‘With vaccinations, emotions trump all the facts and logic’

Emily Edwards on how her novel explores the grey areas of a highly contentious subject

The novel is a new departure for Emily Edwards, who previously wrote crime fiction under the name Emily Elgar. Photograph: Adam Luszniak

What happens when the thorny issue of vaccination comes between two best friends?

That is the timely theme of Emily Edwards’s deft and gripping new novel, The Herd. So it is a surprise to learn, in her author’s note, that the germ of the idea for it was born long before there was a Covid-19 vaccination, long even before the pandemic. “It was just absolute pure coincidence that the two collided at the same time,” she says over Zoom from the home in Lewes, England, she shares with her husband James (who has very kindly lit the wood stove in her sitting room on this bitingly cold morning) and their two sons, aged three and one.

She was sitting on a birthing ball, eight months’ pregnant with their first boy, on a summer’s evening in her garden in 2018 when the idea struck her. “We had our really lovely, vaccine-hesitant doula with us. And in all honesty, I’d never really considered vaccination before being pregnant. I’d been vaccinated, so I just assumed my kids would be, but hadn’t really given it much thought. The doula asked us, ‘Are you intending to vaccinate your baby?’ And my first impulse was, ‘Yes, probably.’

“But then she started to look into the layers of that, and question that decision – for instance, I didn’t realise that a few hours after a baby is born, they are given the vitamin K injection. So that was all new to me. And I suddenly thought, ‘I don’t know if I want my newborn having an injection just hours into life’.”


Meanwhile, her husband “who is very much a science guy”, insisted that of course their child would be vaccinated. “I watched them argue in front of me and I remember it so clearly, that feeling of, my gosh, this is just fascinating. I would love to read about this. I realised I was torn between the two.”

'I am a fairly forensic writer. I like structure and routine. The rest of my life is so chaotic – with two small boys, it's wonderful but chaotic – that I need that sense of control'

She had her baby boy two weeks later – and yes, he is vaccinated – and she stored the idea away in her memory bank until the world found itself in lockdown in March 2020. Her husband was temporarily at home during the days and able to look after their toddler son, freeing up time for her to write. With the most immutable of deadlines looming – her second child was due that July – she threw herself into the story, writing at a pace that did not allow any room for self-doubt. Every day at around 6.30am, she would go to the writing shed in the garden, turn the internet off, and write until around midday. Then she would have a sleep and spend the afternoon with her toddler son. In this way, by July, she had her first draft complete.

“I am a fairly forensic writer. I like structure and routine. The rest of my life is so chaotic – with two small boys, it’s wonderful but chaotic – that I need that sense of control when it comes to my work.”


Over the next few weeks, “we had just a few minor edits back and forth. And then it went out [to publishers] nine days after I had my second son. And the offer – the pre-empt – came the next day, which was just bonkers. It was almost too much for my system to handle. I had this tiny new baby and toddler. I think that’s when the pandemic hit me as well. I didn’t catch Covid, but I was just like, wow, this has been an intense time . It was wonderful, but just completely overwhelming.”

'They were saying things like, You know what, we think Carey Mulligan would be really good. And I'd be like trying not to squirt breast milk all over the place

Since then, the book has been bought by Sharon Horgan’s production company, Merman Productions. “It’s in process with them, and I can’t really say any more about that, because it’s all kind of in flux.” It was, she says, “a crazy experience. Two weeks after my son was born, there was an auction. There were seven different production houses who wanted the book. So I was sort of zooming them all with this newborn trying to figure out this world I’d never ever been involved before. And they were saying things like,” – she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial hush – “‘You know what, we think Carey Mulligan would be really good.’ And I’d be like trying not to squirt breast milk all over the place. It was extraordinary.”

It’s not hard to see why it was in such demand. The book has that urgent, keep-the-pages-turning quality that feels designed for a binge-watch. Although it is a novel about an issue that is very topical, it never feels like a ‘novel of issues’ so much as a pacy, emotional read about motherhood, friendship, tribalism and the way we judge one another, which happens to have one thorny question at its core.

I’m curious to know, having extensively researched the topic, how she felt about taking the Covid vaccine when it arrived. “I hope this doesn’t sound too duplicitous. For myself and my husband, I absolutely would have seen no problem. When it comes to my kids, I have more of a pause, especially because they’re so young ,” she says.

“And you know, even though I’ve written this book, and I absolutely believe in vaccination, and my boys are vaccinated, when I took my youngest to have his vaccines, I struggled the night before. I had a bit of a sleepless night thinking about it. I was dreading that appointment. I was dreading him screaming afterwards, and I kept a really close eye on him in a few hours afterwards. One of the things I find so interesting about vaccinations is how emotions trump all the facts and logic.”

She offers an example by way of illustration.  “When I was doing my research, I spoke to a woman who knew so much about vaccinations. She was really clued up on it. But she had heard one story about someone’s child who seemed to deteriorate after having the MMR. And that one emotional story was enough to outweigh all of the logic and the facts and the science that she knew about it. Even though she educated herself about it. I find that really interesting, how it’s so emotionally driven.”

When I tell people that I've written a book about vaccination, I can see the question in their eyes straight away. And their whole body language changes slightly

It is Edwards’s ability to explore the grey areas between the binary position and hardline certainties that seem to populate so much online discourse that makes The Herd an engaging, compelling and distinctly non-polemical read. The novel demands that the reader park preconceptions and have empathy for Elizabeth, the pragmatic realist whose daughter cannot be vaccinated, and then on the next page for Bryony, who is fearful of vaccinations for deep-rooted and very personal reasons.

‘Balanced view’

“When I tell people that I’ve written a book about vaccination, I can see the question in their eyes straight away. And their whole body language changes slightly. I find myself saying, ‘it’s pro vaccination’. And ultimately, I suppose it is. But the point of the book is that it tries to take a balanced view.”

As someone who researched the issue thoroughly before bringing my youngest child for her vaccination, and then went home afterwards and – entirely coincidentally – read Edwards’s book from beginning to end in a single day, I tell her that it felt like a safe space to explore some of the nuances and concerns that many parents feel, but are not often discussed in the current climate.

“Something I find very much as a mother is that, when my babies were tiny, I felt so incredibly powerful. I’ve never felt more powerful. But also as a mother, I’ve never felt so powerless.”

This ambiguity and feeling of powerlessness is why “I don’t think there’s any benefit in labelling people who don’t vaccinate as stupid or ignorant. Because ultimately, I really believe that everyone’s just trying to do the best with the information that they have. And that these decisions are often born out of fear and love.”

She thinks that women in particular, and mothers especially, can be overwhelmed with information – and presumably disinformation – on issues such as vaccination. “I think there’s such a surplus of information now for women about how to be a mother. You can never read enough, you can never know enough. It always might be the next article, the next thing you click on, that will give you the answer for how to get your baby to sleep or eat or poo or whatever they need to do. And that’s a really anxiety-inducing space to be in.”

Parenthood, she laughs, “just requires so much adulting. I’m exhausted by the adulting.”

The Herd is not Edwards’s first novel. She did the Faber novel-writing course in 2014 and has been writing full-time since 2015. She previously published two under the name Emily Elgar. “This is a new direction and a bit of a rebrand.”

She previously wrote crime fiction, but the kind of writing that she wants to do now involves “taking a big contemporary issue, something that impacts us all, in different ways, and fictionalising it and making a great story out of it. It’s those things we find so hard to talk about. Because that’s always the most interesting stuff. We really want to talk about the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about. I think there’s so much connection in those spaces, you know, a real opportunity to connect with people to talk about some tough stuff.”


Edwards is a dream to interview. When I transcribe it afterwards, I think I understand better how she managed to complete a first draft of a novel in four months, and only needed a few weeks of second edits. I suspect she writes as she speaks: in entirely clear, articulate, beginning-to-end sentences that don’t rely on verbal crutches and emerge fully formed, without hesitation or apology.

She is also generous with her advice for aspiring writers. Give yourself a mini-sabbatical and book yourself an Airbnb for two or three nights when you’re getting started, she says. “And then say, right, I’ve got to write 2,000 words today. Let them be shit – that’s fine. You can go back and sort them out later. When I first started writing, I would become a bit obsessed with making everything as beautiful as it possibly can be the first time. And actually I feel that I’m the kind of writer where getting the words down and editing are different skills that I need to keep them quite separate. I find that once I’m into the first 15,000 words, I can keep going.

“I think writers like writing to feel quite mysterious to our readers. We would like to perpetuate this rather romantic myth. And actually, a lot of writing is just like any other job. It’s just turning up every day and nose to grindstone, getting the words down. Some days, it’s much easier than others. Other days, it’s walking through treacle. But it’s about having the confidence to just keep writing.”

The Herd by Emily Edwards is published by Bantam Press.