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Here’s something I’ve probably always known, deep down, but never thought of: Writing a novel presupposes the existence of a stable reality that will basically remain the same until you are done working. on the book.
That’s true, at least, of the kind of novels I write. I am the author of The last policeman, Underground airlines, and more recently Golden state– which are all put aside under “mystery / thriller”, but which incorporate a sort of sci-fi vanity. My books are defined in a recognizable version of the present, but deviate in specific ways, controlled by me. This holds true for my next book, The quiet boy, which, as of this writing, is slated for release early next year.
A work of fiction the length of a book takes quite a long time. I usually take about a year on a first draft, about six months of rewriting and back and forth with my editor, then maybe two months of copy review. After all of that, it will be another six to nine months before the slow gears of the publishing industry put it on the shelves and Kindle.
So what if you are in the middle of this extended process like I am with The quiet boy, creating a work of fiction set in the same recognizable universe the would-be reader lives in, and a sprawling global catastrophe turns our everyday lives upside down?
It wouldn’t matter as much if the book, which was perhaps 80 percent complete by early March, was set in the past or the distant future or in an alternate reality. As it turns out, this particular book, like many detective novels, uses specific dates to create a verisimilitude. He changed tack between 2008 and spring 2020 … until the epilogue, which takes place in July 2020, during a large outdoor music festival.
I have been afraid in the past that a book I’m working on will be replaced by another book with a similar premise, or that a social or political issue at the heart of the book’s themes is no longer in fashion. on pub day. It never occurred to me to fear that a massive crisis would change the fabric of our way of life so much that my realistic fiction work no longer seems remotely realistic.
The pandemic took a lot of the things that happen in this book, things that were just the basics of the human experience – people going to bars, seeing doctors, shaking hands – and recoded them, loaded with new meaning. The influence of the coronavirus extends beyond behaviors and into the invisible emotional currents of our lives: how we think about each other, our institutions, our future, our mortality. What it feels like to be a person, a parent, a citizen; what it feels like to wake up in the morning; what it feels like to greet a stranger, to call your mother, to leave your home. Some of these changes will be fleeting; some will be permanent. We do not yet know who will be what.
Right now we are in the midst of utter and utter upheaval. What reader will accept that my characters happily go about their business in Los Angeles in the spring and summer of this year in which we are? The virus – his news, his reaction, the fear and terror and anger that surrounds him – has so overwhelmed the human experience that any work of fiction set in those months has to be either on pandemic or face its presence page by page.
As the issues go away I realize this one is extremely small. This is nothing compared to the problems of infected people and their families, healthcare workers and their families, the problems of people at risk; nothing even compared to the problems of writers whose books are coming out, with bookstores closed and book tours canceled and all those nice new hard covers sitting in warehouses. My problem is a problem of the imagination, and I can solve it. I’ll take the story back from 2020 to 2019, I guess. I will rethread the strands of the plot as needed. I’m going to cut a bunch of Bernie vs.Biden jokes that just don’t make sense anymore.
But I tried to understand why it makes me so sad, in the midst of so much other sadness, to have to make these changes. Like many writers, probably most, I become very attached not only to the characters in the book, but to its specific events in their specific order. The plot of The quiet boy launches January 14, 2020, when Ruben, my protagonist, is at work making salads, and he gets a call from his ex-dad. Five hundred pages later, we resolve in Griffith Park, and it is July of the same year. The final scene is at this outdoor concert, with people standing side by side.
These facts mean nothing to anyone other than me – I literally made them all up – and yet having to give up one of them because of an uncontrollable externality feels like betrayal. Stubbornly, or stupidly, I want to leave everything, to present to my potential readers at the beginning of 2021 a version of 2020 which they will know that it could not have existed. I assumed in writing these chapters that the world would always remain more or less as it was, and I mourn the safety of that presumption.
Over time, great novels will be written about the age of the coronavirus. There will be stories that chillingly conjure up what life is like right now, anxiety, dislocation, and fear. There will be stories of the precipitously unemployed, frenzied home schooling, and blazing medical heroism. But my the next book, like all the other books that have been caught by this calamity in the throes of their creation, will perform another function. It immediately became period fiction. He will appear in the wake, a strange visitor from the previous era.
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