For Day 17 of the Open Mic Creativity and COVID-19 Special Project I check in with historical fiction maven Nancy Bilyeau. She lives in NYC, which is experiencing some of the worst impact from the coronavirus. We talked about that and whether her experience writing about some of the darker spots in history has helped her deal with this situation.
OM: You are in Queens, which is right near one of the worst outbreak sites in the country. How is this all impacting you?
Bilyeau: I live in the part of the city with the highest concentration of cases so I am being very careful about going outside. But I do need to get food and supplies, and the tactics that work for friends and family with large homes and cars are not available to me. Delivery services are backed up at least a week. So I put on my mask and I get the job done on foot, practicing social distancing. I usually have to wait outside the grocery stores for a while before getting in and sometimes when I get inside, they don’t have toilet paper, pasta, meat, or cleaning supplies. It can feel like St. Petersburg in 1917.
OM: Have you been able to maintain your writing schedule? If so, are you doing anything special to help spark your creativity?
Bilyeau: With two children now home, four people to feed, and things like needing to spend 90 minutes this Monday just finding a store selling toilet paper, my schedule is crazy. But I’ve never been a novelist who devoted lots of time to fiction every day. I have a day job at a nonprofit news center. And I don’t have a study or office at home; I write at the kitchen table or on the couch or sitting up in bed. I am able to put out a novel or novella every two years. I don’t have creativity challenges, now or ever. I have time challenges. But I’m researching my next novel and outlining.
OM: You do historical fiction. We have seen countless pandemics and plagues throughout human history. Is there anything from your knowledge of history that is helping you get through all this?
Bilyeau: The bubonic plague and the flu of 1918 and other pandemics and disease horrors aren’t relevant to today because we are such a different society. The Internet changes everything. I do find psychological perspective in how people in Europe survived World War Two. I think of people who lived in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia from 1939-1945 and I think what we’re dealing with is nothing compared to that. Also I think of how New York City rose to the challenge of 9/11. We banded together then. I feel a lot of solidarity with others who are in the city now. The wealthy ones who fled to the Hamptons, not so much.
OM: Are there any positives you’ve been able to take out of this so far?
Bilyeau: Nothing “positive,” so to speak, but I have decided to support historical fiction authors and independent bookstores by starting a page on bookshop.org and curating lists of historical fiction. I wear my editor and reviewer hat when doing this. Here is an example: “Dazzling Victoria-Era Suspense.” That list has 12 recommended books. If someone orders a book from my lists, a little bit of money goes to the independent bookstores. So far I can see hundreds of people are reading the lists, which is gratifying. My “histfic” page can be found here.
OM: Finally, do you have any new projects coming out or that you are working on we can tell folks about?
Bilyeau: My promotion of my latest novel ‘Dreamland’ was cut short. It came out in late January and I had to cancel six museum, festival, or bookstore appearances in March and April. So I’d be grateful if my historical mystery could gain awareness. Any attention is so welcome. Yesterday Bookbub posted this story and included Dreamland: “Need an Escape? 11 Novels to Read When you need a Book-Cation.” I jumped up and down!