Thursday, April 23, 2020

To write the pandemic into your book or not to write the pandemic into your book.

That, in essence, is the thought-provoking question Thomas Kies raises in his post Pandemic...writing it into your work? Or not?, and it’s a question I faced just this week.

I live and work at a New England boarding school. To say COVID-19 has impacted the school and my work in it would be a gross understatement. I’m charged with overseeing a dorm of 60 teenagers and an English department of 15 teachers. That means many, many face-to-face conversations, meetings, and classroom observations.

However, I write this post seated in a four-story brick dorm designed for 220 teenagers that now sits empty. Wondering the halls makes me feel like I’m in a scene from The Shining. Worse, students’ belongings remain in their rooms (they left for spring break unaware that they would not return). “Teaching” these days means talking into my computer via ZOOM from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The sports fields are empty. The theater is dark. The library is locked. The faculty is sequestered at home. A post-apocalyptic experience.

And I must say that I feel blessed to be here. I can get outside, walk the dog for 30 minutes, and not see a soul.

All the while, I’m writing the final scenes of a new book. It is set at a boarding school (I know, don’t say it, at least I can claim to write what I know). How much of the current pandemic should be in the book? I’m one year and 450 pages into it. When I began writing it, boarding school life, at least parts of it, resembled the way it was three, four, even five decades ago. “Kid work,” that is, the social interactions we make time for –– checking on students, reading the nonverbal cues, the body language –– was done face-to-face. But when I start final revisions (fingers crossed, in a week or two), I absolutely will add references to the pandemic. It has changed the way we deliver instruction and has changed the culture within this small society. “Kid work” now is done via Zoom, via text message. And the new normal will continue to evolve.

Of course, the pandemic goes far beyond the tiny world in which I live and write. Societal changes are happening hourly. In a scene I just completed, my antagonist needed to enter a building undetected. He had to be incognito. It dawned on me that given a book’s publication timeline, i.e. sale to shelf (will we still have bookshelves post-COVID-19 or will Jeff Bezos simply send me a Kindle reading list?), I’m actually writing for the book to be read 12 to 18 month from now. Why not have the character wear an M95 mask, sunglasses, and a hoodie? A year from now, it probably won’t be striking to see someone wearing a mask on a New England city street.

The world in which my day-to-day life and work takes place has been upended by this coronavirus, and the fictional world I’m writing about has, too.

To write the pandemic into your book or not to write the pandemic into your book.

For me the answer is clear.

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