Yvonne Ventresca on Pandemics Real and Imagined

Here we are, in the grip of a pandemic. The illness (and the measures we take to cope) are affecting millions of people, laying low heads of state, intensifying inequality, stranding some, internally displacing others, and keeping 1.5 billion of the world’s children out of school. But VCFA MFA-CYA student Yvonne Ventresca wrote a novel titled Pandemic at a time when none of this was on the horizon. I asked Yvonne what led her to write this novel.

[Yvonne] One source of inspiration for Pandemic was my own concern after Swine Flu (H1N1) in 2009-2010. At one point during that pandemic, the vaccine became available for children in my suburban town. Public health officers organized its free distribution at the local middle school after class ended for the day. The line extended for blocks. While I waited with a mom who had a son the same age as mine, the boys ran off to play nearby while we chatted. At first, it was a relatively pleasant afternoon.

But the mood became ugly when they announced that there weren’t enough vaccinations for all the children waiting. Kids with health conditions that could make the flu more dangerous were to be vaccinated first. The families at the end of the line were told to go home until the next (unscheduled) distribution. I had arrived early, and we were within the cutoff as angry parents verbally accosted the public health officials who tried to keep order. Bear in mind that the swine flu was nothing like COVID-19. Waiting to get the vaccine was more of an inconvenience than a danger.

The high emotion that surfaced that afternoon stayed with me. Later, I found myself imagining how things could have gone horribly wrong if the outbreak had been more deadly. I interviewed the head of my local public health department about lessons they learned, and the more I researched emerging infectious diseases, the more the idea stuck with me for a story about teenagers working together to survive.

[Uma] What was your first thought when COVID-19 began to overtake the news?

[Yvonne] There was a progression of emotion for me as the news worsened. I remember thinking at first that we would have to shelter-in-place for two weeks. I bought enough supplies for at least fourteen days and refilled our family’s prescriptions, just in case. The stores weren’t crowded then—there was plenty of Lysol, but I did not predict the upcoming toilet paper shortage. I was nervous, but I naively felt ready.

As the situation became more dire, I felt a strange sense of surrealness. Years ago, when researching Pandemic, I had found the New Jersey emergency preparedness plans online, and they helped fuel my imagination for the story. I wrote about tents used as pop-up hospital facilities when capacity was exceeded, I invented newscaster dialogue about shortage of medical supplies and how limited provisions might be distributed (in my fictional world it was Tamiflu, not PPE), and I included refrigerated trucks as temporary morgues. There is still a bizarre feeling for me that this is fiction and cannot be happening. But in some ways, writing the novel helped me emotionally prepare for the horrors that have emerged.

[Uma] In your novel, Lily’s friend Jay says, “Portico will be a different place for a while.” In the real world, every place now is a different place and we don’t know how long “a while” could be. Do you think there’s something about fiction that can teach us about life? About ourselves? That can maybe lead us to become our better selves, during “a while” and after it’s past? 

Fiction, for a writer or a reader, gives us a way to process our worries through a controlled, imaginary world. We can analyze a character’s response in troubled times (Is it courageous? selfish? terrified?) and think about how we might react. We can judge a character’s actions and compare them to what we expect of ourselves. Would we do better? Can we actually do better now? Fiction allows us to hold our fears and our values up to the light and examine them in a safe space.

Fiction, perhaps, can also tell larger truths through an imagined world, especially one that is drawn from extrapolations of our own. The fictional pandemic in this novel, like the real one today, becomes a test of the characters’ humanity. Its dilemmas are not so different from ours, as we navigate the surreal real and experience its swirling news cycles, composed as they are of difficult truths and dangerous lies. Thanks, Yvonne! Be well, stay safe. Keep writing.