By William Boyd
March 16th was when we – I and my wife, Susan — decided to go into self-imposed lockdown, a full week ahead of this narrenschiff of a government. At first it seemed a daunting prospect. When our local restaurant closed its doors I remember the manager saying, “See you in three weeks”. Dream on, I thought. Now, months later, as we actually begin to contemplate leaving the country, it seems a kind of milestone has been reached. Maybe it’s over. Maybe this is the end of the beginning.
Funnily enough, a writer’s life is oddly suited to self-isolation. For many hours of the day, seven days a week, I do what I’ve always done. I sit in my study and write. One lockdown difference has been a strange compulsion to say “yes” to every commission proposed to me. Usually I’m very choosy. Will you write an introduction to Laurence Durrell’s novel Mountolive? Yes. Will you write a piece on the French photographer, Jacques-Henri Lartigue? Yes. Will you contribute your thoughts about the NHS to a charity anthology? Yes. Will you review a new collection of Chekhov short stories? Yes. Now I look back I realise I’ve never written so much journalism in such a concentrated period of time. To my vague astonishment, I see that I will have written for the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the New Statesman, Le Nouvel Observateur, the Spectator, Areté and the Times Literary Supplement, not to mention the Financial Times, since lockdown began. And that’s just the journalism.
The big writing project that’s been preoccupying me throughout the last several weeks is a four-hour television drama about last year’s fire at Notre Dame. It’s an extraordinary story – a real-life “Towering Inferno”: catastrophic disaster only just averted – and almost a real-time drama. The crisis lasted about four hours, all told, from 7 pm to 11 pm on the night of April 15th, 2019. Digging out the individual stories that unspooled during those four hours — from firefighters, to clerics, to President Macron — has been fascinating.
But it’s not this project that will summon up my lockdown life in years to come. Like everyone else, what we’ve missed most over these weeks is human contact. Zoom calls are great, but they fall way short of proper social interaction. Our godchildren, Jack and Molly Mogford (Jack,8; Molly,7), live close by and we used to see them very regularly. All this stopped with the virus, necessarily, and their lives came to be dominated by home-schooling. Spontaneously, I came up with an idea that I thought would appeal to them both. I suggested that we write a novel together, alternating chapters. Susan and I would write chapter one, Jack and Molly would write chapter two, and so on, back and forth, until the book had been completed to our mutual satisfaction.
I started the ball rolling. Luis Caruba is a private detective, called in by the police to solve apparently unsolvable cases. Caruba changes his hat on a daily basis. He has a feisty assistant, a young French woman called Bérangère, and a Jack Russell terrier called Alphonse. A massive diamond ring has been stolen from an exhibition of priceless jewellery and there are at least six suspects. The book was entitled Caruba and the Mystery of the Biggest Diamond in the World. Over to you, Jack and Molly.
When we started I had no idea how long the exchange would last. Perhaps it might become boring, or too time-consuming. But not a bit of it – they relished the idea. To and fro the emailed chapters went. Susan and I writing the odd numbers, Jack and Molly, the evens. By the time we hit chapter ten I realised we were in for the long haul. We settled into a weekly chapter-exchange, so two chapters were written by each team every week.
Alternating chapter-writing is a curious and challenging endeavour. Susan and I and Jack and Molly faced our own respective frustrations as the narrative took extraordinary swerves and was then effortfully redirected. One of the suspects was suddenly murdered. Another one fled the country for France. Bérangère was the victim of a brutal assault with a wooden yoyo. Alphonse ate the diamond. The great thing about this eccentric writing process is that it really tests your powers of narration. Just when you think you’ve been painted into an inescapable corner you have to find an ingenious way of leaping free. It was truly amazing to see how Jack and Molly grew in sophistication and invention as the weeks went by. It was the perfect lockdown diversion.
We drew everything to a close last week at chapter twenty-three. Luis Caruba has solved the case, the guilty parties are jailed, and there is every possibility of a sequel. To our collective astonishment we realised we had written 14,000 words. Clearly, we had to self-publish. And so a hardback book of this novella, just over a 100 pages long, is in the works. Print-run of forty, Christmas presents solved. This book will be enduring memory of these strange times we’ve been living through.