Uncategorized

Fiction writers and covid, plus 8 recommended pandemic novels

It’s the very first authors’ Round Robin of the year, and it’s another thought-provoking topic…

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor

…this month set by author Connie Vines:

How are you dealing with the COVID pandemic in your contemporary novels/short stories?

I try to be an optimist but have to admit I find it very depressing that at the start of 2022, as I’m writing this, the covid pandemic is still raging worlwide, causing untold stress to our health services, and with many people continuing to die.

Twelve months ago, in December 2020, we’d already had a year of the pandemic – and what a really long year it seemed. But I was still reasonably optimistic that our worries about the virus would be over before too long. I wrote a short story on this blog called Have Yourself a Merry Christmas Story, about two young people visiting their granddads in a care home in lockdown. I wanted to write a heartwarming tale about people coming together, despite everything. At that time I was sure, this time next year, everything would be different.

I don’t need to say how tired I am of it all now. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had covid twice, but I haven’t lost anyone to the virus. I’m also very lucky to have a job where I can work from home as an editor, and I’ve been very busy with my freelance editing. I’m lucky again to have kept my income.

But as a writer, I can’t really face the thought of putting the pandemic or covid at the centre of my stories, and I don’t know if I ever will really want to. It’s interesting that, although the flu pandemic of 1918 killed more people than died in World War One, there is very little fiction about it.

Covid has made a difference to us all. I was editing a story recently which was written pre-pandemic. The story briefly featured a film script about a travel writer who had a problem with his passport, and was unable to travel. Pre-pandemic, it seemed a massive deal. Now, this bit of the story had to be edited out. With the whole world grounded, we were all in the same boat, travelling nowhere.

As an editor, I now have to approach my job in a different way. As a writer, I don’t want to have a pandemic at the heart of my story. As a reader, I thought I’d never want to read a novel about a panedemic again, as I was tired of it. But then I was given two books for Christmas that feature viruses, both of which I really enjoyed. And I read several pandemic novels before the covid-19 outbreak that have stuck in my mind.

Sometimes it can help to get a different perspective on the times we’re living in.

So here is a selection of novels about a pandemic I’ve either enjoyed, or have been recommended.

Eight novels about a pandemic

First up is Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

I read this when it first came out. The story and characters have stuck in my mind, and despite the bleakness of the subject, it ends on an optimistic note, and I love how the heroine is trying to preserve the works of Shakespeare.

Here is the blurb:

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.
Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.
If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

This is a book on my tbr. I was brought up near the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, and was very struck as a child by the story of how the villagers deliberately cut themselves off when the plague struck. This novel is based on this true history.

Here is the blurb:

In 1666, plague swept through London, driving the King and his court to Oxford, and Samuel Pepys to Greenwich, in an attempt to escape contagion. The north of England remained untouched until, in a small community of leadminers and hill farmers, a bolt of cloth arrived from the capital. The tailor who cut the cloth had no way of knowing that the damp fabric carried with it bubonic infection.

So begins the Year of Wonders, in which a Pennine village of 350 souls confronts a scourge beyond remedy or understanding. Desperate, the villagers turn to sorcery, herb lore, and murderous witch-hunting. Then, led by a young and charismatic preacher, they elect to isolate themselves in a fatal quarantine. The story is told through the eyes of Anna Frith who, at only 18, must contend with the death of her family, the disintegration of her society, and the lure of a dangerous and illicit attraction.

The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay

I was given this book for Christmas. The virus in this story leaves people infected able to understand what animals are saying. It’s set in Australia, featuring a heroine who isn’t conventionally likeable. The blurb says:

Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and allergic to bullshit, Jean is not your usual grandma. She’s never been good at getting on with other humans, apart from her beloved granddaughter, Kimberly. Instead, she surrounds herself with animals, working as a guide in an outback wildlife park. And although Jean talks to all her charges, she has a particular soft spot for a young dingo called Sue.

If you’re looking for a heartwarming read, then this isn’t it, but I really loved the relationship between Jean and her granddaughter, and between Jean and the dingo. The book is an original story and will stay with me a while.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

This was another Christmas present, and I read it directly after the book by Laura Jean McKay. I was astonished when on the first page, the hero can understand the dog speaking. This book came out before McKay’s, and hers is very different indeed, but I wondered if it had influenced her.

Here is the blurb:

Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in a constant, overwhelming Noise. There is no privacy. There are no secrets. Then Todd Hewitt unexpectedly stumbles on a spot of complete silence. Which is impossible. And now he’s going to have to run…

The book is soon to be a film with the brilliant Tom Holland.

*

A couple of books I read a long time ago, and really enjoyed, in a scary way:

The Plague, by Albert Camus

The townspeople of Oran are in the grip of a deadly plague, which condemns its victims to a swift and horrifying death. Fear, isolation and claustrophobia follow as they are forced into quarantine. Each person responds in their own way to the lethal disease: some resign themselves to fate, some seek blame, and a few, like Dr Rieux, resist the terror.

An immediate triumph when it was published in 1947, The Plague is in part an allegory of France’s suffering under the Nazi occupation, and a story of bravery and determination against the precariousness of human existence.

The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton

Five prominent biophysicists have warned the United States government that sterilization procedures for returning space probes may be inadequate to guarantee uncontaminated re-entry to the atmosphere. Two years later, a probe satellite falls to the earth and lands in a desolate region of northeastern Arizona. Nearby, in the town of Piedmont, bodies lie heaped and flung across the ground, faces locked in frozen surprise. What could cause such shock and fear? The terror has begun, and there is no telling where it will end. 

*

And a couple of books that ought to be on the list:

Wish You Were Here, by Jodi Picoult

This is the only novel on this list that directly deals with the present covid pandemic. #

Here is the blurb:

Diana O’Toole’s life is going perfectly to plan. At twenty-nine, she’s up for promotion to her dream job as an art specialist at Sotheby’s and she’s about to fly to the Galápagos where she’s convinced her surgeon boyfriend, Finn, is going to propose.
But then the virus hits New York City and Finn breaks the news: the hospital needs him, he has to stay. But you should still go, he insists. And reluctantly, she agrees. Once she’s in the Galápagos, the world shuts down around her, leaving Diana stranded – albeit in paradise. Completely isolated, with only intermittent news from the outside world, Diana finds herself examining everything that has brought her to this point and wondering if there’s a better way to live.
But not everything is as it seems . .
.

The Stand, by Stephen King

Set in a virus-decimated US, King’s thrilling American fantasy epic, is a Classic. First come the days of the virus. Then come the dreams.

Dark dreams that warn of the coming of the dark man. The apostate of death, his worn-down boot heels tramping the night roads. The warlord of the charnel house and Prince of Evil.
His time is at hand. His empire grows in the west and the Apocalypse looms.

When a man crashes his car into a petrol station, he brings with him the foul corpses of his wife and daughter. He dies and it doesn’t take long for the virus which killed him to spread across America and the world.

*

If you’re a writer, how do you plan to deal with the pandemic in your novels or stories? If you’re a reader, do you want to read fiction about the covid virus? Or do you want to escape the present at all costs? If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you.

This has been another thought-provoking topic in our Round Robin. If you’d like to know what the other authors have written on the subject, please click on the links below.

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/

Dr. Bob Rich  https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2wY 

Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/

Robin http://www.rhobincourtright.com

26 thoughts on “Fiction writers and covid, plus 8 recommended pandemic novels

  1. Helena, a fascinating guest post by Connie and it’s interesting how one’s writing has adjusted to Covid, including the editing of scenes etc. A phenomenon that will be with us for quite a while I fear. During this time I have not sought out any books on the topic but as Jodi Picoult fan I got her book as a Christmas present – hope it’s up to her usual brilliant standard. A couple of years ago I read A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, an incredible and graphic account and I felt I’d lived through it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Annika, thanks so much for your comment. Sorry for the unclear beginning to the post – it was written by me, but the topic this month is set by Connie. (I’ve put links to hers and the other authors’ take on the subject at the bottom of the post, if you’re interested.)
      I haven’t read Defoe’s account. I’ve been wondering if it would all hit too much to home at the moment, but your comment has made me want to read it. Interesting how the world changes, but human behaviour stays the same.
      I do love Jodi Picoult, too. I thought it was typically brave of her to tackle the topic of covid head on.
      Thanks again for dropping in, and for your great comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Helena, so sorry about the mistake and the post did have your voice so I wondered if I’d got confused. Lovely to chat about books and see how you feel about the Defoe book. I read it as part of a challenge and it was recommended to me! Let me know what you make of it if you get round to reading it. I’m looking forward to Jodi Picoult’s but think I’ll wait to Spring!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks, Annika. I love Defoe’s writing and read some of his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain while researching for my social history of Halifax. He’s such a great writer and brought the Yorkshire people to life.
          Like you, I’m putting off reading the Jodi Picoult story for now. I think in my case it’s all still a little too close to home, but I really admire her for taking on the topic.
          Thank you again for dropping in and for your great comments.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting post, Helena, and I can see how the pandemic might affect your editing for some! I have no wish to write or read about it for now, but I’ve always been an escapist. I do, however, like anything by Michael Crichton, including The Andromeda Strain! I don’t mind historical novels mentioning the Plague and so on , so perhaps the pandemic is still too close.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always been an escapist, too, Rosemary, and I’ve been particularly immersing myself in ‘heartwarming’ fiction over the past couple of years. It’s only just recently that I’ve begun reading a few novels with a pandemic as the theme. Perhaps (I hope!) it’s a sign that the darkest days are lifting.
      Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment.

      Like

  3. Great post, Helena. I have read quite a bit of the stuff of and around Samuel Pepys. It’s really interesting how societies have behaved in very similar ways. In Edinburgh we have Mary King’s Close which is below the City Chambers and includes street(s) cut off during plague visitations. Scary stuff – and the more so pre electronic communication. Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne, yes, you’re right – I hadn’t really thought about how when they were cut off then, they really and truly were cut off. It must have been terrifying. At least we have the medication and the hospitals, too, to deal with our ‘plague’ the best we can. What a truly terrible time it must have been all those years ago. Thanks very much for your interesting comment.

      Like

  4. I read Station Eleven early in 2020 – I have a very clear memory of standing on the platform at Cambridge station, book in hand, and hearing a couple of men discussing what was going on in China and whether it would have any impact here. I thought it was a fantastic novel.

    I’ve got two books on the go at the moment. One was meant to be contemporary but is going to have to be ‘maybe 2018 or 2019’, and the other one is set in 1919 and the few years following so I’m going to have to think about what difference the Spanish flu makes.

    Like

    1. Hi Kathleen, that’s very eerie about the discussion around the pandemic while you were reading Station Eleven. I can picture the scene as you describe it. There are also very many scenes from the novel that stay in my mind.
      We never hear much about the 1918 flu epidemic, and I’m guessing because the war overshadows it. But surely it must have had as big an impact on people’s lives then as covid does now. My dad was born in 1928 and talks of ‘the last pandemic’ and how his parents had to close the pub they owned in Manchester, losing income. I don’t know enough about the history of the time to comment, but it must be a fascinating time to research. Best of luck with your works in progress, and thanks for your great comment.

      Like

  5. I have no interest in dealing with the pandemic in a novel or story or to read about it in fiction. Fiction is an escape for me. All of our lives have been unutterably altered by the pandemic. Plagues and pandemics in novels have never interested me. I guess I prefer lighter fiction, although I don’t always write lighter fiction everything I write ends happily. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marci, in general I also much prefer lighter fiction. There are enough bad things happening in real life. In the books I’ve listed above, of the ones I’ve read they all did have something optimistic and positive to say about human beings’ love for each other
      It’s been another thought-provoking topic. Thanks very much for dropping in.

      Like

  6. While most of my reading, not counting research for books I’m writing, can only be called escapism in several genres, This list of books that deal with the things we are currently living and experiencing is a great one to have. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most of my reading is escapism, too, Skye. Books have been a real comfort and support during the pandemic. I’ve enjoyed thinking about the topic this month. Thank you very much for dropping in, and for your comment.

      Like

  7. Hey, Helena. Interesting post. I haven’t read anything about the current pandemic, and I don’t believe I will. Nor do I plan to write about it. The book I’m working on now is just present day without any year designation. I won’t make any reference to Covid. I think it’s all still too close. The Second book in The Second Chances Series has a heroine who lost her husband on 9/11, but I wrote that almost 15 years after the event. I needed space. My heroine needed space. That’s the way I feel about the pandemic. And yes, I always want a HEA in my reading and writing. For so many people affected by this pandemic, they’re not going to get a HEA. Just think about the poor medical folks. I don’t see how they will ever recover from the stress they’ve lived under. Major PTSD for all of them, I’m sure. God bless them. Thanks for this interesting post. I’ve shared. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, Marsha. Like you I’ll be writing present-day stories with no mention of the pandemic. It’s still too close to home. I totally agree about there being no HEA in all of this. Thanks for dropping in and for taking the time to comment, and for sharing x

      Like

  8. Helena – I loved Year of Wonder; her writing is so good. For a 1918 pandemic story I’d really recommend This Time of Dying by Reina James. Read it for my book group a few years ago. It’s a masterclass in making you care about characters you barely know. (Btw Reina James is the daughter of actor Sid!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for that recommendation, Kate. I just ordered a copy of This Time of Dying. I’d never heard of it before – or knew that Sid James’s daughter was a writer! I look forward to reading it, and also Year of Wonders.

      Like

  9. I do remember THE STAND, and due to my house move, the pandemic itself and working as a social care worker (must burnish my halo again…) haven’t had that much time to sit down and start writing again, but am clear of just about all my backlog of trials and tasks so might start again soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do hope you start writing again, James, and that the work in social care during the pandemic isn’t taking its toll. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for taking the time to comment.

      Like

  10. Thank you for sharing the books, but I doubt I will tackle reading any of them at this time. I re-cycled a blog post to submit to another blog, and I had to update it with the ways COVID has interrupted our lives. That was enough to write about COVID for me! I didn’t know you’d been sick twice. Hopefully, you have enough anti-bodies for a lifetime now…I enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments. Everyone of us has to digest this experience in their own way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi JQ, I totally agree about us all digesting this experience in our own way. And a lot depends on where in the world you are. My daughter in New Zealand has had a very different experience to us, difficult in its own way. I really enjoyed the thoughtful comments, too, and the posts by the other authors. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your own comment.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.