LONDON — For two years, Naomi Alderman, the author of the 2017 dystopian novel “The Power,” had been working on her next book.
Then in February, with 40,000 words already written, she decided she had to stop. The story she had devised, about tech billionaires fleeing a pandemic, now seemed a little too close to reality.
“I just thought, ‘Bollocks! I am not going to be able to write this book,’” Alderman said in a phone interview. “It just felt incredibly disrespectful to the many people who had lost loved ones. And I thought, ‘God knows where this pandemic is going to land, and what is possibly going to be the world that comes after it.’”
In her book, tentatively titled “The Survivals,” she had conjured a pandemic that was much worse than the coronavirus. “News services called it pigeon flu,” one passage of the draft went, “because for a while they thought that the rapid spread of the illness was caused by pigeons. In Paris, there was a series of photographs of local militia using flame throwers against the pigeons. In the images, the birds are trying to fly, their wings on fire. They look like they are screaming, gouts of flame.”
For weeks, Alderman didn’t touch the book, focusing instead on writing exercises. She eventually reconsidered and has decided she can finish it, but with potentially a lot of changes. Likely to be left on the cutting-room floor is the first third of the novel, which explained what a pandemic was and gave the emotional kick so people realized just how scary they are. “That might end up being summarized in about two sentences,” she said with a laugh.
In the interview, she talked about how she shifted course with the book, whether novelists should incorporate the coronavirus into their fiction and why it’s perhaps time for science fiction writers to be kinder. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you come to write about a pandemic in the first place?
I’m interested in what people do in extreme situations. I’d read a piece in The New Yorker about technology billionaires investing in bunkers in New Zealand in order to survive any breakdown of society that they may themselves have ended up catalyzing or causing. That struck me as extremely fertile territory, the massive gap between the rhetoric of Silicon Valley and the reality.
It also seemed to me that we were due for a pandemic. They come along roughly once every 100 years or so, and the last was the 1918/19 one. So I sort of put these two things together: What if I were to follow these tech billionaires on their attempts to get to their bunker?
I did not anticipate this would actually happen.
You heard about coronavirus in January. How did that affect your writing at first?
In the draft, I had a pandemic starting in South America. And when I saw this breaking out in China, I thought, “Ooh, why don’t I change it to there?” So for probably January, much of February, I thought, “This is very topical. This is great. When people come to read this, they’ll go, ‘Oh, she’s looking at what’d have happened if that small pandemic got out of control.’” Then by mid-February, I was just thinking, “Oh dear.”
So what made you feel able to come back to it?
In mid-April, I suddenly had a thought that although Covid is not fun, by the scale of plagues, it is actually quite kind. We forget that it’s perfectly possible for a plague to disproportionately kill babies, or children. So I thought, “How about if this book is written in a world after Covid, 10 or 15 years later, and what I’m writing about is a much less kind plague?”
It also seemed to me it would be very useful, and enjoyable and rewarding, to try to think about what a world after Covid might be like, and what should be different in order to help it be better.
So that’s how I’m looking at it. But I would say that the book is still in flux, which I think one has to allow when it’s suffered a bit of a blow to the head as this has.
What did you get right and wrong about the pandemic?
I got the YouTube videos right. In my novel, people find out about what’s happening around the world not so much from the news as from people uploading videos. I also got the feeling of panic right, I think. And I did have a horrifically, surprisingly accurate bit where things go very, very bad in Italy, and the trains are being turned back and the hospitals get overwhelmed.
What I found surprising is how tiring it is. I’ve compared it in my mind to the experience of moving to a foreign country where you’ve got to relearn everything: how to answer the door, how to walk down the street, how to get your groceries. There’s a pervasive internet fantasy that we’re all going to use this time to become proficient in a new language and perfect our archery skills.
The Guardian published an article this month featuring authors discussing whether they should change their books to include things like face masks or remove scenes where their characters are in pubs. What would your advice to them be?
Don’t stress. Or set it in 2017. Or 2023.
If you’re writing a novel where the main character runs a chain of pubs, and the whole plot concerns his ability to keep his chain of pubs afloat, and you very much want it to be contemporary realist, you might have to really get into social-distancing rules. But if you have characters meeting incidentally in a pub, that’s going to come back.
At the start of Dickens’s “Little Dorrit,” a group of characters are saying farewell to each other. Why have they been acquainted for the past two or three weeks? Because they were all in quarantine, having come back from Europe where there was an outbreak of a disease. And Dickens never gets into what the rules on social distancing were or how exactly they got into that quarantine or how they were housed. It’s just, “Well that happened, so let’s now push on with the story.” That seems a very good model.
As someone who spends her time envisioning the future, can you see this having any impact on science fiction?
It’s not going to have an effect on the kind of deep future, sci-fi space operas with alien invasions and spaceships. But I think for the social science fiction, it might. There’s a strand of apocalyptic science fiction which seems to imagine that most people are just waiting for an excuse to become a cannibal. [Cormac McCarthy’s] “The Road” is a very, very good book, but I do not actually think it is true that what most of us are going to do if the world goes nuts is go, “Hurrah, a chance at long last to fulfill my ambition to eat human flesh!” That’s not how human beings have survived the past several million years. How we’ve actually survived is by working together, forming into communities, working out how to trade with others, mostly trying to keep the peace.
And that’s true even for the tech billionaires in your book?
Well, I think tech billionaires are a very particular subset of humanity.