A Pandemic in Residence is a collection of essays written by Selina Mahmood from March 2020 to June of 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Mahmood, a Pakistani-American, takes us through the experiences of doing her residence in a pandemic, and reflects on the changes in the world around her.
I had the opportunity to interview the author, Selina Mahmood, and get some insider details about the process she went through while writing her book. Here’s what she had to say.
Muslim Girl: What did you find most difficult about writing the book? What has been the easiest?
Selina Mahmood: A few things were challenging, including deciding on the order of the essays, deciding on the audience, and moving away from being vague to vulnerable. The process of putting this out into the world and not knowing how it will be received has possibly been the most difficult though.
As for the easiest, I can’t really describe what was easy, but the most enjoyable part was the editing process. The manuscript went through so many revisions, and the end product is drastically different from the first draft. Almost every essay was created and re-created.
MG: What inspired you to start writing this book? Was the writing process more structured and planned, or free flowing?
SM: I’m always writing, that’s just something I have to do, but what inspired me to put this essay collection together was mainly a sense of ennui while I was living in the hotel in the early weeks of the pandemic. I don’t think I’d ever really consciously formulated a plan to put together an essay collection, but then again I don’t think I ever foresaw living my intern year through a pandemic, so that’s possibly a serendipitous coincidence, if coincidences exist. I think good essay collections are grounded in an overall arc, whether that arc is an event or a general theme, and I suppose the pandemic was the arc I’d subconsciously been waiting for. It started coming together, and I sent a sample to a few publishing houses. Belt replied. I actually got a request to see the rest of the manuscript from one of the Big Five Publishing Houses a week after I had signed my contract with Belt Publishing. I’m glad it ended up working out that way though, because my editor, Martha, has been irreplaceable.
The work started off free flowing and then was crafted into structure. A lot of my free-flowing writing tends to be ideas and thoughts — ungrounded and sometimes difficult to access. I needed to ground that to reality. That can actually be said about the collection as a whole. It was originally titled The Case of the Missing Feather but by the end of the editing process the name changed to what you see it as now. The cover design kind of symbolizes that process of transformation from ethereal to earthly. This didn’t start off as me necessarily, purposefully writing about the pandemic. Instead, it’s mainly a free flowing work grounded in the pandemic. The epigraph to the collection is a quote from a poem by Mumtaza Mehri captures how I feel about it: “Let’s live in digression. We have no other choices.”
MG: In your book, you discuss several different topics, such as identity, history, and philosophy. How/why did you choose which elements to include in your novel?
SM: Not to sound cliched, but the elements chose themselves. They’ve mostly been things I’ve read or come across that have struck me enough to want them to be a part of me. I guess this was a way for me to make them a part of me.
I think it was by reading a lot of other essay collections and seeing whether my own work was something I would want to read. I must have bought dozens of essay collections. After I’d finish an essay collection, I’d go back to my work to see what did and didn’t work. David Sedaris, the humorist essayist, helped me out a lot with that part. My editor pointed out what was obscure, and suggested what was better left out and what places needed expanding upon. I recorded myself reading the entire manuscript and played it back; that also helped me figure out what had to go and what needed to be added.
MG: What do you want people to take away from your book?
SM: Something, anything really. Feeling connected to a body of work set in a very specific time frame, feeling connected to another human or community through the writing, enjoying the parts of the work that free float, laughing with me, laughing at myself, or gaining a piece of knowledge that they didn’t know before. I guess that’s an interesting question because it brings up the question as to why you read anything? You pick up certain books for certain reasons. Harry Potter to reconnect with a childhood, a scientific textbook for a very specific kind of knowledge, Milan Kundera to have your mind blown away for a while. In the end I’m someone in medicine who is writing, not vice versa, and this is also not meant to serve as a scientific conveyance of information. This work is a personal account anchored in a specific event in history, and I hope people can take away something of value from that.
MG: Lastly, what are some of your favorite books, and why?
SM: I have different favorite books according to theme, but I think overall my favorites are:
- The Harry Potter series: I intimately grew up with these like most 90’s kids, and go back to them every few years when going through a change or something in my life.
- Immortal by Kundera: It changed the way I approach philosophy and humor, and just life in itself.
- Daniel Deronda by George Eliot: I read this book in undergrad for one of my classes. I loved the sheer amount of mental thought Eliot puts in her work.
- Orlando by Virginia Woolf: Her writing style is incomparable, and just so much fun. I can’t get enough of her free flowing thoughts, and how that makes more sense to me than a lot of logical, dense work.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Honestly, for that part in the book where Death says: “He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.” I most definitely cried.