"A Sustained Think... on Trauma" March 2021 Writer in Residence Anne Stone on Writing a Pandemic Novel Before COVID
Sometimes an author's imagination dovetails so perfectly, and unexpectedly, with the outside world that the prescience seems almost chilling. Such is the case with Girl Minus X (Wolsak & Wynn) by Anne Stone, a brilliant and absorbing story of a world consumed by a mysterious virus.
Stone's fictional pandemic is one that slowly erodes memory, stealing experience, love, and identity from its victims. As 15-year old Dany grapples with this worldwide disaster, a crisis much closer to home is brewing while child services hovers, threatening to separate Dany and her beloved five-year old sister. Dany is a champion you'll be rooting for on every page, as she makes the difficult choice to try fleeing the city with her sister and history teacher. A story of survival, memory, and impossible choices, it's both a timely and timeless read.
We're incredibly excited to have Anne on board as our March 2021 writer-in-residence at Open Book. We're chatting with her today about Girl Minus X as part of our Long Story series for novelists.
She tells us how a chance moment in an elevator became the initial spark for this novel's life, how Dany emerged from amongst an original cast of adult characters to demand her place as protagonist, and, perhaps most importantly, what she learned from writing this book.
Stay tuned to Open Book throughout March on our writer-in-residence page to hear more from Anne!
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
I stepped into an elevator and saw, inside, someone I’d shared an elevator with once or twice before. Today, his arms had been drawn long by two heavy plastic bags he carried. I could tell just how heavy those bags were because his hands trembled—not much, just a little. Though I’d given him the tiniest nod when I stepped in, he made no response, which was unusual. Where I stood, turned towards the door, I could just see his face. His eyes were inwardly-focussed, and his face was entirely still. He was profoundly absent from this place and from his body—perhaps so tired he’d fallen asleep on his feet? He showed zero awareness of anything, not a twitch when the elevator gears ground into motion, not a flicker of his eyes to the door when it crawled to a close, locking us into the space. He didn’t seem distressed at all—his expression didn’t seem unhappy at all, but he had wholly withdrawn from the world of people and things and he was as still as I’d ever seen a person be. The elevator made its slow descent, and over those long seconds, I became more and more uneasy: this absence-inside-a-human-body was that uncanny. No one was there, and yet he was there. When I stepped out of the elevator, I’d set aside the other projects I’d been noodling with, and the novel was begun.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
When the novel’s beginning appeared to me—I could see as well the smallest glimpse of its end. It was like looking through a tunnel so long that, by its end, I might as well have been looking out of a straw. I could sense that the characters had made it out of the city, and I could just perceive the faint, bioluminescent glow of the sea. That greenish glow survived every draft, though its meaning, who saw it, and what exactly that meant, changed, and changed often. I myself have never seen bioluminescence. Post-covid, if I could relaunch the book, it would be in a dark boat, in silence, moving towards that glow.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
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Early on, the novel was centred on the adult characters—who later became secondary to the story. Some of these were researchers at a university facility, so I did an intense amount of research—modelling the early version of the virus on a zoonotic disease that’d made the leap from horses, and tracking its effects on fictional laboratory monkeys, Wistar rats, and humans. I wrote a series of abstracts and CDC dispatches, which followed the changing state of knowledge over several years. At a certain point, though, I realized that the key part of the disease, the element that wasn’t “noise” so to speak, was forgetting. Once I had a better sense of what the novel was doing on a psychological and sociological level—and realized just how much of the meaning in the book was organized through Dany’s relationship to memory and to survival—the disease felt secondary, and so I let much of that learning go. Research, for me, is a pure pleasure—because it requires such a mental stretch—so I don’t really mind approaching it like a sand garden.
Did you celebrate finishing your final draft or any other milestones during the writing process? If so, how?
I’m not great at celebrating milestones, but a kind friend has been on me to change that. So, when this book was offered such a good home by Paul Vermeersch (who does the Buckrider Books imprint for the lovely people at Wolsak and Wynn)—I went out dancing with my writing friends! A small cafe had been taken over for a night by a DJ and some artists and prison justice activists I knew, and so we went and danced until our clothes were soaked with sweat!
Did you include an epigraph in your book? If so, how did you choose it and how does it relate to the narrative?
I didn’t include an epigraph in the published book, though a few different ones appear in the many (many) drafts. Here is one that I think still stands:
Unanswerable questions a child asks
When a parent dies—for nothing. Only slowly
Did I make myself believe—or hope—they
Might all be swept up in their fragments
And made whole again
By some compassionate hand
But my hand was too small
To do the gathering.
— Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative by Herbert Mason
What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
I think the most important thing I was given by this novel was the chance to do a sustained think on some of the more indirect and inter-relational effects of trauma.
Anne Stone is the author of three novels, Delible (2007), Hush (1999) and jacks: a gothic gospel (1998). She is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. She spent her childhood in Toronto, lived in Montreal, and now makes her home in Vancouver, where she teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Capilano University.