Stop me before I panic again

I sat down today to write a blog about what’s more important to readers, plot vs. character.  But I’m completely unable to focus on my planned topic because news bulletins about that erupting Icelandic volcano (I won’t even try to spell its name) keep distracting me. In fact, all weekend, I’ve been unable to read, write, or do much of anything because I’ve now got a volcano fixation.  Especially after a brief scare earlier today, coming from MSNBC, that a plume had appeared above a second Icelandic volcano, an even bigger one named Hekla. (Update: now MSNBC says that report of a second volcano was incorrect. Thanks a lot, MSNBC, for scaring the crap out of me.)  

I know a number of folks in the books biz who are personally affected by that spreading cloud of ash. Publishers couldn’t fly to the London Book Fair.  My UK editor is stuck in Italy. And I just got a Facebook message from fellow thriller writer Linwood Barclay, who’s stranded in Paris and won’t be able to join me at dinner this week.  That volcano is disrupting peoples’ lives, professions, and pocketbooks.  

But my obsession with the volcano isn’t about mere disruptions; it’s about what else could happen.  I can’t write because I’m paralyzed by visions of disaster.  Airplanes grounded for months, even years.  Nuclear winter, mass starvation, food riots, revolutions. I’m thinking of what happened in Europe during the disastrous Little Ice Age.  I’m looking out my window at the bay and wondering if we could live on seaweed once the food runs out.  Or would we be better off in the woods, hunting for game? What happens when all the deer starve to death? What happens when ravenous city folk from Boston and New York come up to steal what little we’ve got left?

Maybe it’s time to get a gun.

I’ve always been way too good at that game of “What’s the worst that can happen?” Give me a disaster, and I can do you one better.  That’s the downside of being a thriller writer; our imaginations take us straight to the dark and scary places.  But when those scary places are extensions of what’s actually going on around us, well, sometimes we wander into loony land.

I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve been there.

About a week after 9/11,  after you’d think the initial shock would have worn off, I woke up one morning in an inexplicable panic.  The world was ending, and I had to protect my family from starvation. I drove straight to my local supermarket and began buying boxes and boxes of Kraft packaged macaroni and cheese, something I’d never eat under normal circumstances.  But there I was, loading boxes of it into my shopping cart, along with jars of peanut butter and cans of tuna and cling peaches.  When I got home, my teenaged son looked at that bag of weird groceries and said, “Um, mom?  Are we actually eating macaroni and cheese for dinner?”

No, we did not eat it.  We never ate it. Those boxes sat in the closet for about a year, an embarrassing memento of the day mom let her imagination get the better of her.  Finally, I donated them to a food pantry.

Then there was bird flu.  Oh god, there was bird flu.  I had made the mistake of reading The Great Influenza by John Barry, a fascinating and alarming look at what happened during the 1918 pandemic. Just about the time I read it, outbreaks of bird flu were going on in Asia. I began clicking on the CDC website several times a day. I had frightening conversations with pandemic officials about how all social order would disintegrate.  No food delivery, empty supermarkets, failing electrical plants and water supplies, dead bodies stacked up on sidewalks.  I studied the worldwide migratory patterns of birds.  I worried about getting our sons home to Maine where I could look after them. 

And here’s another stunningly embarrassing confession I have to make: I bought supplies of Tamiflu.  Yep, I shelled out hundreds of dollars to make sure that my darling sons would have it available when the pandemic took hold and every drugstore in America was emptied of its Tamiflu supplies.  They probably still have their Tamiflu stuck somewhere in the back of their medicine cabinets, where it will be ready for when the end of the world happens.  Assuming the drug hasn’t already expired.

Then there’s the swine flu scare.  And the tsunami that will wipe out Maine when that volcano in the Canary Islands blows up.  And the Yellowstone volcano that will wipe out north America.  Oh, and don’t forget there’s an asteroid that’s headed straight toward us, though we don’t know about it yet.

A vivid imagination can be a crippling thing.  It can make you lie awake at night, obsessing over all the terrible things that can happen to the future of mankind.  Or even worse, to your kids.  But that same imagination is what fuels the stories we tell.  Without it, “the worst that can happen” would be a lot less alarming.  It would amount to a few thousand canceled flights, instead of worldwide Armageddon.  And how boring a book would that be?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go check on my Tamiflu supply. 




29 thoughts on “Stop me before I panic again

  1. Shizuka

    Tess, don’t ever watch The Road.
    It was amazing, but I couldn’t sleep or eat meat for a few days afterwards.
    And I’m not as easily alarmed as you.

  2. tess gerritsen

    Shizuka, when I was a kid, my parents took me to see "On the Beach" with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. For years afterward, I was certain that a nuclear war was going to kill us all. So I think I’ll take your advice and avoid The Road.

  3. Barbie

    Well, I *wasn’t* worried about the volcano in Iceland… :/

    This made me laugh. Sounds like the sort of thing I think about and drive everyone nuts with.

    Keep your imagination, Tess. We need your books. 🙂

  4. Peter Salomon


    I remember reading The Hot Zone about Ebola when I was living near the CDC in Atlanta…wouldn’t even drive down Clifton St. where they were located and had to go out of my way to get to work.

    A vivid imagination is both a curse and a blessing!

  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    When we were dating, my husband took me to the Lewis & Clark caverns. This is where I learned I do not like and never will again go spelunking. Not panic, but imagination yes.
    So, Tess, what is the real fear under all this? Is it the fear of dying other than in your sleep? Your imagination, however, has led you to a great career. 🙂

  6. Jake Nantz

    I love to scare my students into understanding exactly how screwed up the government in Orwell’s <u>1984</u> was, and that they likely were bombing their own people, by illustrating that the four ministries, the first logical military targets in that country, were never touched while they were at "war." I do so by pointing out how close we live to a logical secondary military target here in NC, with RTP just up the road. It shocks and terrifies many of them to realize that, were the US to get into a nuclear war, we are too far from RTP to be vaporized in the initial blast, but just close enough that the radiation would hit us soon thereafter and we’d die miserable from Rad. Poisoning.

    Good times, huh?

  7. Mason

    I can only imagine what you’re going to be like in December of 2012 when the world really does come to an end. Best of luck.

  8. Eika

    I’m an alarmist in a family of people who tihnk everyone else exagerates, so I don’t get too far before cooler heads prevail.

    Still, if the end DOES come, provided I’m not infected I know where to go and when to get on the truck to my friend’s fortified farm, with plenty of hunting in the area, longbows (taht I half know how to use) for when we run out of bullets, solar power, and a stream nearby.

  9. Cornelia Read

    I keep thinking about the Laura Ingalls Wilder book describing her husband Almanzo’s childhood in Upstate New York. There’s a scene where his entire family has to run around all night pouring ladlefuls of water over every young corn plant in their fields in mid-July, because there’s a frost that night and any plant not moistened will be instantly killed by the rays of the rising sun.

    That was the summer after Krakatoa, of course.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I was right there with you on the Bird Flu scare. In fact, I let it control my life for about nine months. I became completely fixated on it, and I, too, followed the bird flight patterns and stocked up on food and supplies. I became an "expert" on it and I told all my friends every detail I’d learned. I was kind of scary to be around. Then, one day as I was going through the litany of CDC findings with a friend, he asked me if anything shocking had happened to me in the past few months.
    "Not really," I said. "Except for that traffic accident I witnessed a number of months ago, where a stolen tow truck plowed through a crowd of people at a bus stop, killing three people." I actually saw the bodies on the ground and I was seconds away from being plowed over myself.
    "That’s it," he said. "You should talk to someone about that."
    I went to my doctor and he diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I realized that my obsession over the Bird Flu was directly related to that. It still took another few months for me to gradually come off of that. When Swine Flu came around I got another bump of anxiety, but it wasn’t nearly as bad.

  11. Louise Ure

    Man, Tess, you totally outdo me in the "what’s the worst that could happen" category. But then again, I have a soft spot in my heart for packaged macaroni and cheese.

  12. Allison Davis

    Food for thought. My reaction to 9/11 was to buy a house in New Orleans. A man made insanity that made me cling to life and take those steps that seemed crazy at the time because life is short.

    I react to natural disasters (like hurricanes) by getting festive not restive. I live in two disaster prone towns, New Orleans and San Francisco and while I have good supplies (a flashlight with fresh batteries, a crank radio and water) in case something happens, I don’t have the anxiety about it that you describe Tess. Not that I can’t imagine what would happen — but my reaction is more mad max maybe, bring it on.

    Just returned from Japan — my first trip there and it was really wonderful. I was south in Tottori most of the time with clients, where we would work hard for 8-9 hours, then spend four hours at dinner (an exhausing routine if it lasts all week)…and the Hiroshima and Nagasake experiences came to mind and I couldn’t imagine that a nuclear bomb was really dropped in the 1940’s in that country…that scared me thinking about it. Maybe it’s the man made disasters that scare me more, there’s no stocking the larder to escape them. That was hard to think about it. Different and more sinister than earthquakes and hurricanes.

  13. pari noskin taichert

    My first response to these kinds of threats/disasters is to panic. This is especially true of diseases; I might get a shot — if I think it makes sense — but slowly calm down. Frankly, I just get tired of living in that state of heightened worry.

    I do know that some things have affected the way I make decisions though. I’m even less likely to visit the Middle East for now — or even the Mexican border, given the incredible and random violence in Juarez where I’d cross — but those are small things.

    I have a very different reaction to natural disasters though. They fascinate me. I can’t get enough pictures of that volcano. It astounds me.

    And I love the reminder for humanity that we’re not the final say — the planet is bigger and stronger than we are.

    For some reason that gives me incredible hope.

  14. Chris Hamilton

    You can all relax. The end of the world will come in late October…not sure what year. I can tell you exactly what will be happening just before. A hitter from an American League team will hit a lazy fly ball to the outfield and an outfielder will settle under it, and just as the ball is about a foot from settling snugly in his glove to become the last out of the World Series, the world will end.

    The outfielder will play for the Cubs.

  15. Erin R.

    Hi Tess,
    I’m married to an emergency physician who founded The Center for Disaster Medicine here at UNM and created the first DMAT for NDMS. You can see where I’m going with this…
    We have tamiflu in our medicine cupboard…and epi-pens…and suture and cric kits…
    While University of NM Hospital was preparing for Y2K with generator systems in case the power failed, we had our own generator here at home…and massive water storage containers…and months worth of canned and dehydrated food (which I promptly went and donated to a food bank in Feb of 2000 while my husband wasn’t looking). Yes, we have a family disaster plan, code words…you name it. He’d microchip our kids if he could! Today on the local news we heard Sandia Labs is testing some bombs over at Kirtland Air Force Base. I’m pretty sure construction on an underground shelter in the back yard will begin any day. 😉
    Ultimately, we make a good match: I’m a "fly by the seat of my pants" kinda girl, and we end up balancing each other.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    The worst that could happen here is that we lose an entire American city while FEMA couldn’t find their ass if they had a rearview mirror attached, and the old and the infirm and families with infants were left to sit for days without incoming help, food or water.

    Oh. Wait.

    Never mind.

  17. Allison Brennan

    After going through many pretty big earthquakes here in California, I don’t stress over disasters. I do own guns, we have water, and we have food. I tend to stockpile at Costco because after going through the Northridge quake, having food that didn’t need to be cooked (no gas or electricity) and having plenty of water was important. So in the event of most major disasters, we’d be okay for a couple weeks. But I don’t get paranoid over it.

    What I do worry about, though, is not the disaster, but how do I get to my kids at school if disaster strikes. Or, if disaster strikes and I’m on a trip.

    Now my husband can come up with every scenario about how our kids can be killed or kidnapped after working for years on public safety legislation. So we tend to be more focused on individual human threats versus global disasters.

    BTW, one of my favorite disaster books was LUCIFER’S HAMMER by Larry Niven. About an astroid hitting the earth. GREAT story.

  18. Tom

    Tess, what you imagine becomes your reality, if I’m reading you correctly. You can’t stop seeing it, not easily, not even in the face of contrary facts, but in time it passes.

    I don’t think this is ‘loony land.’ At some point it is adaptive and useful, and then the facts change. But it’s hard to get the adrenals to stop pumping on command. First comes belief.

    My grandson and grandnephew have this as well. For them it is the source of profound ongoing dysfunction. Yes, they are both Aspie, one more and one less. No laughing matter, and I’m sorry this has been difficult for you.

  19. tess gerritsen

    So glad to hear I’m not the only one who’s stockpiled Tamiflu! (Something that I find vaguely embarrassing. But you never know — someday, people may consider me brilliant for being so prepared.)

    Allison, like you, mu worst fears aren’t about the disasters themselves, but about my children. Losing touch with them and being unable to protect them. In my most anxious moments, it all comes down to whether I can save them from the worst.

    It’s why I think that parents are probably the worst practitioners of "what’s the worst that can happen."

  20. Erin R.

    I think it was Michael Connelly who said that having a child is like having a loaded gun at your head all the time. Grim but true as it relates to constant parental anxiety.

  21. Allison Davis

    Chris Hamilton, thank you for the best laught out loud today. (And Toni, the most chagrined comment…as we are all glued to Treme).

  22. Lil Gluckstern

    I"m a little late to the party, but oh the blessings and the curse of having a great imagination. And, Chris, the last time the San Francisco Giants were in a World Series, there was a pretty big earthquake–and then they lost. Although I live out here on the Coast, I’m rooting for the Cubbies, just because…

  23. Cynthia

    My husband and I were flying to Ireland to celebrate our 36th anniversary when we were stranded in Amsterdam by the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Approximately 3,000 souls slept on the floor or airport chairs, waited in lines for hours, and suffered KLM airline representative’s inability to deal effectively with crowds. The Dutch army arrived to stalk the concourses armed with automatic weapons. European Union passport holders were separated from others. These others were held (at least one night) under armed guard and not permitted to leave the designated area — after they’d been lured there by offers of free blankets and a meal.

    We finally decided to abandon our baggage (KLM wouldn’t release it) and flee the airport. Our daughter, in graduate school in England, booked us a hotel online. Once we were in the city, we were overwhelmed by random acts of kindness by the Dutch to two hopelessly lost Americans.

    Two days in the airport, two days in Amsterdam waiting for a train, one day in Brussels waiting for the Eurostar, five days in England waiting for an available flight home. At least we got to visit our daughter.

    My husband and I are both EMTs with a fire department in Montana. We didn’t react quickly enough at the Schiphol Airport because we spend so much of our time helping people, we expected to be helped. It was a real time disaster drill and here’s what I learned. Don’t trust your well-being to the authorities, they may not have your best interest in mind. Evaluate the situation as quickly and reasonably as you can, then don’t hesitate to act. Anything you feel is essential to your well-being, comfort, peace of mind, carry with you. Make that list a short one. (Thank-you Homeland Security.) I know I would have felt better if I’d had my cardigan sweater.

    Home now, jet-lagged and shell-shocked. Never even got a glimpse of Ireland. What stands out to me is how quickly things can collapse, yet how kindly we will still reach out to each other.


    GREAT NATURE has much in store for mankind and the recent earthquake/volcanic activities have a relationship to each other that few realize except when they experience such, and these affect the atmosphere as well and not just from ash,etc. pouring out of volcanos but the vibrations of sonic waves,etc. I might add that the constant flight of planes in the atmosphere plus the discharges of shells, cannons, explosives, bombs,and things entering ‘space’ all affect the atmosphere in some way and only a few persons know much about this or the specific details(I am not one of them). More can be said about all these things that are called ‘Natural Phenomena’ or ‘disasters’ and which often raises the questions when people suffer as a result of such like,"Why don’t they move somewhere else?" etc. On another scale, we can compare such to the tramping about of humans on the earth disrupting the ants, and other ;insects and plant life…..The rampages of the ‘gods’ are many and humans are said by some wiser than most, to be ‘food ofr the gods’ since GREAT NATURE requires a special transformation and release of energies………on earth and in the universe. ….


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