When Nell Stevens was offered a three-month fellowship from Boston University to go away somewhere and pen her first book in 2013, she chose the loneliest spot she could think of. It was a place free of distractions and diversions but, pertinently in these Covid-19 times, big on isolation: the Falklands archipelago.
Beyond the 50th parallel, 500km from the already remote Patagonian coast, patrolled by sheep farmers and ringed by shipwrecks, these islands have names that spell out the story: Carcass, Barren, Broken. Not content with their sense of foreboding, Stevens instead chose Bleaker: 2.4km across at its widest point and 18km long. "Other graduate students on my creative writing course chose Paris or Cuba," she remembers. "But I was anxious to go somewhere I wouldn't be distracted. I was daydreaming of wide open space and ocean."
On Bleaker, she got plenty of that. The fellowship took place in winter with caracaras circling in leaden skies and seals shielding themselves against the seasonal slap of sleet and snow.
"It was just me and the penguins. The two owners of the island were at their house in Stanley, the capital, and the island's farm manager arrived only at the end of my stay," she says.
Stevens, back in north London sitting out the coronavirus crisis, is more prepared than most for a period of social distancing.
In the Falklands she lived in a Shining-esque house with 12 bedrooms, normally for tour groups passing through on cruise ships. "I slept in one bedroom and lived in this tiny corner of the house, called the sun room — which, ironically, never saw the sun. From there I scuttled back and forth to the kitchen to microwave my soup."
The dark was oppressive, the wind howled, the island seemed morose. There was no phone signal, limited internet access and only the radio for company.
So, how did Stevens get through that winter? Having meticulously planned the food rations she could bring across on the little red plane that brought her there, she found she had woefully underestimated what she would need, so treats were thin on the ground. For her, ritual became a rite of passage.
"Every day, I'd eat one single Ferrero Rocher chocolate, which I'd brought because it was the lightest thing I could find: basically air, with chocolate wrapped around it," she recalls. "I used to treasure that moment every day. Seeking out small luxuries — however tiny, however silly — and allowing them to be important, was vital."
And how did the book progress? "I had grand plans for immense productivity during the period I was there, which I thought would come good if I stuck to my plans in a regimented way — get up, do exercise, write 2500 words a day, no matter what," she explains. "But that didn't amount to quality control. You also need energy, an idea and resolve, which I was lacking.
"Demanding too much productivity can be damaging," she acknowledges now — and there are parallels with the Covid-19 situation. "The idea that we should be using our time productively while stuck in our houses ignores the idea that our energy is being sapped worrying about what is happening."
Of course, there is an inherent difference between selective isolation and the current enforced measures regarding the coronavirus.
"It was an experiment on my part, which I knew would end when I'd get on a plane," says Stevens. "Isolation that has an end point is quite unlike the current situation. Being isolated in your own company is also very different from isolation with your family — an intense test of bonds with the people with whom you are in lockdown."
Nonetheless, there is much to learn from Stevens' experience — namely, how not to write a novel. "I'd assumed that, by putting myself into the isolated state of a hermit, I would become some sort of spiritual, intellectual powerhouse," she says. "That was absolutely not what happened."
Self-flagellation aside, in the end the project wasn't a total flop.
Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Stevens returned home and, realising her mistake, wrote another novel — a better than the howler she produced in isolation, about her experience in the Falklands. Published in 2017, she called it Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World.
"I think I've learned to be a lot kinder to myself, in hindsight," she concludes.
"The place was exactly what I was expecting, but I turned out to be different. You end up going a bit mad, which is what everyone told me would happen — I was talking to myself quite animatedly by the end. But it was a lesson in what you can and cannot accommodate. I got to know myself and learned to be more tolerant, more accepting."
Stevens also mastered the art of dancing when no one is watching: "I used to bounce around the island listening to music on my phone, and that was incredibly helpful." It was a private indulgence for her, perhaps, but the penguins must have talked.
We can all take something away from this: to indulge in small luxuries; to allow ritual, but not too much routine; and to give in to wild abandon, penguins or no penguins. These are useful lessons in a world that has changed forever.