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Empty offices at the New York Salesforce Tower in New York October 15, 2020. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

How the final days of an office job inspired this apocalyptic novel

Our December 2020 pick for Now Read This, the PBS NewsHour’s book club with The New York Times, is Ling Ma’s “Severance.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

In the novel “Severance,” a virus called Shen Fever renders most of the global population zombie-like and empties out once-crowded public spaces, from shopping malls to New York City’s Times Square. As Candace Chen continues to commute to her corporate office job while her co-workers fall sick, she watches that space clear out, too.

“In the end, there was the empty office. It was dark inside, smaller and more sparse,” Candace observes, taking note of the empty offices of upper management, “their belongings sealed off and entombed behind glass like emperors’ afterlife provisions, the photographs of their wives and children smiling out at us.”

It’s a scene that is at once eerie and familiar — empty office spaces are not an uncommon sight amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But when she wrote “Severance,” author Ling Ma drew inspiration not from a pandemic, but rather the last days of her own job in Chicago, as that office prepared to shut down.

“In the beginning, the writing routine sprang from the rhythms and trappings of the office, even as fewer employees showed up and it became deserted,” Ma recently told the PBS NewsHour. After her office closed, she continued writing as she lived off unemployment benefits, one freelance assignment and her own severance package.

Ma shares more on her writing routine and sources of inspiration below.

What is your daily writing routine?

It changes, depending on the project. For “Severance,” much of the writing occurred during the summers when I wasn’t teaching. This was in Ithaca, New York, where I lived as a grad student. I would usually go to this coffeeshop in the mornings, downhill from my apartment, and draft out scenes in a notebook. After a break, in the afternoon I’d return home and input the morning drafts into my laptop, revising and rewriting as I went along. I wouldn’t use everything I drafted in the mornings, only a fraction that was worth saving. A two-shift day was ideal. It didn’t always go according to plan, and I could get pretty distracted.

What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?

“Matilda” comes to mind. Followed immediately by “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “A Little Princess,” “The Secret Garden.” So I suppose Roald Dahl and Frances Hodgson Burnett were my favorite childhood writers. Also, “Anne of Green Gables” and “Avonlea,” but I only watched those as TV movies.

As for one book we should read, well, I keep recommending Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget,” so I’ll do so again here!

What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?

In the early aughts, I’d go to Quimby’s and browse their personal zines rack. There’s this type of first-person voice I can only find in personal zines. It’s very immediate and casual, diaristic. To me, that is the ideal first-person voice. I wanted the narrator’s voice in “Severance” to get close to that. The zine format is so low-stakes and the distribution so limited that a person can afford to sound like themselves. Maybe that voice also existed in the early days of blogging, before we realized what the internet would become. My favorite zine series at the time was “My Evil Twin Sister,” written by Amber Gayle and designed by her twin Stacy Wakefield.

What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this Phillip Guston documentary. In one scene, it shows him working on a painting, but later he abandoned that work, whitewashing over it. The reason, he explained, was, “It’s as if I hadn’t experienced anything with it.” I guess the analogy to writing is something like this: Most of us know how to write a competent narrative and could do it pretty well, but that’s not necessarily the reason to write. What’s valuable is how the process changes you, surfacing insights from subterranean realms. Something to think about when you feel pressure to be “productive”!

Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?

No revelatory moments come to mind, though maybe they happened. It’s likely I knew I was working on a novel when my job was ending and I didn’t actively begin a job search. That was a kind of commitment, though I still denied writing a novel for a long time.

“Severance” was intended to be a short story, which I began writing in the final months of an office job, as the company was closing its Chicago location. I had trouble keeping it to a short story length, though. There was more to excavate than I realized. In the beginning, the writing routine sprang from the rhythms and trappings of the office, even as fewer employees showed up and it became deserted. When the office closed, I had no backup plans for employment. I continued writing at home, living off severance and unemployment funds, one plum freelance assignment. I wrote the bulk of “Severance” in grad school, which I started a year or so later.

As for knowing when it was over… There’s this scene towards the end, when the protagonist is driving down a certain road into Chicago. I was on Google Streetviews, literally clicking through the entire route, to see what the scenery was like, trying to experience what she was seeing. I felt sad during this, and knew that my time with her was coming to a close.

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