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.

 

A Stroke of Bad Luck

This is a section that I have already removed from my novel as I am now limiting the story to the period 1912-1915. However, if you read the previous blog post about Doris, you will recognise this story as from the day of her stroke.

 

1968

Fred stretched in the early morning air, surveying the street as he searched for the paper. Finding it wedged in his wife’s prize rose bush, he shook his head in despair. These paper boys were getting worse and worse, he thought. No care.

Tucking it under his arm, he ambled up the street. It was both a habit and obligation, checking to see that the old lady next door had collected her paper, a sign that all was well. Finding no sign of the paper, he glanced towards the house and gave a brief wave, even though he had no idea if anyone was watching. There was no movement in the windows, but there rarely was. Duty done, Fred unfolded his own paper as he walked the few steps back to his house, already immersed in the day’s headlines.

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Fred wrapped his scarf tighter around his throat and stepped out into the brisk afternoon air. The wind immediately made his eyes water, and he considered staying inside, the fire was particularly well built today, and the smell of dinner was very enticing. But something drew him out into the cold afternoon that day, and it wasn’t simply his wife needing more butter for dinner, nor her insistence that he was getting loose around the middle and a brisk walk would do him good. Something else brought him outside that day.

Hands deep in his pockets, and eyes half closed to the wind Fred set off down the street. He had only gone a few steps when he kicked something unexpectedly. A newspaper rolled out from under the hedge and stopped against his shoe. Fred felt his insides dissolve as he looked towards the old lady’s house. It was still and dark, no lights burning in the front rooms, despite the heavy clouds that day. Fred bent to pick up the paper and reluctantly stepped towards the house.

Although no larger than any of the other houses in the area, its situation on the high corner block meant you had to look up at it slightly. He crossed the grass slowly and stepped up to the verandah, its white squat columns offering scant protection from the wintery elements.

Glancing longingly next door to where his house glowed with life, and the smells of dinner came wafting through the air, Fred knocked on the front door. Straining to hear a noise, he knocked again. Louder, more desperately.

He longed to be in his home, in his favourite chair with May and the children chattering and laughing. The silence at number 14 was heavy. Even the wind had stopped blowing and Fred felt very alone.

‘Miss Turpin,’ he shouted, a wobble in his voice betraying him. ‘Miss Turpin, are you in there? I have your paper.’ There was no movement from inside the house, no tell-tale squeak from the floorboards, no doors banging. Yet Fred could feel a presence and he knew she was inside. He stepped back from the door and balanced on the stairs, hand cupping his face as he peered into the front window, trying to see inside the dark room. The long white nightgown made the shape of her body lying next to the bed appear like a ghost and Fred suddenly yelled, but the words were caught in his throat.

Dropping the paper into the garden, he banged on the window, trying to call to the old lady, to his wife, to anyone who might be able to help but the wind had picked up again, and his words were tossed around helplessly, like a paper boat in a storm.

 

Your History for Sale: $15

Today I took my daughters to a swap meet in Nedlands.  There were the usual assortment of stalls selling the usual assortment of thing.

But one lady’s stall in particular attracted all our eyes.

My three year old went straight to the Dora doll, dressed in a tutu with articulated joints and wild hair. New, it would have been an investment of $60 or more. Today it was ours for $4, complete with two mis-matching hair elastics the previous owner had strangled its hair into.

I was drawn to a dish of smokey glass in a flower shape. It reminded me of pieces I had seen labelled in an antique shop as ‘Depression glass’. I picked it up. It felt weighty in hand, and not just the heft of the glass.

Image

‘That was one of my wedding gifts,’ the lady spoke from behind me. ‘From 1962’.

I looked up at her, wondering why she would be selling a wedding gift after fifty years. Had she and her husband separated? Had he died? Had she never liked the piece and was glad to finally be rid of it? She had kept this dish safe for more than half a century, only for it to wind up on a rug, in the dimly lit basement of a car park.

And I bought a piece of her past for $15.

I have been thinking about the past a lot lately. Not my own, as at 35 I’m hardly vintage. Give me a few more years. But my house is about 85 years old, and I have been researching it and the previous owners.

It’s amazing what a $24 title search at Landgate will yield: names, addresses, occupations, even the banks with which mortgages were held. Once armed with this information, and the power of Google and I have uncovered a wealth of information about the five previous owners of my house.

I plan on writing about the history of my house for the local history awards, but more than that, I hope to link my daughters’ future with the past. The house as it stands now, with the renovations we did a few years ago, has made it into a sprawling residence with two storeys, enough bedrooms to house a cricket team and space to swing several cats, a far cry from the original 1930s cottage with five rooms.

One of the nicest things to come from this process is linking to some of the previous owners, and having them share their stories with me. I am looking forward to seeing some of the early plans of the original cottage and adding them into the house’s history. I have come to realise though, that although I may be able to track down the owners of the house, I will probably never be able to find out about the people who lived here.

And that would be an entirely different story.