Lockdown in Amsterdam – Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
Preface to the First Edition
Poor Full o’ Bull has had it with me. He caught me in the kitchen just now, wolfing down the last piece of his homemade quince pie. He had wanted to save it for dessert, to be cut ceremoniously into four equal slivers and shared with the other members of this besieged household.
Wiping the last crumbs from my mouth, I suggested we could always order a pie of his choice from the pastry shop of his choice, assuming they hadn’t thrown in the towel yet. My treat.
“The pie is not the point, Toby. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to start on dinner.”
Kitchens tend to be small here in Holland, and Full o’ Bull’s is no exception. Perhaps it was time to head downstairs and get started on this novel.
My host’s real name is Philibert Schogt, by the way, and I’m not kidding.
“It’s ‘Phil’ for friends,” he encouraged me when we first met, but I’ve taken to calling him Full o’ Bull. He’s being a good sport about it, he really is. As for his last name, under the present circumstances, trying to pronounce it has become a bit of a health hazard.
I know, I know. I’m not being nice, especially considering that Full o’Bull and his charming wife and equally charming daughter have been so kind as to accommodate me all this time. I was supposed to be flying home to New York last week, but with the situation over there as dire as it is, I chickened out. So here I am, stranded in Amsterdam.
What have I been doing with my time? Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Like everybody else who isn’t either sick or tending to the sick, I’ve been dividing my attention between keeping up with the news and trying to ignore it, between chatting with the other members of this household and whatsapping with my friends and family back home, between listening to music and chucking out emails urging me to send my ten favorite poems, recipes or presidential quotes to the first person on the list, at the risk of catching a certain something if I broke the chain.
As for my spare time, I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for better times when a phone call earlier this afternoon put an abrupt end to all my twiddling. It was my American publisher, inviting me to write about how the corona outbreak was affecting my life. It would mean so much to all my readers, locked up in their homes and struggling to make sense of what was happening.
All I really had to do was start a blog. That sounded easy enough. Not that we would be calling it that. Oh, no, that would be much too humdrum. Everybody writes blogs nowadays. The marketing department had a much better idea. Now that I have achieved celebrity status as a bestselling author, no matter what I say or write has come to resonate with deeper meaning. If we were to pass this off as a novel, my fans would be only too eager to buy into it.
And so, within the span of a single phone call, the idea for Lockdown in Amsterdam was born.
In the first few installments, or chapters, if you prefer to call them by their old-school name, I will describe how I was invited to the Netherlands for the launch of the Dutch translation of my latest novel Revenge of the Optimists, how my entire promotional tour fell through because of the lockdown, and how I ended up staying here with Full o’ Bull and his family.
As for the rest of the novel, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens, meaning in real time! For all we know, this story could end with me catching the virus and dying, although my host and hostess run a far greater risk, being nearly twice my age.
Much as I’d like to dive into the action straight away, it will have to wait until tomorrow. We’re a bit rushed for time, you see. With military precision, Full o’ Bull likes to have dinner on the table at 6:30 sharp. He’s a pretty good cook, though, so I’m not complaining.
What I’ll do instead is run you through a quick list of what I would like to call “disclaimers”, just so that you don’t get the wrong idea about the novel you are about to read.
Yes, the doctors and nurses are doing a great job, as are the people in the food industry and all those other vital occupations, who at no small risk to their own lives are working day and night to keep the creaking wheels of our smitten society turning. Yes, we should all follow instructions from the authorities and stay indoors as much as possible. And yes, it’s heartwarming to see all those musicians performing for free from the confines of their humble abodes, just to keep our spirits up.
But for heaven’s sake, dear people, I’m a writer, not a cheerleader. So if you’re looking for yet another variation on the theme “Go, humanity, go! Yay us!”, I’m afraid you have come to the wrong place.
Then why am I writing this novel? Quite simply: because I can. To put it more bluntly: because I’m being paid for it, and handsomely too, especially after I had threatened to pull out of the deal. I can be firm when I need to be. But hey, writing is not my hobby, it’s my job. And as far as I know, there is no law against artists looking out for themselves.
Besides, in the final analysis, an artist’s motives have no bearing on the quality of their work. Maybe Shakespeare was a great guy. Maybe Homer was a jerk. But who cares? If you enjoy this novel, great, I must be doing something right. If not, too bad, but there’s plenty of other stuff out there for you to read.
Once the financial details had been taken care of, my second condition for agreeing to this project was total freedom. For starters, I don’t want an editor niggling about Oxford commas, dangling participles, or run-on sentences every step of the way. Sure, my prose will be a little rough around the edges and would benefit enormously from some trimming here and some polishing there, but we’re in the middle of a war, for Christ’s sake. And if my chatty style doesn’t agree with your refined literary taste, I won’t be insulted if you switch off your computer and go back to rereading Proust. If, on the other hand, you’re thinking: hey, this Toby Quinn fellow is letting me look over his shoulder while he’s working on a new novel, how cool is that – then welcome, my friend, and on with the show!
Total freedom also means that I get to choose my subject matter, and just as importantly, what not to write about. Here again, a couple of disclaimers will prevent possible misunderstandings.
I’m not a reporter. So don’t expect too many facts and figures from me. If you want to find out about the death toll here in Holland, or how the Dutch government is handling the crisis, I trust you are digitally savvy enough to find your way to the appropriate news sites.
Nor am I a travel writer. So I won’t be taking you on a guided tour through “the eerily silent streets of Amsterdam, where in happier times bicycle upon bicycle would come whirring by”. Actually, Dutch bicycles tend to rattle rather than whirr, but hopefully you get the point. I don’t know about you, dear friends, but all those lyrical descriptions of empty city scenes are beginning to sound the same to me.
The same can be said about human interest stories. I could take you to meet Anton, the friendly neighborhood greengrocer, valliantly struggling to stay open, with young mouths to feed and a mortgage payment overdue. But if I were to put a beret on his head and call him Antoine, we would be in Lyon, and with a similar sleight of hand I could introduce you to Antonio in Genoa, or Andy in Brooklyn, or even Ang Dee, back at the food market in Wuhan, China, where all this unpleasantness began.
That’s the thing about a pandemic. Now that the virus is everywhere, my story could be set anywhere. So if you don’t mind, I’d rather dispense with all of that evocative stuff and focus on the immediate drama that is unfolding here in this very apartment, as I write these very words.
No, the pie was not the point, as Full o’ Bull aptly observed. But here’s the thing: he happens to be a writer, too.
This goes a long way to explain why he and his wife were so willing to put me up for what we initally assumed would be a couple of nights, and why they are still putting up with me, even after more than two weeks. What better way to relieve the tedium of the lockdown than to have a fellow writer share your living space? Feverishly inspired, Full o’ Bull and I would take an occasional break for a quick but intense exchange of highbrow ideas regarding our craft, then go running back to our desks to carry on with our respective masterpieces. A win-win situation. In fact, this was Hollywood material!
“New World bravado meets Old World subtlety in this heartwarming true story of two creative geniuses, marooned together in a small apartment during the covid-19 pandemic. ‘Lockdown in Amsterdam’, starring Leonardo di Caprio and sir Anthony Hopkins, coming to a theater near you soon!”
If this sounds too good to be true, you’re absolutely right.
As the days have gone by and the mists of wishful thinking have gradually dissipated, the elephant in the room is coming into sharper focus: my phenomenal success as a writer and Full o’ Bull’s lack thereof.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though he’s a total schlemiel. In fact, he has written five novels. They have been translated into German, Italian, and a couple of other languages. And I’m saving the best bit for last: two of them are available in English! I’ve been leafing through them both, down here in his basement study that he has so graciously vacated to accommodate me. Not that I’m a critic or anything, but some of it isn’t half-bad. Maybe I’ll put in a good word for them at some point in this novel. If he lets me, that is. His pride might get in the way.
When he overheard me on the phone this afternoon, yelling at my publisher that the deal was off unless I was paid at least [“bleep!”] dollars per installment, I saw his eyes growing wide, then narrowing. In our conversations thus far, he has been rather evasive about his own sales figures and earnings. Not wanting to be so indelicate as to press him for an answer, I found out by asking his wife.
I’ll spare you the details, but just to give you an idea: with three or four installments of this near-effortless chitchat cleverly being marketed as a novel, I will already have earned more than the advance poor Full o’ Bull was supposed to be getting for the essay collection he has been struggling with for the past three years. Ouch.
That isn’t all: last week, the consortium that includes his publishing house sent a circular to all of its writers, editors, translators and other stakeholders. To stay afloat in these troubled times, the consortium will only be bringing out “commercially viable books” for now, while those requiring “a more personal approach”, such as the one Full o’ Bull was finally hoping to submit next month, are being postponed until further notice. Ouch again.
Life just isn’t fair. I get that. So hey, Full o’ Bull and all you other struggling writers, artists, actors and musicians out there: I feel your pain. This covid-19 crisis is hitting you hard, hitting you where it hurts. But what am I supposed to do: apologize for being one of the happy few to be making good money out of it? Turn down this lucrative assignment out of solidarity with my less fortunate brothers and sisters?
Here’s what I did do, just before heading downstairs to get this project underway. Full o’ Bull was preparing porcini risotto for dinner, and a mouthwateringly earthy, foresty smell was filling the kitchen. Watching from a safe distance as he stirred the risotto with a deep scowl on his face, I made him an offer. Seeing as I had just landed this terrific deal, it only seemed reasonable that I chip in a little more for room and board. As a small token of my gratitude.
“Thanks Toby,” he said, turning to look at me with a sardonic smile. “But we don’t need your charity. Not yet at any rate.”
Whereupon he went back to his risotto, stirring it with ever greater ferocity.
I guess it was bad timing on my part. He was still too sore about that last piece of quince pie. Maybe I’ll make him the same offer tomorrow.
Nope. Life isn’t fair. But at the same time, unfairness is where the fun begins for us writers. After all, where would literature be without it? Unfairness is the dark matter that comprises the greatest part of our universe, hiding its innermost secrets. We can let it get to us and feel sorry for ourselves. Or we can take a few steps back and look the monster straight in the eye, study its habits, and observe how it affects different people and different levels of society in different ways. Not only should we learn to live with unfairness, as writers we should welcome it, dance with it, even fall in love with it.
Amen, though I’m afraid this little sermon of mine may not go over well with Full o’ Bull right now.
Hark, methinks I hear a voice:
Like I said, 6:30 sharp.
That’s all for now folks. But stay tuned for the next installment of… Lockdown in Amsterdam!
(coming up next – Chapter 1: STARMAN )