Chatham writers carry on, make creative use of time in quarantine


In the weeks since the novel coronavirus began its worldwide spread and, in response, folks largely hunkered down in quarantine, it’s been widely circulated that William Shakespeare wrote some of his most well-known plays while quarantined from a 16th-century contagion.

“Just a reminder,” musician Roseanne Cash tweeted on March 13, “that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote ‘King Lear.’”

Whether contemporary novelists, poets and playwrights emerge from the spring of 2020 with future classics of their own remains to be seen, but the local writers we spoke with recently say they’re putting this period to productive use.

“For some reason that I can’t explain, I’ve written my funnier, nuttier books when I was blue or down and out,” said novelist and UNC-Chapel Hill creative writing professor Lawrence Naumoff. “Similarly, I’ve written my weirdest and most unsettling books when I was living well and having a good life and was happy. So, I’m still writing, and the Corona-prose is funny, and I don’t know why.”

Naumoff’s bibliography includes “Taller Women, a Cautionary Tale,” for which he received the New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1992; “A Southern Tragedy, in Crimson and Yellow,” for which he won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award in 2005; and “Silk Hope, NC,” which was made into a TV movie — the film dropped the “NC” — starring Farrah Fawcett in 1999. He says he’s staying indoors a lot, writing, and remaining healthy at his home in Orange County.

“The virus, being out there who knows where — I am grateful to say I’ve not gotten it as far as I know — but I have regularly gotten the ‘Imagivirus’ a number of times,” he said. “Each time, I am fairly sure this is it, and I’m getting the real thing, but in a day or two, the mild symptoms go away, and the Imagivirus goes away as well.”

But it hasn’t been all writing all the time for the Carrboro novelist and short story writer.

“Being indoors a lot,” Naumoff said, “I watch TV, and have hit the low end of it and the dregs, now and then, something I wouldn’t normally, or ever, do. A few weeks ago, I watched an entire afternoon episode of ‘The Doctors’ and found it to be as surreal as almost anything I’ve written.”

Chatham County writer Marjorie Hudson, a self-proclaimed “introvert,” has been quarantining at home. The author of “Searching For Virginia Dare: A Fools Errand” and “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas” — a collection of seven stories and a novella which earned a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for Distinguished First Fiction and was a Novello Literary Award Finalist — noted that while a writer’s life requires a lot of alone time under normal circumstances, she’s had to make adjustments to how she normally lives and works.

Hudson said she rises early and starts her day reading, which has been helpful in managing stress. She recently re-read C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which were childhood favorites, and has been enjoying recent works by Helen Freemont and Abraham Verghese.

“I get up early every morning and read a book,” Hudson said. “As we know, books will take us to a different world.”

Hudson said since the quarantine measures have gone into effect, she converted a room in her home into a quiet space — furnished only with a table, chair and lamp — to retreat to read, write and work.

She continues to teach writing, staying in touch with students virtually through Zoom, and is continuing to work with other writers to help them promote their work during these unusual times.

Dolly Sickles, an author of romance novels and children’s books, said she has been on a creative hot streak.

Sickles, who lives in Pittsboro, has been recovering from a traumatic brain injury she sustained nearly eight years ago, and recalls how inhibiting the injury, from a fall, was to her creativity.

“In the last year,” she said, “I’ve finally gotten my groove back and in the last three months, I’m on fire. I’ve always worked better under pressure and with multiple projects, so I think my brain is finally catching up to its potential.”

Sickles is halfway through writing a new romantic suspense novel, and hopes to have it ready to shop to publishers around June 1. She’s also working with an illustrator on a new children’s book that they’ll publish around the holidays. She continues to write book reviews for BookPage and Frolic. And she recently launched a bi-weekly column in the Chatham News + Record (and a new blog), The Optimistic Gardener.

A “burst of travel” in late 2019 — to Paris and Lyon, France; Northern California; Geneva, Switzerland; and London, England — gave Sickles “tons of ideas.”

But she does miss “seeing other people,” she said, noting the value of observation to writers. “I think it’s important to observe things. I want to go out and walk around Target. I want to go out and look at people.”

Sickles — with her husband working from home — is enjoying this period of few distractions “beyond sticking close to home. Whatever the reason, I’m thankful for our health and my creative productivity.”

For Steve Underwood, a retired history teacher with Lee County Schools and, like Sickles, a Central Carolina Community College Creative Writing Program Committee member, has two books “moving toward publication.” One — a historical fiction novel set during World War II titled “Young Hickory” — is very close to publication, either late May or June, said Underwood, who lives in Sanford. But with uncertainty about how the coronavirus will affect life in the coming months, Underwood’s not sure how he’ll promote the title, whose publication is timed with the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. He’d planned on book promotion events at National Guard armories.

“But that’s not looking likely because of what’s happening,” he said.

The future of his other completed title, “Ghost Princess,” for middle grade readers, also has Underwood a bit concerned. He hasn’t heard from the publisher “for some time,” and is uncertain if the publisher has laid off staff. He said he is still hopeful for a September release.

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at