Minnesota novelist delves into pandemic grief

Sequoia Nagamatsu sits for a portrait photo near an angled brick wall.
Minneapolis author Sequoia Nagamatsu began working on "How High We Go in the Dark" a decade ago to explore different approaches to grief and grieving. He later added a thread about a global pandemic. He admits he was concerned when the publication date of the book aligned with an actual pandemic, but believes his wide-ranging story offers hope and possibility.
Photo by Lauren B. Photography

Imagine working on a novel for 10 years about a world enduring a global plague only to have it published during a real pandemic. That's what's happening to Minneapolis writer Sequoia Nagamatsu. He has mixed feelings about the timing, but he hopes it helps people struggling with the impact of COVID.

Nagamatsu says he partially drew inspiration for his novel "How High We Go in the Dark"  from an article in The Atlantic magazine. It featured scientists concerned that climate change melted permafrost might release long-trapped viruses. He imagined an ancient dormant strain re-emerging in the Siberian Arctic and causing havoc by bringing about cell mutations in human organs.  

'How High We Go in the Dark' by Sequoia Nagamatsu
"How High We Go in the Dark" by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Courtesy Harper Collins

Which led to many things in the novel: stories about how the virus escaped, the impact it has on people around the world, and even a hog called Snortorious P.I.G. He’s been bred in a lab to provide transplant organs for humans including for the son of the lab director. One day pandemonium erupts when over the intercom the director hears a voice apparently calling him.

“The pig studies me as I approach, wiggling its behind and barely opens its mouth: Dahktar. The sound seems disembodied, like a ventriloquist is throwing their voice.”

"Okay, very funny," I say, turning to my staff. "Who said that?"

They look at each other and Patrice points back to the pen.

"We think it's Snortorious" she says.

A pig developing the ability to speak, even though it lacks the physical ability to do so, is just one of many moments of wonder and challenge in a novel that covers centuries and galaxies through a series of interconnected stories. 

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Minneapolis writer Sequoia Nagamatsu reads from "How High We Go in the Dark"

“While a primary thread of the novel is certainly this Arctic plague, the plague is never really kind of the main character,” Nagamatsu said. 

The novel originally grew out of his own experience grieving the loss of his grandfather who was living in Japan when he died, Nagamatsu continued. He began thinking about the practices and rituals people follow as they deal with death, of family, friends or their own.

"I have a fascination to explore grief. And you know, how we respond in sort of times of stress," he said.

One chapter is called "Elegy Hotel." It's about a young man who rather than returning home to the US to care for his terminally ill mother, works in a Tokyo hotel where people can stay with the preserved remains of a loved one as long as they want, or as long as they can afford.

"The main character, the protagonist of that chapter, Dennis, is basically me," says Nagamatsu.

The stories are deeply sad, but also deeply human. 

"I just tend to write about a lot of sad things, maybe one day, I'll write a happy novel," said Nagamatsu.

Reading "How High We Go in the Dark" is not easy.

In the New York Times Review of Books Sebastian Modak admitted he stopped listening to the novel while out walking because he didn’t want to cry in public. He considered stopping listening entirely. “But in between the harsh dose of dystopian reality and nonstop grief,” he wrote “there is poetry, as well as maybe a little catharsis. I’m glad I listened to the end, triggers and all.”

In fact, Nagamatsu says when he realized after a decade's work that his novel would be published during an actual pandemic, he became deeply depressed. He worried it was the wrong time, that readers wouldn't be interested.

But he's changed his mind. 

“While some people might not be ready, a lot of people are. And I noticed that in the early days of COVID, people were leaning into books like Station 11 again, that that book had a resurgence,” he said. “And obviously now there's the HBO adaptation, and people are watching that. So I think people, you know, respond to grief in different ways."

The novel offered Nagamatsu another opportunity too. During final edits he made sure many of the characters are clearly Asian Americans. 

"Because of the anti-Asian sentiments that grew during the pandemic," he said. "I thought it was all the more important to highlight Asian bodIes and Asian voices that were simply living their lives and also victims of this plague."

Sequoia Nagamatsu will celebrate the launch of "How High We Go in the Dark" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 18 at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. He'll be in conversation with fellow author Kawai Strong Washburn, author of "Sharks in the Time of Saviors."

Nagamatsu points out that for readers who look carefully his stories feature hope and possibility.  He does however believe it might help to find a warm, sunny place to read his

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.