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A new satire novel by a Pitt-Bradford writing professor reflects on COVID-19


Nancy McCabe’s newest novel revisits a strange time for higher education — the COVID-19 pandemic.

The professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford said she started writing “The Pamela Papers: A Mostly E-pistolary Story of Pandemic Academic Pandemonium” while faculty were trying to teach, meet and conduct their normal work through digital tools. The satiric novel was published by Outpost 19 on Feb. 6.

“The technology that enabled us to do our jobs also had the power to speed up the dehumanization of the workplace,” she said. That dilemma moved a friend to ask her, “What if the person on the other side of the computer was just a bot?”

Inspired by this idea, she began her satire of academic life in the pandemic. As her co-workers caught on, they sent her ideas to incorporate.

“Academia particularly lends itself to satire,” said McCabe, who also directs Pitt-Bradford’s writing program. “People are drawn to it by idealism, optimism and a belief in the power of education, but for many, a culture created by flawed human beings can seem irrational, egotistical and jarringly out of keeping with the values we hold.”

McCabe said she found writing “The Pamela Papers” during the pandemic cathartic. “I found solace in poking fun of things that were making me stressed and anxious. I found myself looking forward to the process, and when I was most stressed, I could turn to my manuscript and immediately start laughing.”

The book is written in the form of a variety of documents — emails, Zoom chats, a resume, a word cloud, accreditation guidelines, Pamela’s to-do lists and more.

“I began by composing fake emails exaggerating real life to highlight things that felt ridiculous,” she said. “And then I tried to figure out how the entire story might be told through a variety of documents. It was a fun distraction, something that could be written in bits and pieces between Zoom classes and meetings.”

This is McCabe’s eighth book. A ninth, the middle grade novel “Fires Burning Underground,” is to be published in 2025. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a PA Council on the Arts fellowship, her work has been recognized ten times on Best American notable lists. Along with her role at Pitt-Bradford, McCade teaches in the low-residency creative writing graduate program at Spalding University.


— Kimberly Weinberg