By Michael Botur
It’s a Sunday in April in the heart of the lockdown and I’ve made another enemy. Damn.
When I say enemy, I mean I’ve exchanged testy words with a person, and when you’re a writer, every word is imbued with massive importance. I have an ego the size of Jupiter so the deal is if I talk to you, you’re probably someone important, and if you and I clash on Facebook, it’s a literary feud of Vidal-ian proportions.
Right now, there are a plenty of things to clash over. This State of Emergency imposed on New Zealand five weeks ago? It’s turned political, baby.
Here’s what I’ve learned in Lockdownland:
- My friends with chronic health problems don’t want me to remark that if everyone was as fit and healthy and active as Ol’ Mountaineering Mike, they wouldn’t be at risk of coronavirus
- My scientist friends don’t want me to point out that some scientists are capitalising on fear right now
- My ex-wife doesn’t want to hear that the bank has lost all confidence and they can’t give me that loan I need to split the house and conclude our separation
All in all, everyone thinks I’m a dick right now – but what’s new? All the great writers in history were assholes in person, but we get our words written regardless of war or recession or pangolin-plague.
Here’s some of the stuff I’ve been writing from confinement:
- March 25 – Sent random Twitter message to Australian journalist/reformed Mongols biker gang member asking him to collaborate on a story (he said yes)
- April 1- Made a plan to email myself an instruction from an imaginary editor, thinking I may need it if I get desperate enough to cross a police cordon to see a woman 100 miles away
- April 2 – Found a cynical comedian friend on Facebook who hates the lockdown to be my ally
- April 10 – Wrote website content for an obscure Chinese manufacturer of hand sanitiser. Hey, work is work.
As a genius literary artist, no one knows how to perform self-serving cognitive distortions like I do, so when New Zealand’s po-faced prime minister said the country was going into a State of Emergency after March 23, I thought: nah. Can’t be real. There was to be a way I can control this by criticising it. That’s how I get through life. The writer is in control of emotions, situations, characters, moral judgement. People ought to stop catastrophising, I said. Sure I forced everyone on my birthday to watch Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion movie, but that was just a fiction, and if I have the power to influence fiction, surely… can’t I… but-but-but –
March 25, we went into lockdown. All events got cancelled – concerts, church, work. Even the Christchurch mosque massacre memorial was called off. Everyone started copying the things I’ve been doing for years before they became cool – hoarding alcohol, downloading torrented movies from Pirate Bay, walking silent streets at odd hours. Posting rants online. Making art at home.
While I groan and complain, I’ve adapted okay. I’m studying web development while I publish stories about frustrated people and home school my children. I even make them do a speech/presentation about pandemics. At lunchtime, my daughter destroys the rotary washing line. All playgrounds nationwide have closed; she has to swing off something.
From parliament to the opinion pieces in the papers, people have been trying to find a silver lining, and it’s fucking annoying. My hippy friend praises the unpolluted air, the family time, the respite for Mother Nature. The Prime Minister announces children can send her pictures of coloured-in Easter eggs.
#Be Kind, the message goes.
I dunno, man. Too much saccharine is bad for you.
I balance the beatniks with input from conspiracy theorists. An upbeat over-the-fence yarn with my widower neighbour turns into an alarming report. 21 million Chinese may have been quietly disposed of, he tells me. My stoner flatmate agrees. He’s been listening to his police scanner. The authorities are planning crackdowns, apparently.
Here’s what’s up: The job of the artist is to disturb the peace, as James Baldwin put it.
What he meant is that an artist with an original vision can’t feel at home in the centre of a herd of complacent sheep.
You tell an artist they should stay at home? They’re gonna want to go outside.
You tell an artist that the lockdown is a good time to re-invigorate bonds with your family, as Auckland Council told us? The artist probably offends their family on a daily basis.
You tell an artist now’s a good time to learn how to yodel?
Being kept away from work isn’t fun if it’s legal. Nothing legal is fun.
I’m already used to retreating from gatherings to meditate on long-forgotten feelings and express them in literary art. This is why I wrote nine books in nine years.
People have been telling me that things are turning out “Like a Michael Botur story.” Kids are apparently getting together and swapping viruses to build immunity like in my story Bugchaser. People are having holidays inside their heads like my story Staycation. The city’s gone silent and deserted like Summer School.
Want a real-life Michael Botur story? Here’s one:
I began the year launching the novel Crimechurch, written on long lonely weekends on self-imposed lockdown. Its first review – in a major magazine – was glowing, I’m told – except the magazine’s editor tells me mid-lockdown unfortunately the review has been pushed back a month.
Oh wait, update – it’s not going to run at all, sorry. The mag has been canned. The publisher has shut down.
I close my laptop. Time to drive down to the only place with beer and people – the supermarket.
The gonzo writer groans on.
Michael Botur’s new short story collection Hell of a Thing is published by The Sager Group. Crimechurch is available from Rangitawa Publishing.