working on through the London Writers Awards, is her debut novel.
Published 6 May 2020