The coronavirus pandemic has affected the people of Richmond in countless ways, changing how we work, learn and interact with each other.
While the physical health and safety of every individual comes first, the mental toll this crisis has brought is beginning to compound. From anxiety and stress due to finances, schooling and job security, to depression and loneliness in the absence of human contact, our emotional identities are being challenged as much as our physical selves.
When it seems like we’re living in a fictional world too absurd to call reality, what is the responsibility of the writer or artist? Is it to entertain, inform or inspire? And how is one motivated to create significant work during this crisis? We asked a few local authors a series of questions about the impact the virus has had on their lives and work.
Style Weekly: How has the crisis and quarantine affected the way you approach your work?
Sarah Glenn Marsh: First, I’m one of the people we’re all staying at home for. I’m at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to my autoimmune disease, and so is my husband due to his asthma, so we actually started distancing at the very beginning of March. So despite my best efforts to turn off my phone so I can tune into my muse, what’s happening in the world and within our community continues to weigh heavily on my mind. I’m giving myself permission to only write if I feel compelled, and so far, truthfully, I haven’t.
Susann Cokal: I have been isolated for a few years now, due to illness. So for me the physical impact isn’t as great as it is for others. Knowing how sick people are getting and how many are dying — it does make the work seem more urgent personally. Illness is random in a careless universe, and this virus is particularly capricious.
Patricia Smith: Well, I’ve struggled to do anything creatively. I’m not a hundred percent certain why I can’t work. I feel as though I’m grieving, I’m distracted. … Interestingly, my novel in progress is, in a lot of ways, a novel about grief, so I’m trying to channel what I’m feeling and put it into the manuscript.
Has this crisis inspired you creatively in any way, and if so, how?
Sarah Glenn Marsh: I wouldn’t say it’s inspired me creatively. But it has strengthened my resolve to continue creating whenever I am able, because one thing this virus has proven is that whether we’re introverts or extroverts, we all crave connection on some level, and connecting with a story can be powerful and nourishing for anyone.
Susann Cokal: I had just finished a novel manuscript called “Influence,” about the effects that twins have on each other, ghosts have on the living and the Spanish influenza had on the world of 1918 to 1920, right before the pandemic hit. So in a way it’s like watching my research unfurl in reverse.
Patricia Smith: I’m starting to have ideas for some nonfiction, starting to see some links to previous life challenges, and wanting to write about them.
What do you believe is the writer’s role during this pandemic and in its aftermath?
Sarah Glenn Marsh: As an author of books for children and teens, I view my role right now much the same as ever: to inspire, to connect, to comfort if I can. I’ve been using Zoom to do story times for bookstores and teachers to share remotely with readers.
Susann Cokal: The writer’s calling has to be to interpret the world -- make it somehow fall into place and make sense, or point out the ways in which it will always be ragged and never make sense. We are in the midst of a remarkable moment in history, a really strange one. I’m sure a lot of us will write about it, bringing individual experiences into the grand narrative of history. Maybe not about coronavirus specifically, but living through one disaster creates a sensitivity to others.
Patricia Smith: I often consider the writer as witness, as someone who is of their time, so in that sense, we can be taking note, keeping track, observing, getting down all that we’re experiencing right now. Writers can also provide alternative realities, provide escape from the day to day, offer up a different way to see things.
In what ways can we support artists during this time?
Sarah Glenn Marsh: Much the same as ever, continue recommending and buying their work if you have the means, most especially from local bookstores. Indies are facing a terrifying time financially, just like authors, and ordering from them is a big help to both the stores and authors; best of all, most indies will ship to your home now. I’d recommend checking out Fountain Books and Chop Suey Books’ websites here in Richmond.
Susann Cokal: The obvious answer is by buying their work, because the pandemic is hitting us all hard financially. But what writers and artists really want most is for their work to be seen, read and appreciated. Art holds the community together; it does that for your individual, personal soul, too. A novel’s chain of events and emotional reaction creates a kind of coherence we don’t get just from real life—as fantastical as real life has lately become.
Patricia Smith: Financial support is always great — buy books. Buy books from local indie bookstores who do so much already to support local writers. Tune in to virtual book chats, Share news about new books, about writer friends. Spread the joy.
Which books would you recommend to those of us in self-isolation?
Sarah Glenn Marsh: First, allow me to recommend a couple of my favorite plague novels: “The Last One” by Alexandra Oliva. A woman on a reality TV competition survives a pandemic, but thinks it’s all part of the show. “Severance” by Ling Ma — while this book technically features zombies, they are very human (no brain eating here) and the virus that causes them is eerily similar to COVID-19. And for those seeking more of an escape from current events, check out “The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher. Unlike anything I’ve ever read. A woman goes to clean out the home of a deceased family member deep in the woods, and she’s not alone out there. Best part: Nothing happens to her adorable dog.
Susann Cokal: “John Dollar,” by Marianne Wiggins—little girls stranded on an island, a female “Lord of the Flies”; “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov, because we might lose track of who we are and create astonishing alter egos as royalty in exile; “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, isolation on the prairie during terrible blizzards, almost starving to death, being grateful for just a wisp of maple syrup or a serialized story from a magazine. Sensory deprivation and absence of pleasure. It’s very of the moment.
Patricia Smith: Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” which is extraordinary, a contemporary version of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”; Beth Lisick’s “Edie on the Green Screen,” just released, set in 2011 in Silicon Valley. It’s funny and vibrant and smart and feels very contemporary. Cynthia Newberry Martin’s “Tidal Flats” about a marriage and the struggles when one partner is away in a war-torn area as a photojournalist and the other is home and longing for the missing partner. It’s lovely and deeply satisfying.
Sarah Glenn Marsh lives in Richmond with her husband and their tiny zoo of four rescued sight hounds, two birds and many fish. She is the author of “Fear the Drowning Deep,” the Reign of the Fallen series and several books for younger readers.
Susann Cokal is the author of four hefty books of historical fiction, including “Mermaid Moon,” which debuted in March. She lives in the Southampton district with a passel of cats, a spouse, and some neighborhood deer and peacocks.
Patricia Smith is the author of the novel “The Year of Needy Girls,” a 2018 Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is a teacher of American literature and creative writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg. She lives in Chester.