FOCUS ON FICTION: The Next Big One

[I paused these for a while because I didn’t want to drive traffic towards Amazon during a worker strike].

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

A novel again today, because I’m out of individual shorts.

THE NEXT BIG ONE

With the number of UK cases hitting a hundred, it’s clear that KBV is a problem which isn’t going away. Downing Street have released the following statement: “The total number of KBV cases in the UK is still comparatively small, and we are confident that the disease can be contained. NHS leaflets advising on lifestyle and behaviour changes which can help protect against infection will be available soon. We ask the public to remain calm and to continue to behave responsibly about their health in all areas.

Vocational journalism student Ben Martin is the last person who ought to be investigating a major viral outbreak. He doesn’t know a single damn thing about biology; he pays his rent by DJing for hipsters. He’s nervous, easily-discouraged, and not over his ex.

But it’s him who ends up with the assignment, and it’s him who ends up facing down the truth: there is more to this than meets the eye.

The Next Big One is definitely a watershed novel for me. It was the first book I wrote where I actively looked at what I was writing in the planning stage and said, “Does this character really need to be [white/cisgender/male/able-bodied] in order for the plot to work”, and when they didn’t need to be, I changed something about them. It was such a simple alteration, and yet somehow it brought so much more depth and affection for the characters, so much more realism to my experience of writing them.

Drawing on life helped, too. Many of the locations are subs for places that I’d been to, or vague nods to people that I’d met, rather than just being a kind of Londish place which disappears into vagueness. It helped, too, that I’d been getting out more, in the intervening years, as my mental health continued on its slow upwards trend (unlike the protagonist of the book, the poor sod); the more you see of life, the more qualified you are to write about it.

Research, too, helped. While I set out to look into what was possible and plausible with disease design in mind, I picked up a lot of peripheral knowledge as I tried to get to grips with virology and epidemiology from a starting point of being so scientifically illiterate that I’m still not sure I understand what mitochondria are, never mind things like apoptosis.

It grew from frustration with how public health issues are reported; it grew from my general distrust of the ethics of large corporations; it grew from my overall fascination with the brutality of sickness and the fragility of the human body balanced against the surprising strength and resilience of human bonds. But the characters, once the groundwork was done, more-or-less wrote themselves.

What I set out was to write an epidemic thriller, but it’s not pacy enough. It’s not suspenseful enough. And it’s far, far too much about the people, and very little about the disease. That’s the thing about the way I write, I’ve come to understand: I am interested in how people work and how they stop working, and I am interested in the effect of squeezing one part of their life on all the other parts of their life. Larger mechanisms of society and the universe, while operating in their own casual frameworks, do kind of narratively exist for the purpose of making the protagonist’s life harder. Sorry about that, protagonists.

While it’s not exactly a dramatic story of the world battling a deadly evil together, I still hope it’s exciting. The smaller dramas within it kept me entertained while I was writing them, at least.

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