It starts the way so many gatherings do these days: with a spinning wheel on a computer screen. Eventually the Wi‑Fi connection picks up again, the video stream resumes, and the comments section starts to fill with greetings from almost a hundred regular live viewers, checking in from Winnipeg and rural Manitoba, and as far away as Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Ottawa. The monthly Winnipeg Free Press Book Club is turning one year old.
After the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, it didn’t take long for virtual events like this to become completely normal. Tech savvy or not, almost all of us learned to use “Zoom” as a verb and to turn to video-conferencing apps for everything from work meetings to happy hours. This particular side effect of the novel coronavirus is one that Saleema Nawaz, tonight’s guest, didn’t foresee when writing her second novel. But it’s a fitting way for her to talk about Songs for the End of the World, which weaves multiple narrative threads into a plot that’s driven by a mysterious virus with origins in China: Acute Respiratory and Muscular Inflammatory Syndrome, or ARAMIS.
“Almost every day of the past year,” Nawaz tells Ben Sigurdson, books editor for the Free Press and the club’s regular host, “there has been something that’s reminded me: ‘Oh, that’s like that paragraph I had a hard time writing. The same thing is transpiring.’ ” And as if that weren’t meta enough, Nawaz had also created a character, Owen Grant, who pens a pandemic novel, How to Avoid the Plague, years before the fast-moving and deadly ARAMIS strikes. His book’s new-found relevance shoots it back up the bestseller list; at one point, Owen’s publisher leaves him a jaunty voice message informing him that, thanks to the latest alert from the Centers for Disease Control, there will soon be another printing. “Terrible about the virus, of course,” she says, “but what a silver lining for us.”
Nawaz explains how she found herself in a similar position last year: her novel — researched and drafted long before the current crisis and set for publication in August 2020 — was quickly published as an ebook in April, to capitalize on its unexpected relevance. But that silver lining carried its own dark cloud. “One doesn’t want a book to only be remembered for being super timely or super prescient,” she tells Sigurdson. “Nobody can read this book the way that I wrote it. It can’t exist outside of these events.”
Indeed, it’s almost impossible to immerse oneself in the considerable charms of Songs for the End of the World without being brought up short by its uncanny similarities to our current situation. The theme of global connectedness — the overlapping relationships among characters — reads as an insightful allegory for vectors. Superspreader events ravage huge populations. Coronavirus deniers defy quarantine. The contagion’s airborne nature becomes accepted only slowly. “It felt like contact tracing with a personal touch,” someone types into the comments section. But there are also notable divergences and instances when today’s reader wants to shout “Where’s your mask?” or “But he’s not in your bubble!” Even Nawaz shakes her head at times. “I can’t believe I portrayed someone who was flouting protocol,” she admits when Sigurdson brings up the parallels.
When ARAMIS starts decimating the population of New York, the fictional Owen Grant is recruited as an expert talking head who might offer insights into public health on the chat shows. Nawaz found herself in much the same position last spring: “I was asked to go on radio and say what I thought was going to happen,” she recalls with mild incredulity. Although she would never portray herself as any kind of infectious disease expert, she says her “Owen-esque responsibilities” have come out in her regular column for the Montreal Gazette, where she’s felt an obligation to write about mask use.
As for what small comforts she herself has found during the pandemic, Nawaz mentions ample time to write (she’s almost done with a middle-grade mystery and has sketched out an adult mystery) and to attend online choir practices. Of course, because of Zoom’s echo effect, all the participants are muted except for the director. “We’re singing into the void of our own homes,” she says with a laugh.
As Sigurdson fields the last few questions and the forty-five-minute conversation winds down, Nawaz’s young daughter appears in the frame, mugging shyly for the camera and holding a stuffed dog up to her mother’s face. It’s a classic “working from home” moment, yet another weird convention this very real pandemic has given us. A year ago, readers would have had to brave a crisp Winnipeg evening to see Nawaz at a local bookshop, to have her sign their copies of Songs for the End of the World and perhaps exchange a few words. A video stream can’t replace personal connections like that, but it can offer a different kind of intimacy — a virtual window into an author’s home. Like all pandemic silver linings, it’s a bit tarnished at this point, but it’s one that may well outlive this current crisis; the Free Press Book Club already has selections lined up for its 950 members well into 2021.