Pandemic prose: COVID-19 sparks literary efforts

14September 2020

  • Tim Koerner sits with his son Lewis, 2, at their home in Lino Lakes, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Tim, a father of two, had time on his hands during the stay-at-home period and wrote a children’s book “What Does A Screen Mean.” (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

  • Tim Koerner views family photos on an iPad with his son Lewis, 2, at their home in Lino Lakes. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

  • Marvin the Bean is the main character in the children’s book “What Does a Screen Mean?” First-time author Tim Koerner of Lino Lakes wrote the book, after making the switch to working from home. (Courtesy of Kevin Cannon)

  • Marvin the Bean is the main character in the children’s book “What Does a Screen Mean (Courtesy of Kevin Cannon)

  • Tim Koerner of Lino Lakes took this photo of 10-month-old Lewis with a TV remote control in 2018. Koerner said the photo inspired him to write a book about children and technology, called “What Does a Screen Mean?” (Courtesy of Tim Koerner)



Coronavirus has made Tim Koerner an author.

The 35-year-old Lino Lakes man had never written a book, but had an idea rattling around his head for years.

Only last spring, when COVID-19 suddenly added hours to his day, did he decide to write it.

The children’s book, “What Does a Screen Mean?” will come out in January – part of literary flowering during the pandemic.

“When times are tough, people’s creative side flourishes,” said Lily Coyle, owner of Beaver’s Pond Press of St. Paul, publisher of the book. “Thank God for that.”


The virus has forced Minnesotans to stay in their homes, where they are turning to writing memoirs, essays, novels and children’s books.

“People are quarantined, and alone with their thoughts,” said Victoria Petelin, publishing coordinator of Wise Ink Publishing.

The number of new writers approaching Wise Ink fell sharply in April, after the statewide shutdown was imposed. Since then, it has spiked.

“That was surprising for us,” said Petelin. She expects the increase to continue, because most books take at least a year to write.

Children’s books, which can be completed quickly, are the first wave of new COVID-enabled works.

“We have had a flood of manuscripts,” said Joni Sussman, publisher at Kar-Ben Publishing, which specializes in books for Jewish children.


Publisher Coyle felt horrible when the state’s businesses were shut down in March.

“I was shaking in my boots. We had 10 days without a single inquiry,” she said. “Then… boom! We had more than ever.”

After the first wave of children’s books, next came books offering emotional support for children.

Then came others, with more familiar themes.

“We have a lot of books about hockey, dogs and cancer. If I could just get a book with a cancer-surviving dog who plays hockey, that would be great,” she joked.

Dystopian novels — with a COVID theme — will take longer to write, she said. But she expects them to start arriving this winter.


Many of the new writers are broke, and want to write their way to wealth. Coyle gives them a harsh dose of reality.

“I am so damn clear with people — this is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” she said. “You are not going to monetize this instantly, if ever.”

Retirees, with no children at home, are particularly prolific writers.

“I have heard people say that maybe these are their last years,” said Coyle. “They say, ‘By golly, life is short, and I want to live life to the fullest.’”

St. Paul writer Peg Guilfoyle pushed her new book into print, slogging through an era that is tough for even a writer to describe.

“Is there a synonym for difficult?” she said.

Basic expressions of love and camaraderie are impossible, she said. “You can’t do your citizenly duty to make the world better,” she said. “Screens of Zoom don’t work in the same way.”


Guilfoyle took it as a challenge to write a book that fits the times. She gathered a collection of essays — some old, some new, one of them about COVID quarantines.

“I laid out all the pieces on my dining room table and passed my hands over them to see what had resonance,” said Guilfoyle. “I am writing in my own voice, looking out at the world. That is the essayist’s job.”

She decided to self-publish.

As a veteran writer, whose company produces regional history books, she knew what to do. She hired an editor, copy editor and cover designer, then published the book through the Amazon-based program KDP. That is how “Singing All the Verses: Essays from a Mid-American” went from her dining room table to world-wide availability.

Koerner’s path to the bookshelf was different.

He had snapped a picture of his son Lewis, who at the age of 10 months had mastered the remote control for the TV set.  It made him think that his son – and an entire generation – needed a book to help them think about technology.

“I wanted this to be a ‘Goodnight Moon’ for a technology generation,” he said. The idea stuck in his head for two years – until coronavirus shook it loose.


He started working from home in March, and realized that he didn’t have to spend hours a day prepping for work and commuting to the office.

So he started writing. The book’s main character is Marvin The Bean, who is a member of a family of beans, all watching screens.

He field-tested his work on Lewis, now 2.

He took it to Beaver’s Pond, which is handling the illustrations, cover design and distribution. The book is expected to come out in January.

At book-signings, will Koerner thank the virus for making the book possible?

“Well, it did put some time on my hands,” he said. “I was just writing what I know.”

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