Virginia Moffatt on her book The Wave
I’ve been very nervous about how readers will respond to a novel about facing death while they’re worried also about an illness that might take their life or the life of a loved one.
The Wave Virginia Moffatt Harpercollins
The characters in British writer Virginia Moffatt’s new doomsday novel are at nature’s mercy. A devastating tidal wave is on its way and they see no hope of escape.
But real life has caught up with this book. Moffatt certainly didn’t anticipate that her gripping tale would be arriving in a Canada caught up in a pandemic crisis. The world was a calmer place when The Wave was published in Britain last autumn to favourable reviews, with its publishers, Harpercollins, looking forward to an equally receptive audience when the book moved overseas at the end of March.
Then the coronavirus intervened, which left Moffatt wondering whether it would effectively cut short the life of her latest novel, a work she feels passionate about.
“I’ve been very nervous about how readers will respond to a novel about facing death while they’re worried also about an illness that might take their life or the life of a loved one,” she says from her home in Oxford, England.
But then she started receiving reassuring responses from readers.
“I recently had an email from someone who found the book really helpful. She thought it was very much a book about now and very much a book we should be talking about.”
In the novel, a volcano thousands of kilometres away triggers a tsunami that is heading relentlessly toward the west of England, with the county of Cornwall directly in the line of assault. Government defences are focused elsewhere on more populous areas, largely forcing inhabitants of this isolated peninsula to fend for themselves. And because there is no easy exit to safety, many are trapped.
Faced with this terrifying reality, a young woman named Poppy posts a message on Facebook: “With nowhere to go, I’m heading to my favourite beach to watch the sunset. Who wants to join me?” Eventually five more people join her. And as they do so, they also must come to terms with their own sometimes messy lives.
“How do we face death and how do we deal with it in a good way?” Moffatt asks now. “I wrote this book because I wanted us to think about those things. But I did it within the context of a world that is normal. A pandemic raises that context in a mega way and it’s affecting everybody.
“This is quite a scary time, so I hope now that if people read it, they will say — yes, this is scary but there is a possibility of hope in our situation, a possibility of love in our situation, and the possibility of leaving this world in a positive way ...”
When she first talked to Postmedia in England in the autumn, Moffatt rejected any suggestion that The Wave belonged in the “disaster novel” category.
“I don’t think it is a disaster novel,” she said flatly. “It definitely has elements of a disaster novel and it also has elements of a thriller. But to me it’s also a novel about people facing death, which is coming to us all. And if you know it’s coming, how do you spend that final time?
“People can call the book what they like, but I think it’s really important to people reading this that they don’t see it as your usual kind of disaster story because I’m not really interested in them trying to get away. I’m interested in what happens if they can’t get away.”
The Wave represents a marked departure from Moffatt’s previous novel, Echo Hall, which deals with three generations of women who experience love and loss and the trauma of war. “It was something of a historical drama,” Moffatt says, “and as I was finishing it, I was thinking about what I wanted to write next.”
The answer came through her involvement in the online writing community Friday Flash, in which members regularly share samples of their writing with others in the group. Moffatt had contributed a “flash fiction” piece — meaning it had to be under 1,000 words — about a group of people unable to escape a tsunami.
She’d written the piece quickly, but the central situation lingered in her mind. “I couldn’t leave that story. It just stayed with me.” So she went to work on a full-length novel, confronting problems quite different from those Echo Hall had posed.
“I had to move from a story structure that extends over a long period of time to one that takes 24 hours,” she says, “which is a very different sort of challenge for a writer.”
She ended up with “a very messy first draft” that forced her to seek more focus and make some tough decisions — including dumping two characters. “I had to cull a couple I really liked,” she says, “but they just weren’t going to work.”
If The Wave sometimes reads like a taut thriller, it’s because of this author’s interest in how human beings behave in a crisis.
“I’ve worked in social care for many years, so I have a lot of experience with people being in difficult situations and being able to help people get to a different place in their life,” Moffatt says. “And that does make for a more dramatic story — where you put people in a situation where they will be tested and tried. I’m interested in people who are really up against it — and in how they want to be remembered.”
So is there a spiritual dimension underlying this story? Moffatt, a practising Christian who has also written a Lenten manual and is currently editing a series of Bible study guides, is careful in her answer.
“These characters are disparate people. Most people in Britain today do not profess a faith at all, and that’s the situation with most of these people on the beach. But they all have questions — after all, it is human nature to ask what are we here for? Even if you don’t believe in God, you want to think there is some purpose to your life.”
How do we face death and how do we deal with it in a good way? I wrote this book because I wanted us to think about those things. But I did it within the context of a world that is normal. A pandemic raises that context in a mega way ... Virginia Moffatt