Life was busy for Rajani LaRocca in late winter of 2020. Not only did the Concord physician have a bustling internal medicine practice, a daughter about to graduate from high school, a son settling into his sophomore year of college, and a household that included her husband, her dog, and her septuagenarian parents, but she’s also a prolific author of children’s books, including three middle grade novels, several picture books, a Little Golden Book biography of Vice President Kamala Harris, and “The Secret Code Inside You,” described on her website as “a rhyming picture book introduction to DNA.”
Nonetheless, in the two years of pandemic life that followed, she conceived more picture books, completed a work in progress, and wrote “Switch,” a novel-in-verse about identical twins who lament their increasing differences. And in the first week of 2022, she received word that her 2021 middle grade novel, “Red, White, and Whole,” had won a Newbery Honor.
While for many people creative energy was among the scarcest of resources in the midst of the pandemic, some writers like LaRocca — women with families to care for, children’s schooling to manage, even other careers — managed to continue their work despite the circumstances, dreaming up story ideas, drafting novels, working through revisions, finding agents.
But it certainly wasn’t easy. “My 10-year-old daughter was suddenly home from school. My husband was working from home. The dog could no longer go to doggie daycare. Everyone was in the house,” recalled Canton mystery writer Joanna Schaffhausen. “The job of a novelist involves holding an entire world worth of fictional places and people in your head. That’s extremely difficult to do when your child needs help with Zoom, your spouse wants to show you something funny on Twitter, and the dog keeps squeaking his hedgehog toy. And I was in the midst of book five of a six-part series, with deadlines to meet.”
Still, many local writers learned to make the best of their situations. For Trisha Blanchet of Chelmsford, whose debut novel, “Herrick’s End: Book 1 of The Neath Trilogy,” is due out in May from Tiny Fox Press, remote learning meant that her beta reader — in the form of her high school-aged son — was right down the hall when she needed feedback. “He’s my target audience,” Blanchet said. “He has lots of opinions and is always super helpful, so it was actually great. I could knock on his door any hour of the day to talk through an idea when I was stuck.”
The pandemic also led Blanchet to a fortuitous connection with a literary agent. “I signed up for the Writers’ Digest Annual Conference in New York City, which had gone virtual, like everything else,” she said. “That meant in place of the usual face-to-face agent meetings, authors were required to make a little video to pitch their book. It felt very strange, but somehow I managed to connect with an amazing agent, and we sold the book.” She subsequently spent the second year of the pandemic writing its sequel.
Weymouth author Caroline Kautsire expected to spend 2020 doing appearances to promote her memoir, “What Kind of Girl?”, about her childhood and teen years in Malawi in east Africa. With events canceled and the courses she teaches at Bunker Hill Community College all virtual, she established new writing habits. “A writer should be writing every day, and the pandemic has allowed me to do that,” Kautsire said recently from Malawi, where she was spending time with family following her mother’s death. She wrote a follow-up memoir, “Some Kind of Girl,” and after hearing Amanda Gorman speak at President Biden’s inauguration, she began writing more poetry, much of which centers on questions of social justice, identity, and the diaspora experience.
More time for contemplation allowed Kautsire to delve into some new topics as well. “In Malawi there’s a lot of stigma about mental health issues,” she said. “I’m trying to use my voice to validate mental health conditions. The pandemic has made me more of an activist in my writing style. I’m willing to write uncomfortable things about being a Black woman.”
As a mother of two young children, Rebecca Caprara of Boxborough was already in the habit of finding small pockets of time to write. “When my daughters were very small, I often had only 15- or 20-minute bursts of writing during their naptimes,” she said. For several years, that proved to be enough for her to publish three middle-grade novels. Nonetheless, in the spring of 2020, with a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old home from school, “I fell into one of the worst creative slumps I’ve had ever known,” Caprara admitted. “The anxiety around all of the unknowns put a sudden halt to my normal creative process. For a while, I wondered if I was ever going to write again. But finally, in early 2021, I made the decision that I’d worked too hard to give up on this dream.”
Caprara described what happened next as “almost like a dam breaking and water pouring through. A story I’d been batting around before the pandemic came back to me with a clarity I hadn’t had in months.” The result was her first novel for YA audiences, a feminist reimagining of Ovid’s myth of Arachne, to be published by Atheneum in 2023.
For Jane Ward, the problem wasn’t household chaos as much as unnerving isolation. Alone at home in Ipswich with her dogs while her husband worked in another state, she worried that she or her husband would get sick while they were physically separated even as she struggled to meet deadlines on the manuscript of her third novel, “In the Aftermath,” which was published last September by She Writes Press. “By 2020, I was in the revisions process,” she said. “The responsibility of deadlines forced me to concentrate on something other than random panic about what was going on. It was good to have a project to work on.”
Kate Dike Blair of Concord had completed her first historical novel, “The Hawthorne Inheritance,” just prior to the start of the pandemic. After several rounds of revisions, she submitted it to a small publishing house and waited for a response. When she finally followed up to inquire as to the status of her submission, a representative at the publishing house apologized profusely, saying that the company was shorthanded due to the pandemic and had intended to send her a contract months earlier. To Blair’s elation, her book quickly moved ahead toward publication – despite the fact that the editor assigned to her project was sending her revisions from a hospital bed where he was recovering from COVID.
Of course, a writer’s efforts don’t end with the book’s publication. Authors bear increasing responsibility for finding opportunities to promote their book. For Kautsire, this meant learning to love Twitter. Blair hosted a masked outdoor book launch in Concord Center. Ward found her way to numerous virtual book groups eager to include the author in their online discussion of a particular work.
And although all of them hope that more normal circumstances will surround the publication of their future works, some concede that the pandemic carried its own seeds of inspiration. “What has surprised me about the whole pandemic is how resilient people are,” said LaRocca. “We’ve seen some pretty awful things. But there’s still art and beauty and music and connection to be found. My new book, ‘I’ll Go and Come Back,’ is about a girl in the US who visits her grandmother in India. Right now we’re not traveling internationally, but I’m grateful that this book holds out this promise of returning to the people you love, and having some kind of normalcy.”
“It’s challenging but also sustaining,” observed Schaffhausen about the process of creating literary works during a global pandemic. “When the real world is on fire, it’s nice to retreat into a fictional world where you can control everything.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.