Naomi Alderman Was Writing a Pandemic Novel Before the Pandemic Hit – The New York Times

The author of “The Power” went back and forth on whether she could keep writing fiction that suddenly seemed too close to reality.

“I would say that the book is still in flux,” Naomi Alderman says, “which I think one has to allow when it’s suffered a bit of a blow to the head as this has.”Credit…Annabel Moeller

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.

Naomi Alderman’s previous novel, “The Power,” imagined a world in which women gain the ability to emit powerful electric shocks.

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.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

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.