Emma Donoghue on how her pandemic-set historical novel echoes the present

Emma Donoghue on how her pandemic-set historical novel echoes the present

Emma Donoghue on how her pandemic-set historical novel echoes the present

When Emma Donoghue set out to write a work of historical fiction set during the Spanish flu pandemic, she never predicted that history would repeat itself by the time she filed her final draft.

Before she started writing on the 1918 outbreak about two years ago, Donoghue said she hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to see the modern world seized by a mysterious plague.

As the novel coronavirus swept China early this year, the London, Ont.-based author said she was too focused on assisting the local theatrical adaptation of her blockbuster book “Room” to notice the parallels to her forthcoming novel, “The Pull of the Stars.”

But by March, the outbreak hit Canada, shutting down the Grand Theatre’s production of “Room” on opening night. Soon after, her publisher asked her to move up the release date.

“The Pull of the Stars,” which is out Tuesday, was supposed to be out next year, but the subject matter proved too prescient to hold back.

“Any pandemic, whether in 2020 or 1918, acts as a kind of X-ray revealing what’s really going on in a society and decisions that we’ve all collectively agreed to,” Donoghue, 50, said in a recent interview.

Her book explores how a pandemic exacerbates pre-existing systemic ills, which also a major topic of discussion in 2020 given the impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities.

“What we’re all saying during COVID is that a virus doesn’t spread at random. It hits the vulnerable,”

“The Pull of the Stars” takes place in a Dublin hospital pushed to the brink between the casualties of the First World War, a deadly strain of influenza known as “the grippe” and the commonplace ravages of poverty.

Nurse Julia Power must contend with these forces as she cares for her flu-sickened patients in the maternity ward, each birth posing potentially deadly risks to both mother and baby.

She’s assisted in this precarious endeavour by two outsiders — one a victim of a system that treats certain lives as disposable, the other rebelling against it.

In unspooling the contained three-day narrative, Donoghue sought to highlight the workday heroism of health care, as well as the political aspects of the profession.

That message feels all the more poignant as politicians and public health officials face off over how to balance economic and medical interests in the fight against COVID-19, she said.

But Donoghue, who consulted with health professionals while editing “The Pull of the Stars” during the COVID-19 pandemic, doesn’t hesitate to say whom she sides with.

“The main lesson I tend to draw is trust science more than politics,” said Donoghue. “Health can’t be considered to be a matter in isolation. Health is connected with every other social decision we make.”

It’s no coincidence that pandemics bring civil unrest to the fore, said Donoghue, particularly when conflict and contagion converge to lay bare long-standing injustices.

In early 20th-century Ireland, the twin massacres of the First World War and the flu outbreak prompted many Irish citizens to rise up against British rule.

Donoghue sees echoes of that history in our current reckoning with anti-Black racism and police brutality following the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“It is fascinating how big, terrible things like wars (and police violence) do bring about social change, because they shake things up, and they allow you to start asking the big questions.”

Donoghue is no stranger to fictionalizing the surreal stakes of a viral outbreak, having set her 2014 novel, “Frog Music,” in San Francisco in summer of 1876 as the city grappled with a smallpox epidemic.

“Perhaps novelists are ghouls, but we’re irresistibly drawn to situations where life-or-death decisions can be made in everyday life,” she said.

“Pandemics show that we’re all connected, so you can’t just say it’s my personal decision to do X or Y. It has a huge effect on people around you.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

Books

Just Posted

The City of Red Deer sits at 249 active cases of the virus, after hitting a peak of 565 active cases on Feb. 22. (Black Press file image)
Red Deer down to 119 active COVID-19 cases

Province identifies 179 new cases Saturday

Member Terry Parsons’ custom built track vehicle.
Forestburg’s Area 53 Racetrack gears up for action-packed season

Site will also host a portion of the ‘Miles of Mayhem’ event in July

Sabrina Wilde in front of a recently purchased monster truck. Submitted.
Thorsby business women a finalist for 2021 Alberta Women’s Entrepreneurship Award

Sabrina Wilde with Lone Wolf Mechanical is a finalist for the entrepreneurial award.

Grade 12 students at Wetaskiwin Composite High School took place in the annual water fight off school property on June 11, 2021. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Graduating students in Wetaskiwin throw water fight after being told it could result in suspension

Students were told their participation could result in them being barred from graduation ceremonies.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Airport ground crew offload a plane carrying just under 300,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine which is developed by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
1st batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines won’t be released in Canada over quality concerns

The vaccines were quarantined in April before they were distributed to provinces

Most Read