Lisa J. Yarde
Plague has no favorites.
In this anthology, USA Today, international bestselling, and award-winning authors imagine a world where anyone—rich, poor, young, old—might be well in the morning and dead by sundown.
Readers will follow in the footsteps of those who fought to rebuild shattered lives as the plague left desolation in its wake.
* An Irish woman tends her dying father while the Normans threaten her life and property—
* A Hispano-Muslim doctor fights the authorities to stem the spread of the deadly pestilence at great personal cost—
* A Tuscan street hawker and a fresco painter watch citizens perish all around them even as they paint a better future—
* A Spanish noblewoman lives at the mercy of a jealous queen after plague kills the king—
* The Black Death leaves an uncertain legacy to Dante’s son—
* In Venice, the artist Titian agonizes over a death in obscurity—
* A Scottish thief loses everything to plague and repents in the hope of preventing more losses—
* Two teenagers from 2020 time-travel to plague-stricken London and are forever changed—
* And when death rules in Ottoman-occupied Greece, a Turk decides his own fate.
Nine tales bound together by humanity’s fortitude in the face of despair: a powerful collection of stories for our own time.
In dark and deadly times, love and courage shine bright.
Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader. It’s a pleasure to have you all with us. To start things off, please tell us about WE ALL FALL DOWN.
KRISTIN GLEESON: Maeve is a young fourteenth-century Irish woman who is on the brink of becoming a nun in a convent in County Cork near the Kerry border. She’s uncertain about her faith and feels the pull of the world outside. Maeve is a new character, a descendant of a character in a previous novel, In Praise of the Bees, set in sixth-century Ireland in West Cork.
YARDE: Ibn al-Khatib is a historical figure from the fourteenth century who served the Moorish monarchs of the last Muslim dynasty to rule in southern Spain. He came from a family of courtiers, studied medicine, and wrote a treatise on the Black Death that has survived more for almost 700 years. I’ve written about him before in two novels set in Moorish Spain, focused on his role as a courtier like his forefathers. The anthology was my first opportunity to chronicle his theory about contagion during the plague.
LAURA MORELLI: The town of Siena, a renowned fresco painter, the famous Palio horse race, the 1348 Great Mortality, and, at the center of the drama, a young girl with a remarkable gift… Those are the elements that I knew I wanted to incorporate into my short tale, “Little Bird.” In 1348, Little Bird travels on a wagon across Tuscany with a band of fraudster “cure sellers,” hawking their wares from town to town. In Siena, she seizes an opportunity to grind pigments for the renowned painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti, seeking a path out of her dubious vocation. But as the Black Death takes the lives of increasing numbers of Sienese, Little Bird finds herself at the center of the townspeople’s wrath. The characters in this tale are all new, and I had such fun bringing them to life!
J. K. KNAUSS: I normally write about the Middle Ages before the Black Death because I’ve been more interested in times longer ago, a world that looked less like our own. But when Lisa proposed the idea for this anthology, I immediately thought of Alfonso XI. The idea of the only reigning monarch to succumb to the disease during its first attack on Europe had always fascinated me. When I looked into the aftermath of his early death, his beloved Leonor stood out as a strong woman facing immense challenges, the kind of story I think we all need to read more of.
DAVID BLIXT: This was a homecoming of sorts. I’ve been writing about Dante’s son Pietro for twenty years. He was the lead in my first novel, The Master Of Verona, and is the heart of my entire Star-Cross’d series. This story, “On All Our Houses,” afforded me the chance to step outside my overall arc and jump ahead in Pietro’s life. The events of Romeo and Juliet have passed, Ser Pietro has retired from the judicial bench, and is living on his vineyard in the Veronese hills when two old friends come to visit. One is the poet, Petrarch. The other is Death.
JEAN GILL: I was worried that a story about plague would be too depressing to write, never mind read, so I thought the omniscient narrator would add perspective. And yes, you can have an omniscient narrator in the first person. “Some call me the Great Leveller. You know who I am.”
DEBORAH SWIFT: My narrator, Finn, is a young Irish immigrant to Scotland. His family have come to Scotland in search of a better, more prosperous life, with more work for his big family. This is a story written specially for this collection, and I grew fond of Finn, though I may never see him again!
KATHERINE PYM: My story, “Arrows That Fly in the Dark,”, is a time slip where two young adults come together in seventeenth-century London to assist a doctor in his daily rounds. It is based on an actual physician’s account when he remained in London during the 1665 plague and lived to tell about it.
MELODIE WINAWER: Kadri bin Ahmed is a young Turkish man living comfortably in seventeenth-century Greece, during the time of its occupation by the Ottoman Empire. His father died when he was young, but otherwise he hasn’t lost much. He has a loving marriage, a healthy baby son, an excellent job with prospects for advancement, and a deferential and obedient Greek servant. Everything has gone well for him… until suddenly, it doesn’t. That comfort and certainty is shattered when, in quick succession, the Venetian fleet invades Ottoman-occupied Greece, and plague strikes his homeland. He thinks he has everything until he loses it all, and then has to relearn what truly matters. Kadri is a new character for me, but he came from a fundamental problem I’ve been thinking about for a long time, both personally and professionally as a writer. I wanted to portray that moment, which for some reason is particularly common in twenty-something-year-olds (it was for me!), when you go from thinking you know everything to experiencing profound doubt. I wanted to capture that painful but critical moment of transformation, the coming of age into self-questioning adulthood.
I felt the location and culture of each story had significance to each of you. Can you tell us a little about the setting and why they appealed to you?
GLEESON: The location is very dear to me since it’s close to where I live and is an important feature of the community, being centered around the ancient community of St. Gobnait, who is the patron saint of the area as well as bees. There is an ancient well and ruins from the time period around the shrine, an ancient statue they bring out on her feast day and her burial site, and people come from all over still to practice various rituals. A wonderful place that I wanted to evoke once again, though in a different time period with such a powerful concept as the plague.
YARDE: Moorish Spain’s history fascinates me because of how it is has impacted the character of the peninsula and its people as we see them today. In particular, religious fervor has long been associated with Spain, where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities lived side by side and interacted at times in both peaceable and violent ways. Islam’s first principle is the idea of surrender before God, acceptance of one’s fate. But in his theory about contagion, Ibn al-Khatib contradicted that principle, with great consequence to his livelihood and future. He just knew he was right and remained willing to take the risk.
MORELLI: Siena is such a wonderful and evocative town in central Italy. For an art historian, it’s a true playground! The 1348 Black Death hit Siena particularly hard. Siena’s residents struggled long after the horror of the Black Death came to an end. The city never fully regained its political and economic dominance. Its ambitious cathedral construction project was halted and never finished. Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who was working with his brother Pietro on several important painting commissions in the city at the time, hastily scrawled his last testament to his wife and daughters on a piece of parchment on June 9, 1348, and then disappeared from the historical record.
KNAUSS: I’ve spent long summer afternoons at the royal palace in Sevilla, feeling very much at home and imagining the people who lived there and all the things they did. King Pedro I built some of the most beautiful chambers in the palace right around the time of “Footsteps.” I was thrilled to have the opportunity to describe the sensation of richness and relaxation that pervades the historic stones—as contrasted with the strife and intrigue that took place there!
BLIXT: Verona is my heart. I’ve spent so much time there, have so many friends, I know the city better than I know most people. In this case, I got to reference a fact that falls outside the narrative bounds of the Star-Cross’d series. In 1353, Pietro Alighieri bought a vineyard in the Valpolicella region to the north of Verona, looking over Lake Garda. The family still lives there, making wine. My wife and I first visited the Count Serego-Alighieri in 2002, and he had us back to stay in 2014. The sights and sounds of this story, right down to the lemon tree, are based on that latter stay. Just walking the grounds, living there, hearing the stories of how the villa was saved from the Nazis, seeing the fifteenth-century carriage that carried the Count’s ancestors—all of it conspired to build the walk Pietro takes through the story, alongside his old friend, as he counts his losses and faces his grief.
GILL: I don’t usually start with a set theme, so I sat thinking “Black Death” and waiting for inspiration. Venice immediately came to mind, a place where I’ve lingered in the mist, taking photos of a cormorant by a palace while moored gondolas clunk together in the backwash of a vaporetto. But it wasn’t the iconic plague doctor’s mask or the seventeenth century that drew me. It was the mystery in 1576 surrounding an artist famous for a certain shade of red.
SWIFT: Many people have heard of the Great Plague in London in 1665, but few have heard of the seventeenth-century plague that decimated Edinburgh in 1645, twenty years earlier. It was the worst plague to ever hit Scotland; tens of thousands died, almost fifty percent of the population.
PYM: Most of my stories are based in London 1660s, from the start of the restoration to the fire of London. Seventeenth-century England is not very popular with the current reader, even as it included exciting elements of other centuries, but maybe the civil wars, the beheading of a king, fire, and plague gave the reader grief. Thinking further… if Guy Fawkes had been successful, he would have blown up most of Westminster. That in itself could cause a fine lady to swoon. There was Titus Oates (think McCarthyism) where so many were accused of being Catholics—many executed—which had a negative impact on the populace. Two Anglo/Dutch wars, men and boys pressganged into service may turn readers away. Piracy on the high seas could give the most stalwart heart palpitations. Then don’t forget when Parliament exiled James II and brought in William of Orange and Mary, true Protestants, to England. Maybe, that, in the end, made the reader fear madness and death, so for sanity’s sake, they turned to the Elizabethan or Georgian periods. But for me, this period in history has it all. There’s a vast amount of story fodder to play with, in almost every decade of the century. That’s why I love it.
WINAWER: When Lisa Yarde asked me to contribute to this anthology about the plague, I had three reactions. The first was being flattered. I’d just published my first novel, The Scribe of Siena (not coincidentally about the plague in medieval Italy), and loved having the opportunity to work on a collaborative project with a group of seasoned and talented writers. The second was…NO WAY I CAN DO THIS. I’d just sold my second novel as a partial manuscript to my publisher, and was on a tight deadline to produce. That book, which is about to go back to my publisher after first round edits this week (!), is about Mystras, a city in the southern Peloponnesus of Greece, which is now almost completely in ruins, but was once the capital of the late Byzantine empire after the fall of Constantinople. Mystras is a magical, romantic, powerful place, a whole ghost city echoing with 800 years of history. Just to add perspective, I have another full-time job (which is still extremely full-time) as a doctor and research scientist, and I have three kids. So adding something seemed absolutely impossible, maybe even insane. I didn’t answer Lisa right away. But then the idea grew on me. I’d never written a short story and I wanted to try. I actually couldn’t let the idea go, even though I tried! I wanted to join these other amazing authors in this collaboration. And then I decided, since I was writing about Mystras already, deep in research and falling in love with the place and its history, then if I could learn more and write about Mystras for this story, I would do it. My second novel is told from the Greek perspective, and doesn’t cover the seventeenth century directly at all. So I decided to tell part of the story I hadn’t told, when plague struck Mystras. And I decided to tell it from the point of view of a Turk. It was an amazing exercise to force myself to take both sides of the story of Greece’s occupation at once, and deepened my understanding.
GLEESON: Resilience was the watchword for the Gaels in that time period, especially in certain areas where the Anglo-Normans were holding sway. To introduce the element of plague was an extra opportunity to put my characters in challenging positions that could highlight their strengths and their weaknesses. What writer couldn’t love that?
YARDE: Desperation can bring out the worst and best in people. It’s easy to imagine the sufferers of the Black Death might have given in to their baser instincts, shut themselves away, and shunned their communities. But the medical practitioners of the day in Islamic Spain sought ways to mitigate the effects of the disease. It was not hard to imagine what Ibn al-Khatib as a doctor would have done to try to save the Moorish people and his family.
MORELLI: I think few of us take the time to truly imagine what it would be like to live in a time of pre-modern medicine. Writing and reading a story like this helps us appreciate the treatments we now have available.
KNAUSS: I believe “Footsteps” is the least obviously optimistic story in the whole anthology. Because Leonor didn’t live to see the fruits of her efforts, readers might think the story is a downer. But knowing that Leonor’s legacy was far-reaching, even into the present day, I tried to infuse her character with an indomitable spirit. She wouldn’t have been a woman to give up easily, and coupled with her devotion to Alfonso XI and her children, I think she presents an inspiring figure.
BLIXT: There is a sadness I carry, one I do not share often. This story allowed me to write about it, in a way.
GILL: It wasn’t deliberate, but as the story told itself, I became aware of how much the outcome mattered to me and how much was at stake in the sweep of history.
SWIFT: What fascinated me was to write a child’s-eye view. There is something about looking at the pain of it all through innocent eyes. The child sees the reality, but also has his own rich fantasy world where the reasons for tragic events can be explained by latching onto the snippets of an adult world he doesn’t fully understand.
PYM: It is hard for anyone to understand an epidemic until they are in it, and especially so for young adults. But they had their exit strategy. When they realized death was imminent, they flew into the future and modern medicine.
WINAWER: It was incredibly challenging, but in the best way. This kind of challenge is exactly what makes writing so exhilarating, and also so transformative (both to read and to write). I found myself relying on personal experience, as many writers do. Twenty years ago, my mother was diagnosed with what should have been a fatal illness. In fact, she survived it, but at that moment I did not think she would. I was walking home from the hospital when I looked up at the sky to see sun glinting through the trees. And the sight was beautiful. I could not imagine how it was possible see beauty in the middle of such misery. That experience, the impossible coexistence of my own despair and my joy in the beauty of the world, lies at the heart of “778.”
GLEESON: Well if were my own particular story, I guess I would have Christina Balfe (Outlander fame) or Saoirse Ronan to play Maeve. Christina Balfe creates such great chemistry with Sam Heughan in Outlander, and that’s exactly what I would go for, though she may be a bit old for it. As for the male protagonist, Diarmuid, I think Sam Heughan would win out, though Cillian Murphy is from Cork and is getting nicely rugged in his appearance and would do nicely too. Hard choices all around.
YARDE: When I was writing, I had a small picture of the French actor of Moroccan descent, Said Taghmaoui, taped at the corner of my monitor, because I imagined Ibn al-Khatib might have looked like him. Now that I’m asked to think of it, I’d also like the actress Zuleikha Robinson in the role of Ibn al-Khatib’s wife Iqbal. The Moors were of Arabian, Berber, and Negro descent, and they came to the Iberian Peninsula in the 700s. While they intermarried or had children with Christians in Spain, I’ve long imagined that they must have retained features of their Middle Eastern and North African heritages.
MORELLI: I would love the character of Zio, the surly, ne’er-do-well “uncle” of Little Bird, to be played by Jeff Bridges!
KNAUSS: “Footsteps” is a great opportunity to cast handsome young actors in the roles of young King Pedro and his half-brothers. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at their most femme fatale could bring their explosive chemistry to the showdown between Queen María and Leonor.
BLIXT: Oof. Young Pietro would have plenty of choices. Old Pietro? I don’t know. Colin Firth, perhaps. With Stanley Tucci as Petrarch.
GILL: I would love to see the much-missed Alan Rickman as my narrator.
PYM: Gary Oldman as the old curmudgeon physician, but I don’t know any truly young actors/actresses to play the parts. I’ll let the casting department decide that one.
WINAWER: Rami Malek, the actor who played Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, as Kadri, Salma Hayek as his wife Malike, and Elias Koteas, the Canadian actor of Greek descent, to play Makharios, the Greek initially deferential servant whose own role in Kadri’s life changes as Greeks regain power over their Turkish oppressors during the Venetian occupation.
GLEESON: I’d say if I needed to sum it up, how to value the invincibility of the human spirit when under greatest pressure.
YARDE: Not only that they enjoyed the range of characters and settings, but they learned something they might not have otherwise known about the effects of the Black Death, and they found inspiration in the stories to meet adversities within their own lives. The survivors of plague sometimes took great risks and showed courage and resilience by the very act of survival against terrible odds. We can, too, in our modern-day struggles.
MORELLI: I hope that readers will appreciate the hopeful ending—and connect it to their own sense of hope in dark times. I also hope they’ll Google pictures of the Lorenzetti brothers’ incredible art in Siena!
KNAUSS: I hope readers will come away understanding a little of what fascinates me about medieval Spain. Reading all the stories together, I don’t think readers can avoid being inspired. The hope portrayed in these pages gives us that same hope today.
BLIXT: Seeing what’s happening right now? Resilience. Resolve. This too shall pass.
GILL: I want them to stay up late, unable to sleep, reading and wondering. An occasional tear is allowed, or even a shiver, but above all I want readers to marvel at human nature throughout history. As I read the other authors’ stories, I asked myself, “What would I do?” and, with a pandemic in the news, some of us might find out.
SWIFT: That every era has its disasters, but the human spirit is resilient, and stories celebrating courage in adversity are important.
PYM: A good reading experience that will stay with them when they turn out the light at night.
WINAWER: Without being told to, somehow all of the writers who contributed to this story did the same thing. We all told stories about a terrible disease and its devastating effects on peoples’ lives, but we also wrote about the resilience of the human spirit that allows us to transcend and survive grief and loss. None of us could have known that this anthology would be published just as COVID-19 was sweeping around the globe, but the timing is eerily perfect—such resilience is a lifeline for all of us, especially now.