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Interview: The authors talk about Opening Little Boxes

Opening Little Boxes is a collection of reflections on pandemic lockdown. Following the thoughts of each member of a three-generation family sheltering in place, the book provides a focused look at interpersonal dynamics and personal transformation. The authors hope that Opening Little Boxes will spark discussions about the things that matter most in life, and will contribute their royalties to charities that help the homeless.

Kees Lodder, Cathy Casey, Manuela Bertão and Alex Casey talk to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Opening Little Boxes.

Cathy: “Opening Little Boxes” captures the internal dialogues of a family living in lockdown living through the pandemic, how that makes them feel and what they are learning from the experience. There are no conversations, no time reflected and no particular geographical setting. We hope that the book can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. It was written by four different authors in three different lockdown locations.

What inspired you to write this book?

Kees: I worked in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year with co-author Dr Manuela Vidigal Bertão. Visiting orphanages there, we became aware of the plight of children that were forgotten in the humanitarian crisis. We decided we would write an inspirational children’s book for Rohingya children. Then COVID-19 struck the world. It seemed to me, in my work as a Palliative Medicine Specialist, that children were forgotten again during the COVID-19 crisis. We hoped a book could offer positive messages to families affected by the pandemic.

Alex: A wise person told me at the start of lockdown to jot down some words about what was going on and how I was feeling. Not for publication, not for work, just as a personal diary entry from a historical moment in time. I found the process quite therapeutic, so when Kees told me he was working on a book about lockdown I thought I could lend my skills to a project that would hopefully help some more people through their anxieties – and raise a bit of money.

What research was involved?

Kees: No research was needed. The book was derived from my own spirituality and love of life. Many of the chapters drew from our own lived experiences of being in lockdown.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Kees: Writing was a release from my work during the COVID-19 crisis and came easily to me. I wrote the chapter on the daughter, Uman, in five hours, the same with the son Nikau. Nana was more difficult. She was the main character and I spent a lot of time crafting her to be the family’s spiritual heart, leading everyone through the crisis without being too “preachy”.

Manu: During the process of writing this book, I found out my golden hour of writing. I discovered what I needed to write: the silence of the dawn, the presence of my cat, many of my favourite books open on the floor and being inside my "temple".

How difficult was it to write with four authors contributing?

Cathy: The four authors worked really well together and offered support for each other during the trying lockdown period. We all felt the book was a welcome positive distraction from the reality of preparing for the pandemic. I found writing and illustrating a wonderful escape from the pressures of lockdown. As an Auckland city councillor, we had long online meetings to deal with the emergency.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Manu: ‘What a wonderful world’ by Louis Armstrong, Jorge Palma, o Bairro do Amor, Vinicius de Moraes and Toquinho, Como dizia o poeta, Eddie Vedder, Society, The Lyndhurst Orchestra ‘Now we are free’

Cathy: Definitely “Little Boxes” by Pete Seeger because our book is the antithesis of that. The song is about society churning out people to be all the same, whereas our book is about true individuality. Also “Where Is The Love” by the Black Eyed Peas.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Kees: The purpose of the book is that everybody can project their own inner feelings onto the characters and therefore we don’t want to identify any people.

What did you enjoy the most about writing Opening Little Boxes?

Manu: To discover that the characters I wrote, Alma and Mani live inside me. I found that they reflect my light and my shadow, my moon and my sun, my feminine and masculine sides.

Alex: I enjoyed being able to bottle a moment from lockdown life forever. I wrote the chapter about the cat after our own cat got stuck up our neighbour’s giant avocado tree during lockdown. This was in the very first week when tensions were running very high, and I will never forget the angst of having to break our bubble to try and get her down. I think it's important to remember just how bizarre those lockdown weeks were and how much we all actually gave up.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Kees: We were still in lockdown in Northland so Cathy and I enjoyed a wee whisky together – Talisker whisky from the Island of Skye in Scotland. We visited the distillery there.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Manu: "Fortune Teller Told Me," by Tiziano Terzani, which was recommended by a friend of mine. The story is about a man who was forbidden by a fortune teller to travel by plane during a year. Besides all the funny and interesting facts from Asia's history, this book is about the self-discovery, mysticism and magic that we ignore in so many ways.

Cathy: I really enjoyed “The Goldfinch”, a novel by the American author Donna Tartt. It won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I was completely transported into the world created by the author.

Kees: “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak, I have always had a huge fascination with the relationship between Shams and Rumi and Elif shows a great understanding of their relationship.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Kees: I am going to focus on my day jobs for a while, especially my wonderful new role to promote Advance Care Planning in the Northland region. After that I’d like to work on another collaborative project. We have an interesting idea for a children’s book.


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