I was in Paris when Covid-19 became a reality. It was the weekend of 21st February and I was there for a quick family reunion: my older brother was in the French capital on a work trip, my parents had taken a train from our hometown of Turin, Italy, and I had joined them from London on the Eurostar. It was supposed to be a peaceful two days of walking around and eating pain au chocolat, one of the handful of times a year we get to be together as a family.
But on Sunday morning we woke up to the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Italy. By lunchtime the number had risen to 12. By the end of the week it was growing alarmingly fast. And then, almost overnight, the whole country shut down.
We have now all lived through something similar, but there is a special kind of anxiety in trying to secure your parents’ health while you are thousands of miles away. Or in hearing from a close friend, whose father in law died in the space of two days and whose body had to be cremated in a different region – miles away – because their town’s morgues were at capacity.
I have now been in lockdown for almost three months. It’s been a wild rollercoaster: the highs have been very high and the lows lower than ever.
I don’t mind working from home and the way Hachette has tackled this crisis has been impeccable, offering us huge amounts of support, clear communication and flexibility. We have all found new ways to keep in touch with our colleagues and work together as a team.
But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge a certain helplessness. There have been days when I sit at my dinner table – armed with the essentials: coffee, hand cream, a good Britney playlist – and find myself struggling to find the motivation to negotiate another offer, tweak another batch of metadata, check another cover.
When those moods strike, I know there is little I can do. I go for walks around the deserted streets of Shoreditch, I watch some comfort TV, I bake and then force-feed my husband yet another slice of Rachel Roddy’s ciambellone. Reading rarely works, although I have recently discovered a little-known author who I think is going to be huge. I believe her name is Hilary Mantel? You should check her out.
Experience has taught me to embrace these moments and wait them out. Because the flip side is that there are many days when books – and our job in publishing them – feel more vital than ever.
On 10th March, one of my Italian authors, Paolo Giordano, sent me a short essay he had just finished writing. Paolo is a physicist and a novelist (we are publishing his new novel, Heaven and Earth in June): his pamphlet was emotionally raw – he had been writing it during lockdown, almost compulsively – and yet razor-sharp. We rallied the troops and had a finished translation in less than a week and the e-book of How Contagion Works up for sale in ten days.
We have also made the decision to keep our pre-Covid publication dates, which has meant a renewed focus on those authors whose books we have been publishing for the past year (if not longer) and who deserve their moment in the spotlight. That’s really what keeps me going. It’s been a wonderful tonic witnessing Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures – her first novel in a decade – taking over social media; or seeing Charlotte Wood – an astonishingly good Australian writer – get the recognition she deserves here in the UK as we prepare to publish her bestselling novel, The Weekend.
And then there are the people. Everyone I know has rallied together in new and unexpected ways. Our art department put in place a new system of cover checking in the space of days; our IT people managed to get over a thousand people working from home without any real issue; our warehouse is still fulfilling orders.
More widely, our lives outside work have taken new meaning. Our neighbourhood association has been organising window display competitions to keep children busy; local businesses have been delivering everything from books (our local indie bookshop) to food and wine (our wedding suppliers); and we have found a new sense of wonder at small things – cleaner air, louder birdsong, a slower pace of life.
So that’s what I think about now when I feel a bit blue: a new understanding of what the future could hold for us. And it’s an endless source of joy and pride knowing that books will be an essential part of that future and that they will continue to offer readers everywhere a chance to escape, think and rediscover a more joyful world.
PS: I got a picture from my mum today, the first of her and my dad back in the outside world since March. They are drinking espressos in the Italian sunshine, celebrating the re-opening of local cafes, raising a cup to the day when I am finally allowed to go and see them again.