- Novelist Julia Dahl asked her fellow writers how they cope or avoid the coronavirus.
- “We need to chronicle this,” said Jodi Picoult, who has several Covid-related projects.
- Others said they weren’t ready to handle the pandemic or were waiting to see what was next.
Last month, I handed in the corrections for my fourth novel. The following week, when I opened the outline for my fifth, I was faced with this question: does Covid-19 exist in the new book I am writing?
I started a Tweet.
—Julia Dahl (@juliadahl) January 25, 2021
Most said they were walking away. Author Kate Reed Petty, whose debut novel “True Story” received rave critics, admitted, “I’m not ready to deal with it.” Laura McHugh, author of premium “The Weight of Blood” and “What’s Done in Darkness” said she was “completely unaware of it,” but for a slightly different reason.
“I don’t know what the state of the pandemic will be when this book comes out,” McHugh said of the manuscript she recently started. “I’d rather give up than be wrong.”
But some writers dive into it. I reached out to Jodi Picoult, the best-selling author who is known for exploiting the social issues of school shootings to abortion to white supremacy, and she told me she was working on two Covid-related projects.
“I think as writers it’s up to us in the arts to really put into words what it all means, much like the novelists were able to do for 9/11, eventually,” Picoult wrote in an email.
To that end, Picoult — who is also a librettist — is in production for “Breathe,” an original musical she co-wrote with Tim McDonald, about the impact of the pandemic on five different couples.
And although the novel she started co-writing with Jenny Boylan in April 2020 is set before Covid, Picoult said she found a way to tell the story of the pandemic in the novel she comes from. to begin.
“We need to chronicle this,” Picoult insisted. “We have already forgotten things that we said and thought in March 2020.” Picoult said she was interviewing patients (42 last week) who survived ventilation of the disease. (Obviously, the woman is not sleeping.)
The novelist Teddy Wayne, whose most recent novel “Apartment” was an editor’s choice of The New York Times, was also inspired by Covid, but in a very different way.
“I think my approach to anything so monumental is that it’s more interesting for me to write about almost the mirror image of the thing rather than the thing itself,” he said. .
The approach has worked for him in the past: Wayne’s first novel, “Kapitoil,” seems – from description to themes to cover art – like a 9/11 novel, but is actually set before 2001. His way of writing about this seminal event was, he says, “not to write to his subject but around it”.
He takes an equally indirect approach to writing about the Covid era. Wayne was exposed to the virus in December and spent a week in quarantine from his family. It was only during this time that he went through an ideas folder, saw something that had parallels to the pandemic, and started writing.
“If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I’m not sure the idea would have appealed to me,” he said.
“LET THE TRAGEDY COOL”
On March 17, 2020 – not even a week after lockdowns began across the country – Sloane Crosby published an essay in The New York Times Book Review titled “One day we will come back to all this and write a novel.”
“The nature of tragedy,” she wrote, “is that it takes more than it gives, but it has also produced some of our most iconic literature.” “The Grapes of Wrath”, “The Plague”, “Don Quixote”, among them. But, she warned: “From an artistic point of view, it’s better to let the tragedy cool before you swallow it and spit it in everyone’s face.”
Which brings us to the issue of editing. Even seasoned novelists have to sell their book idea to a publisher; how many will greenlight Covid novels?
Zachary Wagman, Vice President and Editorial Director of Flatiron Books, has an open mind.
“It’s up to the novelist to find a clever way to handle this,” said Wagman, who pointed out that a thriller set during lockdown or in the midst of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests could be really interesting.
But he admits finding the right tone will be tricky.
“Anybody [in publishing] wants to think they’re profiting from this slow-moving tragedy,” Wagman said. Like Wayne, Wagman wondered if, perhaps, “the best way is to sniff out the edges.”
And what about the reader? Many of us pick up a novel for entertainment or to get away from it all, but some of us crave a type of understanding that we can’t get from the news. As Albert Camus, author of “The Plague,” said, “Fiction is a lie through which we tell the truth.”
Sure, there are millions of truths and millions of stories about this pandemic, but how many are worth spending years writing? How many are important enough, insightful enough to be linked and distributed?
Teddy Wayne, who like me has been mostly cooped up at home since March of last year, put it this way: “It’s not my story to tell.” His comment got me thinking: I wonder if the pandemic stories that will be most enlightening are seeping inside people who are currently too exhausted by the reality of the situation to be creative. I’m thinking of a restaurant novel – like Stewart O’Nan’s “Last Night at the Lobster” – but set in March 2020 – or the story of a grocery store clerk immersed in the politics of masking in the midst of an election presidential.
Possibly SA Cosby, author of the review acclaimed “Blacktop Wasteland” will use his experience as a former mortuary assistant to imagine the emotional truth inside the headlines about the relaxation of air quality rules in Los Angeles to allow crematoria to dispose of all bodies who piled up.
I asked Cosby what he thought of the idea and he was blunt: “It’s too raw.”
“I think I’m going to write my next book before the pandemic, if only because living through it has been so difficult that I’m just not mentally ready to deal with it in my job,” said Cosby, who told me he lost his uncle and five friends to illness. “I’ll fix it eventually, but hopefully by the time I do we’ll see a bit more light at the end of the tunnel.”
I don’t aspire to write The Great Covid Novel, but as someone who writes about crime and justice (my first three books are crime novels and the next one is a thriller), I spend a lot of time thinking about the way people react to stress — and the stress caused by mass unemployment, pervasive fear, and half a million dead Americans seems impossible to ignore.
Should my next novel explore a character whose job loss becomes a catalyst for criminal activity? Or a family forced to return to the same house during lockdown? The more I think about it, the less appealing it becomes and the more true Wayne’s lyrics ring.
That said, I try to exploit the “now” in my work; is to avoid this last year a cop? I asked my agent if she had an opinion on the subject and she reassured me a little: “I don’t think we’ll be done telling stories about life until March 2020.”
I have a few ideas.
Julia Dahl is the author of four novels and teaches journalism at NYU.