The struggle and joys of focus for Montclair writers in the pandemic
By PATRICIA CONOVER
For Montclair Local
For some, the coronavirus pandemic meant new opportunities to think about what it means to be productive — even if the changes weren’t ones we’d ever ask for. It meant putting aside normal routines, and rethinking how we engage the world and our work.
That’s true for writers as much as anyone. Nancy Burke of Montclair found new audiences worldwide after overcoming her own difficulty focusing on writing. Wheeler Antabanez, also of Montclair, embraced the opportunity to walk, think and discover more of New Jersey’s hidden spaces.
Montclair Local spoke to several Montclair-area authors who described how the pandemic changed their lives. Each week through June 17, we’ll present two of their stories.
Burke is the author of three books, “From the Abuelas’ Window,” “If I Could Paint the Moon Black” and her most recent, “Only the Women Are Burning,” which launched in October 2020.
The pandemic had significance in Burke’s writing life.
“I had a day job. I write on my own time,” she said. “Working on personal writing was always scheduled around my job.”
Burke worked for a community college in business communications. Like many others during the pandemic, she was laid off last November.
“I had trouble all year getting started on a writing project,” she said. “It felt frivolous to write in the middle of all the pain and suffering.”
She discovered that her priorities had changed.
“I was taking more time to communicate with family and friends,” she said. “I was being supportive of my children. It was all important, but I was spending less time on writing. I had to create a schedule.”
She had signed a book contract in January 2020 with a small press. “Only the Women Are Burning” was already a manuscript.
“Only the Women Are Burning” is set in a town that is evocative of Montclair. The story is part mystery, part domestic drama and part social commentary. It incorporates suspense, horror and resilience in the story of Cassandra, a former anthropologist who works to solve the mystery of women who burn and disappear.
How did Burke launch her book amid the COVID-19 crisis?
“I hired a firm that could launch the book virtually. A traditional public relations firm who books events was not what I needed when no one could leave the house,” she said.
Burke’s focus changed, and her reach suddenly expanded.
Margot Sage-EL, the owner of Watchung Booksellers, is supportive of local writers. She helped Burke launch her book in a virtual conversation with author Jenny Milchman in October 2020.
“I launched my book from Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, and I reached people all over the U.S., as far as New Orleans and San Diego,” she said.
Her reading public grew instead of contracting as one might expect during the pandemic.
“I used Facebook and Instagram, and another author discovered my book on social media and featured my book on her daily radio broadcast from Pennsylvania,” she said.
How has the crisis impacted her writing life?
“My creativity and the political climate and election opened my eyes to the many ways some of us adapt and live with belief systems that are extreme,” Burke said.
Her new short story collection, “Units of Measure,” focuses on how we size up our lives.
“Every individual’s units of measure are different from another person’s units of measure,” Burke said. “You may have lived with someone or known them your whole life, but your units of measure are not the same.”
For Burke, the questions are: “What can you live with in order to serve yourself and your life? What can you ignore? What enables you to cling to beliefs and behaviors that are hurtful and/or dangerous to others? It is this intersection of vulnerability to belief that I’m interested in in ‘Units of Measure.’”
Antabanez writes for Weird NJ, which reveals local legends, folklore and events and stories unique to the Garden State.
Antabanez is also a published author. In 2017 he wrote and illustrated “The Old Asylum and Other Stories,” about the now-demolished Essex Mountain Sanatorium and Overbrook Psychiatric Hospital. Next, he wrote and narrated a full-length spoken word poetry album that was also released as an illustrated book, “Words of Overbrook.”
In 2019, Antabanez wrote “Thirteen From the Swamp.” The book features his full-page photographs of the Passaic River.
“My whole marketing campaign was based on reading the book out loud to audiences in different venues,” Antabanez said. “The book was published in late 2019, and my tour was mapped out for the spring, but it was canceled when the pandemic hit.”
Antabanez loves to explore abandoned buildings and other places most people would prefer to pass by.
“I walk to be alone and to think. When I found out that negotiations were underway to open the old Boonton Line rail trail, I decided to walk the whole line,” he said. “I’ve been walking on the rails for the last 13 years. I walked from Montclair to Jersey City. Then, I decided to make a photo essay called ‘Walking the Old Boonton Line.’”
He didn’t realize that rail fans all over the world would love his focus on the former railroad tracks.
“Rail fans told me to check out the Newark branch,” Antabanez said. “I walked from Kearny Marsh to Harrison to East Newark to Newark (across the Passaic River through Belleville through Nutley and through Clifton) until the line met with live tracks.”
Antabanez took photos and video, and he is working on two separate books, “Walking the Old Boonton Line” and “Walking the Newark Branch: A Photographic Journey on New Jersey’s Abandoned Rails.”
He’s also planning a film, “Walking the Newark Branch,” for later this year.
Antabanez said he started his own publishing company a few weeks ago.
“It’s called Abandoned Books, LLC. I just got the paperwork last week. I move too quickly for traditional publishing companies. I can’t wait a year or two for a book to come out.”
He’s written another book, “The Cemetery Clown,” and he will publish it in the summer of 2022.
The pandemic year was unforgettable for Antabanez.
“My mother was in an assisted living home, and my dad broke his back caring for her,” he said. “My mother ended up in the hospital just as COVID-19 was beginning to spread, and she was released into assisted living. I couldn’t visit her because of the COVID-19 restrictions.”