Life

The Coronavirus Is Upending the Plot of My Novel

It’s set in 2020. My characters now do ridiculous things, like hang out with each other.

Hands typing on a typewriter next to balled-up papers and a surgical mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries"
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Here’s something I probably always knew, deep down, but never thought about: Writing a novel presupposes the existence of a stable reality that will remain basically the same until you’re done working on the book.

This is true, at least, of the kinds of novels I write. I’m the author of The Last Policeman, Underground Airlines, and most recently Golden State—all of which are shelved under “mystery/thriller,” but which incorporate some sort of science fiction conceit. My books are set in some recognizable version of the present day, but deviate in specific ways, controlled by me. This remains true for my next book, The Quiet Boy, which, as I write this, is slated to come out early next year.

A book-length work of fiction takes a pretty long time. I usually take around a year on a first draft, six months or so of rewriting and going back and forth with my editor, and then maybe two months of copy editing. After all that, it’s another six to nine months before the slow-turning gears of the publishing industry land the thing on shelves and Kindles.

So what happens if you’re in the middle of that extended process, as I am with The Quiet Boy, creating a work of fiction set in the same recognizable universe as the one in which the eventual reader lives, and a sprawling global catastrophe upends our day-to-day lives?

It wouldn’t matter as much if the book, which was maybe 80 percent complete as of the beginning of March, were set in the distant past or distant future or in an alternate reality. As it happens, this particular book, like a lot of crime fiction, uses specific dates to create verisimilitude. It tacks between 2008 and the spring of 2020 … until the epilogue, which takes place in July of 2020—at a big outdoor music festival.

I’ve been anxious in the past that a book I’m working on will be superseded by another book with a similar premise, or that a social or political issue central to the book’s themes will no longer be in the zeitgeist by pub day. It never occurred to me to worry that a massive crisis would so change the fabric of how we live that my work of realistic fiction would no longer seem remotely realistic.

The pandemic has taken a lot of things that occur in this book, things that were just the basics of human experience—people going to bars, seeing doctors, shaking hands—and recoded them, charged them with new meaning. The coronavirus’s influence extends beyond behaviors and into the unseen emotional currents of our lives: how we think about each other, about 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 house. Some of these changes will be fleeting; some will be permanent. We don’t know yet which will be which.

Right now, we are in the middle of total and utter upheaval. What reader will accept that my characters blithely go about their business in Los Angeles in the spring and summer of this year we’re in? The virus—news of it, reaction to it, fear and dread and anger surrounding it—has so swamped human experience that any work of fiction set during these months must either be about the pandemic or contend with its presence page by page.

As problems go, I realize this one is vanishingly small. It’s nothing compared with the problems of infected people and their families, of health care workers and their families, the problems of those financially imperiled; nothing even compared with the problems of writers whose books are coming out right now, with bookstores closed and book tours canceled and all those beautiful new hardcovers sitting in warehouses. My problem is a problem of imagination, and I can solve it. I’ll bump the 2020 story back to 2019, I guess. I’ll rethread plot strands as needed. I’ll cut a bunch of Bernie vs. Biden jokes that would no longer make sense.

But I’ve been trying to figure out why it makes me so sad, amid so much other sadness, to have to make these changes. Like a lot of writers, probably most, I become very attached not only to the book’s characters, but to its specific events in their specific order. The plot of The Quiet Boy launches on Jan. 14, 2020, when Ruben, my protagonist, is at work, making salads, and he gets a call from his estranged father. Five hundred pages later we resolve in Griffith Park, and it’s July of that same year. The final scene is at that outdoor concert, with people standing shoulder to shoulder.

These facts mean nothing to anyone but me—I literally made them all up—and yet having to abandon any of them because of an uncontrollable externality feels like a betrayal. Stubbornly, or stupidly, I want to leave it all, to present my eventual readers in early 2021 with a version of 2020 they’ll know could not have existed. I presumed when writing those chapters that the world would always remain more or less as it was, and I mourn the safety of that presumption.

In time, great novels will be written about the age of the coronavirus. There will be stories that chillingly evoke what life feels like right now, the anxiety and dislocation and fear. There will be stories about the abruptly unemployed, about frantic home schooling and blazing medical heroism. But my next book, like all the other books that were caught by this calamity in the throes of their creation, will serve another function. It has immediately become period fiction. It will appear in the aftermath, a strange visitor from the time that came before.

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