Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Inspiration for Isolation

In my youth I was an idealist. Maybe that’s not that uncommon, but I lived out my idealism as an activist. When the United Farm Workers sought better conditions, I boycotted grapes. When I was in college, I wrote letters to Congress in church-related efforts to feed the hungry. When a friend ran away from an abusive home, I began volunteering at a women’s shelter. In the 80s, when the US and USSR were poised for anhiliation, I organized peace protests against nuclear weapons. Then I went to grad school and found I needed to focus my limited time. I didn’t stop caring, but I read little news, wrote few letters, rarely stood in protest. My values didn’t change, even though I wasn’t acting on them outwardly.

The germs of my novel Isolation came from the fear of a swine flu epidemic in the fall of 2009, changes in behavior that swept through the country, my concerns about the overuse of 99% bacterial killing soaps and sanitizers, and a line that came into my head: “laying a finger aside of his nose.”

The flu that year went pandemic, around the world, but not epidemic; it didn’t wipe out humanity. Though it killed tens of thousands world-wide, that’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the population. The fear, however, was palpable. The Centers for Disease Control in the US and the World Health Organization, among others, mounted campaigns to reduce the spread of the virus by teaching us to sleeve the sneeze and catch the cough. They produced posters about the importance of hand-washing which were bright yellow and still adorn the classroom walls on my campus.

Simultaneously, access to hand sanitizers became ubiquitous in many public places, like grocery stores. Though I’m not a scientist, I worried that we didn’t want to kill all of our bacteria because I knew that we needed it for digestion and to build a healthy immune system. Personally I wondered if we should use all of the 99% bacteria-killing soaps. But I was clearly in the minority.

One day while walking, I heard the line “laying a finger aside his nose” from the “Night Before Christmas” echoing in my head. I imagined a boy who found the children’s story in a box of old things from his mother’s childhood. Seeing Santa touch his nose, the boy recognized the book as contraband, since face-touching was not allowed in his world. He secreted the page under his mattress like the pornography it was until he could show it to a friend. Suddenly I was thinking about a world in which face-touching was prohibited; that reality didn’t seem far off.

Along the way I realized how much our food supply had already been contaminated by sudden and frequent outbreaks of E. Coli and other dangerous bacteria. I worried about the dangers of GMOs, though I knew little of the science. Given that I’d never lost sight of the farm workers I’d supported in my youth and given that I’d been a vegetarian more than once over the years due to concerns about Alar in apples, the way chicken is processed, or the dangers of raw spinach, it wasn’t a difficult leap to make Agri-Biz into the evil backdrop to the dystopia I imagined.

These ideas stayed with me for a couple of years. I read news about the various threads and occasionally wrote short vignettes that I shared with my writing group, but I didn’t imagine I was preparing for a novel until I had the opportunity for a sabbatical.

And even then, I was intent on not saying a novel was my goal. It was too frightening. As a writing center director I created a project which required me to write more than 100 pages of fiction. The intent was to recreate for myself the conditions college students face when they have to write a longer paper than they experience writing in a genre or discipline they have little experience in.

At that point, the stage was set for me to write Isolation. Though at the time, I kept emphasizing that I wasn’t writing a novel, just a long piece of fiction. Secretly I hoped for a novel, but I denied it to everyone outwardly. I didn’t want to fail.

Oh, and the activism of my youth, oddly, writing this dystopian novel has led me back to it—a bit. Promoting my book through social media has led me to follow several bacteria-related entities as well as anti-GMO and food safety advocates. They’re a good source of news as well as marketing opportunities—how life changes.

Originally posted as part of Isolation's Blog Tour on Always a Book Lover.