The authors reflect on their experiences of including the pandemic in their novels Wish You Were Here and False Witness
Jodi Picoult on writing Wish You Were Here
I was very conscious of the fact that by the end of 2020, we had already forgotten what happened months earlier, we had forgotten the moments when we’d been told don’t wear a mask, when we washed our broccoli with soap and water. All of the things that that seemed so shocking and scary in March were so far away by November, December. And that was when I started to play around with the story.
I was thinking about how we as writers are going to tell the story of Covid, because it’s up to us to make sense of the nonsensical. People turn to artists for that all the time. I couldn’t wrap my head around this, I just kept trying and trying and trying. And finally, it was when I heard about this guy stranded in Machu Picchu that I was like, “Oh, wait a second. I know how I could do this.”
I wasn’t writing it thinking of publication, I was writing it thinking of sorting out everything I’d learned so far. I was in a very strict lockdown, because I have asthma, and I didn’t leave my house for 15 months except to go on hikes outside in the woods. That was a really scary time, because I knew if I got it, I was going to be on a ventilator, my lungs wouldn’t be able to handle it.
‘I don’t think of it as a novel about Covid, I think of it as a novel about surviving’
I started to write, and it came very, very quickly. The research that I did was at my fingertips – even the people I interviewed who survived ventilation, it was one social media ask and I had more than 100 people within an hour saying “please tell my story, because I can’t believe people don’t think this is real”. There’s this urge for people who have gotten through Covid, to make other people see what’s right in front of their faces, that they’re not seeing. It was the same with the doctors I spoke with. I thought it’d be really difficult to find doctors who had the time to speak to me, but they were all so intent on making sure their side of the story got told. So it was this real call to arms for me.
I don’t think of it as a novel about Covid, I think of it as a novel about surviving, which is a little different. Yes, you’ll see the medical profession and you’ll see deaths in it. But to me, this is a novel about how we came through to the other side.
• Jodi Picoult’s Wish You Were Here is published by Hodder & Stoughton. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Karin Slaughter on writing False Witness
When I was in college I read Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter – it was the first time I’d read about the 1918 flu pandemic in a way that humanised it. And so I thought, I want to write something that captures what we’re going through right now. Fiction tells the best history. You can read all the history books you want, but you won’t know the taste and the feel and the fog and London at that time from history books the way you will from fiction. I wanted to capture things like, in Atlanta, all our distilleries stopped making alcohol and started making hand sanitiser, and so everybody smelled like tequila or rum.
At times I thought, why did you do this? Because everything kept changing, and I’m writing the book as these things are happening – I’m writing the chapter that has to go in the courtroom, and I don’t know if it’s going to be on Zoom, and how am I going to get tension from a Zoom? Then when the vaccines came out, I was like, I’ve got to go back and incorporate the vaccines. I had to just find a cut-off point.
Most crime fiction talks about a lot of social issues, and this is a book about childhood trauma affecting you into adulthood. My character Leigh puts her child in a private school so that she isn’t virtually schooling and losing a complete year of her academics – well, most children didn’t have that. That chasm between fortunate and unfortunate people, it just widened during the pandemic, and for women it was particularly hard.
These kids today – in 20 years, who knows what kind of trauma they’re going to manifest and how they’re going to experience that? We know scientifically that children who had traumatic childhoods are more likely to abuse drugs, to have diabetes, to have heart disease, they have lower life expectancy. So what is this one year-plus going to mean for children in the future? And not just children who are disadvantaged, but for children who were really lucky to get that extra year of education that most of their peers will not have? That’s the kind of stuff that I like to write about. And I think a pandemic just put a brighter light on it.
• Karin Slaughter’s False Witness is published by HarperCollins. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.