Why I wrote a novel about COVID-19

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

At Washington Independent Review of Books, author Tara Laskowski asks, “We’re living through a pandemic. Must we read about one, too?” Her suggestion to fellow writers:

Perhaps the solution is to just skip ahead and set everything in 2025, safely away from the horror that is this year …

In 20 years or so, this point will probably be moot. By then, we’ll be ready to curl up with an escapist historical novel set in 2020; we’ll have gotten enough social distance from masks and lockdowns and toilet paper shortages.

My perspective on all this is colored by the fact that I wrote a novel set during 2020, and it centers around the pandemic and quarantines that have affected us all.

To clarify the chronology, I started writing the book in June (or so) and published it last month. Man in the Middle is set in the first week of California’s shelter-in-place, and although March was not so long ago, paging through my diary entries of those early weeks while preparing the novel reminded me just how otherworldly the world became overnight.

That’s a key point about the book’s development: I started keeping a diary when the pandemic surged in America. For the first few months, I wrote daily, almost religiously, dumping my despair and puzzlement onto the page. When the world opened up and grew less tense, I thumbed back through my notebook and discovered a voice I did not quite know. It was me, but it was not a me I easily recognized.

Certainly I harbored many reservations before I set out to write the first draft. Was the world to be swamped with a flood of coronavirus thrillers? What if a cure is discovered tomorrow? One writer friend warned me off the project entirely. From other people, there’s been a split-brain response: On one hand, writing a book now about the pandemic is “obviously” a commercial money-grab on my part, right? On the other hand, the market for such a book has a tight, closing window, once the vaccines arrive, eh? It’s one of those social situations where they think I’m not seeing the obvious, when in fact I’d gone down those thought-paths several dozen times.

I don’t write fiction to make money. Fiction is freeing for me. No one tells me what to write or how to write it. I set my deadlines. I make my own challenges. I also happen to believe there are readers in this world who, once they’re exposed to my writing, will enjoy it as well. That, more than anything, motivates me to keep writing.

Laskowski relates a comment from her agent:

“If something is set this year and is about the quarantine experience, sort of like a locked-room crime, maybe,” she says. “But a medical thriller about covid? Nope.”

A medical thriller is exactly the kind of novel I told myself I would not write: The beautiful epidemiologist racing the clock to develop a cure; a cold-hearted technocracy blocking her progress at every turn; and her child starting to develop worrisome symptoms. But the reason not to write a medical thriller about coronavirus is not because we’re living through it—it’s because that thriller has been written many times over, only with different strains of disease of different origin, with different symptoms and different cures.

While I didn’t write a locked-room crime book, I knew early on I wanted it to be a novel of isolation and suspense. The year that is 2020 has been a year of unthinkables. It is also a year hosting a major, tumultuous presidential election set against a backdrop of accusations of foreign and domestic intrigue. Swirled together, these ingredients sent me back to the great political and conspiracy films of my youth (Three Days of the Condor, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 12 Monkeys). In January, when COVID-19 was a curiosity mentioned occasionally in the news, I was reading Orwell’s war diaries, which also left a strong impression upon me. In March, when the shelter-in-place orders came down, I reread Camus’ The Plague with fresh eyes and a fresh appreciation.

Out of all this arable soil grew a claustrophobic, paranoid book about an isolated security guard who can’t tell if he’s detaching ever-so-gradually from reality. Podcasts, experts, and so-called experts fill his ears with contradictory takes on the world’s sudden course correction. That voice from my diary was now his.

Why wouldn’t I write that book? Whether or not Man in the Middle succeeds on its merits, I’ll let the readers decide. But how could I just set this inspiration aside and write about any year except 2020?

To return to the original question, no, I don’t believe people should have to read about the pandemic right now. I understand why anyone who reaches for a book today would want to read about any subject other than pandemics. Subconsciously, though, the question naturally bleeds into the territory of, Should writers be writing about the pandemic now?

As an answer, consider re-framing the original question as “We’re living through the Great Depression. Must we read about it, too?”

Imagine if the writers of The Grapes of Wrath, The Day of the Locust, The Road to Wigan Pier, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, John Dos Passos with his U.S.A. trilogy—and more—decided not to write about the worldwide economic collapse because people were living through it, so why would they want to read about it? For many of those authors ninety years ago, they viewed writing about the Great Depression as a responsibility.

Man in the Middle isn’t an act of personal responsibility, but I did write it for good reasons, even if they’re only my reasons.

(Probably unnecessary disclosure: Tara Laskowski is an editor for Smokelong Quarterly, which published one of my stories years ago. I don’t know if she was an editor there at that time.)

Books & movies to pick up while social distancing yourself

Albert Camus

Over the past week, the more I tell myself I will not live in fear or succumb to panic, the more I wonder if I’m fooling myself. Such are the unusual times we’re in.

My rule-of-thumb has been to halve whatever heat the press applies to its current hot topic—to recognize it’s in the media’s interests to double a controversial topic’s magnitude to sell more advertising. For the current outbreak of coronavirus, however, dividing by two still yields a large number.

Watching the spread of COVID-19 in near real-time on my computer screen, my thoughts keep returning to a certain class of story, ones that deal with mass disease, plague, and creeping horror.

With social distancing becoming chic and more people staying home nights, here’s a selection of books and movies that offer food for thought for uncertain times:

The Plague

Often read as an allegory of the French Resistance during World War II, it’s just as enriching to read Albert Camus’ classic as a straight accounting of bubonic plague striking an Algerian town.

The novel’s first section reads like a cribbed summary of the past three months. The town government is slow to respond to the first signs of outbreak, and then they attempt to downplay and muzzle news of the disease. The townspeople are initially detached, even sarcastic, about the oncoming epidemic. Doctors hesitate to utter its name. Only when the horror is plain is there a complete lock-down of the city. We haven’t seen food riots or looting—yet—but Camus’ depiction of citizens being shot while escaping quarantine, and paranoia stoking bigotry and violence, naturally makes me wonder which is worse: the disease or its targets.

“A good hour wasted!” the inspector sighed when the door closed behind them. “As you can guess, we’ve other things to think about, what with this fever everybody’s talking of.”

He then asked the doctor if there was any serious danger to the town; Rieux answered that he couldn’t say.

“It must be the weather,” the police officer decided. “That’s what it is.”

What does The Plague depict that we’re not seeing today? Camus’ gallows humor, for one. The San Francisco of thirty years ago would be holding end-of-the-world parties right now, and plague doctors’ masks would be the hot fashion item of the season. Instead, San Francisco went from boom town to ghost town over the course of a single weekend. Camus’ interrogation of God’s will versus nature’s blind force are scarce today too. It appears everyone’s more-or-less agreed on the science behind COVID-19, although conspiracies abound—perhaps our culture’s new religion.

“Well, I know. And I don’t need any post-mortems. I was in China for a good part of my career, and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion. The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that would do at all. … ‘It’s unthinkable. Everyone knows it ceased to appear in western Europe.’ Yes, everyone knew that—except the dead men.”

I like to think Camus’ main characters recognized the absurdity of fleas on grungy rats sending an entire city into a locked-down panic. Maybe in the future we’ll have a rounder perspective of the 2019-2020 coronavirus. Not today, apparently.

12 Monkeys

One of my favorite films. In Terry Gilliam’s near future, mankind lives underground after an unnamed virus killed five billion people and made the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. A convict is sent backwards in time not to prevent the near-extinction event, but to gather information about the virus so future scientists may develop a vaccine.

“We did it!”
(Jeff Kramer, CC BY 2.0)

As with The Plague, 12 Monkeys is laden with absurdity and irony even though the subject matter is dead-serious. The ending is ambiguous, but one reading is even more fatalistic than Camus’ novel. “All I see are dead people,” the convict mutters as he peers around a thriving 1990s America.

Then there’s the scene where the viral spread is recalled by counting off the cities it was first detected in, much as we’re talking about Wuhan, Italy, King County, and so forth. The 12 Monkeys virus was communicated quickly due to modern airline travel, which again sounds awfully familiar. Of all the titles in this list, 12 Monkeys hews closest to today’s reality.

Orwell’s war-time diaries

While not strictly about plague or pestilence, Orwell’s diaries of London life during World War II have remarkable currency. Reading his private thoughts during the London blitz are Orwell at his most claustrophobic.

Orwell records the daily despairs overheard in pubs and tobacconists, the griping over the stark wartime rationing, and his own dulled sense that he’s grown accustomed to the sound of airplane gunfire. London’s citizens black out their windows and stay at home fretting over the newspaper and beside the radio. Above all, he writes of his suspicions that government censors were holding back embarrassments on England’s progress in the war—and most likely lying through their teeth, although “there is probably more suppression than downright lying.”

The usual Sunday crowds drifting to and fro, perambulators, cycling clubs, people exercising dogs, knots of young men loitering at street corners, with not an indication in any face or in anything that one can overhear that these people grasp that they are likely to be invaded within a few weeks, though today all the Sunday papers are telling them so. The response to renewed appeals for evacuation of children from London has been very poor. Evidently the reasoning is, “The air raids didn’t happen last time, so they won’t happen this time.”

His diaries ring of today’s self-quarantines, the lines at the supermarkets, the daily sense of uncertainty, and each morning checking the Web knowing the infection numbers will only be rising. Our government is now holding public health meetings in secret. At least our press is free enough to report that much.

There are days Orwell sounds resigned to England being overrun by the Nazis, and there are days when he’s even more apocalyptic. Orwell, ever the Socialist, grimly cheers himself up by predicting the end of the war would trigger a workers’ revolution and the end of capitalism. It’s an unusually millenarianist moment for the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, and one where his predictive powers failed him.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The 1956 thriller is a classic of Red Scare film-making. The 1976 remake with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy is creepier and—improbably—campier. Extraterrestrial spores quietly rain down on Earth to infect humans while they sleep. One by one, humanity is replaced with emotionless, purposeless clones.

The 1956 original is interpreted as either a caution against Communism or anti-Communism, making it the ultimate McCarthy-era open text. The 1976 remake is on several lists of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers, yet it’s even less politically-charged than the original. As with my suggestion about The Plague, what if both were simply viewed through the lenses of infection and contamination?

When the aliens are perfect clones—when an infected person is outwardly healthy—it’s impossible to know who to be wary of, and so people rely on less reliable and less noble signals to judge unclean. By the middle of Body Snatchers, every major and minor character who comes into the shot leaves you asking, “Are they—?” There’s the awful hesitation these days when people shake hands. There’s the dismalness of watching people scurry away from a blown nose or a sneeze.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy’s plea for everyone to listen and see what’s coming sounds eerily like the health care professionals who warned the public of the coming epidemic, especially those who were censored or warned about spreading rumors:

Paranoia—fatalism—taboo—absurdity. I’m not claiming this list will cheer you up. Perhaps it’s helpful to see people at their best and worst when fear is spreading like a disease. Maybe it’s comforting to know we’re not the first to experience this dread. There’s a light, even if it’s not the end of the tunnel.