Illness in Fiction

Fiction and Life

As I have stated in previous blogs, my topics arise from issues I am facing in my own fiction writing. This month an issue I am attempting to write about has collided with one we are all facing in our daily lives. Consequently, I decided to write this blog about illness in fiction. The disease I am dealing with in my second novel is a rare one, Rocky Mountain spotted tick fever, although a child died of it in Colorado in 2012. Writing about disease brings up typical issues: how to create drama or tension without being maudlin, whether or not to make the illness the main theme, and whether to use a religious or philosophical approach. I decided to write about three novels that I have read and remember.

The Novel Little Women

Most readers can probably identify a book they read as a child that featured a poignant death. Beth dying of scarlet fever in Little Women is definitely the dramatic scene that still haunts my memory. As a friend told me today, it is a scene that always makes her (and me) cry. Louisa May Alcott created a loving family that suffered at the loss of dear sweet Beth. When my own daughter had scarlet fever over the Christmas holiday (at the age of four) her illness brought back my memories of Beth’s death. She awoke screaming one Saturday morning with every pore of her body covered in red bumps (she was already on antibiotics for strep throat). I was stunned at the diagnosis of scarlet fever. At the time I had never heard of anyone suffering from scarlet fever. I thought it had been eradicated. For 40 days I was terrified that my little one, lying as limp as a rag doll on her bed, would die as Marmie’s daughter had.  My daughter survived, although as an adult she told me that her heart now beats to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema. Reading literature educates us, comforts us, and sometimes gives us enough knowledge to be scared to death.

The Novel La Peste

From my college days as a French student, I remember Albert Camus’ La Peste, written in 1941 during World War II. The book starts out with a description of the city and its inhabitants written in the present tense. Then it shifts to the past tense as the narrator recounts what happened beginning on April 16, of an unidentified year in the 1940s. A bloody rat dies on the steps of Dr. Rieux’s house. Within weeks, bloody dead rats are being seen all over the city. As a college student, I was horrified, but I was also surprised that no one, even the doctor, considered that the rats were sick. By the end of April his first patient, the concierge, is struck down. He reports to the doctor that he has pain in his neck, his underarms, and his groin. When the doctor examines him, he discovers the patient’s swollen glands, the swelling in his groin, his extreme vomiting, and high fever. Then, the doctor begins to hear that others have fallen ill.

The fact that Camus uses the date April 16 to announce the narrator’s first view of a dead rat and April 28 as the day the citizens pick up more than 8000 in the city, emphasizes the period of time it took anyone, including the doctor to take the threat seriously. By the end of the book most of the secondary characters die either from the plague or from something else. The doctor miraculously survives. Camus said that he used the plague to parallel the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France. The Nazis invaded France on May 10, 1910. I find Camus’ association of the horrors of the plague with those of the Nazi regime particularly relevant today in the United States. Humanism and caring for each other seem to be the only answer in the face of biological and political threats.

The Novel The Magic Mountain

When I was studying German in college, Thomas Mann was, of course, on the syllabus. To write this blog, I picked The Magic Mountain up again to see how Mann had handled the subject of tuberculosis. In the novel, Hans Castorp, who has just finished his education and is set to begin an apprenticeship as an engineer, goes to spend three weeks at a sanatorium in the Alps visiting his cousin who has tuberculosis. The detail with which Mann describes the effects of the disease is striking. For example, when Hans first arrives, he hears a patient “coughing like no other…a dreadful welling-up of organic dissolution.” Hans is also traumatized by the strange whistle that a young woman’s lung makes because it has been punctured as a form of medical treatment. Mann depicts other therapies, such as the patients being required to sit out in the cold alpine evening for several hours each day, wrapped up to their neck in warm rugs. When I reread the book, Mann’s juxtaposition of the atmosphere of the sanatorium, which was where the ill came to be treated, survive, or die, with that of a vacation resort where people go to relax and have fun seemed particularly paradoxical.

Writing about Illness

In my novel, a child becomes ill with Rocky Mountain spotted tick fever. The scene needs to be dramatic, but not as horrific as Camus’ portrayal of the plague. In my novel, the sick child does not die, but I still need to write a scene that has a powerful impact on the reader. Her survival is related to one of the subthemes of the book. I am toying with the idea of a conflict between religion and humanism, but I don’t know if I can pull it off.

Sheltering in place during our current pandemic, with my daughter also sheltering in place more than 10,000 miles away with her husband and children, I am certainly experiencing emotions that I hope to be able to render in my own writing.

Writing Goals for 2020

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

During the month of March, I simply did not find the time or energy to focus on the written text of my first two novels, although I have been playing with scenes and adaptations in my mind.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

In March, I participated in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ NovelRama. Each participant attempts to write a total of 25,000 words in four days. We support each other online via our FaceBook page. Before NovelRama began, I reworked the outline, renamed some characters, and defined them more clearly. The first day I was able to write 6633 words. The second day my husband hurt his back. Because it was very upsetting, I was able to write only 4400 words. The third day, I managed to write 5354, and the fourth day, I wrote 5190 for a grand total of 21566. Despite failing to reach my 25,000-word goal, I was pleased to be able to draft one-quarter of this story.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is April 7, 2020, I am posting my fourth blog of 2020. The topics that I address in my blog are issues that I am dealing with in my own fiction writing. I find that rereading novels I have read in the past allows me to better comprehend the authors’ varied approaches.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

Technology is a blessing at times like this.

In March, in response to COVID-19, our BWA Steering Committee decided to move our workshops online. Our first online workshop was led by Caitlin Borve. Caitlin talked about creating email lists to develop a group of readers who are interested in what an author is writing.

Gary Allen McBride also held our writers’ reading workshop online. We analyzed Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The novel is super contemporary, dealing with dating apps and divorce. The author fittingly describes her use of point of view in the novel as a “Trojan horse.”

A writer friend of mine and I also met via videoconferencing to discuss our writing. It helps to have another writer’s caring support, especially right now.


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