“I always find that the hardest stuff to talk about is the most interesting to talk about,” says Emily Edwards – and she would know: her novel, The Herd, is almost impossible not to talk about once you’ve reached its shocking conclusion. With hundreds of effusive reviews piling up on Amazon and Goodreads, and plenty of readers seeing themselves in the lie at the heart of the novel, The Herd is a book club read that we wanted to hear more about – so we called up the woman who wrote it.
What was the inspiration behind The Herd?
I was pregnant with our first son. I was one of these first-time mums who was like, "I'll do all my homework, I'll do all the hypnobirthing, I'll be a really good girl, and then I will have the dream birth." So we hired a doula to be there during the birth. And of course, it totally didn't go to plan.
But our doula was vaccine-hesitant. And it was interesting because I really admired her: she's a very strong woman, and very clear in the kind of mother that she is. And I found that quite alluring, really. My husband and our birth doula were talking about the birth that was to come - I was about eight months pregnant. She said: have you thought about whether you're going to vaccinate your baby or not? I honestly hadn't really thought about it. I kind of assumed that we would because I grew up having them. My husband said, “Yes, we absolutely are vaccinating our baby”. And they ended up having a really tense argument in the garden about this and I just felt so conflicted. Then, I thought it would make a great topic for a book.
Many readers have commented that they see their own dilemmas as parents in The Herd. When did you realise what a divisive issue vaccination was?
As I started talking about the research – say, if I met someone in a playground who I didn't know and mentioned that I was writing a book about vaccination – there would immediately be that question in their eyes, like: am I talking to an anti-vaxxer, or am I talking someone who does vaccinate their children? People want you to out yourself. People want to know if you have vaccinated their kids. I realised that it was a really polarising issue. And I tend to think there’s such opportunity for connection and understanding from those things that are really difficult.
The characters of Elizabeth and Bry are deliberately very different, despite their unlikely friendship. How did you draw them up?
When my husband was reading the book for the first time, he was like: “Oh my God. You are Bry and you're also Elizabeth." Retrospectively, I think I was probably writing about my own experience of conflict about what kind of mum I was going to be: not knowing, and feeling like there were all these external influences that I was seeking out to discover my maternal identity, but also found utterly baffling and really confusing. The characters themselves came to me in quite an organic way. It was actually the character of Rosalyn who appeared strongly to me first, because I think she is an aspirational woman: she lives her life how she chooses without apology. She was this very solid base of womanhood.
Did you always know that the twist was coming?
Yes. I wanted Elizabeth's experience to be more complex than that which she let the world know. For me, the overwhelming message of the book is that we're all just trying to do the best for our people we love – and that is a way more connective sentiment than how that might manifest differently in our lives.
What do you hope readers take away from The Herd?
I hope that this book will be a segue into having those difficult conversations. I'm keen that people are aware that I have chosen to vaccinate my kids; I absolutely do think it's the right thing to do. But I think it's also really appropriate for people to question vaccination. I think what's really difficult is that it is so binary: it's really hard to find a space to be like, "I don't know what the best thing to do is and I know I have to make some sort of choice". I think just opening up those conversations is really helpful.