Telling the Story of a Pandemic and the Future of Now

Header image by Jernej Furman

A little over a year ago, Stephen King sat down with NPR to reflect on writing horror during a time when reality was as frightening as one of his novels. He made note of how difficult it was to set fiction in the year 2020, a time when many normal activities abruptly became impossible. As a result, he edited his writing to take place in 2019 in order to allow his characters to go on a cruise. Over a year later, things are beginning to change (hopefully), but King’s interview introduces an interesting challenge for writers—how do you tackle the ‘now’ in a time of ongoing global crisis? Do you deploy King’s strategy for setting the story further back in the past, or do you address the pandemic and its accompanying challenges head on as the world grapples with an uncertain future? 

In his latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander, which was being finished and edited during the pandemic, author Jeff VanderMeer made a decision to have the pandemic “always in the backdrop as a kind of presence. In part because the protagonist is in sparsely populated areas as the pandemic hits.” It felt wrong not to include the pandemic at all, but also wrong to address it too specifically or focus on it too much. “I felt everyone would bring their own experience of the pandemic into the novel anyway, and I didn’t want to interfere with that for readers. Like, being too specific would be jarring.”

VanderMeer, known for his ecological thrillers, added in a written email response:

“I’m not sure what role it will take in the future, but it’s definitely one of those things that’s part and parcel of climate crisis, so I’ll likely deal with it in that context.”

VanderMeer isn’t the only one opting for a less direct approach to the events of the past year or so. “We try to avoid the ‘on the nose,’” replied Mark Jaster of Happenstance Theater during a phone conversation about storytelling and the pandemic. ”We wouldn’t do a piece set in the pandemic with someone sitting in front of a computer.” 

Jaster, called a “clown extraordinaire and one of the most graceful performers you will ever see on a stage” by the Washington Post, is also a visual storyteller and, along with Sabrina Selma Mandell, artistic co-director of Happenstance, “a professional company committed to devising, producing and touring original, performer-created visual, poetic Theatre.” Jaster explained in an email that the two biggest projects Happenstance has undertaken to date during the COVID-19 era are A Rose for Ergensburg and The Juxtapose Tenement, each of which only alludes indirectly to the pandemic experience. Near the end of Rose, a short film "inspired by fairy tales and hard times" set in a poetic version of a European past, the viewer finds that the travelling players are unable to perform in town because of quarantine, and a close-up of a map indicates many other towns along their way have also been closed to them. The fairy tale the characters in the film rehearse is a version of the tale "Briar Rose," and the sleeping town in the original fairy tale echoes the quarantine in Ergensburg.  

The Juxtapose Tenement is a clever confection of visual storytelling that began with the intent of being watched as a live performance. Inspired by the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell, the project became digital with the advent of the pandemic. The viewer is taken through a series of boxes containing different objects that, once clicked upon, begin a short scene. There is no going back or returning to the beginning of the experience once it's initiated, mirroring the feeling of watching a live play in the "shadow box" that is each viewer's computer.    

"In the live theater experiences there's this immediate feedback loop," said Jaster of the process of creating these two digital projects. "We get this immediacy. One of the biggest and strangest differences is that this was completely absent." 

Cristina Deptula, a writer and founder of the literary agency, Authors, Large and Small, is still weighing exactly how COVID fits into the futuristic sci-fi social satire she's working on that was inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Klara and the Sun. She's moving away from calling the virus "COVID" by name to have more creative freedom to explore themes of psychological and social consequences of long term isolation and centralization. 

“I started writing this because the idea came to me," said Deptula in an email. "Hadn't written anything fictional in awhile, but if I'd been writing a contemporary novel that originally didn't have to do with Covid, I'm not sure I would incorporate it unless it served themes or plot threads already present in the story. I'd likely move it back a few years since we aren't sure how long the protective measures will last and because the virus will affect characters psychologically even after we aren't masking and distancing anymore.” 

Others, such as Indian-American author Kiran Bhat, have taken the bull by the horns and addressed the pandemic directly. Bhat is an author, traveler, and polyglot who is currently launching a digital serialized project entitled Girar.

He explained that Girar ('to turn' in Spanish) aspires to capture the flow and feelings of daily life across 365 different places on our planet. The stories involve an archetypal Mother and Father, living a content and settled life all the while trying to make sense of Son, proudly gay, living far from them in a foreign country. Each installment reimagines the essences of Mother and Father into a new cultural context and nationality. By reading all of the installments at once, Girar is meant to give the reader a unique and intimate portrait of all Earth’s imagined countries while telling the tale of a family coming to love each other despite their disagreements.

Book One of Girar shows Mother and Father's reaction to Son's sudden return home as a result of the COVID pandemic, and how the three of them attempt to manage their time together despite no longer sharing much in common. When Bhat was asked if the plot concept was initially sparked by COVID or if he made a choice to include it after he already started the project, he replied:   

“I was planning to just have the novel act as a live diary of the 2020s as they unfurl, and since 2021 started as a COVID year, I had to incorporate it into my plot. Luckily it worked a bit in my favor, as COVID gave the perfect incentive for Son to return back home as a temporary resident elsewhere. The restrictions also made superficial changes to my writing, but not too much to the heart of my storytelling.”

So what’s next for the writers and storytellers of the world? There's been a lot of talk of a new Roaring Twenties and happier times to come. I asked Mark Jaster if Happenstance would make a purposeful choice to bring something on the lighter side to the stage next. 

"We are right on the cusp of deciding that," he said. The company's next live scheduled event is in the fall, and they decided to revive BrouHaHa, a show about a troupe of Edwardian clowns at the end of the world. "It’s dark but very funny," said Jaster, who added that they had been contemplating whether to give the audience something light and fluffy. He concluded, "I think we sort of figured that BrouHaHa has both."

Get Klara and the Sun at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Hummingbird Salamander at Bookshop or Amazon 


How have you dealt with the topic of the pandemic in your writing? Let us know in the comments!

Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a bibliophile and bookseller from the frigid North Shore of Massachusetts. A graduate of the journalism program at UMass Amherst, she spends her spare time blogging about books (of course), history, politics, and events in the Boston area. Occasionally, she spits out something resembling fiction, and has previously served as a contributor to Steampunk Magazine. She collects typewriters and old novels and laments the fact that her personal library has outgrown her apartment.

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