Opinion

Deon Meyer: Imagining a post-apocalyptic, post-virus world

Coronavirus? Covid-19? Internationally acclaimed and award-winning South African fiction writer Deon Meyer has seen this before…well, technically. His book Fever, published in 2017, imagines the world after a devastating virus sweeps through it, killing hundreds of millions of people. He explains how he researched a post-virus world. 

Say you want to kill off 95% of the world population, but leave all infrastructure intact. What do you do? Who do you turn to?

Or, on a more positive note: if you’re looking for the perfect spot to reboot civilisation after the apocalypse, where would you take your eleven-year-old son?

You’re going to need shelter, fresh water, food, a fortress against marauders, room to accommodate the other seekers of sanctuary, space to establish agriculture again, and at least the potential to generate electricity one day.

By the way, the future of mankind sort of depends on your choice.

So, no pressure.

These were a few of the questions I had to ask and answer during the research for my novel Fever.

Definitely a little different from my preparation for the usual crime fiction fare, and especially the first one wasn’t the greatest way to inspire trust, make friend and influence people.

But the magnanimous and indulgent Prof. Wolfgang Preiser, chief of Medical Virology at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Pathology not only played along enthusiastically, but called upon his illustrious colleague Prof. Richard Tedder of University College in London to help.

And when I went hunting for answers on the second dilemma, I got to meet and talk to the most famous ecologist in South Africa – the legendary Dave Pepler – a conversation that enriched me and the novel immeasurably.

The same thing happened when I spoke to my friend since primary school Cliff Lotter about flying light aircraft in a world without petrol.

Cliff is a national aerobatics champion, and a walking encyclopedia on aviation in general.

He told me about the Cessna 172TD, which came to become a vital part of my story.

The beauty of thorough research for a book is that it is totally fascinating, it makes your work so much more credible and provides the opportunity to meet really smart people, but also multiplies your creative choices infinitely.

Because in a certain sense, writing a novel is one long process of making decisions in terms of the where, how, who and when of your story. And every choice you make has ramifications.

Like a chess player, you try to anticipate what those consequences will be, and how it influences your journey towards a grand ending.

Moreover, it can even influence the choice of which novel to write next. I first got the idea for Fever when reading Alan Weisman’s wonderful The World Without Us.

Although I wasn’t strictly reading for research, I maintain that all reading (and living, for that matter) is research, if you allow it to be.

And once you’re focused and in the writing process, the universe seems to throw relevant information at you, in a Jungian synchronicity that I always find astounding.

Like the article on how we might not have bananas to eat quite soon, published by the Washington Post. Or The Guardian story on industrial farming as one of the worst crimes in history.

Both had a small influence on the final fictional product.

But, like all good things, too much is the biggest danger.

Because the research process can be extremely seductive, and a great excuse not to write.

And finding the right balance between interesting facts and moving the story forward is always a challenge.

However, in addition to the real pleasure I had in writing Fever, researching the novel was the most professional fun I’ve had since reviewing pancakes at the Bloemfontein Agricultural Show as a cub reporter in 1981. (Those were world-class pancakes, I’ll have you know.)

** Deon Meyer is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed fiction writer. Publishing in Afrikaans, his books have been translated into more than 20 languages. Of Fever, author Stephen King said: “Great stuff.” It is available from Takealot here

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