Authors in Quarantine – Ursula Pflug

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Ursula Pflug: Folks have told me they feel as though they are living in one of my stories and there is a story in my third collection, Seeds and Other Stories, which has just gone to press, that’s about a pandemic.

Seeds is launching virtually on June 11 — it’s possible to register online in advance — please do. This book spans decades, it includes work that has appeared in award winning genre and literary publications in the US and the UK as well as at home in Canada. It’s my third collection and is coming out from Inanna, a Toronto scholarly and feminist press. The cover, which includes seeds and spaceships, is by Val Fullard who does all the Inanna covers. I know her from the old days in the Queen West scene in Toronto when she played in women’s bands with mutual friends. It’s one of my fave covers ever, and illustrates the cover story.

The pandemic story is called “Judy”, and was first published in 1983 in This Magazine, back when it was still edited by Lorraine Filyer. The first line is “That was the summer all the non smokers died”, and it follows a citizen scientist who stays up all night crunching data and then joins her roommates on the roof for a drink and to watch the sunrise. They’ve been there partying all night and mock her, just a little, but it’s her science that makes the correlations between smoking and survival. My husband is high risk not just because he’s over 65 but because he smokes and he was gratified when I told him about this surreal science fictional premise.

I spent the early days of lock down in copy-edits for this book, the usual fiddly and time consuming back and forth and it was actually a welcome relief because while the amazing Luciana Ricciutelli and I discussed whether hanafuda, liliko’i, poi, and wasabi should be italicized (yes, yes, yes, no) time went by during which I wasn’t, gratefully, thinking about Covid at all.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Ursula Pflug: We spend a lot of time working at home together anyway so our life hasn’t appreciably changed. I lost an eight week spring workshop — I prefer classroom teaching to online teaching. I’ve been doing more mentoring by email, mainly for short stories and do feel free to get in touch if you’re interested — but I do miss socializing with other bodies. Sometimes I organize drop offs or pickups of car seats or plants with friends and neighbours just so we can chat in the yard for a while. A good friend in Victoria has organized a weekly Happy Hour on Zoom for members of the electronic arts community and that has now become something we look forward to.

I felt shamed by all the baking pics on social media and made muffins. The muffins were good, but I gave up baking for a reason. Not so the victory garden. I’ve been an avid organic vegetable gardener for decades but in the last few years cut back, largely because our raised beds have gone feral and now are filled with jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), used in traditional indigenous medicine as an antidote to poison ivy. It’s beloved by pollinators — enough reason to not rip it out so I can give the beds back to tomatoes. Instead, we’re building new ones. We plan to fill them by the ancient method of Hügelkultur or hill culture. It’s a permaculture method hailing from Germany and Eastern Europe that no one here had ever heard of but which now shows up in our feeds not quite as often as sourdough but close. I’m only a little smug about being able to pronounce it properly. We are putting more time and effort into resusitating the garden than in recent years and glad of it. For one thing, we will be able to share with friends and neighbours who are living exclusively on their CERB. 

I’ve been on the Sunburst Award jury for short fiction. I stepped in as one of the jury members dropped out when the reading period had already begun. My wonderful fellow jurors were Sarah Tolmie and Omar el Akkad and we had interesting video chats — Portland, Toronto, Peterborough. I lobbied for WhatsApp, so dead simple you’re unlikely to say embarassing things in a livestream to Facebook from Zoom meeting as I have in fact recently done. Your friends, family and colleagues will love you once they have used it for the first time. We have an amazing Sunburst shortlist this year and the winning story is by a writer I hadn’t yet known which is always a delight. Stay tuned.

We’re both over 60 so we’re not really supposed to go to the store unless we go from 7- 8 a.m. However morning brain, as I call it to Doug, is the time during which one which can most efficiently edit so I’m not going to waste it sanitizing my hands and wandering the  aisles while trying to remember not to touch the cans. As well as being in the semi-retired demographic a lot of our friends are wildcrafters. We figure, if you don’t want to go to the store, you can go outside and pick dinner. Today it will be day lily sprouts, a first for me. Staying healthy isn’t based only on social distancing and hand washing, important as these are, but also on what you put in your body and wild foods will boost your immune system more than spaghetti. Trent Hills Homegrown Hamper delivers prepared meals from The Bakery in Warkworth and we have almost grown tired of their amazing Shepherd’s Pie. 

I read The Plague by Albert Camus. It was possibly rec’d online by Sang Kim who like me is a Camus fan. I read a digital library copy from Overdrive. This book was startling as it describes, note for note, what we are going through — quarantine, both fudged and effective official responses, the scramble for vaccines, hardworking medical staff, community solidarity, tragic losses, the effects of separation. It was published in ’47 and is considered an allegory for the occupation of France. As a description of an epidemic it’s eerily familiar. Not for the faint of heart but brilliant and startling for its echoes.

There’s a 6 k walk on the side roads around my village and I do it almost every day, Covid or not. I get ideas but mostly I clear my head. There are more people out walking now; we wave and stay on our own sides of the road. And I observe birds, even though I’m not really a birder. There are often ravens fluttering around the hydro poles, and on the fence of one of the farms there is a sign which reads, Raven Predation Project Participant. Me being me I had to find out what raven predation was so I went home and looked it up. The raven predation project is a Ministry of Agriculture initiative. Apparently ravens will prey on livestock, pecking out the eyeballs of living sheep and other animals. Now when I come home Doug says, “I see you foiled the ravens and still have your eyeballs.” I am not making this up. If I was a horror writer I would use it but I’m not. Go ahead and you’re welcome.

Shameless self promotion for June 11 virtual book launch:

https://www.crowdcast.io/e/inanna-booklaunch1/register

Join us for a virtual evening of readings and revelry featuring Lisa Braxton, author of The Talking Drum, Paul Butler, author of Mina’s Child, April Ford, author of Carousel, Rebecca Luce-Kapler, author of The Negation of Chronology: Imagining Geraldine Moodie, and Ursula Pflug, author of Seeds and Other Stories. Books discounted for event, Author Q & A & more! https://www.inanna.ca/


Ursula Pflug is author or editor of ten novels, novellas, edited anthologies and story collections. Her fiction has appeared in Canada, the US and the UK, in award winning genre and literary publications including Lightspeed, Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Leviathan, Now Magazine and Bamboo Ridge. Her books have been endorsed by Jeff VanderMeer, Tim Wynne-Jones, Candas Jane Dorsey, Charles DeLint, Mathew Cheney, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Heather Spears and others. Her short stories have been taught in universities in Canada and India, and she has collaborated extensively with filmmakers, playwrights, choreographers and installation artists. Her fiction has won small press awards abroad and been a finalist for the Aurora, ReLit and KM Hunter Awards as well as the 3 Day Novel and Descant Novella Contests at home. Pflug’s work has been funded by The Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts and The Laidlaw Foundation. A new reprint collection, Seeds, is forthcoming in May. (Photo Credit Andy Carroll).

Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Kate Heartfield

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Kate Heartfield: The priority has been distance learning for my 10-year-old son, and I’ve also carried on with my regular freelance editing and online teaching jobs, in addition to trying to keep up with writing.

Even though I haven’t really had any extra time, I have been starting all kinds of new creative projects, because it helps my mental health. Projects help to remind me that today is different from yesterday and tomorrow will be different again, that change will happen. And I’ve always used work as a coping mechanism, rightly or wrongly! So in addition to everything else, I’ve been painting and assembling a hurdy-gurdy from a kit, baking a lot, and trying to get my garden in decent shape. I’ve signed up for an online course in Old Norse, because I figure, if not now, when? A lot of my projects (such as baking bread and making masks) also serve to help our household cope with the pandemic.

I’ve also been allowing myself the time to do a fair bit of relaxation activity, such as playing Civilization VI (my comfort game!) and watching TV with my partner and son. We just finished Tales from the Loop and are currently finishing up the last season of Clone Wars together.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Kate Heartfield: Our household is pretty fortunate, all things considered. My partner, my son and I are all introvert homebodies at the best of times, so on a day to day basis it doesn’t feel that strange. But the uncertainty about the future, the stress of distance learning and the inability to see people I love is wearing, for sure. I feel like my heart is a rubber band that’s been stretched into the same position for two months and is weakening at the edges.

I’ve been using Zoom and other online platforms to keep in touch as much as I can with my writing community, although I miss all my writer pals terribly and nothing can make up for their physical presence. I’m taking part in two virtual conventions this month, including the Nebula awards weekend at the end of May, and that helps to keep me in touch too.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Kate Heartfield: My creative brain is my coping mechanism, so I’m enjoying dreaming and plotting out my current novel. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I frequently struggle these days with a kind of brain freeze — I can’t execute and get the words down very well. An effect of long-term low-level stress, I think, and I’m sure a lot of us are feeling the same way. Also, I’ve lost a lot of the options I used to have to get into a fresh headspace by going to work at the library or my favourite coffee shop, which sounds trivial but was a bigger part of my working life than I realized.

So it’s slower than I’d like, but I’m getting work done. Soon, my editor will send some edits for my next novel, The Embroidered Book, which is coming out next year. When that happens, that will become my writing priority. In the meantime, I’m working on a novel that isn’t sold yet, so I don’t have a deadline, which is a blessing in some ways as it means there’s less stress, but it also makes it hard to keep at it, because writing a novel on spec is an implicit act of faith in the future and that’s hard right now. I really love the book, so that’s helping. I also wrote a story for The New Decameron Project, which was great, because it gave me a reason to take out an old half-finished concept and finish it up. The result was a story called “In a Hansom Cab at the Liberty Street Ferry Terminal” and it gave me great joy to write.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Cait Gordon

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

No haircut? No problem!

Spec Can:What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Cait Gordon: For the first two weeks, I levelled up to 1000% disability advocate mode, encouraging people to flatten that curve. But also being connected with other disability advocates meant my social media timeline soon became demoralizing. There was no attempt from many abled people (even those in authority) to disguise that they thought we were expendable during this crisis, no veil at all, and the eugenics-based mindset drained me. I found myself entering into The Overwhelm™, and had to pull back in order to preserve my own mental health. An interesting tonic for this was April’s Camp NaNoWriMo. I was no way in shape to do it, but I went into Oh, why the heck not? mode. And the WIP I chose to work on was Iris and the Crew Tear Space a New One. This episodic series focuses on a command crew whose senior officers are disabled, Deaf, blind, and/or autistic, but my intention is to craft a world so accommodating and accessible, my characters just are. The focus is on their adventures, instead of an all-consuming narrative about their disabilities and/or conditions. I really needed the salve of living in Iris and the crew’s world while my own world felt like the ugliness towards my community was escalating. Thank goodness for speculative fiction. For me, it’s a true form of self-care at times like these.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Cait Gordon: HAVE YOU MET ME? I was social distancing before it was cool! Seriously, though, as a mobility disabled person who lives in a suburb without decent transit, I’m usually housebound at least five days a week. So, I’m kind of a pro at it. However, my stresses tend to derive from other people not knowing how social distancing works. The streets around me typically empty in the BeforeTime, but now more people are at home, so more people go out. And in my opinion, they don’t always get how keeping one’s distance works. I’ve not gone on many walks because I’d feel myself heading for autistic burnout from others not adhering to the rules. Although, I am so tempted to buy a ridiculously wide hoop skirt to keep people at bay. Fiddle-dee-dee, I say!

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Cait Gordon: There’s always an ongoing hum of stress in my mind, and that makes writing difficult because I don’t have enough brain spoons. But thankfully, my online writing group, The Inkonceivables, restarted during the outbreak, so they are inspiring me to have something to read out loud every two weeks. (By the way, anyone who tells me I must write every day, especially now, will be walloped with The Whacking Pillow. Fair, right?) Since my current WIP is written like episodes instead of chapters, I just have to think in short-fiction goals, which I can handle right now. I love short stories; they’re a delightful challenge all of their own. In fact, I decided to keep up the 2020 Flash Fiction Draw Challenge on caitgordon.com, as another distraction. I thought I’d be the only one writing, but all the other authors who participate in it were grateful I kept it up. So, that was very telling to me. We creatives sometimes have to sit back to soothe our minds, but others need to tinker with words. Both ways are valid. And as I keep telling people, we don’t have to be productive during a pandemic. For now, we survive. Then, we thrive!


Cait Gordon is a disability advocate who wants everyone to pummel that curve! She’s also the author of Life in the ’Cosm and The Stealth Lovers. When Cait’s not writing, she’s editing manuscripts and running The Spoonie Authors Network , a blog whose contributors manage disabilities and/or chronic conditions. She also teamed up with Kohenet Talia C. Johnson to co-edit the Nothing Without Us anthology in an attempt to take over the world. Narf.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Liz Westbrook-Trenholm

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

COVID fashion statement: bleachy duds and shaggy hair.

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID outbreak?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: Domesticity way up, writing way down.

I’ve been washing and bleaching everything inside and from outside our home, baking comfort foods, (state of emergency diet now enacted for the month of May) and sewing (searching for the most bearable face mask), all while listening to audiobooks, all cozy and historical mysteries as I seek respite from COVID news.

Routine has become strict and rarely varied. First it’smorning coffee, when we mutually drown in the firehose of social media, followed by a few hours spent on projectsuntil it’s time for an afternoon walk timed to beat the 3-5 pm jogging and biking rush hour on our preferred nature paths. We come back, dry off (we go in all weathers), readand play board games until wine-time, dinner, chat and music. Our day concludes with TV and bed. Rinse and repeat. Every day.

Excitement is laundry day, a video chat with a friend or relative, or Hayden’s weekly trip to the grocery store, me waiting at home for my hunter/gatherer (he has better lifting power than I do and we don’t run a car) to bring our weekly food, which I dunk in bleach mixture, except for eggs. Trust me, eggs in soggy cardboard containers do not go well. 

​The routine is comforting, at first, giving a sense of control to the uncontrollable situation we all find ourselves inhabiting. How can we react to the endless torrent of sorrow, disaster, fear and conflicting advice pouring from our media? Why, bake cinnamon buns, what else?

Aaaand it doesn’t take long for the comfortable routine to become a prison. Hayden starts taking dyspeptic pictures of himself in his bathrobe and turning them into silly gifs. I’m trying one hair style after another. After gentle discussion, we decide we need to schedule in some spontaneity. We write lots of activities on slips of paper which go into a cookie tin. (Hayden rejects ‘give each other haircuts’) We pull one out every couple of days when we get edgy. Sometimes just a game we haven’tplayed forever. Reading to each other, possibly with dramatizations. Looking at photos from years ago. A take-out Mexican food fiesta. Birthday party, with home-made hats (I knew there was a reason I’d kept a shoebox of orphaned earrings and feathers for decades). Other activities that are MYOB, so there. It’s not so much what we do, but that we burst out of the wire cage of routine we’ve built, and change things up a little. It’s surprisingly refreshing. Sex in the afternoon is awesome. Oops. I said I wouldn’t talk about that.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: All of which spills over into how we deal with social distancing. Note the ‘we’. This would not be possible without each other. Always a close couple, a kind of two-person party, we’ve become, if anything, even closer, more careful and tender. Of course, it was disappointing for two inveterate travellers like us to see our plans collapse and our world shrink to only anywhere we can walk to. We can get tetchy, but we cut each other slack when the black dog drops by, or when one or the other wants to be all alone. We don’t take offense. It all makes sense. An old friend once said, “Where is it written you should be happy?” Sometimes it’s necessary to sit under the dark cloud and just breathe until the sun comes out again. It does come out again.

That being said, we work hard at keeping in touch with others via Zoom, Facebook chat, phone, email and text – whatever medium works best for each. We have especially upped our calls with family. I talk often now with my daughter who is distancing alone in London (the UK one). She’s worked out some solutions and has produced some powerful art in her off-work time, but it got pretty dark and desperate before she found her COVID groove.My sister and I vent constantly, bless her for being there.Calling friends and acquaintances and hearing that they’reokay releases swacks of relieved endorphins and hugely shortens the list of people I have to worry about. If they’renot okay, I’m there to hear it out and keep in touch. Sharing their burden paradoxically lessens mine.

​Another side-effect is my tendency to babble uncontrollably at sight of another human. I strike up two-meter distance chit-chat with total strangers or the pharmacy clerk behind her plexi-glass shield. My urge to chat about anything anything at all, at some length, is difficult to contain. I try. Truly I try. Let me tell you ALL about it sometime.

​I’m also thinking about what comes next as treatments and, we hope, vaccines evolve over the coming one or two years. Years. Yeah. As an asthmatic baby boomer smack dab in the middle of one of the at-risk demographics, I’ll need to keep shying away from close contact with anyone who might be a carrier. While we’veall been in it together, it’s been do-able. When I become a minority, it’ll pose new challenges. My friends with disabilities and health issues are nodding their heads with grim grins and saying, ‘Yuh-huh. Tell us about it.” No need. In sharing your stories and concerns, you gave the world a lot of information and demonstrated a lot of coping strategies, long before COVID came along. I expect to be using them shortly! I’ll likely write about it.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Liz Westbrook-Trenholm: The times have affected my writing in two main ways. One is that I have done much less. My writing often takes me deep into dark corners and edgy issues that can leave me drained. I’ve been a little nervous to approach it.

But now, after a hiatus for bleaching and retreat, I find I’m approaching it with a gentle, cozy style. A young woman, a run-away on her last legs, physically and psychologically, falls into a carefully dug hole in the middle of a forest. She looks up from the pre-dug grave at a man silhouetted against the dawn who says, “That’s mine.” And they go from there, into a gentle interaction of restoration and understanding between generations.

Or the old woman, isolating alone in her apartment, who opens her door to the god of the underworld in the form of a lost toddler in a really odious diaper. She draws him into her home and nurtures him, fearless and practical. What deal will they cut when he reaches his full size? 

End of life is a theme in the back of mind for all of us right now and in both of these stories. It’s a topic that turns up in my fiction regularly, but in these, my emerging ‘COVID’ stories, I find the characters less fierce and more wise and accepting than my frequently angry, feisty dames. 

So. How about that COVID thing, eh? Who among us thought we’d be living through history in the making? How can anything be the same again, any more than it was after the plague years, or the potato famine, or the abolition of slavery in the west, or the world wars? So many scabs have been ripped off our social shortcomings. So much strength and ability has emerged, showing us what we, as a society, could be. What will we do with it? Where will we take this experience, both within ourselves and in the way we interact with each other? Now, there’s a good writing topic for any spec fic writer.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Corey Redekop

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Corey Redekop: After a few hectic weeks of OMIGODWE’REALLGOINGTODIEREALSOON, I’ve managed to settle my mental state down a touch. If you consider that Stage One of self-isolation, Stage Two is the slightly more optimistic MAYBEWEWON’TDIEBUTHOLYGODTHISISTERRIBLE. I’m not at all certain of how many stages there are to this pandemic, but I’m glad to not having yet reached the Stage of MYHAIRCUTISMOREIMPORTANTTHANYOURLIFE.

Beyond that, I’ve got plenty of free time, being “temporarily furloughed” and all. I still work (very) part-time for Goose Lane Editions as their Social Media Maven, so I spend a small part of each day wading through online sites, looking for anything literary and/or marginally hopeful to share. I’ve tried a little baking, to mixed success; my bread is always fantastically heavy, but I’ve managed to produce a passable tea biscuit. I’m reading as much as ever—usually between 6-10 books a month—and I’m also trying to read at least one short story a day to keep myself interested (and to better get through my huge TBR pile).

I finally caved and subscribed to CRAVE, so I’ve binged a few shows, Watchmenand Devs being the highlights. I’m currently watching The Outsider, and I may go on to Penny Dreadful and Westworld afterward.

My usual job keeps me fairly active, so there has been a marked decrease in my exercise. I’ve quickly gained what I shall refer to as “The Epidemic Eight” and I’m well on my way to “The Quarantine Twenty.” The weighty bread does not help. I try to walk every day, but there’s only so many times you can look at the same streets without getting bored. Listening to podcasts helps; I recommend We Hate Movies, Teacher’s Lounge, and anything with Paul F. Tompkins.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Corey Redekop: I’ve never been the most outgoing personality, so I’m well-suited to bunker-style living thus far. I do miss the occasional night of board games with friends, but we’re looking into online options. And I really miss going to movies. I count myself lucky in that my last moviegoing experience was the excellent Parasite. I have a few online friends who must suffer a lackluster night of Bloodshot to fondly look back on.

When I do leave the house, I take all steps required to stay away and apart from others, wearing a mask when necessary and being respectful of others’ personal space. I see footage online of people refusing to take such measures, protesting for their right to get sick and die, which I suppose is… a choice? I try not to despair, but when politicians advocate for death over the economy — when people argue that their right to a haircut takes precedent over my health — it’s difficult to stay positive. 

Is humanity reallythis self-centered and stupid, Magic 8-Ball? All signs point to yes. White men, anyway.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Corey Redekop: Not much. It’s fortunate (in this exact scenario alone) that I’m a tremendously undisciplined and erratic writer. The impact on my creative product has been minimal.

havetaken major steps on finishing a novel I’ve been toying with for years. However, my cat of eleven years suddenly passed away a few weeks ago, which utterly wrecked me. I’m slowly coming around, but I still expect this silly, clumsy ball of fluff to be wandering around my office and squeaking for attention. It’s like phantom limb syndrome; I find myself reaching for her, and I’m still surprised when she’s not there anymore. Phantom pet syndrome. My brain acknowledges that she’s absent, but my body refuses the proof.

I’m getting back to writing, and I think I can have the first draft done by July. Thus far the book is wildly inconsistent in tone and plot development, there are scads of scenes that demand to be thrown out, I know I’ve forgotten about at least two characters, and I don’t know if the mystery aspect of it works at all. But hey, isn’t that what first drafts are for? My buddy Randal Graham (of the deliriously funny Beforelife) has given me valuable feedback and, perhaps more importantly, heaps of praise. 

Like most authors, I remain convinced and/or deluded that this isn’t all just a waste of effort.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Karen Dudley

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Karen Dudley: The pandemic really hit at terrible time for me. My dad is quite unwell and I am currently recovering from major surgery (though naturally I tell everyone the 8-inch scar on my abdomen is from a bat’leth fight). Keeping everybody (including me) together has been tough. Combined with anxiety/fear about Covid has meant that I’ve basically been doing my best interpretation of a fruit fly: buzzing around, lighting on something for a picosecond before taking off again. I haven’t cleaned closets or made bread or learned a new language or calculated the distance to Mars in Mars bars. BUT my family is (relatively) sane, the cats are happy, everyone is getting fed, and the house isn’t too gross, so I call it a win.

At first, I spent too much time reading upsetting articles, scrolling through social media, and having an occasional cry. But I am trying to enjoy the beauty of a quieter, less smoggy world. I write messages of love in chalk on the sidewalk and put hearts and stuffies in the windows so kids out for their daily stroll can count them. We’ve also been taking advantage of the various productions that are streaming for free: operas, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, Shakespeare plays.

The other cool thing that we’re doing—the thing that is helping most to keep my daughter happy and occupied—is having theme dinners. The first (pictured above) was, not surprisingly, an ancient Greek dinner. We researched the foods, the clothing, the makeup, and the dining rooms to recreate an ancient Greek symposion. We brought out the camp cots to make dining couches and piled them with pillows. We dressed in our finest chitons and ate sesame pancakes and shrimps in honey while we listened to lyre music (thanks, Youtube!) and gossiped about how Socrates always looks like an unmade sleeping couch. It was so much fun!!! We went Medieval after that. We were nobles in our dining hall and all my grandmother’s old silver serving dishes looked amazing (though the kitten tried to make off with one of the trenchers). This weekend we’ll be dining in an Elizabethan tavern. My husband and daughter look fantastic as lace-collared dandies about town. I, however, will be a lowly serving wench.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Karen Dudley: I DESPISE IT!!! I am an unabashed hugger; I HATE not being able to hug people. My husband and daughter are both introverts and it’s getting to the point where they beat a hasty retreat as soon as they see me coming. “No, Mom! Nooooo! Not another hug!!”
Needless to say, the cats are getting a lot more cuddles.
But I go for a walk every morning, and I smile at strangers as I pass by (always from at least 2 metres away). Most people smile back and I love that brief acknowledgement. The unspoken ‘I am only avoiding you because of the virus, not because of the way you look or who you are’. It lifts my heart. But I tell you, when this pandemic is over, I’m going to hug every single person I see. Every. Single. Person.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Karen Dudley: I have to echo Kate Story here and laugh uproariously at the question. Seriously, how could something like this NOT affect one’s writing? Most days I can’t concentrate for more than five minutes at a time. It’s driving me crazy! And then there’s the problem of what to write. Before my surgery, I was working on the second book of a fantasy trilogy, but it’s set in a society on the verge of collapse. Quite frankly, I don’t want to write that right now, I’m LIVING it! And yet, I feel as though I do need to write—if only to lose myself in work for a spell. Fortunately, my daughter, who is a budding animator, had asked me a while ago to write down a story I made up for her when she was young (she wants to animate it for her grade twelve summative project). It’s a goofy tale of how our cat, Monsieur Goobère, got his stripes. When I realized that my fantasy novel wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I started working on the Goobère story. Not only have I been able to concentrate on it, the project has actually made me quite happy. It’s gentle and sweet and exactly what I need right now. Obviously, I hope to get back to my novel one of these days, but for now, this is enough.

Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Authors in Quarantine – Chadwick Ginther

With this this series, I am hoping to capture how this cultural moment is affecting our speculative fiction authors and how our authors are surviving during the COVID-19 outbreak

Chadwick’s companion in Quarantine – Algernon!!

Spec Can: What have you been up to during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Chadwick Ginther: I’ve been fortunate enough to still be employed at my day job, and have been working from home at what tasks are available to me. I’ve tried to impose some structure on my days, such as not sleeping in, writing before I sign on for work, daily walks and short workouts. I’ve also watched entirely too many terrible horror movies and caught up on a few television shows I’ve been meaning to check out. I’ve also been trying out some new recipes, and doing a bit more baking then normal.

Spec Can: How are you adapting to social distancing?

Chadwick Ginther: There was a lot of anxiety at first. Worry about health and wellbeing, for myself, my wife, our loved ones. Fear about what things will look like on the other side of the pandemic. All that anxiety is still there, but the waves of it don’t seem to be hitting quite as heavily as they were.

It’s been painful not to be able to see friends and family, but both my wife and I tend to be pretty solitary folks, and we really enjoy each other’s company. I call my parents to chat a bit more frequently, and a group of my friends created a text channel for us to share recipes and pictures and updates, and that’s been great for feeling connected.
All of my roleplaying games have moved to online platforms, although many of them were partially, or already there. I’m resisting the urge to join new games because I know I won’t be able to maintain the commitment when things return to a more normal normality.

Not going to a store the moment I think of something I want, or run out of has also meant a bit less snacking. Hopefully I’ll carry a bit of that newfound impulse buy restraint forward when the restrictions are relaxed.

Spec Can: How is the outbreak affecting your writing?

Chadwick Ginther: At first, it was brutal. Nothing was getting done. I struggled to finish even the tasks with existing deadlines, like some editor mandated short story revisions. Motivation to revise the book I had been working on prior to the pandemic was nil. Later, after the first couple of weeks, I managed to write a couple story pitches I’m waiting to hear back about, which seemed to help. Two weeks ago I decided to work on a passion project novel I’ve kept telling myself I’d start writing once this or that task was crossed off the list. I’m pretty happy with that decision, as it’s kept me writing every day, and I’m having so much fun exploring what might end up being the weirdest and most ambitious thing I’ve ever attempted in fiction.


Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

An Interview with Dr. Kelly McGuire About Pandemic and Outbreak Narratives

In light of the current COVID 19 pandemic, I wanted to interview Dr. Kelly McGuire, a professor and chair of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Trent University who has taught courses on epidemic and outbreak narratives and who researches medical history among her many research interests. 

Interviewer: Derek Newman-Stille

 

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kelly McGuire: I am a faculty member of English and Gender & Women’s Studies at Trent, where I specialize in eighteenth-century literature with a focus on medical history, although my teaching reflects my varied interests in popular culture, social justice, and feminism. I am currently working on how the eighteenth-century practice of inoculation (and the care labour surrounding it) was imagined in the literature of the time (so I’m paying particular attention to the discussions around immunity and the development of a vaccine in relation to COVID-19).

 


Spec Can: What got you interested in reading pandemic and other viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: I am really interested in how these narratives give us access to the world of epidemiologists, virologists, and scientists affiliated with organizations like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the WHO (Wold Health Organization). They also read on some level as detective fiction (with the scientists tasked with “solving” the mystery of the virus, which in its own way has the status of a character – usually framed as a demonic enemy even though viruses exist only to replicate themselves). The centrality of the body in these narratives also interests me, as all of those nasty things we generally avoid talking about assume centre stage.

 

Spec Can: What got you interested in researching and teaching pandemic and viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: A strange constellation of interests, beginning in an academic sense with my dissertation on suicide, which brought me into contact with the strange new world of public health as it emerged in the eighteenth century. I became very interested in how historically literature helped to imagine infection, and over time came to integrate my interest in popular fiction into this particular focus.

 

Spec Can: What are some characteristics of pandemic narratives in fiction? 

Kelly McGuire: Priscilla Wald (Contagious, 2008) does an excellent job of tracing these characteristics in contemporary fiction and film, while I see some of these tropes being established much earlier in works like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which is a fictionalized telling of the 1665 Great Plague of London. So I’m not necessarily dealing with pandemic narratives so much as works that deal with outbreaks and epidemics.

Often we see a first-person narrator in these stories who is positioned to give us a first-hand and more intimate account of the epidemic as it unfolds. These narrators are by necessity characterized by a somewhat morbid and perverse curiosity, which propels them through empty streets and gives us access to eerie scenes and unusual behaviours that arise in times of quarantine. Another character that figures in many of these narratives is the healthy carrier or super spreader who becomes the chief vector of disease and is almost invariably scapegoated as a result (I’ll talk more about ethnic scapegoating below).  The extermination of cats and dogs in urban centres is a recurring feature of these works, unfortunately, as is the flight from the city (always aligned with corruption and disease at the best of times) to the country.

In a narrative sense, the outbreak has its own kind of rhythm, generating confusion and panic as it slowly but inexorably begins to register in the consciousness of the people. We see the same kind of denial and slowness to act that has marked our experience of the pandemic, and a proliferation of rumour and quackery, as well as superstition (as epidemics to this day are read as an expression of God’s wrath).

It’s also interesting how the representations of “emptiness” that characterize depictions of urban plague scenes often give way to crowded, carnivalesque scenes of carefree behaviour. In his discussion of how the plague city represents authority’s ideal of the disciplinary society, Foucault relates how the experience of quarantine is met with both order and disorder, and this is certainly a recurring feature of outbreak narratives. But the general trend in these stories is towards fragmentation and the fraying of the social bonds that hold us together.

These can also be profoundly existential narratives, giving us access on some level to the ways in which humans confront their mortality, and contain a good many psychological insights about how we deal with trauma and the breakdown of our social order.

Spec Can: Why do you think people are interested in pandemic narratives?

Kelly McGuire: Some people (like Ernest Gilman) would argue that we are on some level haunted in a traumatic sense by a kind of shared memory of the plague, which lives on as a result in the popular imagination. This shared memory arguably informs the iconic appearance and behaviour of zombies, often thought to be inspired by early modern bubonic plague victims whose lymphatic swellings caused them to raise their arms and shuffle with their heads tilted at unusual angles).

These narratives remind us of our vulnerability, our porosity, our dependency on one another and, just like works of horror, function as a kind of release valve, confronting us with these fears in part to allow us to contain them. Ultimately, the kind of barriers and borders that the illness overcomes are redrawn at the end of these narratives, which are reassuring in their portraits of resilience (although in their rejoicing, survivors almost invariably forget the promises and vows they had made to live better lives and return to their old ways).

Spec Can: How do pandemic narratives relate to social fears and anxieties that are not necessarily about viruses?

Kelly McGuire: These narratives are always about xenophobia and the fear of the other on some level. We tend to align an idea of the self with health and associate disease with an idea of the “other” (other ethnicities, other countries). Many outbreak narratives like Albert Camus’s La Peste and Philip Roth’s Nemesis (which deals with an outbreak of polio in 1944 New Jersey), can be read on some levels as metaphors for the Holocaust or anti-Semitism more generally, and in this sense invoke ways in which Jewish peoples have been scapegoated historically (in times of plague in particular). These works often reflect anxieties around immigration, and, in more recent times, around globalization (see the film Contagion from 2011 for an example). In the 1990s, Africa was the target of a good many of these narratives, whereas Asia has been the focus since SARS.

 

Spec Can: How are viral narratives related to ideas of borders and border policing?

Kelly McGuire: My students and I always talk about how Western thought has encouraged us to see ourselves as bodies with clearly defined boundaries in keeping with the idea of the “sovereign self” and the ethos of individualism that pervades North American culture in particular. Viral narratives disrupt this idea of the “bounded body” by reminding us how we act on one another constantly and imperceptibly. What these narratives do (again, this is a central thesis of Priscilla Wald’s book), is render visible not only our movements through space but also our multiple and varied points of contact with one another.

In a geopolitical sense, these stories also expose the idea of the national border as a mere construct that viruses certainly do not respect and, on the contrary, traverse at will. In that way they reveal as illusory all of these arbitrary lines we draw to mark off territory we occupy as settlers from other areas.

Spec Can: How might the Coronavirus pandemic change the way that fictional pandemics are presented?

Kelly McGuire: That is a really good question! So far we have manifested much of the same behaviour and tendencies we see in a lot of outbreak narratives, but inevitably the role of social media in overcoming isolation and perhaps even facilitating the conditions so vital to the containment of infection will be an important addition to the kinds of stories we tell about epidemics. The language of “flattening” or “planking” the curve and the emphasis on collective responsibility is even more pronounced than that which we find in most stories of this genre, and I suspect this will become entrenched in the popular vocabulary of pandemic writing, as will the language of social or physical distancing. It is fascinating to me how quickly we have embraced these terms and have come to read historical events like the Spanish Flu of 1918/1919 through these practices. The direct experience of having lived through a pandemic and in some cases lost loved ones, or dealt with hardship and privation in varying ways, will shape how these stories are told in the future. Perhaps we’ll tell them through a more intimate lens, and one marked by mourning, (rather than by the ghastly intrigue of following a disease event that has spiralled beyond our control). Most outbreak narratives talk about the “leveling” effects of illness, but, as many people have remarked, this pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequalities within our society and disproportionately affects groups that are already marginalized: people with disabilities, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people, and women. One desirable outcome would be that these experiences will be highlighted more in subsequent narratives that will move significantly beyond some of the tropes and characteristics I’ve discussed above.

 

Spec Can: Many pandemic narratives (especially zombie narratives) tend to present the image of a society that becomes hyper individualistic and libertarian in focus. How might characteristics of the current Coronavirus pandemic shift this image? Or will it shift that image?

Kelly McGuire: I think in many pandemic narratives we actually see both tendencies.  Most of these works represent the individualistic drive to self-preservation that manifests itself in hoarding tendencies or the refusal to sacrifice our comfort or pleasure to safeguard the vulnerable. But these stories also commonly trace the emergence of a kind of ethos of collectivity as contagion in some ways helps foster a sense of community. At the end of these stories, the inevitable triumph (often scientific in contemporary works) over the disease in itself is also imagined as a triumph of the human spirit. I see these same patterns being reproduced as this event unfolds. But my hope is that ultimately a more collectivist mentality and concern with social equality will prevail that will in turn allow us to confront other pressing concerns (like the climate crisis) that remain to be addressed when all this is over.

 

—-

Dr. Kelly McGuire is an associate professor in the department of English Literature and the current chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Trent University. Her research interests include Eighteenth-century literature and cultural history; medical history; plague writing and public health; biothrillers and biopunk; disease and national character; women’s writing; and sermon literature.

 

Loa in Dreamland

Loa in Dreamland
A review of Nalo Hopkinson and Neil Gaiman’s House of Whispers Vol 1: The Power Divided (DC Vertigo, 2019) 

By Derek Newman-Stille

For those of you reading Speculating Canada over the past few years, you have probably noticed that I am a huge fan of Nalo Hopkinson’s work. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and of comics, so I was extremely excited to find out that the two collaborated on the comic series “House of Whispers vol 1: The Power Divided”, set in the Sandman Universe and to see their voices mingle in an exploration of the potential of that imagined universe. 

Hopkinson and Gaiman have always demonstrated a continuing fascination with border crossing and the implications of the collision of the physical and spiritual world and “House of Whispers” happens at that point of contact when the spiritual realm of the Loa (Afro-Caribbean deities) is partially pulled into the world of dreams and the goddess Erzulie finds herself outside of her space of worship and cut off from the world she knows and her ability to help her worshippers.

At the same time, a spiritual virus is released amongst the human population, making the infected feel as though they are dead, yet alive. Medical practitioners can’t see anything wrong with the infected people, but they are left without feeling or joy or connection to the physical world. Their spirits are sent to the world of dreams and they are left empty, wandering meaninglessly across the world. This virus is spread by words, through a phrase, and this instantly reminds me of the Canadian film Pontypool where a zombie virus is coded in language. It makes me wonder if there is a trend occurring where people are both recognizing the power of language and also questioning what language can do. Hopkinson has always demonstrated a fascination with the power of language in her novels and short fiction, linking words to magic, exploring the way that language shapes us, and playing with the sounds and taste of language. 

The description of the living death that Hopkinson describes not only evokes the idea of the zombie, but also evokes depression. Most of our society looks at depression as a form of sadness, but for those of us who experience clinical depression, we often feel a sense of emptiness, a disconnect, and a hollowness that strongly differentiates depression from sadness. The feelings of the characters in House of Whispers evoked this sense of depression. This depiction is as powerful as it is painful to read. I could feel myself resonating with the sense of loss and pain that the characters were experiencing. Hopkinson’s creative energy wound itself throughout this powerful narrative, giving it life.

As always in her work, Hopkinson highlights diverse bodies and identities. The majority of her characters are BIPOC, which is a fantastic change from the normally excess of white characters in comics. Moreover, her narrative focuses on diverse body sizes and Erzulie, for example, is represented as fat, which is an exciting shift that allows for the recognition that fat is beautiful (especially since Erzulie is the Loa of love, desire, and beauty. Hopkinson also features disabled people and LGBTQ2IA relationships including lesbian couples and nonbinary characters. This is a comic that engages the multiplicity of human experience, and it is so much stronger for that reason. Her characters are highly developed, relatable, and carry so many waiting to be told stories in their every sentence. This is a rich comic that is filled with the potential of narratives yet to come. 

Like most comics, House of Whispers: The Power Divided is a collaborative work, both with other writers such as Gaiman and later with Dan Waters, but also with artist Dominike Stanton, whose artistic talent brings Hopkinson’s words to visual life and adds to the power of the story she tells, particularly by emphasizing bodily diversity and evoking the beauty of the human (and magical) form. Set partially in a dream world, this comic is a form of dreaming given physical form.

To read more about House of Whispers Vol !: The Power Divided, go to https://www.dccomics.com/comics/house-of-whispers-2018/house-of-whispers-1

To find out more about Nalo Hopkinson, go to https://nalohopkinson.com/index.html

Fever Dream

Fever Dream

A review of Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu is a fever dream on paper, vivid and fantastical, and full of nightmares, which is perfect for a pandemic narrative. It is a surreal story, but it comments on issues of relevance to the real world. Set in a world where a pandemic has affected men more than women, Lai’s narrative explores the power struggles of a population that fears its own erasure, but is also willing to take others along with them as their population dwindles. The Tiger Flu has been brought into the world because of cloning technology which allows extinct animals to be revitalized, primarily for consumptive purposes. It has spread quickly and decimated large parts of the population, leaving people in desperation for resources, for a sense of belonging, for a belief in something that will allow them to last and make an impact on the world. 

The Tiger Flu is a necessary critique on capitalism’s consumptive force and its rendering of everything into resources to be exploited. Even the religion of the people in Lai’s book is based around capitalism, with the population literally worshipping an industrialist and the two constructed satallites that orbit the planet – Chang and Eng (named after the famous conjoined twins from the Freak Shows of the early 1800s). The two satellites represent opposing corporate forces, but also become spaces for downloading the consciousness of individuals from the population. Despite representing opposing companies, the name of the two satellites suggests a conjoined nature, pointing out that underlying these two opposing forces is still one system – in this case capitalist exploitation. 

Even people become resources to be exploited in this world and a small group of people who have created a community living off of the land are seen as consumable resources to be captured and used by the factories they once escaped from. Lai illustrates the dangerous over-consumptive quality of capitalist systems and that every resource, including people in that capitalist system become grist for the mill. In fact, she literally names this community of people living off the land Grist Sisters.

Fearing destruction, people try to hold onto power by creating factions and borders, arming themselves out of fear of others. Lai illustrates the way that people who are accustomed to power fear its loss and make war with each other as a means of externalizing their fear. Her corporate communities arm themselves, ignoring the needs of citizens (like access to food and safety) in their own private war to hold onto a past power structure that can no longer sustain itself. 

Yet Lai also opens up other questions of production beyond capitalism, exploring notions of alternative reproduction. Lai explores queer potentials in a world whose men are dying faster than women. She queers reproduction by having women in the Grist tribes give birth through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization by sperm). The Grist sisters give birth by “doubling”, creating duplicates of themselves and birthing groups of identical sisters.

As much as it is an apocalyptic viral narrative, The Tiger Flu is also a narrative captured in the middle. It isn’t an outbreak narrative as many apocalyptic virus stories tend to be, and, as much as it is concerned with the future, it is also about characters uncovering their own past, seeking out the stories about how things came to be the way they are and about the character’s’ own histories. It is a book ultimately about complicating narrative and history because while the two primary characters Kirilow and Kora seek their own pasts, they also encounter other narratives about the past, intersecting and often complicating their own. Characters use memory scales that they plug directly into their brains to gain access to knowledge and constantly find snippets of their world’s history, but these histories conflict with the stories that they have formed their lives around. While corporate characters are trying to hold onto a power they fear losing and their own role in history, characters like Kirilow and Kora are dismantling that history for themselves, seeing different truths that reveal the pettiness of the corporate leaders they have worshipped.

To discover more about The Tiger Flu, go to https://arsenalpulp.com/Books/T/The-Tiger-Flu

To find out more about Larissa Lai, visit https://www.larissalai.com