Should we be writing about the pandemic?

According to the Washington Post, it was four years post 9/11 before the first major novels about the September 11 attacks began to grace our shelves. A quick look on GoodReads provides a list of over 214 books including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Before this of course, there were the non-fiction accounts, the fact-seeking, truth-telling, first-hand accounts of what went wrong, and a handful of sideways mentions, but it was a few years before the novelists had found their story.

Almost two decades later, the world finds itself in the grips again of another singular event, the corona virus pandemic that – at the time of writing – has infected more than ten million people worldwide and killed over half a million. Conversations about whether we should be writing about the pandemic are everywhere.

Interestingly, children’s books about the pandemic have already arrived. Instructional and educational, they include Corona Virus: A Book for Children (illustrated by none other than the Gruffalo’s Axel Scheffler) and The Princess in Black and the Case of the Corona Virus by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale.

There are some novelists who are determined not to write about the pandemic, who see that by not writing about it, might set them apart.

Justine Larbalestier, author of three books and currently living out the pandemic in locked-down New York writes ‘I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books. When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

Debra Purdy Kong also agrees there will be a ‘glut of pandemic stories coming up.

But for others, it’s caution about writing about the pandemic too soon, at least while the pandemic is still in force, while the statistics keep piling on and no one can see an end. As Chris Bohjalian, author of 21 novel writes ‘None of us can really make sense of history as history is occurring.

Oliver Winfree, who writes contemporary stories for children, acknowledges that life as we know it has changed forever, but asks – how much of this we need to include in our writing? ‘Or maybe we just ignore it, and continue to write stories as if life hasn’t changed. Except we’ll be washing our hands more often now…

Anne Tyler, author of 23 novels including The Accidental Tourist and Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons says ‘I’m very much a believer in letting things get old before we write about them at all.’ She is not exaggerating with her desire to let things sit and develop: she adds that she still doesn’t think there has been a decent book about 9/11, but that perhaps in another twenty years there might be a good one.

So my decision to write a book about the pandemic might be seen as a very unpopular one. Especially since it’s been only six months since the first mention of a novel corona virus and we haven’t yet reached the peak.

It’s extra strange I would write a contemporary novel considering I see myself as a writer of historical fiction. My last two manuscripts are set in the 20th century, one focussing on the years immediately prior to World War 1 and the other spanning the decades between 1960 and 1980.

I have always loved history. Looking back at where we have been and how we got where we are fascinates me. Every book of historical fiction is full of truth and detail and I love nothing more than disappearing down a rabbit hole of research and will spend hours making sure I get the small details correct, from the design of a woman’s underwear in 1913 to what’s on TV late at night in the 1970s.

So why would I choose to write a book set in 2020?

Quite simply, it’s because I see us living through history, and this unique era – at least here in Perth, so isolated and protected from the worst of the devastation – has been so brief. I want to capture it while I can, and what better way to record history than to write about it while it is happening?

My story will not be the pandemic story. There can’t be just one. My experience of COVID-19 here in Perth will be completely foreign to someone living in New York or Italy or even Melbourne. For the children of Spain who were not allowed out of their houses for forty days, my daughters’ time in lockdown, chalking pictures on the footpath and taking the dog on long walks through the suburb, would be unrecognisable. My brief, two-week stint ‘homeschooling’ my kids, would make families in the US, who have had their children home with them for four months (and counting) laugh with the absurdity of it all.

I do not know anyone who has become sick with corona virus, let alone die from it, and for that I am immensely grateful. But it has been a uniquely singular time, with a new soundtrack, and a new language. We wear different clothes and we have different social interactions and expectations. The rules and laws have changed. We are living in a historical era: with a distinct start date, and – one hopes – there will be an end date. By the end of the pandemic, we all will have been changed by it.

But my story is not about the pandemic, just as my story set in 1913-14 is not about the War. It’s a setting, a time and place both unique and instantly recognisable regardless of where you live. I didn’t set out to write a contemporary novel – I had written the plot last year when I was at KSP Writers Centre. But when the virus came for us, I started a diary of some of the small ways the world changed, and saw how the unique circumstances of the pandemic would enhance the story I was tinkering with.

So I say, write about the pandemic if you want. We shouldn’t let others dictate what we write about. Don’t be shamed by the idea there may be a million other books touching on a topic. There will only be one book like yours. It’s not a bandwagon you’re jumping on, but simple adherence to the first rule of writing – the one they slam into your heads the first day you pick up that pen: write what you know.

 

The First Lines of Australian Novels Rewritten for COVID-19

I admit this isn’t an original idea, but it’s a very good idea. First someone decided to rewrite the first lines of ten classic novels for social distancing. I’m taking the liberty of rewriting the opening lines from 25 of my favourite Australian novels for the Time of COVID-19. Apologies to all concerned.

 

Invisible Boys – Holden Sheppard

There are two ways out of this poxy shithole of a town, but you can’t go either way until the regional travel bans are lifted.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. I’m really loving social isolation! But then again, I am an introvert.

The French Photographer – Natasha Lester

Jessica May turned on her famous smile and raised her arm aloft. It was all she could do to say hello from 1.5 metres away.

All That Is Lost Between Us – Sara Foster

It was only a memory now. Going to the gym and having a coffee afterwards with friends in the café.

The Sound – Sarah Drummond

My name is Wiremu Heke. But my Zoom name is Billhook.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Working from home was awesome. He could sleep till midday because no one knew when he started work.

You Belong Here – Laurie Steed

Jen sat sketching flowers on the footpath, the chalk worn down to a nub. She took a photo and quickly uploaded it to Facebook, hashtagging it #RainbowTrailAustralia.

The Sisters Song – Louise Allen

My memories of my father are scant and faded, and I only have two photos of him. His aged care home forbids visitors and it’s been too long since I’ve seen him.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine. They call me COVID-19 and I am but a wee virus.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to her cat Marie Antoinette. ‘All non-essential events over 100 people have been cancelled!’

Trip of a Lifetime – Liz Byrski

Later, even when she’d had time to think about it, she still couldn’t remember anything unusual about the evening; UberEats on the couch, a bottle of wine and Netflix. The same thing every night for the past six weeks.

Let Her Go – Dawn Barker

Zoe turned to look out to sea. She was glad they hadn’t closed the beaches in Perth. Take that, Bondi!

The Good Turn – Dervla McTiernan

The waiting room was ugly and neglected. It had been cleaned recently – the overpowering smell of disinfectant was testament to that. ‘Have you been overseas in the past 14 days or had close contact with a confirmed case of corona virus?’ the receptionist demanded. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m just here for a pap smear.’

The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do

I’m flying down the Hume Highway at 130 kilometres an hour. Since everyone’s been told to stay home and isolate, there’s no one on the roads.

Postcards from Surfers – Helen Garner

We are driving north from Coolangatta airport. Our flights have been cancelled and I’m mad as hell. I’d better get a full refund.

They’re a Weird Mob – Nino Culotta

Who the hell’s Nino Culotta? That’s what you asked yourself when you first picked up this book, wasn’t it? Well he’s the guy who started Bin Isolation Outing.

Dustfall – Michelle Johnston (Ch 2)

Raymond. That was his name and he emerged from the mire with two small suitcases stuffed to the hinges with items hastily chosen; now he had two weeks compulsory quarantine in a city hotel at the expense of the Australian taxpayer.

Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones came to my window. Ever since we had to close the restaurant, drive-through has been going off!

Searching for the Secret River – Kate Grenville

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. During the lockdown you can’t get a drink any day of the week, and travellers, well – we hate ‘em.

The Shadow Years – Hannah Richell

It is the smallest details that come to her; the damp grass underfoot threaded with buttercups, the air humming with insects, the snap of her nightdress catching in the breeze. She’d spent more time in her backyard during the last month of lockdown than she had in the previous year.

Beautiful, Messy Love – Tess Woods

It’s funny what you remember about the biggest moment in your life. But I think in a year or two, we all will have forgotten the lessons we learned during COVID-19.

Fractured – Dawn Barker

Tony’s footsteps echoed as he hurried across the underground carpark and into the lift. He saw the look of alarm on the old woman’s face. Tony removed his face mask. ‘I’m not sick,’ he said, but she had already stepped out of the lift.

An Indecent Obsession – Colleen McCullough

The young soldier stood looking doubtfully up at the large cruise ship, his kit bag lowered to the ground while he assessed the possibility that this was indeed his ultimate destination. An armed guard for the off-duty crew of a cruise ship? Were they going to sing and dance their way to escape?

If I Should Lose You – Natasha Lester

Patient care: stethoscope whispers, the lubdub or footsteps, but no huddles of family. Corona victims must die alone.

Sister Madly Deeply [Well Behaved Women] – Emily Paull

As I bring the clippers toward the soft dome of my head, all I can think about is how much I do not want to do this. But I am so bored in isolation and everyone else on Tik Tok is making videos of cutting themselves a fringe, so I’m going to do one too.

 

What other Aussie novels can you re-write the first line for?