Viral Vision

By Barbara Delinsky | August 20, 2020

For those of us who like to plan ahead, the corona-world has been a brute. Since last February, when this super-flu mushroomed into a pandemic, the future has been hazy. Sooner or later, it will come clear, but what will our lives look like then? They may be like they were before, or not.  We may be economically sound, or not. Our favorite restaurants may reopen, or not. We may be comfortable flying, or not. Right now, we’re looking through a cloud, searching for glimpses of the familiar in the shifting mist but seeing nothing.

And there you have it, the theme of my next book as articulated by this pandemic. But getting to this point wasn’t a straight shot for me.

My last book was published in May, when Covid was running wild and most of the world was locked down. While I was promoting that book, interviewers repeatedly asked if I planned to put a pandemic in my next one. Absolutely not, I consistently replied. I write to escape; my readers read to escape. Who wants to live this blight—any blight—and over and over again? Non-fiction? Fine. Non-fiction chronicles the times. But fiction is different. It is, by definition, imagined. Who needs to imagine Covid-19 when we’re living through it?

Time helps in this regard, hindsight being a different beast. Take, for instance, World War II.  The last few years have seen a spate of novels about Nazi Germany and the Resistance. Oh, non-fiction on the war has been around since it ended, much of it selling well. And there were commercially successful novels such as Leon Uris’s Exodus. But few of its contemporaries attracted the international acclaim of recent books in that genre. Enough time has passed for us to be willing—perhaps able—to read about this tragic time. The coronavirus, on the other hand, is still too new, too raw, too frightening.

Besides, I was already writing my next book when the pandemic hit. This one centers on a woman who founded a blockbuster startup when she was in her twenties, and now, in her fifties, having handed over the working reins, is lost and bored. Looking to jumpstart her own creativity and go off in a whole other direction, she seeks out a long-lost rebel aunt, who was always good at shaking things up. And while this aunt is still something of a star at seventy, impressive as ever on the outside, inside she is a hot mess who is terrified of old age. And then there is said aunt’s daughter—the cousin my protagonist didn’t know about, the first of many family secrets—whose three-year-old child has such severe visual impairment that he can barely see shadows and shapes. There is a treatment for his condition, but it is experimental and hugely expensive. Insurance refuses to cover it, and the family can’t afford it themselves. Will our protagonist be able to help? Are there ways to navigate the system, sympathetic ears to reach, legal challenges to make?

These plot elements were in place prior to the lockdown, but I was having trouble unifying them into a central theme. And publishers do need that. More, they want a single sentence, a tag line for the sake of marketing. I was struggling to come up with one—focusing in turn on the curse of the uber-successful woman, the challenge of family secrets, and the scourge of agism. None of these grabbed me. It was only when I zoomed out, took a broader view, and, with the passing of yet another shut-in day, sensed the helplessness this pandemic has caused, that it came clear.

We’re talking about vision. What do you do when you can’t see the road ahead? How do you plan for the future when the future is in doubt?

The answer, as my main character will discover, is that you don’t. You learn to wing it. You redefine happiness and reimagine goals. You grope your way forward, one step at a time, day by day, until the fog clears.

Isn’t that what we’re doing right now, what this pandemic demands?

Copyright © 2020 Barbara Delinsky
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