Tuesday, May 12, 2020

To Pretend or Not to Pretend

We were asked this week, in the light of the Covid 19 outbreak, how we decide how much of the outside world to include in our work. In other words, do we mention the virus and its impact, or pretend it isn’t happening.

What a question!

I sent a domestic suspense novel off to my agent at the end of 2019—before the virus was part of our lives.. She got back to me mid-January and said she loved the book, and that she  had a few “notes” for me to use for revisions. (By the way we discussed this over lunch in New York City—in mid-January.)

Mid-February, I sent the revised manuscript back to her. Within a few weeks, CRASH! BANG! SLAM! That’s the sound of things falling apart. The world was was shutting down, doors were slamming shut for the duration, and the publishing world started grinding to a halt. More crashes—the sound of me throwing things around in frustration. My book, of course, has nothing about the virus, because I wrote long before it happened.

Meanwhile, I’ve just finished the second go-round of edits for my next Samuel Craddock book—number nine. There is nothing about the pandemic in it. Nothing. I don’t even know how I would go about putting anything in about it. My imagination fails me. The book is set in July of an unnamed year—I always thought of it as July 2020. But now I have to think of it as July 2019. Otherwise it will be a lie.

Last week, almost two months into quarantine, I wrote an email to my agent asking how she was doing, whether editors were taking on work, and if she had any idea whether readers (or publishers) would have any interest whatsoever in books that don’t mention the virus, books that blissfully read as if there is no new normal. Would people want to read about how others handled the crisis, or would they crave books about the now seemingly mundane problems we had before? She replied that she can’t assess that yet. She said editors are beginning to peek out from under their sheltered states, but that she personally wasn’t ready to read with a sound critical eye. She lives in the middle of New York City, so I understand her state of confusion. Because we all feel that to some extent.

I often feel as if I’ve been plunged into a sci-fi plot, in which oddly capricious aliens have landed—they might kill you, they might ignore you, or they might just make you slightly sick. People have to respond to their capriciousness, much as you might respond to a drunken, enraged relative. You tiptoe around them and hope to avoid their notice. But am I ready to write a sci-fi novel about it? No.

It has been almost twenty years since 9/11 happened, and very few books tackle that shattering event head-on, although books mention it tangentially. And that even was small compared to current one. So if we still can’t write about 9/11, when willwe be able to tackle Covid?

I personally am enjoying reading books that have nothing to do with current reality. With a caveat. At the moment I’m completely immersed in James Ziskin’s latest, Turn to Stone

Set in Florence, Italy in the 60s, the lush, wonderful descriptions have me yearning to be back there—in Italy, I mean, not in the 60s. And periodically I have a heart-pang: will I ever get to go back there? Will there even be a there there? And then, of course, I remember that Florence has withstood centuries of plagues, wars, economic and social disasters. It will be there, and one day I hope to go back there.

But the point is, I am enjoying stepping out of my daily dose of horror, fear, bemusement, drudgery, isolation, and uncertainty to bury myself in reading about things the way they were. My question is, how fundamentally will things change? Will there be a time when all those books set “before” seem quaint and odd? Or will we want the steady influence of the past to lead us to a future—maybe not the same future we had been careening toward, but some version of it.

Do we lie and pretend the world hasn’t been slammed by a history-changing event? Jane Austen barely mentioned events in the world outside her characters’ lives, even though there were wars and systemic changes.  But events that happened outside Austen’s community were not instantly available by radio, TV, and internet, as they are to us. We can’t pretend we know nothing about our cataclysmic situation. But if you include it, how much do you include?  

I’m thinking it’s time to tackle that historic novel I’ve had on the back burner for many years. It’s set around the turn of the century—from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, that is. So I won’t have to mention a plague. Although…there was that small matter of the Little Ice Age. 

So readers, what do you think? Do you want to read books that include the virus or not? I


Susan C Shea said...

Florence is, in fact, a great place to study the effects of a plague on society. There were two waves of the Great Plague there, and because religion was at the center of society and the arts, people tended to see in plague a message from God. They didn't always agree on what the message was, but the clergy's viewpoint ruled. Florence's history around this 14th century plague is a good reading topic today.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thank you for the shout-out, Terry! Stay safe!