Sigrid Nunez is the author of the novels The Last of Her Kind, A Feather on the Breath of God, and For Rouenna, among others. She has been the recipient of several awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. She lives in New York City.
From a Q & A about her new novel, Salvation City:
Q: Salvation City begins at a time in the near future after a global flu pandemic has killed large numbers of people, including both parents of the thirteen-year-old main character, Cole. To what extent would you say your novel belongs to the genre of apocalyptic or dystopian fiction?The Page 69 Test: The Last of Her Kind.
A. My book certainly has elements of both those genres, but it's also different. Salvation City is really about a near apocalypse and a temporary dystopia. The pandemic is catastrophic, but it doesn't destroy civilization and most of life on earth, as happens in classic apocalyptic fiction. The disease passes, and life goes on, which is of course what happened after the 1918 flu, the worst disease outbreak in history. In classic dystopian fiction, like 1984, the whole point is to portray the grim, hopeless future that awaits us if we don't change our evil ways. There's something of that in my book, which shows what could happen in the event of a pandemic, given how unprepared we are for such a crisis. But though the flu convulses and radically changes America, it doesn't create some new repressive state as happens in most dystopian fiction. And though I'm interested in the effects of the flu on society, my main concern is how one young boy tries to find his way after being deathly ill, then stranded in an orphanage, and then sent to live in a community completely different from the one he grew up in.
Q. Did your decision to write about a flu pandemic have anything to do with the outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu virus?
A: No. I started writing this novel in 2007, two years before the swine flu outbreak. Whenever I start a new book I always begin with a character, or a few characters, whose story I want to tell, and I've always been interested in writing about people who are facing some kind of extreme situation. I knew I wanted to set the story in the near future so I could play with certain "what if" ideas, something I hadn't done before, and I knew, of course, that another pandemic like the Great Flu of 1918 was a real and perhaps even imminent possibility. Still, when the swine flu began I was as alarmed as everyone else, and surely more terrified because of all the time I'd just put in imagining the worst. I was doing final revisions then, and for a couples of weeks I was paralyzed, not knowing what to write, or rewrite, while watching the real thing unfold minute by minute.
Q. Why did you choose to write about a young male protagonist this time when in the past most of your fiction has been written from a woman's perspective?
A: I wanted to...[read on]