Last month, I turned in the copy edits for my fourth novel. The next week, when I opened up the rough outline for my fifth, I was confronted with this question: does Covid-19 exist in the new book I’m writing?
Most said they were steering clear. Author Kate Reed Petty, whose debut novel “True Story” received rave reviews, admitted: “I’m not ready to process it.” Laura McHugh, author of the award-winning “The Weight of Blood,” and “What’s Done in Darkness,” said she’s “completely ignoring it,” though for a slightly different reason.
“I don’t know what the state of the pandemic will be when this book comes out,” McHugh said of the manuscript she recently started. “I’d rather leave it out than get it wrong.”
But some writers are diving in. I reached out to Jodi Picoult, the best-selling author who is known for mining social issues from school shootings to abortion to white supremacy, and she told me she’s working on two Covid-related projects.
“I feel as a writer it is up to us in the arts to really put into words what this has all meant, much like novelists were able to do that for 9/11, eventually,” Picoult wrote in an email.
To that end, Picoult – who is also a librettist – is in production for “Breathe,” an original musical she co-wrote with Tim McDonald, about how the pandemic impacts five different couples.
And though the novel she began co-writing with Jenny Boylan in April 2020 takes place pre-Covid, Picoult said she’s figured out a way to tell the story of the pandemic in the novel she’s just begun.
“We need to chronicle this,” insisted Picoult. “We’ve already forgotten things we said and thought in March 2020.” Picoult said she is in the process of interviewing patients (42 as of last week) who survived ventilation from the disease. (Obviously, the woman doesn’t sleep.)
Novelist Teddy Wayne, whose most recent novel “Apartment” was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, was also inspired by Covid, but in a very different way.
“I think my approach for anything that’s so monumental is that it’s more interesting to me to write about almost the mirror image of the thing rather than the thing itself,” he said.
The approach has worked for him in the past: Wayne’s first novel, “Kapitoil,” seems – from the description to the themes to the cover art – like a 9/11 novel, but actually takes place pre-2001. His way of writing about that seminal event was, he says, “not to write about it but around it.”
He’s taking a similarly indirect approach to writing about the era of Covid. Wayne was exposed to the virus in December and spent a week quarantining from his family. It was during this time alone that he looked through a file of ideas, saw something that had parallels to the pandemic, and started writing.
“Had there not been a pandemic going on, I’m not sure the idea would have appealed to me,” he said.
“The nature of tragedy,” she wrote, “is that it takes more than it gives, but it’s also produced some of our most iconic literature.” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Plague,” “Don Quixote,” among them. But, she warned: “From an artistic standpoint, it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it in everyone’s faces.”
Which brings us to the issue of publishing. Even established novelists have to sell the idea of their book to an editor; how many will green-light Covid novels?
Zachary Wagman, Vice President and Editorial Director of Flatiron Books, has an open mind.
“It’s up to the novelist to find an artful way to deal with it,” said Wagman, who pointed out that a thriller set during lockdown, or amid the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer could be really interesting.
But he admits that striking the right tone will be tricky.
“No one [in publishing] wants to think they’re profiting off this slow-moving tragedy,” said Wagman. Like Wayne, Wagman wondered if, perhaps, “the better way is to sniff around the edges.”
And what about the reader? Many of us pick up a novel for entertainment or escape, but some of us are looking for a kind of understanding we can’t get from news. As Albert Camus, author of “The Plague,” put it: “Fiction is a lie through which we tell the truth.”
Obviously, there are millions of truths and millions of stories to this pandemic, but how many are worth spending years writing? How many are important enough, insightful enough, to be bound and distributed?
Teddy Wayne, who, like me, has been mostly holed up at home since March of last year, put it this way: “It’s not my story to tell.” His comment got me thinking: I wonder if the pandemic stories that will be the most illuminating are percolating inside people who are currently too worn out by the reality of the situation to get creative. I’m thinking about a restaurant novel – like Stewart O’Nan’s “Last Night at the Lobster” – but set in March 2020 – or the story of a grocery clerk thrust into the politics of masking in the middle of a presidential election.
Maybe S.A. Cosby, author of the critically acclaimed “Blacktop Wasteland,” will use his experience as a former mortuary assistant to imagine the emotional truth inside the headlines about Los Angeles relaxing air quality rules to allow crematories to dispose of all the bodies that were piling up.
I asked Cosby what he thought of the idea and he was blunt: “It’s too raw.”
“I think I’m going to set my next book before the pandemic, if only because living through it has been so difficult that I’m just not mentally ready to deal with it in my work,” said Cosby, who told me he lost his uncle and five friends to the disease. “I will address it eventually, but hopefully by the time I do we will see a little more light at the end of the tunnel.”
I don’t aspire to write The Great Covid Novel, but as someone who writes about crime and justice (my first three books are murder mysteries and my next is a thriller), I spend a lot of time thinking about how people respond to stress. The mass unemployment, pervasive fear, and half-a-million dead Americans this past year have brought us an incalculable dose of stress.
Should my next novel explore a character whose job loss becomes a catalyst for criminal activity? Or a family forced back into the same house during lockdown? The more I think about it, the less appealing it becomes, and the more Wayne’s words ring true.
That said, I try to mine the “now” in my work; is avoiding this past year a cop out? I asked my agent if she had an opinion on the subject and she put my mind at ease a bit: “I don’t think we’re done telling stories about life before March 2020.”
I’ve got a couple ideas.
Julia Dahl is the author of four novels and teaches journalism at NYU.