The author out for a walk in Palmerston North (Photo: Tom Doig)
The author out for a walk in Palmerston North (Photo: Tom Doig)

BooksApril 6, 2020

The novel coronavirus: On writing a pandemic, then watching it play out

The author out for a walk in Palmerston North (Photo: Tom Doig)
The author out for a walk in Palmerston North (Photo: Tom Doig)

Laura Jean McKay is hunkered down in Palmerston North but her much-hyped novel The Animals in That Country is out there in the world – earlier than expected, too, because it’s about a strange new flu.

Two women stand close to each other in an aisle labelled CANS. They’re young, with strong pink arms in singlets, even though the wind that blows across the desert outside is cold. One holds a tin. The other grabs for it, and they fall into each other until the one with the tin bites the other on the soft exposed flesh of her upper arm. Pushes away, gripping the prize. Back at the register now, the owner of the store says loudly, “I don’t think I should sell that to you.”

The footage played on smartphones and computer screens across the Southern Hemisphere: two women were fighting over goods in an Australian supermarket. The Pak’nSave shoppers of Palmerston North shook their heads, coughed discreetly into their elbows and pointedly bought only one 18-pack of toilet paper. I stood in the chips aisle and checked my phone again. Yes, the women in the Aussie supermarket existed and have since been charged for trying to rip each other to shreds in the panic buying frenzy that began with coronavirus. But the paragraph above is from my novel – it was never supposed to be real.

I’ve been writing The Animals in That Country for seven to 10 years, depending on when you think novel writing starts. In the early days, people laughed at the idea: a strange new flu that enables people to communicate with animals?! I stretched my imagination to breaking point, trying to infect my main character, Jean, with a disease that meant she (and all the other characters in the epidemic) would be able to understand what animal bodies are saying. Until recently, reviewers described the premise as “wild” and “bonkers”. But as I finished off the final edits and sent it to print, the weird flu aspect seemed to escape my book and take over the news cycle.

By the time early copies of The Animals in That Country came back from the publisher, coronavirus had leapt borders and was spreading across the Northern Hemisphere. Reports in the south were few and in early March I still felt safe enough to board a plane to Australia (remember planes?!). I blushed behind a P2 face mask – the last one in Bunnings – as Kiwi passengers wondered aloud: “Why is she wearing a mask?” “She must be from overseas …” In Sydney, I crammed into a sound booth for four days to record the audiobook, dictating apparently fictional scenes of flu symptoms:

They’re still going on about that superflu on the radio. The sniffle and fever only lasts half a day with this one, but after that it’s visions of pink elephants for they don’t know how long.

Palmerston North, the other day (Photos: Tom Doig)

Between takes I stepped outside to find versions of my novel’s scenes playing out all around me. There was the rapid infection I wrote about, a map of areas of the country down with flu, red for infection. The south red, the centre red, half the north red. There were the travel bans, there was the confusion over protection: face masks or hand sanitiser? One metre or two? I had spent years concocting the most impossible virus, only to witness a disease beyond my imagination infecting, killing and driving the real world towards global isolation. It was a relief to get back into the booth and read the sections of the book where the animals start talking.

Apocalyptic fiction often ends up bearing some resemblance to reality. The “doublethink” of George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949) was a critique of 1940s authoritarianism, and may very well have been a warning prototype for neoliberalism and the World Wide Web. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was consciously constructed from historical religious practices and reproductive rights debates. Everything in the book happened somewhere, Atwood has said, and as history repeats itself, so the novel becomes relevant again and again. Eleanor Catton’s anticipated next work is reportedly about bunker dwellers in the wake of a global catastrophe. As Covid-19 rips through families, communities and cities, will we again be able to turn to writers for answers?

By the time I returned to the swampy river valleys of the Manawatu, the coronavirus had become a pandemic truly stranger than fiction. I sat outside a restaurant in Napier sharing hand sanitiser with friends as passengers from what turned out to be the plague ship Ruby Princess wandered past in lanyards – they would go on to Sydney, resulting in one of Australia’s major outbreaks. I felt, along with the rest of social media, that if Forrest Gump could get coronavirus, anyone could. I pulled over in the car with my partner and held his hand as Jacinda Ardern firmly announced the four phases of response. Along with my workmates, I joined the mass relocation of pot plants from office to home; people openly wept in the halls as partners and family members lost their jobs, or suddenly became too far away to reach.

The physical bookshops have closed their doors, so I went online this week to virtually launch my novel. People can read about the strange new flu that causes mass infection, and how the characters’ worlds expand to take in the meaning of other species. It hasn’t happened like that for us with the novel coronavirus: we won’t be climbing into campervans next to chatty canines to discover how far we can push this flu. We are locked down, because this illness doesn’t further us, it kills. In order to stop it, our worlds must necessarily become small. People have found their households and shelters for a month. People attempt distance in the parks and pathways trying to get their moment of isolation exercise. Teddy bears are trapped like moths against windows. Kids flush from the excitement of being with their stunned parents 24/7.

My bubble buddy and I head over to the school and gymnasium by the river on our sanctioned short walk. Although this place has been long abandoned, it seems like a flash forward to the future of other recently closed schools. The basketball court with its weeds growing through the asphalt, hoop overturned and savaged. The brass gymnasium sign dented, dull. The whole world has been tipped upside down anyway, it’s peaceful. We take a few photos for Instagram to prove that we exist, then head home to see if this story has a good ending.

The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, $29.99) is usually available from Unity Books. For now, we recommend buying it as an ebook.

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