I am writing this on the Tuesday after Labor Day, which was when I used to go back to school as a kid in Washington DC. The night before, I would lay out my clothes for that first day back. Often there was something new - a dress, a top, some shoes. I often had new stationery too - notebooks, pencils, a ruler, maybe a new pencil case or backpack. Even as an adult I have had that back-to-school feeling in early September, of fresh starts, new clothes, a blank notebook ready to be filled.

2020 is different. The usual milestones of a year and of a life - birthday parties, weddings, vacations, graduations - have been swept away, and I feel a little discombobulated. However, the other day in London I saw kids emerging from schools at the end of my street, laughing and larking about in their uniforms, clearly delighted to be back with each other and with some kind of structure in their lives, and I took heart. I have let myself slide a little bit over the summer, but now is the time to crack open that fresh notebook and start writing again. And so I begin...

I finish by sharing something that my Italian publishers Neri Pozza brought out a couple of days ago. Girl with a Pearl Earring came out in Italy 20 years ago, and to celebrate 20 years of us working together, Neri Pozza repackaged my backlist with gorgeous new jackets, and made this video. It's not how I would ever have pictured my books being publicized, but I love it. Enjoy, and Happy September.

 

 

I have made a career out of looking back. As an historical novelist, my relationship to the past is that of a forager, searching through the foliage for the hidden nut, the unpicked berry, the mushroom that has sprung up. I take that nut or berry or mushroom and make it into a story that gives us a way to relate to the past.

Normally I take the long view, visiting a period far enough back that it has context: we know what came before and after, and how important (or not) that place and time and person and event were.  For instance, my recent novel A Single Thread is set in the early 1930s, when the characters don’t yet know that a second war is on the way. Readers and I know, though, and that knowledge profoundly affects how we think of the story and the characters.

Now, though, we are all consciously living through a major historical event whose social, political and economic fallout is likely to be felt for a long time. But we have no perspective yet: no idea what comes after, or how we might view the coronavirus pandemic in a year, ten years, 100 years.

As a writer, I could just ignore the crisis and stick to the distant past. I am currently working on a novel about Venetian glass beads, set on the glassmaking island of Murano and spanning the 15th to the 21st centuries. Is that any longer what people will want to read, though? As a reader, I am struggling to stick with any novel right now. Historical novels make me feel like I’m looking through a telescope, while contemporary books seem irrelevant. Both are locked in their own worlds and trivial concerns, and can’t possibly touch our unique set of circumstances. While the coronavirus is drastically reshaping our lives, writing about 1490 Murano feels out of step. Instead I keep thinking about the contemporary section of my novel. How are the Muranese doing now? How would my characters cope with this lockdown? Is it crass to use the situation, or impossible not to? How can anyone write now without Covid-19 becoming a part of the world being created on the page?

On the other hand, if I do write about it, will it date? Are things changing too fast to maintain the longer view a novel requires? My feelings about what is happening now change from day to day; what I write on Friday feels banal on Monday, because I’ve already moved on. How can I possibly get a handle on history when it is so slippery right now?

And should I even keep writing? Maybe I should just set down my pen. Many of us are humbled by the “essential workers” list, and look at delivery men and corner shop clerks with new respect. They are our immediate lifelines to the outside world; not novelists, at least not at the moment.

Nonetheless, I write, if only as self-help. I may not be able to control the virus, but at least I can control my response to it. With my novel I’ve abandoned the 15th century, skipped hundreds of unwritten pages ahead, and begun working on the contemporary section, with my heroine responding to the pandemic at the same time as we are. For now I am treating the present as if it’s the past, putting a frame around it to bring order to the chaos. None of this may stick. In a year or two, once we have a bit of perspective, this part of the book may be inappropriate or naïve or irritating. I may bin it. That’s ok. There’s something powerful and cathartic about kicking Covid-19 into the past tense, turning now into then.

 

 

It is hard to write anything meaningful during a world crisis. Whatever we say now seems trite, or trivial, or outdated even a day or two later.

I have a novel to write and I am in the lucky position of being able to do that wherever I am. Isolation at home is not new to me. But I can’t concentrate on 15th-century Venice at the moment; I want to concentrate on 2020 Venice instead. I read the news, social media, text constantly with friends, talk on the phone. I want to stay connected.

Because it is all about connection. If we didn’t know it before, we surely do now. We truly are interconnected. The butterfly flapping it wings in Singapore does affect people on the other side of the world. The coronavirus is spreading because we are all connected. And connection is also what sustains us in difficult times. We may share the virus but we also share advice, humor, consolation, grief. It’s what humans do. Now more than ever.

I wish us all a safe passage, and I send a virtual hug.

xx

Over the years I have had many readers write to me saying they know someone who resembles the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. Their mother, their aunt, their daughter, themselves. One reader memorably told me I resembled the Girl, and that must be why I wrote about her.

That comment came back to me recently when my new novel A Single Thread came out in Italy, with the title La Ricamatrice di Winchester. An interview with me was published in Corriere della Sera, and it was illustrated thus:

 

gwape tc image

 

Now, that doesn't look quite like the painting, nor quite like me, but a little of both. I was totally flattered!

 

 

 

 

It has been a busy few months since A Single Thread was published in September in the USA and UK. I have been here there and everywhere talking about it and visiting a LOT of cathedrals in the process! Also seeing some spectacular embroidered kneelers, which is what the book is about. I saw these two at Guildford Cathedral (just south of London). Made in the 1960s, they are perfect for Violet and Arthur:

 

guildford embroidery kneeler reduced    guildford bell kneeler reduced again

 

A Single Thread will be out next year in various languages. First up: German and Italian.

I #amwriting! More on that in the New Year. For now, I am winding down. Whatever the holidays being celebrated (or not), it feels important to step back from the swift river of our lives and just be. I wish you a good break.