Lawrence Wright’s worst-case pandemic scenario is fictional — for now
The acknowledgments at the end of Lawrence Wright’s novel “The End of October” read like a who’s-who of epidemiologists, virologists, public health experts and top military personnel, from Dr. Barney Graham of the National Institutes of Health to retired Adm. William H. McRaven.
They also give you a sense of the plot, which seesaws between medical thriller and geopolitical war-games fantasy and is as well-timed as a novel could ever be: It starts with a small outbreak of a novel virus in Indonesia, which is then spread by Muslim pilgrims to the Haj in Saudi Arabia and culminates in a pandemic and war. Salvation comes in the form of a submarine.
That isn’t really a spoiler: Subs have been a safe haven in apocalyptic fiction as far back as Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel “On the Beach,” and Wright’s novel is the latest addition to an end-of-the-world bookshelf that starts at the Bible (flood, plagues), runs through the Decameron (epidemic) and carries on through to dated bestsellers like Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s “Warday” (nuclear war), Christian fare like the “Left Behind” series (the Rapture) and contemporary classics like Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars” (pandemic) and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (who knows).
Wright, 72, is a staff writer at the New Yorker as well as an accomplished author, scriptwriter, playwright, musician and even actor — having performed on Broadway in “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” his one-man show based on his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Looming Tower.” For that investigation he conducted 600 interviews. For this novel, Wright returned to being a reporter. “I had to get the facts and science right,” he said. But he admitted that the most thrilling bit of research wasn’t his interviews with the greatest medical minds, but the moment he got to fire a simulated nuke during a drill on board a Navy sub.
“It felt for a split-second like I’d just ended the world,” he said.
Wright spoke by phone from his home in Austin, Texas.
You say the book was in part inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” You both won Pulitzers in 2007. Coincidence? Or just a George W. Bush-era Texas thing?
Neither. To be precise, the genius behind “The End of October” was Ridley Scott. He’d just read “The Road” and asked “What the [hell] happened?” He wanted to know why civilization might collapse and asked me to write a screenplay about it. This was more than 10 years ago and climate change wasn’t much on our minds then. I’d done some stories out of the CDC as a young reporter in Atlanta and remembered the Spanish flu of 1918. So I submitted the screenplay to [Scott] and he opted to make “Robin Hood” instead. But the story always stayed with me and I know if a story stays with me that long, it’s a good one, so a couple of years ago I returned to it and wrote the book.
Emily St. John Mandel chronicles a global pandemic and financial crisis in her novels, ‘Station Eleven’ and ‘The Glass Hotel.’
Like “The Siege,” the movie you wrote in which Islamic terrorists attack New York, “The End of October” seems eerily prescient.
Again, not really. This has all happened before. The Spanish flu was a very mysterious and potent disease that killed 50 million to 100 million people around the world. And even though it killed 670,000 Americans, it was largely written out of history and purged from our consciousness. It was only in researching the book that I found out my grandparents and father, who were living on a farm in Kansas at the time, had survived it. Even now, what you are seeing, with the banning of big gatherings and the closing of schools and stores, and the protests — that has all happened before. In San Francisco in 1918 there was an Anti-Mask League which hastened the spread of the disease, and in Philadelphia a war bond parade spread the flu there. It’s all history.
I came away from the novel with a lot of information about the history of pandemics.
All I hope is that someone who reads the book will be entertained and have a much better understanding of what’s involved in fighting the pandemic — of the scope and scale of the problem, the potential implications, and massive collective effort needed for us to succeed against it. The more people who understand the science, the more they will trust it and the better off we will all be in the long run.
Your book is very bleak. Should we really expect the collapse of civilization?
Reading the paper every day is like opening another chapter of my book, and it is unsettling and weird. But the thing I didn’t predict is that most people are behaving far better and there’s a greater sense of unity than I expected to see, and the sacrifice they are making is having a profoundly positive effect. On the other hand, I have to say governments have behaved even worse and more incompetently than I imagined. I don’t think the we’ve finished with the geopolitical fallout. It’s a very fluid, highly dangerous environment where a lot of unfounded accusations are being made. There will be consequences.
What scares you the most?
That we still don’t understand the disease. Every day it seems there is some mystery about COVID-19 and it underscores how unprepared we are. It has been heartbreaking to me to see the CDC, which I admired as such a distinguished agency, stumble so badly.
Did you become a prepper after writing the novel?
Early on, even before February, I was telling my wife we should buy masks and gloves and groceries, and we did. I wanted to plant some fruit and bean trees, but didn’t get to the nursery in time. All I managed to do was plant lettuce. And my one big regret is that I didn’t sell the stocks in my 401(k). I did write about the economic collapse in my novel, but I guess my mind was on food. A disruption in the food supply is the one thing I think would cause a real panic.
Do you have confidence in the people working to solve the pandemic?
Let me start by saying we have premier scientists working on this problem and their dedication knows no end. I would not want any other people pursuing a solution to this than the scientists I talked to for the book — and they are only representative of many, many others. It’s that world I found so inspiring in an age where heroes are hard to find. And in the novel, I felt empowered to make a hero in that world. You cannot help but have your heart swell and think these people are protecting us. That said, I still did lay into a lot of toilet paper.
Nawotka is the bookselling and international editor of Publishers Weekly.
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