Authors reflect on lessons learned during the pandemic

Grady Hendrix, a native of Charleston, S.C., is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires." (Courtesy of Albert Mitchell)
Grady Hendrix, a native of Charleston, S.C., is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires." (Courtesy of Albert Mitchell)

Grady Hendrix, Karin Slaughter, Soniah Kamal, others ponder COVID-19′s impact

Now that the pandemic appears to be on the wane, many of us are just beginning to process what it was like to experience the fear, uncertainty and isolation of the great global pause. Years from now, authors will probably still be writing books about the residual effects of living through the coronavirus crisis.

Because writers are experts at observation and contemplation, they are uniquely positioned to reflect on the experiences we shared navigating the loss of lives, income and freedom that resulted from the spread of COVID-19. So the AJC contacted five authors and asked them the question: What did you learn during the pandemic? Here are their eloquent and thought-provoking responses.

Grady Hendrix

“I rent an office in a building mostly occupied by passport agencies, driving schools and two guys who are always on their phones shouting about ‘Don.’ In 2020, no one was learning how to drive, no one needed a passport and Don was nowhere to be found. Every day, I walked the three blocks from my house to this empty 18-story building, and I wrote. The names of the days and months didn’t matter anymore. My three-block walk taught me a new way of telling time. I remember the day I saw my first car on the streets, rolling through an intersection, four blocks away. I remember the morning the neighborhood coffee shop reopened. Some days I was their only customer. I remember the Sunday I saw my first jogger and the first day I walked to work without hearing a single siren.

“I can’t remember June, July or August but I remember the week homeless people began to fill the alcoves and settled in under abandoned construction scaffolding. The week when every morning I had to wake up a guy to open my office building’s door. The nights I had to run home to beat curfew while helicopters chattered overhead. I don’t remember the Fourth of July, but I remember the day bars began to build their outdoor seating and those first wild nights when shell-shocked couples wandered the streets drinking Frosé and clutching each other’s hands.

“I can’t tell you what September was like, but I can tell you that for a long time, strangers said ‘good morning’ when they passed you on the street, and you said it back, and you both meant it, and then one day we all stopped. I can’t tell you anything about Thanksgiving, but I can tell you all about the day the guy who ran my local print shop closed after 13 years because he was too ashamed to go one more month without paying his landlord rent.

“I became profoundly connected to these three blocks and through them I felt New York City die, and then I felt it slowly come back to life. In my building, people are taking driving classes again, passport appointments are being made, Don is up to his old tricks, and I still take the same walk to work, only now I have to wait for the light to cross the street because of all the cars. If you didn’t know every inch of these three blocks, you’d think the city seemed back to normal, but I see how many more homeless people still sleep each night beneath the construction scaffolding. I see the ‘For Lease’ signs that fill most of the storefronts now. These three blocks of New York City survived, but everywhere I look I can still see the scars.”

Grady Hendrix’s new book, “The Final Girl Support Group” (Berkley, $26), comes out July 13.

Karin Slaughter. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)
Karin Slaughter. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)

Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

Karin Slaughter

“I’m extremely introverted, so I thought being in lockdown was already a lifestyle choice. What I learned is that I’m not as much of a hermit as I thought I was. I miss going to breakfast at Highland Bakery with my friends, or seeing a movie at Tara Cinemas on the weekends. I also realized that a lot of my thinking-about-writing time takes place during those endless delays in the Delta Sky Club Lounge at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport or on a plane going somewhere for a book tour.

“I’ve definitely had to reset how I do things. Setting a book taking place during the pandemic also gave me the opportunity to step back and look at how crazy the entire world got in a very short period of time. I remember going to restaurants with my grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression. She would always dump all of the packets of sugar and Sweet’N Low in her purse. I wonder if, in 50 years, the pandemic generation will embarrass their grandkids by taking home all the toilet paper.

“What I really worry about coming out of the pandemic is the collective trauma we have all experienced and how that will be expressed in the coming years. The enormous loss of life is foremost in my mind, but the list of negative consequences, great and small, is endless. And, of course, as with any cataclysmic event, women — particularly women of color — have disproportionately taken the brunt of the burden. I was very fortunate to be able to work from home, but I still found it incredibly stressful. I cannot imagine what it was like for people who didn’t have a choice but to be out in the middle of the world, many times on the front lines. We’ve all experienced a suspension of grief where the losses were too large to handle, so we just watched Netflix or read historical fiction, which somehow felt safer because it had already happened. I think we’ll be dealing with the fallout for many years to come.”

Karin Slaughter’s new standalone novel, “False Witness” (William Morrow, $28.99), comes out July 20.

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Soniah Kamal
Soniah Kamal

Soniah Kamal

“Sometimes teachers are thrust upon us and so it is with this pandemic. Since 2020, I have sent ‘my condolences’ over social media to even absolute strangers because that is what connection and community means now. I learned I was more of a homebody than I’d ever thought. I learned I definitely don’t like online grocery shopping and that, after being delivered elephant-sized bananas, I most certainly prefer choosing my fruits and vegetables. I learned I can’t write in the face of worldwide instability, that I would question the import of writing in the face of so much death, mourning, losses. And, though I had no intention of traveling, needing to take care of an unwell parent sent me to Pakistan for a long while, and so I saw the pandemic responses in different countries. To date in the U.S., the CDC says it’s OK to unmask and there are plenty of vaccines to go around, while in Pakistan the government urgently urges mask wearing and there is a vaccine shortage.

“Everywhere people long for life to return to ‘normal’ and they talk about how their plans and futures so suddenly went askew and about the costs and, in some cases, benefits of being housebound. I learned, as in all things in life, while we share a universal situation, our individual circumstances make all the difference in how we survive this pandemic physically and emotionally, and how pandemic confinement varies depending on one’s particular privileges. And I learned, yet again, how, for me, books and reading are the greatest balm and that therefore writing is important and stories are essential in good times as well as in hard times.”

Soniah Kamal is the author of “Unmarriageable” (Ballantine Books, $27).

Will Leitch
Will Leitch

Will Leitch

“One of my personal side effects of the pandemic has been getting unusually emotional over otherwise unremarkable, common things. A school bus, children playing outside with other children, a shaky local band playing choppy Skynyrd covers in a public park. For 44 years of my life, none of these occurrences would have made me glance away from whatever I was reading, and now they nearly cause me to tear up.

“As we approach a moment of breakthrough here, these moments are going to become more and more common. (They are) reminders of what we’ve lost, and what can be regained again. A friend told me the other day that the first time she sees one of those movie theater house ads, reminding you to turn off your phone and to visit the concession stand, she may weep so hard that she’ll miss the rest of the movie.

“That sense of recovering what was taken away from us, of being able to see the normal and banal through new eyes — I’m finding it a revolutionary experience. The world looks like it got a good rinse, and is brighter, and eager for me to come play with it. I’ve learned not to take it for granted. I’ve learned to go play.”

Will Leitch’s debut novel, “How Lucky” (Harper, $25.99), came out May 11.

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Mary Kay Andrews
Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews

“The pandemic was a gentle reminder to me that my family is the most important thing in my life. We — my husband, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, plus, at times, our son, his girlfriend and her two young boys — sheltered in place together, both at home, and at our vacation rental house on Tybee Island. We cooked, dined, laughed and played together for probably the most extended period in our lives, and we lived to tell the tale. In fact, we learned that not only do we love each other, but we really, really like our little family unit. Looking back now, I realize what a rare, precious gift that was.

“I was gratified to see so many people helping care for others during the pandemic, from donating to food banks, to sending food and masks to front-line workers. It gave me new hope for humanity.

“Watching the horrible toll the pandemic took on our country sharpened my social conscience and also galvanized me politically, drove me to speak out and take actions during the 2020 election cycle in a way I never had before.

“Professionally, I learned to accept the gift of solidarity offered by the lockdown, to retreat to the world of my book without the distraction of a book tour or the hustle of daily life. So much so that for the first time in my 30-year career, I turned in my novel six weeks early.”

Mary Kay Andrews’ new book, “The Newcomer” (St. Martin’s Press, $28.99), came out May 4.

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