To write his bestselling debut novel Iceland, Dominic Hoey had to isolate himself at the ends of the earth. Now that isolation is compulsory, he finds himself welcoming some of his bad habits back. This piece is entitled 24/7 Track Pants.
Writing something worth reading means spending large chunks of time alone. You have to shut out the world to create a new one on the page. Put yourself in situations where the mind is free to walk naked through the house, howling and waving its arms in the air.
Whenever I begin a new project, a novel or play, I leave for somewhere remote. The city is fine for writing songs or poems. But for something longer, I have to pack up my laptop and all the underwear I can carry, go somewhere with only one shop and no distractions. It’s not just my friends and social events I’m escaping, it’s my life, the routines that stop me having a vantage point to write from.
Genius is just a socially acceptable form of madness. I’m not calling my work genius: most of the time I’m writing love poems about my dog. But if you want to get into the headspace to really create, to disrupt your normal thought patterns, you have to isolate yourself. And hopefully that's when things start to get weird.
My first novel, Iceland, was written in Skagaströnd, a fishing village of 400 people in the north of Iceland. The sun never set. I spent those endless days drunk and writing in an old brick library that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. I made myself so homesick for the memory of a place that no longer existed it bled into the pages of the book.
I did an artists’ residency in Rarotonga where I wrote a play about my autoimmune disease. After a couple of weeks I got obsessed with getting all the bugs out of the fale. A futile quest, but one that seemed important at the time, I’d be up all night in my boxers chasing after cockroaches the size of mice. This frantic energy ended up in the show.
When I started my second novel I rented a house in Port Chalmers in the middle of winter. Drove down in my ‘96 Toyota Corolla with my pomeranian, Prince Chilli. We’d both wake up shivering, I’d put his little jumper on him and we’d sit in the lounge, writing about kickboxing and drug dealers in a quaint seaside town. At first I thought the book was going to be a comedy, but the eerie loneliness of that place had other ideas.
My father lives in a shack in Northland. An old ghost town with one dusty road winding out of the hills. It was a logging town until the mill closed, then a gang town until the meth lab blew up. Now it’s filled with a motley crew of religious fanatics, the odd farmer and eccentrics all hiding or running from something. I have a recurring daydream of moving up there and building something on my dad's land. Spending my days writing and my nights drinking by the fire. Alas it’s just a fantasy: most weeks I have to borrow money to pay rent, and I’ve never picked up a hammer in my life. But I often wonder if I could handle that level of isolation long-term. If two months leaves me half-naked, chasing bugs with a copy of Novel Writing For Dummies, what would a year do?
But perhaps I’d learn to slow down, watch all the clutter wash away in the muddy river that runs down the back of the village. One of the positives of prolonged isolation is that it helps highlight who and what is important in your life. After a few days with only the voices in my head for company, I find myself missing people I haven’t spoken to in months. It brings into focus that maybe I could afford to drop some of the thousands of tasks I cram into every week. I start eating better, remembering to meditate and exercise. But even as I’m writing this I know it’d only be a few weeks before I was ranting to myself, eating cold baked beans out of the can.
Now the whole country is in isolation. And I wish I had some trick I could teach you that was going to help you hold onto your sanity. But from my experience it’s best to embrace it all; 24/7 track pants, going to bed when the birds turn up to work, getting up at lunch, losing all impulse control, finding yourself crawling through rabbit holes at 2am. The person you were a few short days ago is gone. So make friends, or at least peace with this version, that argues at length with the dog, and spends hours staring at their hands. The good news is the old you always turns up again when you return to the world. And almost no one comments on the weird idiosyncrasies you’ve picked up in isolation.