Guest Post: “Writing About Plague in a Time of Plague” by Stephen Deas
Today the BiblioSanctum is thrilled to welcome author Stephen Deas, author of The Moonsteel Crown–an epic, fun and sweary fantasy heist novel published by Angry Robot available February 9 wherever books are sold. To celebrate, Stephen has kindly shared with us his experience working on the book during a time when our own world was going through much change and uncertainty, and I hope you’ll enjoy checking it out!
WRITING ABOUT PLAUGE IN A TIME OF PLAGUE
by Stephen Deas
The Moonsteel Crown (Angry Robot, 9th February) centres around Myla, Fings and Seth, three misfit undesirables. Myla is a former sword-monk with far too much interest in earthly pleasures for the spiritual path of the aesthete. Superstitious Fings simply has a pathological inability to respect the notion of things belonging to other people. Seth forges official papers and is quietly attempting to undermine the organised religion of which he was once a part. They are not, in summary, respectful of authority.
The second volume (The Book of Endings) is due to come out a year from now. I started writing it eighteen months ago and it was submitted just before Christmas. Right from the off, long before the first whispers of something coming out of Wuhan Province, The Book of Endings was going to be set in a city stricken by plague. By the time the first draft was half done, COVID was clearly about to be a major thing, but it was (for me) remote and seemed to me to be something that a sensible nation and government, given the months of warning available, might reasonably be expected to address in such a way that it wouldn’t sweep in like tidal wave and wreak havoc, and then stay wreaking havoc for… well, who knows how long we’ll be living like this.
We went into the first lockdown a week before I finished the first draft. I sat on it for a while and did the edits The Moonsteel Crown. By the time I came back to it, it was obviously going to have to change. I spent most of the latter part of last year doing rewrites to it, while at the same time seeing how real people across the world behaved and reacted to an actual real plague.
To begin with, I tried to see it as something useful. Silver lining and all that. My plague was more dangerous than COVID (modelled on smallpox, for what it’s worth), and yet people largely kept on about their business. That had to change. My city also had a general consensus on how to not get the plague (prayer). Now some people pray, and some people burn incense, and some people wear scented masks (some people argue it’s only the scent that matters), and some form lynch mobs and burn down entire streets at the first sign of an outbreak, and some blame it on the occasional walking Dead Man (there will be a subreddit somewhere about how Corona is linked to zombies), and some blame the foreign sailors (City of Plague is a major sea-port, and disease arriving by sea was a bit of an actual thing), and some put it down to a curse laid on the city by that Warlock who was driven out a couple of decades back, and, and… Look, it’s a fantasy city so it doesn’t have a 5G network, but there’s going to be someone who’s quite certain it’s being spread by carrier pigeons.
There was a sense of panic, but it was too uniform. There are lynchings now, but also orderly queues of people patiently waiting for hours to get on the boats that will get them away. I suppose what living through an actual pandemic brought home was the basic resilience and resistance to change of human society as a whole (something which it seems to me very much cuts both ways) coupled with the sheer variety of individual responses.
In the end, writing about a plague while living through one was simply exhausting. I don’t think I’ve properly sorted out how Myla, Fings and Seth should react. Should they be different? They probably should, but honestly, having my characters argue about something equivalent to wearing masks? There’s enough of that in the real world. I don’t have the energy. Probably one of them should be fatalistic, one of them paranoid about getting it, and one somewhere in the middle. And then they should probably disagree about it, but you know… can we just not?
There are the things that got cut. There was a certain amount of plague-linked xenophobia which hits too close to the bone for my taste now. It would have been easy to write some minor subplots about people being stupid or selfish or exploitative in a way that reflects the world I see outside the window. I want to write those. I’m angry about all sorts of things, but this isn’t the place for that.
In the end, these stories are supposed to be an escape – heaven knows we need that right now. Hopefully, by the time The Book of Endings comes out, all this will be an unpleasant memory… but I have my doubts. And even if it is all largely over, that won’t bring back the people who’ve died and it’ll be scant consolation for all those suffering with long-term side-effects. It is, frankly, tempting to simply pull the plug on the whole plague thing and start again. If it was window-dressing, I think I would. But there’s a reason for this plague. It’s at the heart of the plot. I honestly don’t know what to do.
It’s still a work in progress.
I’ll try to be respectful.
Please wear a mask.