Paul Tremblay’s latest novel, Survivor Song, is set in New England, which has been locked down due to the spread of a rabies-like virus. The hospitals cannot cope with the infected, as the pathogen’s ferociously quick incubation period overwhelms the state and staying inside is the only way to keep safe.
However, paediatrician Ramola Sherman can’t stay safe, when her friend Natalie calls – her husband is dead, she’s eight months pregnant, and she’s been bitten. She is thrust into a desperate race to bring Natalie and her unborn child to a hospital, to try and save both their lives…
We speak to Paul Tremblay about Survivor Song, as well as his process on characterisation, what he’s doing right now in quarantine during the Covid-19 epidemic and whether he can actually tell the future…
So… a novel about a devastating pandemic due to a virus… can you tell the future?
I’ve been sort of half-joking that I’m going to write kids books that aren’t horror after this one! I guess the short answer is no but unfortunately so many people have been ringing the warning bell that we were due for a pandemic and it wasn’t a matter of if but when.
I felt like some of it wasn’t hard to predict – particularly in my country [the US, where] the president and the current administration would do such an awful job. I actually underestimated how awful their response would be if anything! And even having stuff referencing the conspiracy theories from the right-wing [in the novel]. If anything, I probably gave them too mild of a conspiracy theory.
As far as the virus stuff itself – I essentially spoke to my sister who’s a nurse in a big city hospital in Boston and, unknowingly, she and her co-workers sort had a little bit of a [Covid-19] preview in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak. They thought their hospital was going to be the one to take Ebola patients if it were to really break out in Massachusetts and the first responses from the hospital didn’t fill my sister with confidence, shall we say. That was the first time I’d ever heard about PPE and stuff like that. Happily, after the initial panic response, the hospital set out a much better, thoughtful plan and they never had to deal with Ebola. And now here we are. It’s weird and awful. But my hope is that readers get a little bit of a sense of hope from the book too
Where did you first get the idea for Survivor Song?
I was actually in England for the first time in July 2018 – the first time I’d ever been off the North American continent. Survivor Song was my last book in [my book] deal and I didn’t have an idea… I have essentially a year to turn in a new book and I’m like: “Oh my god what do I do?” I was sitting on a train in between cities – I keep little notebooks [on me] and I thought about my previous books and the tropes that they played with so I almost reluctantly wrote down ‘zombie’. Then I had a ‘what if?’ that I can’t say because it’ll spoil the book. But yeah that ‘what if’ made me instantly think of rabies – how could I try to do a zombie-ish thing realistically and I happened to read a book about rabies two years prior. Once I had the ‘what if’ I was like ‘okay, I’ll do that book’.
I wanted to honour the book’s beginning by having a character from Britain and later in the book there are some British references.
[Haha] So people don’t just read books about rabies for fun?! It’s funny, four years ago we rescued a little dog and on my dog walks, I try to get more book readings in so I’ll listen to audiobooks. I found I had a hard time listening to fiction because you lose the thread and found non-fiction easier to listen to. I was looking for horror topics and this book on rabies looked really interesting.
I really didn’t know a tonne about rabies other than, you know, the foaming at the mouth etcetera. I had no idea that the virus was so strange and acted so differently – there was no blood test, it attached to a nerve… The book is very well written it seemed to me like ‘wow, rabies has been around for centuries. Here’s this virus that probably helped start most of the monster myths that we have.’ You can see shades of the vampire, the zombie obviously, the werewolf especially too.
When you first started writing the book, did you have an end in mind?
Typically I start with a beginning and an end, sometimes the end can be kind of vague and shadowy. But in this one I knew the beginning and the end so it was all about the middle. Which always tends to be the case with me for whatever reason – like how do I get from point A to point Z?
What is your writing process?
Every book is different. It never feels easy. Once I’ve started a novel, I try and focus on getting something done every day. It doesn’t sound like much but at the beginning of a novel, I’ll typically aim for 300-500 words a day. I wish I could just write up this big draft and then just rework it and rework it. But I just can’t work that way. I work in very small increments.
So I’ll write 300-500 words and the next day I’ll edit those, probably add to it, and sometimes my word count expands a little bit on what I had done the day before. It adds up. I edit as I go so by the end of the full draft it’s fairly clean but I still edit and add to it and stuff like that.
What is your process when creating characters?
One of the things I use my notebook for is character stuff. I generally have a sense of who they are [but] they only really come alive when they start saying things and start making decisions. How do we know anybody but ourselves? We only know each other by what you say or what you do. Every character has got, for the most part, some little piece of me there as a starting point. I think that’s important – for me, that means I’m going to start every character from a place of empathy. Even if I do hate myself I’m not going to hate the character that I put a little piece of myself into! Then at some point in the novel, they become their own person which is kind of cool.
Was it challenging to change the novel’s point of view between Natalie and Ramola?
One thing I knew I didn’t want to do, I didn’t want to do a lot of first-person from Natalie’s point of view given that she’s eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Obviously, as a cisgender white male, I have no idea what it’s like to be eight-and-a-half months pregnant so I wasn’t going to span pages talking about what it is to be pregnant. So that’s why right away I knew that the main story was going to be told from Ramola’s point of view.
I did want to have Natalie’s recordings [however]. Once I hit upon that idea I thought it was a cool way to get more of her character in and even her relationship with her unborn child. I felt like that would make both her situation and the idea of the child a bit more real, as opposed to the hoary old science fiction horror trope of ‘oh we have to save the pregnant woman’.
I wanted to try and make them both real people, and have honest emotions and options that I don’t think are usually represented in these kinds of stories. Like Natalie made her husband promise that he would save her first – you know ‘screw the kid! Save me!’ I think as a parent that’s a very honest reaction you don’t see very often.
Where did you get the idea for the pregnancy app?
I don’t know. I feel like I have a hard time writing just a straight forward narrative – I love the post-modern tricks. I like texts, apps or other things that we live with. I don’t care if it reads dated years from now, it’s hard enough to get people to read your books now! Who cares about ten years!
The point is if I’m going to put something in another narrative form you have to make sure it serves a purpose. I’ve read The Book Of M by Peng Shepherd and she has a character leaving messages for her husband. It’s a wonderful book; it had come out maybe a few months before I had started writing Survivor Song.
I assume there must be some kind of app like that already. I did find online references to pregnancy diaries and communities once I had the idea that I wanted her to have some sort of recording. [If not] maybe we should make the app and sell it!
You play around with page structure a lot – some pages are even completely empty! What was your inspiration for that?
I’ve wanted to do something like that for a long time. I had no story but I thought it’d be cool to have three characters and every chapter is one of the characters and then when one of them dies you still get their chapters, but it’s just a blank page. I felt like that would be a gut-punch reminder.
I’ve always been fascinated by the use of white space on pages. House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, is one of my favourite novels. So again, I wanted to do that but I had to justify to myself that it was there for a reason. When it first happens, it’s when she’s giving her recording and it just means on the recording there’s just silence. Then later Ramola is talking about how in her head she has this whiteboard that helps calm herself down so I wanted to use the whitespace like the blank on a whiteboard.
The prelude, interlude and postlude are vivid forecasts – did you consider extending the book to cover them?
No, part of my idea initially when I was going to do this weird quasi-zombie thing… we’ve all read the comics, seen the movies, read the books where it’s a zombie story and it’s a cast of thousands. And I knew I wanted to go opposite of those. I wanted to focus tightly on Ramola and Natalie and make it a very personal story in the middle of this wider storm.
I always connect with the quieter, more personal stories. In the novel I’m been telling people, this is not the end of the world. Part of the prelude, interlude and postlude was messing around with the title ‘Survivor Song’ – this is not a fairy tale but those three parts are made to look like a fairy tale.
Patrick deWitt, in a book called Undermajordomo Minor, does this interlude in the middle of the book that focuses on a couple of characters that are really sort of minor characters compared to the rest of the book. It was really well written. I’d always had that in the back of my mind. So part of it is that I wanted to shoehorn an interlude with [the characters of] Josh and Luis into the book. Those two characters appeared in a different book of mine called Disappearance At Devil’s Rock which took place maybe four-five years before this one.
Had you considered writing from any of the other characters’ points of view? Like Josh and Luis for instance?
No [but] I knew I wanted to have a little bit of comic relief and have some zombie experts show up for Ramola and Natalie to argue with [which is Josh and Luis]. In the prior book, they were two of three friends who were obsessed with zombies. Even though there were no zombies in the book I was like oh man I could have [Josh and Luis] come back. They were a fun little surprise for me and I wanted to make sure I used them.
Part of what became the role besides the comic relief – I thought their friendship was a nice juxtaposition to Ramola and Natalie’s, even just comparing their ages. How intense friendship seems in your late teens and how Ramola and Natalie have had this long relationship. I thought it was kind of interesting to compare those two sets of friendships.
Did you always have in mind who was going to die in the book and who wasn’t?
I pretty much had in mind who was not going to make it. I had to write a small summary for my publisher before I started writing it, just to pitch it. But it was a very loose summary. I essentially always summarise the first 100 pages and then sort of said ‘well these things may or may not happen later’.
I guess I do plan some of the big things ahead of time, or they occur to me ahead of time. Again it depends on the book. In my earlier book A Head Full Of Ghosts I didn’t plan, I had most of the story in my head [but] I didn’t write an outline or anything. But some of the other [books] I have.
Survivor Song is set in a time frame of eight hours – why did you go down this route?
With the exception of those few sections that we talked about (the prelude, interlude and postlude) – the Ramola and Natalie thing takes place in real-time, which was a challenge. Especially in the beginning, having to detail everything that’s happening to them. But you can’t have all-action, all-intensity, all the time. My hope was given what they were trying to get Natalie help, even when things weren’t that exciting, my hope was that the reader would still be pulled along because they knew that there was this giant problem looming in the future. Is she going to be okay? And if she’s not going to be okay is the child going to be okay?
It seems strange to ask this right now considering the Covid-19 pandemic – but if you were in the same situation as the characters in Survivor Song, what would be your reaction?
Oh boy, if our first two weeks of real-life quarantine is an indicator I would just be hiding in a corner in a fetal position! For the first two weeks, I was essentially just sitting on the couch watching Animal Planet and MythBusters – cushy reality shows because for the first two weeks I just couldn’t deal. I did buy some weird stuff too in that first couple of weeks on Amazon as well. Like a water bottle with a filtering straw. I don’t know why! I was like ‘in case I have to go down to the pond and get water I’ll be able to filter it through this tiny little water bottle for all four people in my house?!’ [haha].
I certainly would not be the action hero type, that’s for sure. I like to think that I would at least try to help people. I don’t know I kind of feel like there are big parts of my personality in Natalie’s response and Ramola’s part too. So that’s why I really enjoyed writing those two characters. I hope people enjoy those characters as well.
The weird part of the apocalyptic story appeal, I think, is people like to imagine “I’m important enough to be one of the last people” – I think that’s part of the fantasy of apocalyptic fiction. I’m important enough to survive. We all want to be the star of that story. Until now when we’ve got a tiny little flavour of what it would be like. I’d be interested to see how this changes those kinds of stories going forward if it does… maybe it won’t I don’t know.
What are you working on next?
I’ve started the next novel – it’s in a really early phase so I can’t say too much about it. Luckily I don’t have to deal with the pandemic in it because most of the book takes place in the late Eighties and even up to the early 2000s, I’ll just end it before we get to 2020!
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay is out now from Titan. Read our review here.