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.