In Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, a deadly fungal infection called Shen Fever hits Manhattan. When her coworkers start falling ill, Candace Chen — a Bible production specialist — signs an obscenely generous contract to keep working until the crisis is over. But as the crisis turns into an apocalypse, and New York turns into a ghost city, Candace keeps showing up at the office every morning — until she joins a group of survivors on a pilgrimage to Chicago.
It’s a stunning book. I devoured Severance in as close to a single sitting as possible with a two-year-old daughter, and it shook me on an emotional level that no other apocalyptic novel has reached. I recently spoke with Ling Ma, who teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago, about the end of the world, capitalism, New York and Chicago, and how she wrote Severance.
When and where did you start writing this book?
I started writing this book back in 2012, when I lived in Chicago. The company I worked at was downsizing and closing the office I worked at, thus letting many of its employees go, including me. In those last few months on the job, I had this idea for an apocalyptic short story, which, the more I worked on it, the more I had to say. After the job ended, I took my severance and unemployment funds to work on the manuscript. It was a liberating but uncertain time. Definitely a dash of desperation in there too. The more I worked on the story, the more it became clear it was actually a novel, though I resisted that idea for a while.
Eventually, in order to secure more funding, I applied to and got into an MFA program, so I moved to Ithaca, New York. I finished the first draft of Severance in 2016, which is when it sold. Then my editor and I spent some months on revisions. Her honesty was supremely helpful and clarifying.
Were Candace’s experiences in NYC inspired by your own?
Candace has lived in New York far longer than I have, so she knows the city much better than I do. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Candace Chen is a New Yorker, but she could probably navigate it better than I could. I was too impatient to live in New York, too impatient for the slow trains, the long lines at grocery stores, trying to work my way through crowds clustered at tourist spots. I’ve always loved those stories in which characters occupy public places covertly, such as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, in which the child protagonist and her brother camp out overnight at the Met Museum. Or in The Royal Tenenbaums, when Margot and Richie sleep over in the Museum of Natural History.
Perhaps I was thinking of those stories because Candace ultimately gets to have the entire city to herself! Some of my favorite spots, such as Walter de Maria’s Earth Room, make cameos in the novel. Even though New York, particularly Manhattan, has become a lame gentrified playground, there are still pockets of magic — all the more magical because their existence defies logic.
What drew you to Bible publishing, specifically?
I think Bible manufacture is an interesting point of entry to tackle consumerism. Essentially, the trick is selling the same content with different packaging. In the book, it’s referred to as “the ultimate exercise in product packaging.” Also, it’s such a deep irony that the manufacture of Bibles, this emblem of Christianity, depends on low-wage labor in foreign countries. It’s an interesting way to think about Christianity in the era of global capitalism.
I also thought about Christianity as a Westernizing force, and the churches in Chinese American communities. The Protestant work ethic and how that aligns so acutely with the immigrant imperative to succeed.
Candace’s boyfriend’s disillusionment with New York reminded me of a recent essay about how capitalism turned NYC into an empty shell for the super-rich. Did you go through a similar disillusionment while living there?
Yes, to some extent. Although I enjoy visiting New York, I can’t see it as a place I can make a permanent home for myself, in part due to its prohibitive rents. It’s a very different city now than what it used to be. Maybe I can be accused of nostalgia in saying that. If I do suffer from nostalgia, it’s for an era of New York that I’ve never lived in or experienced.
Of all the apocalyptic triggers at your disposal, why Shen Fever?
I think Shen Fever means more than one thing. There were a few points of inspiration, but here’s two that were on my mind:
Many diseases are named after their place of origin, or a landmark from the place of origin. Shen Fever is named after the city of Shenzhen, China. While it’s a lovely, cosmopolitan city, it is also a major manufacturing hub in China — not the only one, but the one that Candace visits on her business trips in Severance. I thought about the rote, mechanical, repetitive work of factory workers on the assembly line. Perhaps Shen Fever inflicts that kind of monotony on the world.
Secondly, I thought about our own routines, waking up and going to work. I have worked jobs where I thought, “In another 50 years, I’ll still be working here. And then I’ll be dead.” I thought of Shen Fever as something that just sped up this process, essentially. Wow, that sounded a lot more depressing than I thought!
Chicago serves as a sort of promised land for Candace and some of the other survivors. Why here?
While there are a few logistical reasons why, I’d like to address this question personally as a Chicagoan, if that’s okay. Since I wrote most of this novel in Ithaca, NY, I was feeling pretty homesick and plotting my own escape back to Chicago. Perhaps it was on my mind as I finished up the novel. To those who think that you can never go home again, I have moved back to Chicago at least three times. Definitely glad to be back again!
Severance by Ling Ma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published August 14, 2018
Ling Ma received her MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Vice, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. A chapter of Severance received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. She lives in Chicago.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.