The Malta Independent 3 October 2022, Monday
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Diary by T.A. WILLBERG: Writing a bestseller during the pandemic

Sunday, 12 September 2021, 10:05 Last update: about 2 years ago

T.A. WILLBERG is a Malta-based South African author of historical crime and speculative fiction. Her debut novel – Marion Lane & the Midnight Murder (published in December last year by HarperCollins) – was named a "Book of the Month" by Strand Bookstore, Library Reads and Amazon. It is available in Canada, U.S, U.K and the commonwealth and has been translated into German, Turkish and Croatian. She also has an M.Sc. in spinal deformities. How has she been coping with the pandemic?

"I remember hearing about the Wuhan outbreak at the start of 2020 while at home in South Africa. I'd had a carefree summer travelling around the country visiting my family and meeting up with old friends. For the first time in a long while, I felt as though I had my life on track and was finally doing what I loved for a living. I'd just finished editing my debut historical mystery novel, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, and was in the middle of drafting a second book, both of which were due to be published around the world within the coming year. My career as a professional writer, which began just three years previously, was gaining momentum beyond my wildest dreams. 

But by the time I left South Africa (1 March, 2020) to fly back to Malta, I witnessed the first hint of what has now become our constant reality. Airline staff were suited up in masks, visors and gloves. Passengers were jittery and on edge, afraid they might not pass the health checks and reach their destinations. Everywhere, the undercurrent of unease was tangible.

I have a medical background, having earned a Masters degree in spinal deformities, and therefore suspected that the escalating news reports would quickly lead to hysteria. The virus, which by now had spread to Italy, would soon reach Malta and the rest of Europe, and when it did, life would change in ways we couldn't imagine. All the same, I felt somewhat prepared, with my stock of face masks and hand sanitiser.

Computer and notebook at the ready

And for a while, the situation in Malta seemed relatively subdued. I even began to hope that perhaps our tiny island might escape the dreaded scourge. And so, with a flawed sense of ease, I continued living my day-to-day as I'd done for the past three years. I went to work at my clinic in the mornings and slaved over my book in the afternoons. I went to the beach and out for dinner, all the while keeping one eye on the news. But when Malta was struck with its first outbreak of COVID, and basic restrictions were set up, I decided to close my clinic temporarily. At the time, available information on the virus was jumbled and conflicting. No one seemed to know for certain how transmissible or deadly it was and because of this, I believed it irresponsible of me to continue to see my patients (many of whom were elderly) until I had a better understanding of what I was dealing with.

The cover of Tessa’s book which has already been translated in several languages

In the interim, writing became my full-time job. I spent close to ten hours a day drafting the second book in the Marion Lane mystery series, which was due on my publisher's desk by the end of the year, and tried not to think about what was going on around me. Writing was a distraction, not only from what was happening in Malta and Europe, but from the grim thoughts of what lay ahead for my friends and family in South Africa. The country was under a tremendously strict lockdown (one of the worst in the world), something that many people feared would destroy the country's already fragile, ailing economy. South Africans were not only facing their first wave of the virus, but a tsunami of unemployment, homelessness and hardship. And the thought that I was thousands of miles away and unable to help was difficult to bear.

A few months after my return to Malta, my boyfriend - like so many others - lost his job. It wasn't a particular surprise, but it was an adjustment nonetheless. However, as cases of the virus continued to rise around the world, I couldn't help but remember just how lucky we were. Not only to be healthy, but - thanks to our savings and my writing income - to have enough money to get us through whatever came next. I was also incredibly grateful to have found a secondary career that I loved, which kept my mind occupied and, most importantly, at peace.

Every day, as I opened my laptop and escaped into my writing, shifting back into 1950s London and a subterranean world filled with mystical detectives and magical gadgets, I felt myself relax and recharge. Even now, with the ongoing pandemic and worldwide pandemonium, I find solace in my work. But perhaps the greatest reward of all has been the stream of messages I've received from readers around the world who've told me that Marion Lane has brought them joy and a sense of escapism during these frightening times."

This series is conceived and edited by Marie Benoît who contributes her own Diary occasionally. [email protected]

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