Amid heaped laundry and accompanied by the slosh and rattle of his washer-dryer set, writer Jonathan Eig hunches over his computer, losing himself in a world of church bombings, angry mobs and the hope for a better future.
Eig scrolls through old letters and newspapers of the day as he researches the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life in 1957 Alabama for a biography.
“If I could, I would just shut my door and stay here for weeks — months at a time — and just immerse myself in this material,” Eig said, speaking from his Lake View home.
But then there’s a knock at the door. It might be one of his two daughters, asking him to make a sandwich or help with a tie-dye craft project.
Isolation — the kind that many stuck-at-home Chicagoans are now experiencing for the first time — is a way of life, a necessity, for writers. But they, like everyone else, are having to adjust to a new, less-than-ideal reality.
There are the thumps, shrieks and other interruptions coming from a suddenly crowded house.
Kelly O’Connor McNees, who lives in Rogers Park, is revising what she hopes will be her next novel. Until the coronavirus outbreak took hold here, she’d been editing her manuscript during the daily 30-minute Red Line ride each day into the Loop to her day job as director of content for Page 2 Communications, a legal industry communications strategy firm.
“Now that we are all at home, the time I had for working on [the revision] is gone,” said McNees, author of the 2018 release “Undiscovered Country,” a novel based on the love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and the Associated Press reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok. “At home, the struggle for us to work our full-time jobs and keep second grade going for our daughter, plan, shop for and prepare three-plus meals per day, get some exercise, keep up with laundry, dishes, cleaning, etc., has us completely maxed out from the moment we wake up until we zonk out at night.”
Lisle author Rebecca Siegel, whose children are ages 4 and 6, described her house as “pure chaos.” But the bigger problem isn’t the noise. She typically rises to write long before sunrise, when her children are still asleep.
“I’m not being very productive because I feel like I’m just in this mode of consuming [coronavirus] information right now, rather than creating,” said Siegel, a writer of middle-grade nonfiction. “I’m trying to just give myself grace with that because this is such a bizarre situation. I feel like if I’m trying to write, but I’m only thinking about what’s going on in the world, my writing is not very good.”
Vernon Hills children’s author Allan Woodrow said his concentration has suffered too from real-world intrusions.
“I write seven days a week . . ., almost every single day since I started writing 10 years ago, but I’ve written very little over the last couple of weeks and that is very odd for me and very frustrating,” said Woodrow, author of the 2019 novel “The Curse of the Werepenguin.”
He has also been unable to visit schools, one of the ways he’d spread the word about his recent release and the next book in the series, “The Revenge of the Werepenguin.”
It’s frustrating, he says, but not foremost in his mind right now.
“My focus is on my family and the health of the country — not my own selfish promotional needs,” Woodrow said.
Some parts of the author’s job, particularly for writers of nonfiction, have become a bit easier now.
“Everybody is home now. So that people who might have been elusive for me . . . they’re definitely going to answer their phones now,” Eig said.
Authors also know there’s extraordinary material to mine from the current crisis.
“I’m trying to keep the big picture in mind because the stories I like to write are stories about people facing enormous obstacles, things that seem insurmountable,” said Siegel, author of two nonfiction middle-grade books, “To Fly Among the Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts,” and the soon-to-be-released, “Mayflower, The Ship that Started a Nation.”
McNees suspects there will be novels written about this time, but probably not by her.
“I think some good books will come out of this time, but they will all be written by men who do not have small children,” she said. “It’s hard not to be deeply frustrated about that, but it is what it is.”
Eig isn’t sure whether the coronavirus will inspire him to write a book. But his daily immersion into the civil rights leader’s struggles has put the current crisis in context.
“I didn’t realize just how often bombs were exploding all over Montgomery and Birmingham. I knew that that happened, but . . . I didn’t know how real the threat of death was for [King] every day,” Eig said. “That kind of courage is really inspiring and incredibly relevant, especially when you think about all the doctors who are putting their lives on the line right now.”