[EXCLUSIVE] “Literal and Metaphorical Lockdown: On Writing Lockdown Lovers” by Michael O’Sullivan

Click HERE to read Susan Blumberg-Kason’s review of Lockdown Lovers.

Co-Editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho‘s note: We are pleased to present an exclusive essay by Michael O’Sullivan on his new book, Lockdown Lovers (Penguin Random House, 2021), a five-part love story set in lockdown conditions in Asia and Europe. In this essay, Michael points out how our lives are in many ways in a state of lockdown and shares his method of composing the novel as well as his reflections on being a novelist. Additionally, you can read an excerpt from the book below.

Originally from Ireland, Michael O’Sullivan is an academic based in Hong Kong. He is also an editor of Hong Kong Studies, the first peer-reviewed academic journal devoted entirely to Hong Kong. Michael has published a number of scholarly books, including Cloneliness: On the Reproduction of Loneliness (2019). Michael’s poetry have been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Desde Hong Kong: Poets in Conversation with Octavio Paz, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha, and Asian Signature. His personal essay, “Reflections from a Gweilo on Being Out of the Loop”, can be found in Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place (Blacksmith Books, 2017).

Literal and Metaphorical Lockdown:
On Writing Lockdown Lovers

by Michael O’Sullivan

Lockdown Lovers is, as the title suggests, a story about lockdown and what happens to love in such times. As I wrote the story, I realised that lockdown, a word we hadn’t used very often before the Covid-19 pandemic, can quickly become a metaphor for a range of practices and perspectives daily life asks us to take up. With lockdown, we also now have a new word—and in fact a range of words—through which to describe so many experiences in our daily existence. Other phrases we have grown accustomed to at this time include social distancing, walking carriers, superspreaders, stay home, stay safe, staycation, and more. The story of Lockdown Lovers on one level explores how this new way of describing human contact and interaction can affect the actions and feelings that constitute what we regard as love. In this sense, we might look back—or forward—to other aspects of our lives and in them also see characteristics of lockdown. For example, we might find that our job or our relationships sometimes make us feel like we are living in a kind of lockdown. And, of course, for those of us who live in Hong Kong, we might feel that politically we inhabit a society that is permanently in a state of lockdown.

Lockdown Lovers explores how different characters deal with changes in their societies and their environments brought about by lockdown. The novel spans two continents, being set in Hong Kong, and for one section, in Cork, Ireland. A pangolin, who is also a character, lives in mainland China. Pushed to the limits of their endurance in lockdown and then quarantine conditions, John Ryan, a Hong Kong academic, and Phoebe Ho, a Hong Kong District councillor, decide to break the rules of their quarantine and rediscover what has been denied them for too long—passionate human contact. The novel alternates between the perspectives of John; Phoebe; Kwok-ying, a government health official; John’s wife Sue; his son Sam; Princess Selina, a millionaire’s heiress; a pangolin, the mammal reportedly at the root of the virus, and other characters as they each find their own way to deal with upheaval of the pandemic. In Part III of the book, John travels back to Ireland, desperate to assist his parents in their own lockdown. Haunted by the memory of touch Phoebe opened him up to in quarantine, he realises he must return to Hong Kong to rediscover love with his wife and son. The story ends in Hong Kong in 2022, two years after the virus’s first appearance in the city. In a way, the novel might be read as reminding us of people’s undying capacities for contact and closeness even in times of pandemic when they seem under threat like never before.

I had written about four or five novel-length manuscripts before this and I wanted to try a new way of writing a novel̄—the result is Lockdown Lovers. As I had just become a father for the first time when I started thinking about the story, my writing time was very limited. My home life had also changed drastically and it was far nosier at home than before. I therefore decided to try and write this story outside my apartment. The only place I could find to write for 20-30 minute bursts without paying too much and without being disturbed was my local 24-hour McDonald’s in Sai Kung. In McDonald’s you can sit there for free and drink from the water dispenser or just buy a coffee for 15HKD. So I would get up early, about 5 or 5:30—I knew our baby would wake up about 6:30—and cycle out to the McDonald’s for a few minutes of writing before he woke up. I bought some cheap notebooks in a local stationery shop and I used a projecting pencil. I scribble away for 20-30 minutes and would then go back to get our baby up and fed.

Over about six weeks in February and March of 2020, I filled four or five notebooks with the story. I then transferred it to my laptop as it was—I wanted to keep the story the way it was in the notebooks. When you do academic writing, you can sometimes get too caught up in how you phrase something and also with the fear that everything you write needs to be supported or backed up. Writing in this new way in McDonald’s, I could kind of give myself up more easily to the story and just let it take shape without worrying too much about academic concerns. Over time, I also started to ask myself how I would structure the story. I decided to break the novel up into sections to guide the reader through the different stages of the story. So, for example, the section in Cork is a separate one and the section set in the future also stands alone. I also felt this was important as there is no omniscient or third-person voice in the novel. All chapters are given from the perspectives of the different characters.

I also had to sometimes remind myself that as a writer it’s probably better to write the kind of novel you can rather that the kind of novel you would like to. While I would love to be able to write a novel like Dostoevsky or Gabriel García Márquez, that wasn’t going to happen! I had to keep the story going and see what kind of novel I would be able to write for that story with the limited resources available to me. That’s when I started recalling popular novels I had read where some aspect of their form had really excited me in some way. I felt I could possibly try and learn from these new formal aspects I had first really spotted and admired in these popular novels. For example, as I wrote the story from the perspective of different characters I recalled Graham Swift’s Last Orders; and, as I tried to keep my chapters short and snappy to move the story along, I was reminded of my amazement at how short the chapters were in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code!

I’m beginning to realise that each story you try to tell requires its own shape and its own structure. I wrote Lockdown Lovers at a time when I was trying to work out how to live as a new father and I guess there is a good deal of that self-questioning in the novel. I’m glad I decided to experiment with how I write. Writing the novel has been an incredible learning experience for me in terms of story-telling and personal development. It’s another step taken that has helped me understand better how I should write and what I should write about. If you get a chance to read it, I hope you get something from it and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

An Excerpt from Lockdown Lovers

JOHN

I go into the empty campus to teach online. Sometimes at twilight, I’ll stand outside a university building built for thousands and there won’t be a soul passing. The vast concrete forms are like monuments to a way of life. When I stand back against the railings on the roof of the Fung King Hey Building to get a panoramic view of the campus as it spreads out over the entire hill, the different buildings rise like tombstones in a forgotten sanctuary. The gentle hiss of a building of air conditioners calls to the breeze blowing in off the Tai Po Road and I can almost hear the hollow buildings reverberate with their emptiness. I know that it will be like this for a long time but my learned responses to the environment shape my sense of expectation and it’s like I don’t want to register the change. I too don’t want to force the issue with myself. On this one, I’d rather be a little wistful, a little idealistic.

It comes as a slow-burning sense of loss and then a quiet yearning. The realization that everything has changed. A dull ache inside leading you to almost want to groan aloud. Maybe it is a feeling of heaviness that is not yet dread in the face of a slow realization that learned responses must change, that everything you had learned to base hopes and dreams on had shifted. It only caught you occasionally, maybe if you woke early and the house was still dark. Or maybe when you were leaving the empty office building and you were already at your car and you yearned for the simple distractions that meant you wouldn’t be at your car so soon. The glance at the group of students passing, the casual greeting and half-smile from a colleague as you waited for the lift, the words exchanged as you were leaving the building and you held the door for someone whose face you recognized but whose name you couldn’t recall.

The classes have been online now for almost one whole term. Students do their best to communicate but they feel more conscious of speaking up if their faces suddenly appear on screen when they speak or even if their names are highlighted. The lag between speech and the moment of response is noticeable and, in noticing that split-second of pause, your courage sometimes leaves you or you reconsider and think your idea might be better left unsaid. Perhaps the greatest lesson students are being fed through all this, to help get them through it the authorities say, is that we’re all finding out that we didn’t need people as much as we thought we did. I even see it already in the student essays, especially in essays from students who have told me they suffer from depression. Asked to comment on a story from Woolf about how hanging mirrors in your room can lead to misrepresentations and stereotypes, they argue that it’s a story about the need to keep your distance from others.

So I decided to write one last piece in the largest lecture theatre we have. Put it to some use. We’re paying for its upkeep after all. It’s emptiness screams memory, potential and that same sense of expectation. I imagine the voices of a multitude of students rising in chorus. When the vision is over, the vastness of the empty space closes in about me. It resonates at the frequency of my hope and I want to get those vibrations working through my feet, up along my legs, through my loins, into my gut and deep into my heart. For they tell me there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. The sun has almost set now behind the hills, but I can still hear through the open doors the whine of a lawnmower and the call of the birds marking the departing light of day.

The whole city was holding its breath before it would be able to pick itself up and go again. Like a prize fighter between rounds, accepting that the odds are stacked against him, acknowledging that he is beginning to see double.

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