What an Author Who Wrote About a Civilization-Threatening Illness Knows About Surviving a Pandemic

Illustration for article titled What an Author Who Wrote About a Civilization-Threatening Illness Knows About Surviving a Pandemic
Image: Dan Hawk Photography

Life feels kind of like a Karen Thompson Walker novel right now—specifically, the author’s novel The Dreamers, in which a mysterious sleeping disease tears through a small California community. Quarantine life, makeshift hospitals, having to visit with sick family members through glass—elements of our global reality that were practically unfathomable to most of us when the book was released in early 2019—feature heavily in her story about coping in a time of societal collapse. Her 2012 novel The Age of Miracles took a similarly human approach to the beginning of the end of the world, albeit within a much different premise (in that one, the Earth’s rotation slowed so that the days grew longer and ecological devastation ensued).

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Walker is no soothsayer, but a well-researched author interested in the practical implications of apocalyptic scenarios within her literary approach to sci-fi. I thought it would be useful to check in with her regarding how she’s coping in a coronavirus-ravaged world, and what she makes of the similarities between what she wrote and how we’re living now. (Previously, I interviewed her around release of The Dreamers.) I called her last Wednesday at her house in Portland, which she says was essentially (though not quite officially) on lockdown. She said she’d seen a drastic change in her immediate neighborhood as the city has sent the message to its citizens to stay home and stay healthy. The transcript of our conversation below was edited for length and clarity.


JEZEBEL: How are you feeling?

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: I feel differently at different times. There have been a lot of times that I’ve felt just very grim. When I was writing The Dreamers, I don’t think I thought so much about the collateral consequences of something like this. That wasn’t my focus in that book. Just the feeling of what it would be like to separate yourself from your community, that has been so intense, and especially the feeling of an indefinite amount of time, it just runs counter to a major part of our humanity. At the moment I feel really focused on, in addition to the people suffering on the virus itself, how much collateral suffering is happening as a result of what we’re trying to do to stop it.

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The other thing I’ve thought a lot about is that I made a deliberate choice when I was writing my book to keep the virus contained in this one town. I did that on purpose, because I wanted to focus on the relationships in this certain group of people. It just felt like the story would get out of hand if I had it be a pandemic. I just have been thinking about that a lot. It’s so appealing [to think about] if [coronavirus] had been contained in one town, but obviously so unrealistic in this case.

Did you research the Spanish flu of 1918 when preparing to write The Dreamers?

I did. I specifically wanted to write about something that was not from reality, but I did to try to understand how really contagious diseases spread and society’s response to it. I did a lot of research on various outbreaks and pandemics, and the 1918 flu was one I did quite a bit of research on. There’s an old PBS American Experience episode about the 1918 flu. It’s a very efficient and heartbreaking distillation of that event. I watched it as research and then the other night, I rewatched part of it with my husband, who hadn’t seen it before. It was eerie. There was something about visiting that time, and it was so terrible, but knowing that it passed into history…there’s something about that that’s appealing at this moment. I’ve been finding it hard to remember that whatever happens, this is not forever.

My fear is what happens as a result of the virus when it finally does pass. What will we not get back? In my head sometimes, I wonder, “Is this the beginning of the end of the world?” Do you think being informed about the 1918 flu, for example, has been useful or inhibiting beyond the example you just gave?

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I don’t know. I think both. Through the research I did, I learned about how bad a pandemic could be, but I was very fixated on the fatality rate. The 1918 flu had a really bad fatality rate. But in this case—and this is clearly not medical expertise of mine—it feels like what’s so bad about this is how contagious it is, how many deaths there could be in such a short amount of time. It’s kind of a specific terrible thing that I was not as well versed in. At the beginning, when they were showing the fatality rates, it was like, “Oh that does seem really serious, but it’s not the same rate as the 1918 flu or SARS or MURS.” But that turned out to be not that relevant, because the big problem is how many people could get it in such a short period of time. So sometimes it has been helpful, and other times not.

It felt really uncanny at first, just seeing details that I had imagined or gotten from history then appearing in our daily newspaper. The one that jumps out at me is that I put into my book this moment where one of the characters, Ben, is trying to go see his wife, who’s in the isolation ward, and he finds a way to see her through a window. I forgot how I’d come up with that, but then my husband reminded me that I’d gotten it from this story that his grandmother told about visiting her mother in the 1930s, I think, at a tuberculosis hospital. The only way that children could see their mother for three or four months was by waving through the window. There were some [recent] pictures of Seattle nursing homes where people were waving to their relatives through the window. Those little moments of recognizable humanity, at first it seemed uncanny they were in my book, but in a way, that’s just history. Of course people will find ways to see their loved ones. I got it from history, put it in my fiction, and now we see it in the present. It’s like there’s some kind of compelling through line, to see things unfold in the same way each time, at least at the human level.

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The implications of this disease feel downright literary sometimes—this a disease that, per reports, that affects men at a much higher rate depends upon a world that has been gripped by patriarchy for centuries, for example.

Yeah, and how it doesn’t affect children very much…

…Paving the way for the future. The way it seems to be threatening anti-progress heads of state? It doesn’t just attack our immune system but our emotional one, obstructing us from the socializing we need to thrive. This is novelistic. Sometimes I feel like we’re in a simulation.

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Everyone I know says to me, “I feel like I’m in your book.” Readers have mentioned it to me, too. I feel like I purposely chose a sickness that would have a sense of wonder with the sleeping sickness, whereas this is just so dark. There is no wonder. Except, what I always feel about contagion is there is this kind of fascinating way that a disease spreads. It sort of forms a map of social bonds. There’s something terrible but…awe-inspiring about how it travels all along the same pathways that are our relationships. Right now I’m feeling that so strongly in reverse by dismantling all of the different relationships in person.

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For years, people wrote essays and speculative pieces about how the internet was causing social isolation, and now it’s our primary means of socializing. It might even be our salvation.

I’ve never been so thankful for the internet. My daughter’s in kindergarten and she’s super social. I think she’s adapting but at first it felt so worrisome, like, school and seeing her friends is her life and she loves it. It’s been reassuring, she and this really good friend of hers do FaceTime everyday for long periods. I feel so grateful for that. If this happened even 10 years ago…especially if it goes on for a long time. It’s fine for this week and a half we’ve been doing it, but I feel like it’s going to be a lot longer, and so I feel glad for things like FaceTime and Zoom.

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What else strikes you about the way we live now?

There’s this idea in a lot of pop culture—books and movies—that humanity will behave so badly when something like this happens. A disaster or crisis will make people descend to their worst animal selves. I feel like that was something in my book I was trying to, to some extent, push back against. Not that people will all be heroes or they’ll all be perfect angels, but that most people will be trying to do the right thing if they’re able. That was partly influenced by this book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell. For now I feel cautiously optimistic that we’re seeing the good in humanity even though it’s a really hard time, more than we’re seeing the bad.

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Are you finding the moment to be inspiring or inhibiting in terms of your own creativity?

It’s definitely inhibiting. I feel like some part of my imaginative energy is being taken up by imagining the actual real future. What’s going to happen? Where’s coronavirus going to spread next? How bad is it going to be? When is it going to end? What will our lives look like afterward? Also time-wise, it’s inhibiting. But I think inevitably, completely overturning ordinary life has this way of turning your brain on in a way, just in noticing new things. I think it’s possible that writers will have some kind of new thoughts and bursts of creativity from this. But we’ll see.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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DISCUSSION

Did you ever look at a portrait of someone you don’t know but are drawn to intelligent eyes and the seeming serenity of their demeanor? A portrait that seems to be someone you know but you know that isn’t the case?

This all sounds just so fan girl, I know. Maybe it's this isolation I am living in right now that has me overly emotional when I see what I perceive to be a friendly face of a good and intelligent person. Thank you for featuring Karen Thompson Walker.