A Pandemic Nightmare Come True: Lawrence Wright Q&A

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Imagine researching and writing a nightmare novel, only to watch it come to life before your eyes. That’s what happened to Lawrence Wright, a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of “The End of October.”

About 10 years ago, “Alien” director Ridley Scott approached Wright with an idea: “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, had depicted a horrific, rain-soaked post-apocalyptic world traveled by a father and son trying to survive. What, Scott asked, could have been the apocalypse that led up to that hellscape?

Wright is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” To set the stage for a global breakdown of society, he turned not to terrorism, but to a pandemic.

“The End of October,” about a savage, worldwide outbreak of disease, will be released in the middle of the coronavirus epidemic. Bloomberg spoke with Wright from his home in Texas.

Q: What drew you to the idea of writing about a pandemic?

A: As a young reporter living in Atlanta I did several stories out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about swine flu and Legionnaire’s disease, and I read up on the 1918 flu. That pandemic killed about 50 million people, but it was essentially forgotten as soon as it was over. There’s a wonderful book by Albert Crosby (“The Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918”) that brought the whole experience back into consciousness. And I was very impressed by the courage and ingenuity of the public health people I’d met at the CDC. There’s a whole new level of anxiety when thinking about a brand new disease that kills you in such an awful fashion. I’d rather go into a war zone than an outbreak of Ebola.

Q: For research, you tapped virologists, security mavens and scientists who study diseases that jump from animals to humans. Were they surprised to hear from you?

A: I don’t think I ran into a single source who didn’t expect something like this would happen. They just didn’t know when. In some ways, the book reflects the anxiety of my sources. And when you get that kind of response from people who know the area so well, it’s alarming. I was thinking that the book might be a wake-up call.

Q: You anticipated many geopolitical issues that arise when disease, international relations, religion and war meet. How do you see those playing out in this pandemic?

A: It starts with blame and stigma. You see the U.S. blaming China and suggesting the virus came out of a laboratory, which is plausible but unproven. Both Russia and China are saying that Covid-19 came out of an American bioweapons lab. Iran and North Korea have made the same allegations. The blame and the charges flying around are dangerous and irresponsible.

I don’t think we’re done with the geopolitical consequences of this disease. If you persuade a population that a virus is killing people, they’re going to want revenge, and to some extent that’s what you see in the novel. The virus is a stressor. It shows you what kind of country and what kind of world we’re living in and I think that’s one of the things that’s been so dismaying about the entire coronavirus experience.

Q: How did you become aware of the outbreak? It must have been surreal to see the nightmare scenario playing out.

A: The Chinese disclosed the outbreak at the end of last year, and I was paying attention to it in early January. The virus that I created in my novel begins spreading in Asia, as many do, and spreads across the world pretty quickly. So I was on alert. I’m not a “prepper” but by early February, I was telling my wife we had to stock up on food and masks and gloves. I was aware it was headed in our direction and hoped it wouldn’t be as devastating as the one in the book.

When I laid out my timeline for the story three years ago, I created a calendar on my computer that was set in 2020. I could look at the calender and the newspaper and see how closely correlated they are. Sometimes it’s kind of spooky, such as when the U.S. vice president became the head of the pandemic task force, as he does in the novel. The low rate of infection in Russia, purportedly, also becomes a big issue.

Q: The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca also plays an important role in the book.

A: I was glad when they called it off this year. I lived in Saudi Arabia after 9/11, and one of my first jobs was to supervise young reporters who were covering the Hajj. There are epidemics of one kind or another in Mecca every year, and some years are devastating. I thought about how dangerous it is from a public health standpoint when you have 2 to 3 million people closely pressed together from all parts of the globe who can go off and seed a disease across the planet, and how difficult it would be to quarantine them. And then China quarantined 50 million people.

Q: In the novel, you show how the CDC and World Health Organization have been close partners. Are you surprised the WHO has become a whipping boy in this pandemic?

A: International institutions are always subject to attack in emergencies. The WHO is a handicapped institution because it lacks authority. Yet it’s absolutely vital. You can’t have disease control that’s not international. Diseases don’t pay any attention to borders. I’m dismayed to see the WHO blamed for our own failure to heed the warnings that were plainly in front of us.

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