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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

The Write Stuff

Quills Conference keynote speaker Jonathan Maberry talks about writing during—and about—a pandemic

  • Sara Jo West

The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the world, but writers keep writing—and the League of Utah Writers keeps supporting local writers. For the 85th incarnation of its writers conference, the League of Utah Writers has moved Quills online for panels, workshops and other events, including keynote speakers. Among the keynote participants is New York Times bestselling writer Jonathan Maberry (X-Files Origins: Devil's Advocate), who spoke by phone from his California home about working as a writer during this unique time.

City Weekly: I think there are some assumptions that for a writer, it's easier to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic—you already work at home, you already work mostly by yourself, etc. Is that assumption true or false?

Jonathan Maberry: Unlike a lot of writers, I'm a very social animal. I go to a lot of events and conventions. But I can't do it in person now. You miss the connection with actual people, when you're all nerding out about books and having fun. I'm also involved in the Hollywood space, and you usually do that in person in meetings; doing that on Zoom isn't the same as doing it in person. I've had to cancel so many events.

CW: Has working in quarantine affected your writing routine in any way?

JM: When this first thing started, like a lot of folks I went through a period of cultural shock and malaise, but then I got my mojo back. I'm used to going out to a coffee shop or a restaurant, then starting my working day. You miss a lot of the ebb and flow of humanity, which is a lot of what writing is about. Now, I see people through a window.

CW: What have you found works best as a way of staying in a writing routine?

JM: The real trick for that is creating a schedule. I get up at a certain time, I take a shower, I dress. I dress for work. Granted, for me "dressing for work" is khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. I do schedule time for social media, but I write in "sprints." Other friends I know, we'll set a time for sprints—no phone calls, no emails, no internet. Once you've done some writing, it helps you feel that you're still at your job.

CW: It's inevitable that writers are going to turn this world-changing event into fodder for their work. You've used pandemics as a subject in your writing previously; what are some do's and don'ts of taking on this topic?

JM: If you write something that's entirely pessimistic, there's going to be a softer market for that. Even if there's tension and stress and crisis, there needs to be something at the end with some optimism. There have been worse plagues in history; we just need the time and the support of governments to get us to the next level. ... This will have been a milestone in our cultural history. To write something contemporary that doesn't acknowledge it, would be a weird note.

CW: Pandemics have often been a topic in the genres in which you write. What have horror and science-fiction writers gotten right or wrong about the realities of a pandemic like we're now seeing?

What we got wrong is outweighed about what we got right. We got right that politics get in the way. They're so into spin control and image that they forget that people are at risk. And writers understood that people are their own worst enemies at time. They tend to bluster their way through things. At the same time, we've also written about people who rise heroically during these things, and who take the extra step, who reveal themselves to have some quality of leadership. And sometimes it's not the person you suspect. ... Most of us assumed that things would be handled better in the 21st century than they were. Unfortunately, it's an inarguable thing that this was mishandled domestically.

CW: What is the reality of the writing marketplace right now? You work in a variety of media; are there places where it's easier or harder to get a project off the ground under the current circumstances?

JM: There's uncertainty, but there's not a view that the world is coming to an end. With book publishing, people in isolation read. Book publishing isn't faltering, but it's learning to walk this new walk. I'm actually seeing more deals happening during this time. The comics industry took some hits, because most are distributed by Diamond, and they're not an essential service. But that's picking up, too; publishers are looking for multi-platform stuff. The industry is shifting, but it's not falling apart. It's pivoting, and we have to be comfortable with that pivot, and pivot along with it. So there's a lot of optimism through this. Writers shouldn't write less, but look at this as an opportunity to write more.