Writing Your COVID Novel
Somebody's going to write the Great Pandemic Novel. Why shouldn't it be you?
My father used to tell me that “may you live in interesting times” was an ancient curse. As a little kid, that idea was simply puzzling. For anyone who has lived through any part of the past 20 years, though, it needs no explanation. And the past year, all by itself? Don’t get me started.
Fiction writers, by our very nature, take the thousands of sensory experiences we’ve stored in our memories, mix in our deepest experiences of pain and trauma and love, throw in a few dragons or other elements born purely of our imaginations, and turn it all into a collage we hope will resonate with a few people. In the ongoing search for how to design that collage, it’s hard to find a topic with more universal resonance than COVID-19. But how do you approach a novel about the pandemic? And should you even try?
Here’s one thing I can guarantee: someone’s going to write the Great Pandemic Novel, perhaps even several different someones, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be you. To get started, it helps to get out some of the best fiction treatments of past crises and look under the hood, as it were, to see what makes them run so beautifully.
The Book Thief, a novel by Markus Zusak about World War II, is narrated by Death himself. The protagonist is a young girl, Liesel, living in Nazi Germany. About it, the New York Times said, “The hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang on to in the midst of poverty and war and violence.” Another much-praised (and well-reviewed) book about World War II, Atonement by Ian McEwan, is described thusly: “On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’ s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives.”
Hope. Love. And—it’s a perennial favorite—crime. Neither of these books sets out to teach a history lesson about the Second World War. They each start with a character—Liesel, Briony—and set out to tell their stories, focusing on the fundamentally compelling human emotions that make the reader feel deeply invested in what becomes of them.
In A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, a lunch box that washes up on a beach, seemingly from the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, sets in motion the story of Nao, a Japanese teenager planning suicide. I was drawn in by the backdrop of the tsunami, but what captivated me from the beginning was Nao’s aching nostalgia and deep homesickness for California, where she had lived prior to her father’s job transfer. When I think back to that story, it’s not the instigating event that’s central in my mind—it’s the empathy and connection I felt with Nao over that universal feeling: the longing for home.
Last week I listened to an episode of The Writer Files in which mystery writer Tana French says, of the inevitable soon-to-come pandemic novels, “I don’t think it’s possible for those to have the detachment and space to process any of what’s going on. That’s going to take five years, maybe more.” If that’s true, should it discourage you? Not in the least. Because now is exactly the right time to prepare the creative ground of your mind to write that book.
Start with feelings. Take a quiet hour, or several of them, and write down, stream of consciousness, every emotionally charged memory from March 2020 onward. Write down how it felt when your area announced its first lockdown, when you first wore a mask to the grocery store, when events began to get cancelled, when you couldn’t hug a friend. Write down the surreal sights as you remember them right now—the small children in tiny masks, the long rows of traffic cones at a makeshift drive-through COVID testing site, the nearly unbearable loneliness of a Zoom funeral. Write down your feelings of numbness, your work-arounds for what were once normal tasks, the unexpected things you missed very badly. All those things you’d like to forget, write them down so you never can. That is the emotional foundation on which you can build your story.
Next, record the experiences that weren’t yours: seeing video footage of New Yorkers clanging pots and pans at seven o’clock every night to thank healthcare workers, for example, or your friend’s story of the promising first date that was cancelled because of lockdown. The stories that stand out to you feel the way they do because they resonate with you emotionally, right now, when you’re still close to the experience. That nuance matters.
Finally, write down all the setting details you can think of. This includes your entire pop culture landscape—the music you listened to in 2020, the TikTok videos that made you laugh, the TV shows you binged while stuck at home—and the electronics you consumed it all with (what model phone? Was there a Pop Socket on that phone? How did you access the news—TV, app, some form of radio?).
Then tuck it all away in a safe place and let the real work begin: allowing the story to take root in your mind. Don’t rush it. Start with an idea for a main character. Get to know him or her. Let that character’s story slowly take form. As J. D. Salinger said, “A book takes the time that it needs, and you don't have a choice about it. But don’t worry. Novels grow in the dark.”
And don’t let anybody discourage you. I’m pretty sure that everyone who has ever written a book about a dark period in history has heard the line, “Nobody’s going to want to read about that.” Besides, there’s a long list of epidemic-based fiction that says otherwise. Let the naysayers go ahead and not write that novel. You write yours. Crossposted to Medium and my author page