Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo says she believes people are turning to reading about pandemics as there is a need to “deepen our understanding of what’s going on”.
Sales of books about fictional epidemics have seen a huge surge during lockdown, a new survey has found, with some figures increasing by more than 1,000%.
In fact, more people are reading in general, with one in three saying they are turning to books more while we are stuck indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the poll by The Reading Agency.
But it’s stories such as the 1947 novel The Plague, by Albert Camus, and virologist Nathan Wolfe’s 2011 book The Viral Storm, which are seeing the biggest increase in sales – the latter up by 1,393%.
It’s a trend that Evaristo, the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, believes shows how much people are looking to make sense of the coronavirus crisis.
The author says she is surprised to hear people want to read about pandemics, but can understand why.
People, she says, “are looking for guidelines to navigate this moment and perhaps looking for reassurance.
“Plagues do come and go, they’re ephemeral, they don’t last forever and we’re looking to gain more knowledge of it.”
Evaristo says fiction is engrossing, and deepens our understanding of “humanity and human behaviour” through empathy with others.
“What we can do as writers is get inside, really deep inside the human experience,” she says. “Help people to understand who we are and how we cope and where we’re going, and all our foibles and weaknesses and all those kinds of things – that’s one of the riches about fiction.”
Evaristo was named the joint winner of the Booker Prize alongside Margaret Atwood last year, for her novel Girl, Woman, Other – a controversial decision, which was criticised by some.
Earlier this week, she was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction for the same story.
Asked if she would be prepared to share a prize again, Evaristo laughs. “I don’t think they’d go there with it, to be honest.
“I think there was so much furore over the breaking of the rules for the Booker that I think they’ll just give it to one person.”
However, she says she was not at all aggrieved with being jointly awarded alongside Atwood, who shared the prize for her novel The Testaments, the follow-up to her dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale.
“It’s such a gift whether you get it on your own or if you have to share it and I’m very happy with sharing it,” she says. “And also, Margaret is such an amazing person and writer that, why wouldn’t I?”
The author says the children in her life now call her “Auntie Booker”, and she hasn’t really had time to get used to the enormity of her win.
“Every so often it hits me, because I’ve been so busy ever since, I haven’t really had even a couple of weeks to decompress and think ‘wow’.
“But then every so often it will hit me and I think this is such a big deal and it’s so long coming.”
Evaristo is one of the authors supporting World Book Night, an annual celebration of reading which this year takes place online, with people invited to join a host of activities, including a reading hour from 7pm until 8pm tonight