For Montclair Local

Has the pandemic changed the way Montclair writers work and live? 

Writing is typically a solitary pursuit. It’s the writer, the computer or legal pad, and the four walls. It seems almost custom-built for a time when we were all asked to hunker down, to spend time without the distractions of the outside world. But when is solitude too much, even for those who thrive in it?

And 2020 saw social engagement, protest, action — a time when voices called out to be heard. Some writers were among them. 

How has the pandemic changed the way authors work, and view the world around us? Montclair Local spoke to several Montclair-area authors who described how the pandemic changed their lives. Each week through June 17, Montclair Local will present two of their stories.

Benilde Little

Little is the author of “Good Hair,” “The Itch,” “Acting Out” and “Who Does She Think She Is?” Her memoir, “Welcome to My Breakdown,” was published in 2017. She previously worked as a newspaper reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Newark Star-Ledger. Little has also reported for People and was a senior editor at Essence magazine.

Was she able to keep up her writing practice during the pandemic?

“I finished the first draft of a novel,” Little said. “The pandemic struck in March of 2020, and two weeks into it I knew that I needed to make a schedule. I had packed my novel away and I realized that it was time to bring it back out. I went back to work.”

A writer’s life is solitary. For Little, daily life during the pandemic didn’t change that much.

“I work at home. I walk my dog and then I get to work,” she said. “For the first time, I had company in my aloneness. Most of my friends are not usually at home during the day. They had no idea what my life was like. But now they know what it’s like to work in solitude, without colleagues and lunches out.” 

Little happily embraced stolen moments with her children. Her daughter, who lives in Los Angeles, stayed with her family in Montclair for a few months. Her son spent time home from college, too.

“Spending time with them was an unexpected joy,” she said.

The protests against racial inequality and the presidential election motivated her to march.

“I was in a rage. When George Floyd was killed I didn’t experience a revelation. I was angry,” Little said. “I was asked to participate in the Suburban Moms Against Re-Electing Trump (S.M.A.R.T.) March for Unity in Montclair. That helped me to deal with my rage. There were two Black Lives Matter protest marches here, and I marched in one. That’s how I got through it.” 

Little is a member of Montclair Local’s advisory board.

Anthony DePalma

DePalma — who has lived with wife Miriam Rodriguez DePalma in Montclair for 22 years with the exception of time away for work assignments — was a longtime foreign correspondent for The New York Times, focusing on Latin America. His most recent of four books, “The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times,” was published in May of last year. 

Fidel Castro had died in November 2016, and “the 8,000-word obituary I wrote ran on the front page of The New York Times. I had been carrying that obit around for over a decade,” he said.

DePalma was working on a different book proposal when his agent called and told him there was a lot of interest in Cuba. He signed a contract in 2017. Then, the pandemic broke out in March 2020, just months before the book’s release.

“My publisher, Viking, closed their offices. We couldn’t send out early copies of the book. All the usual publishing protocols were suspended as editors and administrators figured out how to get the work done,” DePalma said. But he said the reviews in The New York Times, Washington Post and Kirkus were “beautiful.”

The first Zoom book promotion he did was at Watchung Booksellers, with store owner Margot Sage-EL, in June 2020. Sage-EL is “tremendously supportive of local authors,” he said.

“I put on my mask and I went in the back door of the store and signed books although the store was still closed,” DePalma said.

For DePalma, the isolation that many people experienced during the COVID-19 crisis was familiar. 

“When you’re working on a book you’re shutting yourself off from the world — working at home, in front of a computer, alone,” he said.

For DePalma, the pandemic has changed the face of Montclair. 

“Wearing a mask to walk outside does not provide the same kind of revitalization as taking a walk prepandemic,” he said. “Our interactions aren’t the same because it’s so difficult to communicate. We can’t smile at each other. A friendly wave is awkward.” He said although he’s used to isolation, “the extreme nature of pandemic solitude is unnerving.”

DePalma said the pandemic has brought a “strange and unaccustomed duality”: We’re all connected by the shared experience of the global emergency, but we’ve been shut off from direct contact with family, friends, neighbors.

It’s unifying to see so many people wearing masks or lining up for shots, he said, “but I still find it disarming to see someone move away from me at ShopRite, or cross to the other side of the sidewalk at Anderson Park because I am coming in the opposite direction.”

And DePalma worries the changes to our lives are here permanently.

“The challenge now is figuring out how to live with it,” he said.

DePalma’s grandmother died in the influenza pandemic, leaving his mother an orphan. 

“The idea of an epidemic never settled into my consciousness until now. My grandmother didn’t have a vaccine in 1918,” he said. “The influenza epidemic wiped out entire families, and there was no hope for a cure. It was a different reality.”

But now, he said, we have hope.

“We will meet these challenges,” DePalma said.