Last week, the Straight reported that B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has cowritten a book with her sister, Lynn Henry, that will come out in March.
This news generated a heated debate over social media between her admirers and her detractors. Some alleged that Dr. Henry was profiting from her work as a public servant while others expressed an intense desire to read her story.
The book's title—Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe: Four Weeks That Shaped a Pandemic—also grated on some because they felt that it overlooked the horrific second wave of the disease in B.C., which has taken hundreds of lives.
And as the death count continues rising, these critics felt it was self-aggrandizing for Dr. Henry to focus her book on the first four weeks of the public fight against COVID-19 when she was being lionized in the media.
This morning to clear the air, the publisher, Allen Lane Canada, released an interview that it had conducted with Bonnie and Lynn Henry.
In this company interview, the Henry sisters disclosed that they're each donating their advances to charity.
Dr. Henry is giving hers to First Book Canada, which distributed books and other educational resources to programs and schools that serve low-income families.
Lynn Henry, the publishing director at Knopf Canada, is donating her advance to True North Aid, which offers humanitarian support to Indigenous communities.
Knopf Canada and Allen Lane Canada are both imprints of Penguin Random House Canada, which is the country's largest book publisher.
Read the entire interview below.
Allen Lane Canada: How did this book come about? What were the circumstances that led to Be Calm, Be Kind, Be Safe?
Bonnie: It just happened that Lynn arrived from Toronto the day the pandemic was declared in March and ended up staying with me for those critical few weeks when her office went entirely online. She witnessed the work I was involved in and overheard some of the critical conversations during that time. She started taking notes, recognizing it was a unique and challenging time, and she also noted that I, too, was keeping notes of key thoughts through this time.
Her dawning understanding of the enormity of the situation and my role in it was the genesis of the book. It really only could have happened because Lynn is who she is, and is deeply involved in editing and publishing, and has that expertise. So she put the framework and outline together for the book as a way to tell my story, and also give people some understanding of the back story of those momentous decisions through our shared experience.
Lynn: I think of this book as the result of an extremely unlikely combination of circumstances: I happened to be flying to B.C. from Toronto (for a long-planned trip) when the pandemic was declared; our office happened to close down just as my plane landed, giving me the opportunity to work remotely from B.C. for a month (at the time, I thought I would be helping to support my sister); Bonnie happened to be who she was, the person leading the pandemic response in B.C.; and I happened to be who I am, a person who has spent twenty-some years collaborating with writers to make books.
Also, I had been asked by a publisher, Anansi, back in Toronto, to see if I could wrangle a new introduction to a book by Bonnie on public health that they had published a decade ago, and were re-releasing. So that is why I started following Bonnie around, hearing her conversations, and taking notes ... And then I got caught up in the momentous events, and the behind-the-scenes moments I was witnessing, and kept on scribbling away.
Before I left B.C., I do remember saying to Bonnie, “Er, I have this crazy idea ...” But she was too busy and anxious, of course, to even listen (and rightly so). Back in Toronto, I sketched what an outline might look like, taking key moments as the anchors for four parts, and also thinking that I might build in some of the background I’d witnessed from Bonnie’s experience with SARS and other diseases. I got up at 4 or 5 in the morning before work for a few weeks—I was working full days remotely from home—and as an experiment started tapping out the first few thousand words, to see if I really had anything to say.
I then talked to some wise people I trusted in the publishing industry (not only at the publishing house where I work), who looked at me with surprise, but then said, Yes, there may indeed be a book there. And then, one fateful Sunday, I phoned Bonnie and said, “So ... remember when I told you I had this crazy idea ...”
Allen Lane Canada: Bonnie, why did you say yes when Lynn presented the idea of the book to you?
Bonnie: I didn’t! I have only a vague recollection of her pitching the idea sometime in April or May after she had returned to Toronto, and some memory that she had told me she was taking notes when she was with me in March. But then she sent me a detailed outline and some of what she had written and reassured me she would take on the details of structure and editing and all that.
And of course I know she is a brilliant editor and writer so that helped. I also did feel that there was a story from my perspective that I wanted to share, and as it turned out it was almost therapeutic in many ways for me to write that story out. It was a personal catharsis but also ensured some of the thinking that went into the many challenging decisions we had to make was recorded. It was good, I believe, to provide some detail and background to those decisions that are not reported in daily briefings or short media stories.
Allen Lane Canada: You were in the midst of the greatest global health crisis of our time with COVID-19—how did you find the time to write a book?
Bonnie: I am also not sure how we managed that, but Lynn is a stern (in a gentle way) taskmaster! My part, which is about half of the book, really was written in about six days when she came back to Victoria in the summer—ostensibly to support me. Unfortunately, she broke her arm on day three after she arrived, and had to stay for an extended period so I could support her!
So really, it is a miracle we managed to get the thing written at all, to an impossible deadline. But I also can be very focused and when I started writing my pieces, essentially to fill in the outline Lynn had developed, during the one week I had taken off in August it really was therapeutic in many ways for me.
That said, there were many late nights and many Sundays between my morning calls and trips to the office when I finished the writing and reviewed things in the late summer and early fall. It actually helped that the timeline was so compressed in the summer.
Lynn: Again, this truly is the unlikeliest of books. It’s not as if Bonnie was sitting around in the evenings thinking, Hmm, I’d like to preserve my thoughts for posterity; and it was not as if she had leisure time at all to write. As I witnessed, the punishing schedule she’d had since January meant she would get up at 5 in the morning (sometimes earlier if there was an international call to take), and was immediately at her computer or on the phone, taking calls, checking news and numbers, corresponding with people, and paying me no attention whatsoever. And by the time she got back in the evenings, she again spent a good period of time taking calls from colleagues across the country as she made a late dinner, scrolling through her work email.
She worked straight through her weekends, and usually spent all of Sunday afternoon at her office preparing for the week. But ... when she did agree to attempt the book, we made a plan—she would take six days off in August, her first break since January. And I had arrived back in B.C. with two-thirds of my part written from my early morning sessions before my own work, plus a very detailed outline for my sister’s half of the book. And the plan was that when Bonnie wrote her bits, I would piece it all together, part by part.
Bonnie is also a brilliantly focused, if astonishingly fast writer (as compared to me; I’m painfully slow. In fact, she looked over at me one day as I was turning a phrase over in my mind, hand hovering over the keyboard, and said, “You know what the problem is? You spend way too much time thinking.”) So when she did finally sit down with her computer, she’d look at the point-form outline, add her own notes, and simply write—in what appeared to be a rapid-fire cathartic way. I think it helped greatly in the writing process that the events were still freshly seared in her mind. The book covers a very specific time period—leading into the declaration of the pandemic in mid-March, and then the four or so weeks that followed to mid-April—and deals very specifically with the first wave.
Allen Lane Canada: What was your frame of mind while writing this book? And what do you think of it now, knowing everything that has happened since?
Bonnie: The book does cover a very short, specific and critical time when everything was uncertain and our world changed seemingly overnight. It was important for me to put in words some of the back story about our thinking on pandemics, and my and others’ experiences in dealing with infectious diseases and public health measures—experiences that informed and in many ways led to our response in those critical few weeks.
Afterwards, following our summer lull, I knew things would be challenging in the fall and winter, not only from a virus transmission perspective but also because of human nature. After a crisis like this goes on for so long, people are tired and are searching for a simple answer to get out of the situation. I knew from my past experiences that people like me would be blamed and second-guessed.
It is also true that we are still continuing to learn about this virus and need to be humble in thinking we have the right answers. The biggest positive surprise is the rapid development of a safe and effective vaccine.
Lynn: My own frame of mind was that I knew we were in the middle of something that we didn’t yet fully understand. And I knew the book itself would, necessarily, be contained by the timeline, and reflect a lack of understanding of the whole pandemic that was still taking shape; and yet ... If we didn’t try to capture what this particular moment was like, in what we now call the first wave, it would fade in memory as critical new events overtook the moment. And it felt like those first weeks, when our world suddenly changed, was an important time to remember.
I knew I was immensely and unusually privileged to be a witness to a piece of the pandemic response that very few others were seeing from the inside. I wanted to bear witness to it, if I could. Now, even before the book is published, it seems like distant history. I had a sense that this would be so; and I had a sense that, sadly, there would be far greater tragedy to come. I tried to instill a hint of that sense into the final part of the book.
Allen Lane Canada: What was it like to write a book with your sister? Were there any positives or negatives to writing with someone so close to you? How did you split up the writing between you?
Bonnie: As I said my sister is a hard, if soft-spoken, taskmaster! It has always been that way, her thinking up the brilliant ideas and planning things, then getting me to act. But seriously, being able to do this with my sister was something very special. And this book could not have been written except for Lynn and her knowledge of literature, and ability to construct a manuscript, frame the concept, edit the work, and write half of it herself.
So all I did really was fill in the blanks and then she and I would review and discuss where things didn’t make sense or where more detail was needed. And of course there is a level of trust that we have in each other, being sisters, that made this work.
Then when we got the pages back from our editorial team at Penguin, she reviewed them first and spared me most of the details and allowed me to focus on the few areas where my input was critical. This was so important because by then we were back full-on in terms of the pandemic here in B.C. and my days had returned to long and relentless again.
Lynn: On the one hand, it felt entirely natural. And there was no way the book could have been written at all if Bonnie were not my sister. It would have been impossible physically, time-wise, practically in terms of access and ease of conversation and trust. (On a minor level, I think this book may be a little about sisterhood—although I will let readers confirm that.)
On the other hand, I felt and still feel an immense responsibility to both Bonnie as my sister, and to Dr. Bonnie Henry as the public figure: to representing her experience as I witnessed it (and, like everyone else in B.C. at the time, was affected by it), as well as creating the space for her to write what she felt was important to convey about her own thinking and actions.
I constructed the book’s outline with that in mind, very carefully and deliberately. My greatest fear remains not doing proper justice to that, or to Bonnie—or to the many frankly heroic people, some very public, some not, who have been helping us find our way through this pandemic.
Allen Lane Canada: You are using the advance to make a donation to charity. Why did you want to do that, and what charity are you supporting?
Bonnie: Early on, we wanted to be sure that if the book actually came together (and even that was uncertain for a while!) we used it to contribute something to support people who were differentially and adversely affected by the pandemic. And knowing how people involved in education and literacy, especially young people, have been so negatively affected, I decided to use the advance to make a donation to a charity in that area. We were both also particularly interested in supporting girls who have been adversely affected.
Lynn: Exactly as my sister says. I’m supporting True North Aid with their Covid-19 response in Northern Indigenous communities. Bonnie is supporting First Book Canada, with its focus on reading and literacy for underserved, marginalized youth, trying to target those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to books. Bonnie is working with First Book to especially reach girls and young women.
Allen Lane Canada: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Bonnie: That there is so much thought and assessment and experience that goes into the many decisions that were made during this pandemic, and that all of us involved recognized and felt deeply the impacts of those decisions, and tried to find the proper balance as much as we possibly could. And I guess I wanted to reveal a bit of the personal side of what this time was like, too.
Lynn: I really do hope readers will be reminded of a critical time in all our lives that even now has started to fade in memory. There is no way either Bonnie or I could write this book now, months later. So many of the details and thoughts and emotions that were clear to me then have become vague and fuzzy around the edges in my mind.
I hoped we might create a record from within the heart of that moment in March and April, and from a unique vantage point that, because of Bonnie, I was able to glimpse briefly. And I hoped, and still hope, it will resonate with at least some readers who are weathering the same storm, and whose experiences are part of this story too. Thank you!