THE PROBLEM OF THE PANDEMIC NOVEL
Catherine Ryan Howard
On March 27, 2020, Ireland went into lockdown having had a total of just over 2,000 coronavirus cases in a population of five million or so. There had already been a rash of restrictions – the government had announced that pubs were to close mere days before the St Patrick’s Day festival was due to start, signalling to every Irish person just how serious the situation was – but now, for two weeks, the basic message was to stay at home. Only essential retail such as grocery stores would remain open and you were only to leave your home to shop for food or to take brief, individual exercise within a 2km radius of your residence (just over a mile). You could not arrange to meet anyone, even outdoors, who didn’t already live with you and special legislation was drafted to make contravening these rules against the law.
At the time, I was living alone in a tiny studio apartment in Dublin’s city centre and working on my fifth novel. In its opening chapter, a gunman opened fire in a nightclub packed with sweaty revellers. In its second, a woman hopped on a transatlantic flight. But now, the streets outside my window were deserted and the skies were empty. On my daily walk, if I met another pedestrian walking in the opposite direction, one of us would step out onto the road to avoid coming with six feet of one another. Travel was, effectively, illegal. My novel-inprogress started feeling less like crime and more like science-fiction.
Then a brand new idea fell into my lap – or rather, an old one was activated by new information. For years, I’d had a vague shape of a novel in the back of my mind, a thriller about a couple who meet and fall in love but all is not what it seems. I knew who they were and what the secret was, but I had no plot to put between those points. Then I heard England’s deputy chief medical officer advise new couples to press pause or move in together in order to get around lockdown’s “no mixing between households” rule. And suddenly, there was my plot. My couple would meet just days before lockdown hit and decide to spend it living together in the same apartment. She would see it as a way to let a new relationship flourish without the added pressure of family and friends, but he would see it as a way to hide who and what he really was. Both of them would initially believe, as we all did, that this would be for a period of two weeks. The novel would open after lockdown’s end, in the earliest days of our reopening society, slowly, with the discovery of a dead body in the apartment the couple had shared.
But should I write a book set during lockdown?
It was mid April 2020; we didn’t even know what “lockdown” meant yet. Would it last days, weeks, months? Think-pieces that promised years of restrictions seemed silly and alarmist to me, as did those that said we’d never shake hands again. This book was due to come out in August 2021 – what would the world be like then? Would anyone want to relive this crazy time? Would we still be in it? It was as impossible to predict as trying to correctly imagine 2020 would’ve been back in 2019.
I wasn’t helped by my fellow writers, many of whom took to social media to declare, in no uncertain terms, that they would never – ever ever – write about this in their books. Once this is over, they tweeted in their droves, no one would ever want to think about this again, let alone read about in a novel that was supposed to provide escape. And with publishers taking a year to go from finished manuscript to published book, trying to predict what readers would want when it actually hit the shelves was even more difficult again. (At this early stage, it wasn’t yet stupidly optimistic to assume publication would come after the pandemic’s end.)
But the thing is, you can never really predict what the book-buying public will want to read or if the book you’re working on is actually a good idea. And you shouldn’t try. You can only ever be led by what you think is your best idea right now, and write the book you want to read. And I loved this couple-in-lockdown idea. Moreover, I always set my novels in the present and make them as realistic as possible; I couldn’t do that and ignore this. And I knew I wasn’t writing a so-called ‘pandemic novel’ or a virus thriller. Lockdown was just the setting, not the point.
But I also knew that, based on that information alone, people would get the wrong idea about what this book was like – and I included my publishers in that. So instead of telling them outright what I was up to, I secretly ditched my original Book 5 idea and wrote 25,000 words of the novel that would become 56 Days. Only then did I come clean, sent it to them and awaited their verdict. The consensus was, ‘I didn’t think I wanted to read a lockdown novel, but I like this and I want to know what happens next.’ They gave me the green light to keep going and I got busy writing the rest.
Flicking through the pages of a finished copy now, I’m struck by what a time capsule of my own life it is – minus the, ah, murdery bits – and how much of those early days of this I’ve already forgotten. In Ireland, we might call it the novelty phase, when we didn’t quite realise what was happening, when it seemed like it’d all be over soon, when we all like a child who gets an unexpected, sanctioned day off school. These were the days of banana bread and Zoom cocktails and Tiger King. An Post, the Irish postal service, sent everyone two free postcards to send on, for free, as a way to keep in touch. The leader of our country quoted Terminator and Mean Girls in his speeches to the nation while keeping a straight face. No one was wearing masks yet.
56 Days is not about COVID. No one gets sick, or thinks they are sick, or has to get tested. It is not a novel about two people experiencing a pandemic, but two people experiencing lockdown – and by its end, I promise you you’ll see that as more of an aside than anything. Even if I haven’t convinced you, that’s okay. I’m glad I wrote it. I feel that, for both me and these two characters, this story was destined to happen anyway, but lockdown provided us all with the opportunity for it to happen this way – and this way makes the best story.
56 Days is published by Blackstone on August 19