Thursday, November 11, 2021

The World and All Its Warts from James W. Ziskin

 You’re writing a novel set in the current time. Do you include covid, politics, climate change among the background or foreground parts of the environment? If so, why? If not, why?

Yes, I would include Covid, politics, and all the rest in any book set in current times. If I were writing about the early 1940s, would I not feel obligated to mention the little contretemps known as World War II? Did Dickens not expound on the social and labor issues of his time? Street urchins, orphans, and workhouses? Ditto for Zola and Hugo?

As it happens, I don’t write much set in current day. Other than some short fiction I’ve written, my books are historicals, set in the near past. The Ellie Stone mysteries take place in the early 1960s, and my next novel, Bombay Monsoon, is set in 1975 India. Still, even while writing about the past, I try to represent the events and atmosphere of the day. In fact, it may be even more important to do so in historical fiction. Otherwise, what’s the point of historical fiction?

In Bombay Monsoon, for example, I write a little about the land reclamation that has been going for centuries in Bombay. It’s not the at the center of the story, but it’s an environmental and social issue that has long affected the local fishing communities, the geography, and the environment in Bombay.

More front and center, on the other hand, is the issue of quarantine in my latest Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone. The story revolves around ten acquaintances trapped in a villa in Fiesole—above Florence—due to a suspected rubella outbreak. I owe a debt of gratitude to Boccaccio, of course, whose 14th century work, The Decameron, tells of ten friends who repair to a villa in Fiesole to escape the plague raging in Florence below. In Boccaccio, the refugees regale each other with stories to pass the time. In Turn to Stone, my characters do the same, with several winks and nods to Boccaccio along the way.

I hasten to point out, however, that Turn to Stone came out in January 2020, just before the Covid pandemic hit, which means I was not, in fact, writing about the current situation in the world.

But if I were to write a present-day mystery or thriller, I would certainly include details of our lives today. Consider this: once the pandemic finally ends, I intend to continue sanitizing my hands and surfaces I encounter wherever I go. And I will be wearing masks on airplanes, too. Why? For one thing I haven’t had a cold or the flu or been sick at all in more than two years. And I know why. 

The pandemic has hardly been fun, but it’s changed the world. Maybe someday science will find solutions to make the new normal go away. But until that happens, I’ll write about the world as I see it, warts and all. Politics, disease, climate change, and murder.

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