“The Blood Tax” is taken from Emma Donoghue’s forthcoming novel, The Pull of the Stars (available on July 21). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Emma and Thomas Gebremedhin, a senior editor at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Thomas Gebremedhin: “The Blood Tax” is taken from your forthcoming novel, The Pull of the Stars, which is set during the 1918 Spanish-flu pandemic. You wrote the novel long before COVID-19 started to dominate global headlines, and the story has since taken on an unexpected congruity with our current moment. What has it been like for you to revisit the book these past few weeks? Were there any particular scenes that took on new meaning?
Emma Donoghue: Yes, it’s been rather eerie to reread the text, especially as I’ve been lucky enough to have both a midwife (currently quarantined) vet it for the labor-and-delivery scenes and an emergency-medicine doctor (working part-time through this pandemic) copy edit it; discussing fictional medical matters with these two frontline health workers, at a time when battling a virus couldn’t be more real, has filled me with a sense of urgency to get it right. Not just the symptoms and the procedures, but the psychology of nurses and doctors in desperate times. Despite the horror of the present moment, I’ve found myself reflecting on how much worse things were in 1918, when they really had no idea what they were battling—their microscopes weren’t yet powerful enough for them to isolate and identify the flu virus. High doses of aspirin and quinine were proving toxic, so many doctors ordered whiskey for patients instead—that’s how primitive the treatment was.