How My Debut Novel Became My Survival Guide Through The Coronavirus

Nicole Mabry's Past This Point

Nicole Mabry's Past This Point

I heard a quote once describing how you can walk up a staircase you’ve stomped up a hundred times and when you take an extra step that isn’t there, you stumble in surprise, reconsidering everything you previously believed. On Monday, January 26th, 2015, that feeling of stumbling hit me as Governor Cuomo shut down all forms of public transportation in New York City because of Winter Storm Juno. The constant push and pull of the city ground to a halt, an unprecedented moment in my twelve years of living in Long Island City, Queens, just a crowded bridge length away from the bustling work hive of midtown Manhattan. Our lives halted, time slowed to an unnatural pace as the city shut down. Tapping away at our laptops, we worked from home in our pajamas while reruns played in the background, and we watched the endless swirls of snow falling outside our windows as the city was swallowed in white. 

In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, the flu had been making its way around my office. I work on a teeming floor, people constantly walking in and out of the conference room next door to my office. Being a slight hypochondriac, I barricaded myself behind its glass walls and watched from afar, wishing I could work from home, away from all the germs flying about. It seemed like that storm had answered my wishes. 

On the first night of the transportation shutdown, I went to bed content that I would be safe from the flu being passed around like gossip at my office the next day. Like my foot fumbling through the air of an imagined step, my brain had other ideas. A mind-meld of these two coinciding factors, the flu and the shutdown, created a vivid dream of a deadly flu that ravaged the city, killing hundreds overnight. In my dream, we were quarantined to our apartments as Governor Cuomo tried to stop the spread. I woke up, breathless in bed, thinking, “Wow, that was a crazy dream!” 

When the storm passed, and transportation resumed, I met up with my best friend and described the dream to her. She was on the edge of her seat, and when I stopped, she asked, “And then what happened?” 

I blinked for a moment, “Well, then I woke up.” 

She wasn’t satisfied with that answer; she needed to know what would happen. I spent the next hour telling her what I would do if my dream became a reality, never imagining that it someday would. By the end, she told me I had to write it. 

And so, the plot for Past This Point was born, all from a long game of, what if. Little did I know how important that game would become. 

I knocked out the first draft in two months, the plot already blooming into existence, of a woman and her dog surviving a deadly flu epidemic in New York City, the epicenter of a virus that would eventually spread across the country. I spent the next two years editing and querying agents. When writing Past This Point, I had no idea that writing an adult female protagonist in an apocalyptic world would make my manuscript almost impossible to sell. Most are written from the male or young adult perspectives, and publishers were reluctant to take a chance. So, for better or worse, it took another two years to find a home for my novel. 

Fast forward to September of 2019 when my book was released with Red Adept Publishing. I had an amazing launch, better than I’d ever expected, had done some readings, and was off and running, promoting my debut novel. On November 13th, I posted an article on my Facebook wall about a deadly virus outbreak in China, saying: I didn’t want my book to be this real! 

I got some snarky replies about it being less deadly than the flu. No one took it seriously, not even me. Over the next few months, I was in a bubble of co-writing my second novel with my writing partner while also trying to promote Past This Point. I spent very little time on Facebook or watching the news; all I did was write and create Instagram posts. My co-author and I put both feet on the gas and didn’t let up until February when we came up for air and began querying our project.

When the writing fog cleared, I was surprised to see the previously-joked-about virus had progressed significantly. It suddenly wasn’t funny anymore. 

What I’d assumed was an odd blip that had a surprising link to my book, was quickly becoming the world’s biggest enemy. 

It hadn’t hit the United States yet, but many countries were reporting outbreaks, including the devastation in Italy. I was stunned. How could this be happening, how could my book come to life like this, mere months after it had released? 

Friends began posting on my page about the similarities to Past This Point, some even joking that I’d predicted it or even willed it into being. I made a few posts to support my book in conjunction with the outbreak, but something didn’t feel right about it. Instead, I turned away and began promoting my book in other, more subtle ways. But the one thing that kept popping into my head was, what would my main character, Karis, do? What had started as "What would do?" had now morphed into a survival guide with Karis leading the way. 

The first cue I took from Karis was overestimating this virus. Sure, it might have turned out to be less than what my paranoid brain was conjuring up, but like Karis, wouldn’t I rather be safe than sorry? 

In the coming weeks, my niece, who lives with me while going to college, and I began picking up a few extra canned goods—rice, dog food, and other non-perishables every time we went to the grocery store. The shelves were fully stocked at that time; not many were stockpiling in my area as the bags of food began to pile up on my dining room floor. My dog and cats began sniffing around the extra food that was now laying claim to their usual lounging spots. 

I started pulling my scarf up over my face while riding the train and obsessively washing my hands before it became a suggestion to do so. I adjusted my work hours by ten minutes, so fewer people took the trains and elevators alongside me. All of these ideas came directly from Karis.

At work, we kept the news running in the background, continually reading the red tickers at the bottom of the screen. Slowly, we began to see the danger coming. On a Monday, we had planned a trial work from home day for that upcoming Wednesday. We scrambled to get our laptops updated with what we’d need to work remotely and gather any necessary items. By the end of the day on Wednesday, the trial became a mandate. I went into the office on Thursday to wrap things up and have not gone back since.

Suddenly, I was living my novel, it had come to life, and I was smack dab in the middle of it.

The first full day working from home was disorienting. My mind whirled in so many directions with news reports, death tolls, and warnings coming every ten minutes. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the news cycle. 

On the second day, I focused on taking Karis’s advice. We already had a full supply of non-perishable items, so we made trips to the store for fresh vegetables, dairy, and meats. We made soups and stews to freeze and eat over the coming weeks. 

I created a schedule to provide structure to our days. Sundays were for doing laundry in the small portable washing machine my niece had luckily purchased a few months before, our shirts and undergarments hanging across the living room like flags signaling wash day. Wednesdays, we made our weekly trip to the grocery store for any items we’d run out of, and Thursdays, we vacuumed and dusted the apartment. And Saturdays, well, they were always saved for binging horror movies. 

After living in Karis’s head for almost five years, I knew that exercise would be vital in battling cabin fever. Unlike the situation in my book, we were still allowed to go outside. We found a less-traveled route in our neighborhood and ran four days a week. On Fridays, we did a Pilates video. Even the seven o’clock celebration for health care workers and nightly red beating heart atop the Empire State building offered uplifting markers to look forward to each day.

After all of this, like Karis, I still found myself restless. Again, I took her cue. I looked around my apartment and found several things to occupy my unsettled mind. I’ve replaced several rows of peel and stick tiles on my kitchen floor, spot stained worn areas on my coffee table, end table and even my hardwood floors, and reorganized several drawers in the kitchen. And while it’s been incredibly slow going, I have managed to add several chapters to my solo work in progress and complete a revamp on our co-authored project with my writing partner. 

Was all of this enough? Nope. I was still restless, pacing the apartment looking for things to do, having long conversations with my dog, Jackson, and believing I could interpret his responses. But so was Karis, and I don’t think this feeling will ever completely go away with the state of our country. Just like in my book, it’s normal, it’s the symptom, and all we can do is try to manage it. 

So, after writing a book that unfortunately came to life, what have I learned from Karis? 

Here's what's necessary: routines, exercise, hobbies, projects, food rationing, recipes, and finally, gumption. I am lucky enough not to have contracted COVID-19 that I know of, to be capable of working from home, and continue providing for myself and my niece. And, having a great group of friends within a few blocks for support has been a gift. The least I can do on my end is buck up, not complain and stay home. Whatever I may be going through to keep safe in my apartment, pales in comparison to what many others are dealing with.

Since New York’s Shelter in Place began, I have followed Karis’s example to the letter, which has served me well. I never intended to write a survival guide through a deadly virus quarantine, but it ended up being one for me, and hopefully to others. While I sincerely hope our current situation does not devolve into the devastating conditions in Past This Point, if they do, I know I’ve got the blueprint to feed and protect myself, to survive and help others any way I can, and, hopefully, to make it out safely on the other side. In the meantime, I look forward to the day we are past this point in our history, when we can build a new staircase, extra-step included.

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