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Imagine you live in an idyllic English village. Suddenly your friends and neighbors begin falling ill and dying of a deadly infectious disease. In order to stop the spread of this virus to the surrounding villages and beyond, you and your neighbors make a monumental decision. You quarantine your village; no one comes in, no one goes out. For months you isolate yourselves, relying on the kindness of surrounding neighbors to provide food and supplies. You wait and watch, while the disease rips through families, sparing some lives and taking others. When it’s all over, 260 people—more than two thirds of the village—are dead, but the contagion has been stopped, potentially saving the lives of thousands of people—and your village will be remembered for centuries to come for its courage and self-sacrifice.
Sounds like a great premise for a novel, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s a true story. This is the story of the plague village of Eyam, a small village in the north of England, not far from where I grew up.
In the mid-1600s The Great Plague ravaged London, killing more than 100,000 people. Thanks to a stowaway flea in a bolt of cloth, the disease made its way to Eyam, some 150 miles to the north. Lead by the local vicar, Reverend Mompesson, the villagers made the horrific decision to isolate themselves and prevent the plague from spreading further.
I’ve always been fascinated by this part of history and the personal stories that have endured. There’s the story of Emmott Syddall, engaged to a boy in the next village. The two lovers continued their affair across the quarantine boundary from opposing riverbanks. Their story is commemorated in a stained glass window in the church. There’s the story of villagers leaving money in a pot of vinegar (to disinfect it) in exchange for supplies from surrounding villages. And there are the tragic stories, such as Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her husband and six children, and yet never became infected.
I first heard these stories as young girl visiting Eyam and they’ve stuck with me ever since. They’re an important part of my local history and I’ve always wanted to find a way to share them with a wider audience. I didn’t want to write historical fiction (plus Geraldine Brooks already did it, and undoubtedly better than I could have, in her 2002 novel Year of Wonders), and writing a contemporary version of the story was fraught with roadblocks, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and technology.
But I really wanted to tell this story, so I started writing. I started with the characters of Emmott Syddall and Roland Torre, and wrote some scenes with them. And I kept writing, until a new story started to emerge.
The story evolved, as stories do, in ways I could never have imagined, until it became my novel THE SMALLEST THING.
You’ll have to read the book for a more intimate tour of Em’s village, but for now, I’ll leave you with a few more snaps of Eyam, taken from one of my research trips.
You can still see the Plague Cottages, where George Viccars, the first victim lived. The cottages are still inhabited. You can also see the church and churchyard where some of the victims were buried.
One of my favorite spots is Cucklett Delf, where Emmott and Roland allegedly met, where outdoor services were held during the quarantine, and where a memorial service is held each year to commemorate the incredible sacrifice.
You can learn more about Eyam at their excellent museum.
Is there anything more satisfying than reaching the end of a really great book? Okay, maybe a couple of things. Avocado toast, for example. But there’s a special glow that stays with you when a book hits all the marks.
I love books about complex human relationships and psychology. I enjoy reading authors who take risks with their writing and aren’t afraid to take their stories to the dark corners of the human psyche. I love books that make me think or that make me want to read them again to pick up what I missed on the first reading.
So, with that in mind, here are eight books I loved in 2017.
Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, made my list of Fave Reads of 2016, so I was eager to read her latest offering. It didn’t disappoint.
Through the stories of a single mother who moves with her daughter into an upscale neighborhood of traditional families, a young woman fighting to regain custody of the child she gave up for adoption, and the mother of four determined to uphold traditional values, Ng explores the question of what it means to be a “good” mother.
Ng is a master of weaving together multiple points-of-view and crisscrossing storylines to force her characters—and her readers—to question their own beliefs.
From page one I loved this story of a socially awkward woman forced to find her way in the modern world. But underneath the humor and quirkiness of Eleanor, Honeyman digs without mercy into the topics of mental health, how we judge others from the outside, and the scars left by our pasts. This was an entertaining and well-told story that also got me thinking.
I read two of Lianne Moriarty’s novels last year and enjoyed them both. The Husband’s Secret, like What Alive Forget, weaves together the points-of-view of a cast of characters, intertwining their stories. There’s a moment in the book when the reader suddenly knows more than the characters and it makes for fascinating reading to watch them bumble into trouble still clutching their beliefs. Moriarty’s writing is infused with humor and a brilliant eye for the day-to-day details of life.
The Muse hops back and forth between the stories of a recent immigrant to 1960s London and a renegade and much sought-after artist in the Spanish Civil War. With vivid and unique characters and beautifully detailed settings, Burton tells an intriguing tale of identity, secrets, and creative inspiration. This one was a definite “Read Again” book.
This book came highly recommended by a trusted friend, but as I got deeper into the story, I wondered if she’d lost her mind. It reads like series of vignettes of “a day in the life” of a count on house arrest in a swanky hotel in Soviet-era Russia. The details are gorgeous and the writing exquisite, but for much of the book it seems like not very much is happening. That is, until all the tiny moving parts come together and every little detail fits into its place. It’s the kind of book I immediately want to read again to pick up all the delicious clues. If you’ve tried to read this book and given up, I urge you to try again. It’s worth it.
This is my “left field” book of 2017. Zombie apocalypse stories aren’t usually my thing, but I picked it up while sniffing out other virus stories in preparation for publishing The Smallest Thing. Trust me when I tell you that a deadly virus is the only thing the two books have in common!
Patient Zero is a tasty nugget of horror-thriller candy. It has an evil villain with an underground lair, a rugged hero with a killer sense of humor, a little romance, a lot of blood, and bodies piled waist-deep by the end of the book. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but if the mood hits you, as it did me, it’s a rollicking good fun read.
I admit it. I have a huge crush on Neil Gaiman. He’s like that really cool rebel English teacher that all the students love, but who eventually gets fired for some sort of inappropriate behavior. Anyway…
I got the audio version of this book, narrated by Neil himself. For the first few chapters, I was convinced it was a memoir, Neil recounting a story of his childhood. Then things turned odd and Neil Gaiman-ish and I realized that all was right in the world after all. It’s dark, weird, and twisted, as well as heartbreaking and utterly believable. As with The Graveyard Book, I cried at the end of this story.
This was my absolute favorite book of 2017. At its heart, it’s an unconventional love story between Wavy, the young daughter of a drug dealer, and Kellen, the older man who works for Wavy’s father. But this isn’t your typical romance. It’s a story of resilience, self-reliance, and a determination to overcome judgment and prejudice in the name of real love.
It’s not an always an easy read. Greenwood paints a gritty picture of drugs, sex, and violence. There were a couple of times I had to put the book down because I was afraid to find out what would happen next. But the characters are so compelling, it was never long before I started reading again. This book is daring writing at its best. I can’t wait to see what Bryn Greenwood gives us next.
Sometimes people ask me if the characters I write are based on real people. For the most part, the answer is no, at least not directly. The truth is that most characters have elements of people I’ve met, or heard about, or they say or do things that I’ve witnessed in real life. It’s impossible not to draw from experience. In fact, much fiction writing pulls incidents and emotions from real life and drops them into fictional scenarios. It’s the same way that actors draw on their own emotional experiences to give depth to the characters they portray.
That said, of all the characters in A Strange Companion, one is pulled from real life.
Owen was a later addition to Kat’s story. During one rewrite, I realized that, if Kat was really trying to move on after Gabe, she needed to have an enticing option to consider. And thus, Owen was born. Naturally, if Owen was going to be swoon-worthy, he had to be a scientist. I mean, brains over brawn every time, right? And so the floppy-haired, cake-baking chemist loped onto the page.
Years ago, I met a retired petrochemical engineer who had taken up baking and produced the most delicious cakes. This unlikely baker had become so proficient that his claim to fame, he was proud to tell me, was that a recipe correction he’d sent to a well-known culinary magazine had been printed in the following month’s edition. When I’d expressed my surprise that someone who’d spent a life working with toxic chemicals had turned his hand to fluffy cakes and confections, he handed me the line that would later shape Owen’s character: “Baking is pure chemistry.”
But Owen’s cake-baking isn’t the only thing borrowed from a real-life person. The original meeting between he and Kat, when they introduce themselves via charades and a rebus, is based on an another, more personal, interaction pulled from my life.
When I was in college I met “Owen.” Our friendship began with an exchange of information between my study room in the library and his dorm room window. It blossomed into a sweet and fun friendship, and would have undoubtedly developed into a romance had it not been for the appearance of a dashing suitor.
Sadly, brawn trumped brains on that occasion, and “Owen” was cast aside. (I know, don’t judge. I was young and foolish. What can I say?) Of course, the relationship with Mr. Gorgeous went nowhere. He turned out to be neither sweet or fun, and provided my first big lesson that yummy on the outside doesn’t automatically mean yummy on the inside. So, when Kat’s story called for the perfect antidote to her broken heart, I had to bring in “Owen.”
I sometimes imagine that the original Owen might one day read Kat’s story and recognize himself, and maybe even accept his cameo role as an apology for my appalling behavior. Sadly, experience has taught me that people rarely recognize themselves in books, and those who think they’re the models for characters seldom are.
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