Writing Through the Pandemic: Novelist Susan Coll Considers Her Options

Thank you for asking how my writing is going! All is well!

Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

Washingtonian is keeping you up to date on the coronavirus around DC.

We asked Washington writers to share stories, essays, poems, drafts, musings, and other things they’ve been working on during quarantine. Today, a riff by Susan Coll, who is the author of five novels, most recently The Stager.


Thank you very much for asking if I am writing through the pandemic.

Yes, I am! And it’s going quite well!

It wasn’t, at first, but now I have an idea.

I’ll write a comedy about a novelist who is having trouble writing until she has a minor psychotic break: She now believes the pandemic is all in her head.

I bang out the opening scene:

My protagonist shares this epiphany with her husband. He is on Zoom, half-listening, while teaching third-graders about perimeters.

It’s not in your head, he says, hitting mute.

How could anyone, even in mid-psychosis, make up the bit about the President ingesting bleach?

It seems funny for a few minutes, until it does not.

Five hundred words in and I’m stuck.

It’s too soon for pandemic novels anyway. Remember those conversations post- 9/11? About how we need time to digest life before committing art?

Also remember that nothing was funny? Even irony was dead?

Thank you very much for asking if I am writing through the pandemic.

Yes, I am! I’m just taking a brief break!

I need to rest my brain because it’s been working very hard. I recently wrote a novel about a woman who is freaking out. White supremacists, nuclear-armed North Koreans, hacking Russians, global warming—it’s all too much. She is contemplating going into hiding in a bookstore nook.

My agent began to shop this book shortly before quarantine, and I haven’t heard from him in weeks.

Is it irrelevant? Too pre-Covid? Too quaint? Should I add a global pandemic to the list of my protagonist’s concerns?

I wonder what my agent thinks, but he doesn’t respond to e-mail or return calls.

On Facebook, he posts photos of his pets luxuriating on overstuffed chairs, so at least, thank goodness, there is proof of life.

Perhaps it’s just that all of the editors employed to reject books have lost their jobs.

Thank you very much for asking if I am writing through the pandemic.

Yes, I am! I’m just giving my thoughts a chance to bake.

I’m learning to stop checking headlines 187 times a day: More than 100,000 people have died in this country so far. Cities are in flames, people can’t breathe, reporters are arrested, an executive order takes aim at free speech—it’s hard to find the headspace to write.

I’m weaning off the social medias, too, even though it’s nice to connect with friends.

On Instagram, an acquaintance posts glam photos from a film festival in Berlin where an adaptation of her memoir premiered earlier this year.

No, really, I’m not envious at all. What I’ll do is set the novel aside for a bit and write a memoir, too, and then I’ll sell the rights and get Sigourney Weaver to star in the film!

This is exactly the project that I need to keep me engaged.

I send another e-mail to my agent to discuss.

He doesn’t reply, but that’s okay. I’m glad he’s alive.

On Facebook this morning, his cat and dog switched chairs.

Thank you very much for asking if I am writing through the pandemic.

Yes, I am, but maybe it’s time to again switch gears?

I’ve always loved reviewing, so I call a critic friend to see if she might point me toward more work.

Hahahahahahaha! she says.

What’s so funny? I ask.

Oh, dear—now she seemed to be choking. Ackackackackackack . . . .

Oy! Is this the Covid cough?

No, she says, collecting herself. She’s just laughing at my joke.

Freelance work has dried up. Book reviews, especially, are essentially kaput.

Thank you very much for asking if I am writing through the pandemic.

Yes, I am, and I’m perfectly okay.

I’m returning to the comic novel about the novelist who is writing through the pandemic while experiencing a minor psychotic break.

Perhaps a metaphor is missing: Perimeters + coronavirus = ?

I consult with my husband, who is always full of good ideas. (Sometimes he has two at once and one of them gets stuck.)

He starts to riff about perimeters beyond which danger lurks. It sounds so smart that I reach for a pen.

Wait: Do you really mean perimeters? he asks. Is it possible that circumference or radius is the better word?

Perimeters! Circumference! For the love of God, who cares?

No metaphor is perfect! I say.

No, I am not shouting.

I am perfectly okay.

I’m just going out to clear my head. A swig of bleach might help.

Thank you very much for asking if I am writing through the pandemic.

You know, writing isn’t everything. My life is very full.

Sometimes I do jigsaw puzzles, or teach others how to write.

We write for the sake of writing, I tell my students when we meet online each week.

Take the pressure off, people! There’s a global pandemic, I say.

One student worries her opening scene might not work.

It does not, I agree. You need a better metaphor! Plus nothing is funny anymore!

How do I find an agent? another one asks.

That’s easy: I direct him to Facebook, where the cat is shredding what appears to be a manuscript—wait, is that mine?

So yes, thank you very much for asking!

I’m writing through the pandemic and it’s going just swell.

In fact, hold on—I feel another sentence coming in:

We balance perilously at the precipice of the perimeter (or possibly the radius—which implies a certain centeredness) of life.

Five hundred and twenty words.

It’s been another productive day.