I Wrote a Novel About an Epidemic. Here’s What Living Through One Taught Me.

The question arrives via email, DM, Facebook message. The wording varies, but boils down to this: Do you feel like you’re living in your own novel?

a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, Christopher Gower/Unsplash, chokja/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Anshu A/Unsplash.

© Provided by Slate
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, Christopher Gower/Unsplash, chokja/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Anshu A/Unsplash.

The Weight of Ink—the book these messages refer to—is partially set during London’s devastating 1665–66 plague outbreak. And yes, there’s an abundance of similarities between that 17th century catastrophe and ours—so much so that in my replies to these readers, I make sure to also underscore what I find reassuring. Unlike our 17th century counterparts, we live in a world of genome sequencing and double-blind studies. However devastating the mortality rate in this epidemic, it won’t match the 60–90 percent mortality rate of pre-antibiotics plague.

But my replies have felt hollow. I’ve avoided admitting the most unnerving part of finding myself here, in a version of a nightmare I spent years imagining.

Part of a novelist’s work is to knock characters against unexpected circumstances: flint and striker. Tend the sparks into a blaze; that’s a story. And in sheer narrative terms, it would be hard to think of a better spark generator than a plague. So although I never planned to write about the plague, when my novel’s plot—involving a 17th century woman with a transgressive intelligence—extended into London’s plague year, my apprehension gave way to interest. A plague catches us midstep, exposing frailties. It stress-tests every system, puts a capricious spin on even the best-considered choices. In that crucible, how would my characters’ flaws and strengths alter their destinies?

I tend to fall in love with each character as I write—but as I composed The Weight of Ink, there was a minor character I struggled with. Mary is capricious, wounded, vain; her habit of putting belladonna drops in her eyes, temporarily blurring vision to achieve appealingly large pupils, contrasts with the far more substantial sacrifices other characters make for what they value. By the time the plague is underway (if you prefer to avoid plot spoilers, stop reading now), Mary’s naïveté has cost her dearly. She’s pregnant and desperate to regain the love of the baby’s father. Shuttered in a London house with two other women, she chafes at the restrictions, and ultimately—wild to taste freedom and to send a letter to the man who has discarded her—sneaks out into the city.

How needlessly foolish her choice seemed, back when I was just writing a novel about an epidemic rather than living through one.

Since March, a split-screen feeling has haunted my daily walks. I pass through neighborhoods full of masked pedestrians, people sanitizing hands or belongings on their stoops, shop signs announcing closures or altered operations. The residents of 1665 London, I know, also wore masks—herb-stuffed beaks through which they breathed the pestilential air. They sprinkled mail with vinegar to kill plague seeds. Those who could shuttered businesses, packed belongings onto boats, and decamped to country homes elsewhere along the Thames. (A few weeks after COVID-19 overtook Manhattan, a friend who lives in the sort of neighborhood where people have second homes told me, We are one of only seven units still occupied in our building.)

Once the plague had ignited, Londoners needed travel papers to depart the city. A cross and the words Lord have mercy upon us were painted on the doors of houses known to carry the sickness; guards enforcing the 40-day quarantines sometimes wore broad-brimmed hats so no one from an upper window could noose them. Their contagion, like ours, halted industry—and as the smoke from London’s tanneries and lime kilns dissipated, nature resurged. And here in 2020, as international borders began sealing, a friend who’d returned to Singapore reported that government workers were monitoring her Instagram posts about her mandatory quarantine; Rhode Island police pulled over travelers from Massachusetts not far from where I live. (Now, a few months later, Massachusetts quarantines visiting Rhode Islanders.) For months my laptop screen offered images of wildlife ambling through urban streets: goats in Wales, wild boars in Spain, monkeys in Thailand.

In the 17th century, unproven theories and solutions were also touted by governmental and religious leaders. The plague was caused by sin, by a comet in the summer sky. Believing dogs and cats responsible for the plague, the lord mayor of London offered a bounty, and tens of thousands were killed … thereby eliminating the predators of the rats that hosted plague-carrying fleas. Though the disease eventually burned its way through the human population and slowed, it wasn’t until the Great Fire of London destroyed the thatch roofs where the rats nested that it ended.

In the summer of 1665, weekly death rolls mapped the surge of illness parish by parish. Churchyard graves were double-stacked, then abandoned in favor of plague pits. Church bells were rung for each death until that became impossible, then deaths poured into the earth unheralded.

This spring, here in one of the hardest-hit counties of Massachusetts, I stood in my kitchen listening to ambulances. The mayor posted updates. One week there were 33 new deaths in my town alone; that Sunday’s Boston Globe carried 16 pages of obituaries. I scrolled the news, my chest hazy with panic. A feeling like alarm bells shrilling in an empty building, no one to turn the alarm off, no one to respond.

It’s one thing to imagine an overgrown Hyde Park brimming with birdsong following the elimination of London’s cats, or to grimly describe the outcome of Mary’s impulsiveness. It’s quite another to worry over my own confined teens as we all struggle to define acceptable risk. And to realize that the same factors that made the 17th century plague such useful novel-writing fodder ensure that 2020 will be a pivot point in the story of everyone alive today.

Here we are. We were all, unbeknownst to us, playing musical chairs—then this spring the music stopped and we had to sit ourselves down exactly where we were, wherever we were. In whatever job, relationship, housing situation, whatever stage of health, dental care, haircut. With people we love or hate or both … or without those people. Shielded or hobbled by each privilege or race-based kneecapping our society has allotted us. The pandemic immediately pulled everything into its wake, exposing afresh our vulnerability to one another’s choices (the boss belittling workplace risk, the housemate who won’t stop going to parties). And as days of isolation cascaded this spring and we navigated radically narrowed options, we became our most immature, our wisest, our pettiest, our most magnanimous—sometimes in the space of a heartbeat. Which is to say, our most human.

When I teach writing, I ask my students to imagine their characters’ answers to certain questions—among them, What do you love?, and pivotally, What are you most afraid of? The answers predict the otherwise inexplicable things people do under pressure.

But empathy for characters—particularly characters who unsettle us—is uncomfortable. Writers often blink, choosing to keep a safe emotional distance. It’s the biggest impediment I know to writing well.

When I wrote those plague chapters of The Weight of Ink years ago, I realized I was keeping Mary at bay. Her impulsive choice frightened me. It was easier to judge her than to let myself feel the random cruelty of a disease that left some unscathed while imposing ironclad consequences on others. It wasn’t until the final revision, editing the scenes around her death, that I finally let myself answer the obvious question: Why did she, unlike the two women she sheltered with, lack the patience to stay indoors, safe from the diseased city? The answer—I acknowledged at last—was something I’d been avoiding because it hurt: She was terrified of being forgotten—a stillness like death. And she loved life with such a clanging love that all cautions were inaudible.

That day I finally let myself write the cruelest, most intimate lines of Mary’s story. As the other women slid her into the mass grave at Hand Alley—one more body atop the pile of bodies–I kept my gaze on Mary’s black curls, as they slipped into the lime dust and were dulled.

Today is Aug. 27, 2020. Here in New England we’ve spent the summer teetering: on one side, tentative steps toward normalcy, on the other, the threat of a resurgence of the spring’s nightmare. As the weeks scroll by, even most strictly isolated people I know have begun to engage a delicate calculus. What, other than necessities of work and health and sustenance, justifies a risk? A socially distant picnic with family? A religious holiday? A visit to the eye doctor, the vet, the hair salon? Perhaps you ration risk, saving it for a plane trip to see a significant other? Perhaps you teeter over whether to send your kids to their reopened school. Almost everyone I know is strict about social distancing and frustrated by those who carelessly endanger others. Yet even the most confined daily life contains split-second improvisations. The decision to allow a loved one to lean too close rather than risk shaming them, the offer of a hand to a stumbling stranger, the acceptance of a stranger’s hand when we stumble. What do you love most? What are you most afraid of? Every choice is a spark struck off the block of our priorities, whatever they are.

And every choice makes me think of Mary.

That final image of Mary still undoes me. Yet the fact is that after writing it I closed my laptop, locked the door of the shed where I work, and picked up my kids from school. I stepped out of her story, and back into my own.

Which brings me to the question I’ve been avoiding.

Do I feel like I’m in my own novel? No. I feel like I’m in someone else’s. It’s only now—as my own quietly pounding love of life straightens me from the garden I’m weeding to trace the path of a solitary siren—that I understand what a vulnerable position that is.

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