Jane Christmas made the switch from journalism to books while still in Canada, and has continued to write from her home abroad, which has been in the suburbs of Bristol since 2017. Her memoir about living as a nun, And Then There Were Nuns, was reviewed for Canadian Writers Abroad by Isabel Huggan. Her memoir about travelling Italy with her mother, Incontinent on the Continent, was published in Canada by Greystone Books in 2009. Her most recent book, Open House: A Life in Thirty-two Moves (HarperCollins 2020), was on the Toronto Star bestseller list for Canadian nonfiction for the week ending April 1, 2020. Below she writes about how living during the time of COVID-19 affects her career.
New Skills for the Pandemic by Jane Christmas
Stay home; don’t mingle with others. In other words — for writers anyway — business as usual. Self-isolation is our default setting. But when a writer’s book is launched at the same time as a global lockdown, it means chaos.
My book, Open House: A Life in Thirty-two Moves, is about home, and it was released the day after lockdown was declared in the UK. Now that everyone was stuck inside theirs it looked unlikely my book would find its way past many front doors. As the pandemic marched across the planet, book shops, literary festivals, speaking events, tours, and interviews were cancelled; borders were closed. The fact that I now live in England compounded the difficulty in gaining traction in Canada via traditional promotional avenues. Social media? It wasn’t for me. I had assiduously evaded it and maintained a snobbish disdain for the company it kept: Not my tribe, I told myself.
“Oh yes they are,” a Toronto friend scolded me. He’s a realtor, and since COVID-19 had thrown his business into the outer universe, he decided to play Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle. A Zoom meeting was scheduled, and for two hours, twice a week for two weeks, he and his assistant (yes, he roped her in, too) remade my image. Within a few days, I was on Instagram, Facebook, had a YouTube channel and a new email account. And that tribe? There they were, cheering my arrival! There were writers I had admired from a distance who were now closer than I had dreamed and responding to my questions.
Part of my decision to join social media was due to an offer from the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms initiative. Formed to help artists whose Spring launches were elbowed by the pandemic, it presented my only promo opportunity. I filled in the forms and fired them off, not entirely certain what was being asked of me: “a reading live-streamed on Facebook”. What did that even mean? I watched the live-streamed launch of Alison Wearing’s new book. She was seated on a bar stool in a trendy pub with guitar accompanist, two cameras on her and a swivel microphone. Gulp. So staged. So professional. My reading would be entirely basic. And solo: My husband agreed he’d be more useful upstairs during the event ensuring our Yorkshire terrorist didn’t yap or start romping with his squeaky ball. It would be just me in front of an IKEA bookshelf staring at my laptop. Was I stressed? In the lead-up to the broadcast I got so worked up that I convulsed into sobs. There’s a reason I’m a writer and not a narrator or an actor. Lifetstyle guru Brené Brown calls these FFTs — Fucking First Times — and they are never elegant. I had to accept that.
I got through the reading and managed to answer a few questions. It’s amazing how quickly 30 minutes pass. A week later, more than 600 people had viewed the replay on my Facebook page. Whether they are truly interested in my book or just having a laugh at my awkwardness remains to be seen.
One of these years, someone will ask, “How did you spend the COVID pandemic” and I will reply, “I learned social media.”
- Jane Christmas’s latest book Open House: A Life in Thirty-two Moves is published by HarperCollins.
- Instagram @janechristmasauthor
- Jane Christmas writes about her mother for The Guardian (7 January 2017).
- Macleans 2009 review of Incontinent on the Continent.
- Short interview with Jane Christmas, A Cloistered Life, in Canadian Writers Abroad.
- Review of What the Pyschic Told the Pilgrim in Quill and Quire by Katy Pedersen.
How has COVID-19 affected your career? Let us know in the Comments.