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The Era of Pandemic Literature Is Upon Us, and It’s Starting With Regina Porter’s ‘Daily Cleanse’

Written by on September 9, 2020

When truth is stranger than fiction, writers of fiction often make sense of reality on the page; yet in the unprecedented age of the coronavirus pandemic, many writers have reported feeling paralyzed by incessant despair, leaving them unable to create. But Regina Porter, the acclaimed author of 2019’s The Travelers, wasn’t paralyzed—instead, Porter found herself “compelled” to start a new novel at the height of the pandemic. In “Daily Cleanse,” a story adapted from that forthcoming novel-in-progress, tentatively titled The Rich People Have Gone Away, Porter introduces Theo Harper, a privileged New Yorker struggling to keep secrets from his pregnant wife, Darla, as life in the city grinds to a devastating halt due to the coronavirus. “Daily Cleanse” is at once an unsparing look into the discomforts of intimacy and a deeply felt portrait of a transformed city, one where, Porter writes, “Some people need toilet paper. Others need gin and cigarettes.” For Porter, a New York City resident, “Daily Cleanse” was borne of lived experiences that will haunt her for years to come. Porter spoke with Esquire about accessing her creativity against all odds, creating morally complicated characters, and employing fiction to investigate questions about race. Esquire: Where did this story begin for you, and how is the novel-in-progress from which it’s adapted continuing to take shape? Regina Porter: Prior to the pandemic, I was tinkering around new ways into a new novel. In early April, at the height of the pandemic, I had to walk over to Park Slope to do some bank errands. I wasn’t taking the trains—just walking or biking. I was shocked by how quiet it was there, and by the overwhelming smell of chemical cleansers. I didn’t see anyone until I got to Seventh Avenue, along the residential blocks, where I saw four people, some like myself on specific errands, and along Ninth Street, just a number of homeless people. It haunted me from that point on; I couldn’t concentrate on my work. Then one day, I sat down and this thing came out. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to what I was working on before. This had to be my new project. It was full of the kind of questions that I want to answer and investigate. ESQ: Can you speak to what those questions are?

RP: I’m thinking about why it started with Theo. White maleness is a kind of door we all have to walk through, regardless of our background or our gender. As I wrote, I asked myself, “Why did I choose this door, why did I choose this hallway, and what does it say?” It’s those kinds of questions. What do those choices mean about relationships? Doors have become very important during this pandemic. There was a period where we kept people out, but there’s also a history of keeping people out. What does this mean in terms of our relationships with other people? In particular, our relationships with our partners, and to a larger extent, our friendships, and our race. These are some of the questions that I’m grappling with. Who has the right to enter that door? ESQ: Early in the story, Theo reflects, “Why grapple with social constructs or the contradictions within himself?” That perspective (or lack thereof) is part of what makes him such a memorable and fascinating character. He’s complicated, he’s frustrating, and he does not want to introspect in the way that we want white men to introspect.RP: Yes. And as we learn more about him, there’s the question: what is whiteness? Is Theo white? When did he and his family become completely white? There’s a luxury to being white. Let’s think about the whole concept of the Founding Fathers of our country, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. This country was already found, so to call them the Founding Fathers is, in fact, a myth. I think what we’re seeing in our larger population, in the Black Lives Matter movement, are young and often white people who are starting to look up and question these things. I think we meet Theo in a very uncomfortable place at the height of the pandemic, where he is someone who has been very comfortable in his whiteness, but is beginning to look around and ask some of these questions. I think during the pandemic, a lot of New Yorkers were asking, “What do you mean we don’t have enough ventilators? How did we get to this point? We’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world.” I don’t always like to be overtly political, but I think the political angles to the story work best through the personal angle and through the relationships.


White maleness is a kind of door we all have to walk through.

ESQ: It’s interesting to hear you say that you were gripped by this story during a period when many writers have said that it’s been impossible to tap into their creativity or to accomplish anything. How have the events of this year affected your ability to be creative?RP: I write in spurts. Once the pandemic really got off the ground in March, there was a period where most of my writer friends couldn’t write. I had an idea of working on something, but it often ground to a halt, and I would say to myself, “If I get thirty minutes a day, that’s good writing day.” But then walking over to Park Slope, with the overwhelming smell of ammonia, I saw something that will forever haunt me. There’s a women’s shelter not far away, and as I walked my dog back toward Prospect Park, I saw an African American woman. She was homeless. She didn’t have a mask; she was ranting and saying, “I don’t need a mask.” My heart went out to her. I didn’t have a mask to give her, unfortunately. I thought, “She’s so vulnerable.” I started thinking about the divide between the haves and the have nots. I was running an errand, but it wasn’t a necessity. It got me to thinking about need versus want. Ventilators and who gets ventilators—those conversations were very important and still are. Who’s out there on the streets and who isn’t? I think I was compelled to write this, and I hope that comes through in the story.ESQ: For writers who are still struggling to write, what advice do you have about how to get back in touch with that part of themselves and unlock their creativity?RP: I think you take it one day at a time. When I teach craft classes, one of the principles I try to instill in each student is that we all have stories to tell. No two writers will tell a story the same way, although often there is overlap. You have to figure out what your connective tissue is. What’s the thing that compels you to sit down and write sentence after sentence after sentence? It’s very important to cut yourself some slack, these days. Maybe you write five minutes, maybe you keep a journal, maybe you keep a recorder. Sometimes it also helps to tap into something from your childhood, especially now that everything is so precarious. Maybe just one strand of that will help you form a character who is human and true. Now, after the pandemic has hit, I think collectively, we knew it was coming, in a way. I think in terms of the way writers began talking about their bodies in terms of fiction and the landscape. There was a period, especially during the height of this in New York City, where you didn’t go outdoors. It wasn’t safe to go outdoors. Isn’t that kind of similar to our lives as hunters and gatherers? Nature forced us in. When you stop and think about those dualities, you realize that this moment is not new.ESQ: As writers and other creatives begin to create art about this period in history, what do you anticipate that the emerging art of the coronavirus era will look like?RP: I think it’s going to look very different and, in some ways, very similar. We had the Spanish Influenza, so this moment is not new. We pushed that time away and forgot about it in the face of technology, perhaps thinking that technology could solve all of our problems. Technology has allowed us to stay connected, but it has not been the solution for everything. I think with each writer, it’s time to assess what your connective tissue is. I’m a huge fan of Edward P. Jones and James Alan MacPherson, his mentor. One of the things I realized with Jones was that he breaks the craft. Sometimes your story is supposed to be kind of compact. If you have a character enter, that character enters for a reason; they must stay and be part of the story. Mr. Jones sometimes would have an important character enter and leave. You would never see that character again. In most writers’ work, that might be a flaw, but he could pull that off because that was the nature of his life. There was a time where he lived in a homeless shelter, and if you think about that, sheltered people enter and exit a lot. There’s a transient lifestyle because people don’t have homes. So when he has a character enter and exit, it comes from a true place within him. It’s coming from some kind of connective tissue from his life. Something that might not work conventionally works in the framework of his writing. We each have to find that for ourselves. What’s the connective tissue you can apply, not to make a work directly autobiographical, but to give structure or architecture to your storytelling?

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ESQ: The title of the story, “Daily Cleanse,” refers of course to Theo and Darla’s daily habit of sanitizing their apartment. What’s the importance of ritual in a time of great upheaval like this one, whether it’s sitting down to write or cleaning your apartment?RP: Ritual gives us stability. Ritual gives us control. Remember, people ran out and bought toilet paper at the beginning. That was a kind of ritual, because it was them saying, “I have no control over anything, but I’ll have control if I have tissue to wipe my ass. I may not have control over whether or not I die tomorrow, but I will have tissue to wipe my ass.” That look at the world is very interesting. Profoundly funny and disturbing at the same time. Then there are the relationships, like couples and family members stuck together. The little things that we take for granted. In New York, you might have a mate, but you go out alone into the world, where you have small exchanges. Those exchanges are healthy for a relationship. Then suddenly you’re deprived, and you feel different. The hallway gets big. So many of these daily little interchanges and interactions inform our relationships. When you don’t have that and you’re locked together, what happens to your relationship? That’s a very real question in this story.ESQ: What you’re describing makes me think of a line in the story where you write, “Chance encounters are scarce during a pandemic.” Have you found yourself missing chance encounters? Have you found ways to have them even within these new strictures?RP: Now New York has opened up a little more as other parts of the country are dealing with what we dealt with, so that’s not so relevant anymore. But if we’re talking about Tinder, there are always high-risk personalities. High-risk personalities are going to take risks regardless. You will find the opportunity. You’ll hit the point where you have to do something. But at the height of the pandemic in New York, dating was challenging because people were freaked out. All of these things fascinate me. How do you date during the pandemic? How do you fall in or out of love during the pandemic? How do you negotiate that? How’s it personified?


Who has a right to enter his world, his building, his white world?

Take, for example, the teenager in the Cardi B shirt. That’s a chance encounter. You see this moment where the elevator doors open and he’s waiting for Theo to enter, because, for a few seconds, he’s forgotten COVID. Theo thinks but doesn’t say, “I don’t know this Black kid. Who is this person?” Race is so textured and complicated. Theo’s not hurling racial slurs—he’s more sophisticated in his biases than that. But he’s having these thoughts about who has the right to cross through a threshold. Who has a right to enter his world, his building, his white world? That’s very interesting for me. ESQ: That moment in the story with the elevator was such a memorable scene. It got me thinking about how those moments of unkindness and selfishness seemed to stack up during March and April, with everybody out for themselves, but New York has also seen so much surprising togetherness during this trying time, like neighbors opening community fridges and mutual aid funds. We have to live together or die alone, after all. RP: Absolutely—a lot of good has happened, in spite of it all. What’s interesting is, I don’t know that Theo sees himself as being cruel in that moment. I don’t know what he’s thinking. I’m still figuring him out. He’s territorial, but where does that come from? As I write, I sometimes think it’s best to write or to learn things along with the reader. ESQ: So you’re not one of those writers who sketches a big character portrait from the very beginning?RP: No, I don’t live by data. I know a few key turning points. I have a lot of visuals, but oftentimes it’s highly intuitive. At the point that “Daily Cleanse” was written, George Floyd was not dead. He had not yet been murdered. I read this story and remark at Theo speaking about the appeal of the shortness of breath during sex. But now, when I think about that, I think about Mr. Floyd… how the breath just screams out of him. That puts it in a context. I don’t think I’ll ever think about breath and breathing the same again. We were already having conversations about who has the right to a ventilator. So as a reader, there’s something interesting there. You’re already going to have a relationship with Theo, because you’re right there with him as a reader. But at that starting point, you’re going to know things that he doesn’t know. That’s always a fascinating way for me to approach craft. ESQ: “Daily Cleanse” is an excerpt from a novel in progress. What can you tell us about where the story goes from here? RP: I have a working title. I’m calling it The Rich People Have Gone Away. It’s hard to give a log line; I hate those things, because the story may veer off wildly. Good writing often does. But if you asked what it’s about, I would say that it’s about a man whose wife goes missing during the pandemic. During the search for her throughout New York City and upstate, he runs into his own demons, and those demons are about race. Every character mentioned in “Daily Cleanse”—Darla’s mom, her best friend, the teenager in the Cardi B shirt—those people are all going to come back into this narrative and in some way inform the world against the backdrop of the pandemic. Imagine losing someone during this pandemic, or them disappearing and trying to find them. It’s unimaginable. That’s what I’m thinking, but it’s very loose. I can’t tell you A, B, C, D, E, F, or G, and I wouldn’t want to.

Assistant Editor
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.

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