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A Q&A with Author Geraldine Brooks

Updated: Jul 31

On Leadership, Working Together and the Danger of "Nut Bags” with Big Guns


By Debby Waldman


Author Geraldine Brooks

In her 2001 international bestseller, Year of Wonder: A Novel of the Plague, author Geraldine Brooks imagines life in a 17th-century English village hit by the bubonic plague. Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winner who grew up in Australia and now lives on Martha’s Vineyard, was inspired to tell the story after learning about Eyam, a village in Derbyshire whose inhabitants, led by their minister, quarantined themselves within the community to control the spread of the disease.


In that way, they did a better job than many places around the world are doing right now at controlling COVID-19. In this Q & A, conducted via email (the better to free her up to concentrate on her latest novel), Brooks reflects on what we can learn from her characters in Year of Wonders, why some countries are doing better than others at handling the pandemic, and how she really feels about Rupert Murdoch.

 

Waldman:

Not counting the setting and the time period, what’s the biggest difference between how the plague was handled in Eyam and how COVID-19 is being handled in the United States?


Brooks:

Eyam had remarkable leadership in the young minister and his predecessor who, even though they held differing religious views, were able to come together in a time of crisis to forge a coherent response. Also, it was a time when science and superstition were still fighting it out.  Newton was inventing calculus but witches were still being hanged in Scotland. We thought science won that fight (the Enlightenment). Turns out, not so much...


Waldman:

How much of the 21st century version of the science-vs.-superstition debate is a function of the lack of control over messaging: everyone is free to spout the propaganda of their choice and reach way more people, thanks not only to social media, but also to the Reagan Administration's 1987 decision to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine, which made it so easy to spread the disinformation and ignorance that are infecting everyone right now?


Brooks:

If you could go back in time and eliminate Rupert Murdoch, the world would be a very different place.


Waldman:

In the 350 years since the Plague killed two-thirds of the residents of Eyam, we’ve made incredible progress, science-wise. We can cure some cancers. We can take organs from one person and transplant them to keep another person alive. We can operate on babies before they’re even born. And yet in many ways we are doing no better (and in many cases doing worse) dealing with a deadly virus than the folks in Eyam did with a deadly plague. Given that one of your sons is a scientist, you’re likely aware that it’s not possible to speed up science. So what do think we should do, given all of our 21st century (supposed) advantages, to ensure that we get through this pandemic and can not only thrive but perhaps do better than before?


Brooks:

I do think leadership is key. And I do think it is striking how many countries (and even states in the U.S.) that have done the best against this virus, are led by women. I wonder if this is because women are more inclined to listen better to expert opinion, or are more empathetic to the very vulnerable.  I don’t want to be reductionist, though—Maggie Thatcher probably would have been just as bad as Boris [Johnson]. But Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand seems to me the closest parallel to an Eyam-like leader.  Her decisiveness and her empathetic communication skills are very much what it takes to make a community, a nation (a team of five million, as she put it) pull together instead of pull apart. The result for NZ: zero COVID, fully functioning country, recovering economy.  We can only dream of it.


Waldman:

Like you, I'm impressed with Jacinda Ardern. But sometimes I wonder, is it easier to get everyone on the same page when you're in a relatively small country, especially a small country that is its own island? How do you think Jacinda (or any reasonable leader) would/should handle people who refuse to wear masks and social distance because they think that COVID isn’t real, that it’s a fictional plot cooked up in a Chinese lab?


Brooks:

I think it’s less the size of the country than the founding myth/dominant ideology. We’re wrecked in the United States by the exaltation of individualism over community.  In places like New Zealand and Australia, “we’re in it together” isn’t a recent slogan to be given lip service, it’s a core belief. You don’t rise by stepping on other people, you “chuck a hand back,” as the Aborigines put it, and bring them along with you.


Waldman:

Early in the pandemic, Donald Trump promised that the virus would disappear with warm weather. When that didn’t happen, he recommended injections of disinfectant, which gave late-night comedians something to joke about (and sent the medical community into collective apoplexy). Now he appears more concerned with sending troops out to beat up on US citizens than he is in fighting the coronavirus. How surprised are you at the lack of progress that the Feds have made combating COVID-19?


Brooks:

Given this Administration’s total disregard for science, as demonstrated by climate denial, I am not at all surprised by the fact that the national response was botched.  I suppose I am appalled by how badly it has been, and continues to be botched by certain governors across the country. Trump was only ever interested in the economy, which he defines as wealth generation and preservation for the privileged, and has never shown an ounce of empathy, so it was predictable that when the virus fell most grievously on the poor, the old and on people of color he would quickly lose interest in it.


Waldman:

How optimistic were you early in the pandemic that we’d be back to normal by summer?




Brooks:

Like most of us, I suppose I did think that by now we’d be—if not through it, at least in a lull, bracing for the second wave.  I began to doubt this when I saw the nut bags with their big guns descend on the Michigan state house.  That’s when I realized that this nation’s pathologies had truly caught up with it, and we might be in for a disastrous ride.  The stupidity is not confined to the right, sadly. The left-wing anti-vax movement is just as full of false information and just as tenacious about being complete idiots.


Waldman:

In a Wall Street Journal essay in April, you expressed your frustration that a number of year-round residents in Martha’s Vineyard were complaining that off-island property owners were showing up in March (instead of May, when they typically arrive). The fear was that they’d bring COVIDd with them. How did that work out? Did COVID hit the island hard?


Brooks:

We did okay, so far. Many second homeowners did come in March and stayed quietly at home with no ill effects.  Case numbers have been generally tracked to lowland travel on and off the island. There is some fear that the recent influx of casual summer visitors are being way too careless. There are, belatedly, mask mandates now.  But I always thought the us/them thing was gross hypocrisy.  This island only has a beautiful, fantastically well-equipped hospital due to the philanthropy of the wealthy summer residents.


Waldman:

Do you have any optimism right now about how things are going in the U.S.? If so, how and what's the source of it? If not, what are you doing to get through this unprecedented and uncertain time period?


Brooks:

For some of us—the lucky ones who are not getting sick, going broke or living in isolation—the time has possibly allowed for a bit of a reset on some core values. We’re relearning how to be close families, how to home-cook tasty meals, how little we really need of what’s cramming up our closets. Like everyone else, I hope for a vaccine that is safe and effective. 


Waldman:

If you were writing a novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of COVID-19, set in the U.S., how would it end? And when? 


Brooks:

That’s why I write historical fiction: so I know how it ends.








Debby Waldman is a writer and editor in Edmonton, Alberta. Year of Wonders has been one of her favorite books since she reviewed it for People in 2001.

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