This Is 'Creepy': Lawrence Wright Wishes His Pandemic Novel Had Gotten It Wrong

Apr 28, 2020
Originally published on April 28, 2020 8:46 pm

Lawrence Wright is not interested in saying "I told you so."

At the beginning of his new novel, he writes: "Dear Reader, The events depicted in The End of October were meant to serve as a cautionary tale. But real life doesn't always wait for warnings."

Wright's fictional tale is about a mysterious virus that starts in Asia, sweeps across continents, cripples the health care system, wrecks the economy, and kills people worldwide.


Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. He is a writer for The New Yorker.
Kenny Braun / Knopf

"I knew from talking to all these medical experts that something like this was going to happen," Wright says. "They all knew it. They just didn't know when."

Wright began writing the novel in 2017 and turned in his final draft in the summer of 2019. He says the timing of publication — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — is a coincidence.

"But the parallels with what's actually happening in real life, that's not coincidental," he says. "I researched it very carefully and I talked to people who knew what was going to happen. They laid it out for me. ... So the fact that it's unfolding as they suggested it would and as I reflected in the novel is no surprise at all."


Interview Highlights

On seeing aspects of his fiction become fact

It's creepy. It's weird. In some ways I'm keeping score for myself: You know, what did I get right and what did I get wrong? On the other hand, I'm pretty sick of the coincidences and I hope it doesn't turn out as badly as I forecast. But, you know, this was meant to be a kind of warning cry. ...

I made use of some of our nation's best minds, most of them work for the government in one way or another. ... The only difference between me and people in the administration is that I listened to these experts and, you know, the novel reflects the anxiety that they expressed to me.

On how he came to write a story about a killer virus

This actually started a decade ago when Ridley Scott had asked me to write a screenplay. He had read the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road -- this post-apocalyptic [story of a] father and son wandering through the ruins of civilization. But there's no explanation about what happened. And that was what his question to me was: What happened? What force or event would have been so powerful they would bring down civilization?

On the research he did for the book

I was always interested in medicine. When I was a young reporter I lived in Atlanta and I did some articles out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So I was enchanted by epidemiology and the people that worked in that field. ...

I decided I had to go all the way — just as I would on a nonfiction book or a New Yorker story. So I started traveling. ... I traveled to [the] Washington, D.C., area talking to government experts and people in public health. Also, I went to Bethesda, where the National Institutes of Health are, and to Fort Detrick, which used to be our bio weapons laboratory, but now specializes in preventing novel diseases. ... For me at least, working from reality is a lot more interesting than just trying to conjure up what it would be like.

On what he didn't predict in his book

The thing that I underestimated was the solidarity of ordinary people to isolate themselves — sometimes against their own government's recommendations and at great personal cost. ...

And that has ... succeeded in many respects in keeping the death toll down, I think. And I didn't really take that into account in the novel. On the other hand, the government is responding pretty much as I expected — or worse.

On whether readers won't want to read about a deadly virus during a pandemic

I worry about people being frightened by what happens in the novel and worrying that that'll come true in real life. On the other hand, some of my early readers say that they were consoled by it because they understand, you know, the actions of a virus and what it takes to fight it. And also, I think and hope that my admiration for the kind of people that are involved in this field of public health comes through. And, you know, people appreciate the sacrifice, but also the ingenuity of people in that field.

On what he'll write his next novel about

I've been getting many suggestions. You know, why don't you write about the end of climate change or a woman president or something? People believe that I have these powers to put things into play in the real world. All I'm doing is examining the world that we live in and extrapolating where it might go. And so the kind of geopolitical clashes that are depicted in the novel are just taking events and rivalries that we're experiencing right now and imagining under stress, the stress of a pandemic. ... As I said, I hope these things don't come to pass.

Becky Sullivan and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's talk now about a new novel that opens - even before the title page, before Chapter 1 - opens with a note. Dear reader, it begins, the events depicted in "The End Of October" were meant to serve as a cautionary tale, but real life doesn't always wait for warnings. The author who wrote that is Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright. His novel is about a virus that starts in Asia, sweeps across continents, cripples the health care system, wrecks the economy and kills scores of people worldwide. The book is "The End Of October" and Lawrence Wright joins me now.

Hey there.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Thank you. It's good to talk to you again, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You too. I will underscore this is fiction. You have written a fictional story about a fictional virus called Kongoli. But when you wrote that note to the reader, that you pray these events never come to pass, you must have been imagining a moment where they could.

WRIGHT: Well, I knew from talking to all these medical experts that something like this was going to happen. They all knew it. They just didn't know when.

KELLY: When did you start and finish writing this?

WRIGHT: Oh, I think I started it in 2017, and I turned in the final draft July, I think, midsummer of 2019.

KELLY: So before anyone anywhere had ever heard of COVID-19 or the coronavirus crisis that we're all living through.

WRIGHT: Right.

KELLY: To give people a sense of just how closely your fiction tracks what we are all living through in real life right now, I will note a couple of things that I was highlighting and writing exclamation points next to as I read. Page 29 - the word coronavirus appears. Page 107 - hospitals are overwhelmed. People are stockpiling. Store shelves are empty. By Page 45, they are running out of ventilators. By Page 174, the stock market has cratered. It is spooky, I will say, as a reader to read a novel about a terrifying pandemic while living through a terrifying pandemic. What's it been like for you to witness this fictional work you created become fact?

WRIGHT: It's creepy. It's weird. You know, in some ways, you know, I'm keeping score for myself. You know, what did I get right and what did I get wrong?

KELLY: Yeah, I'm sure.

WRIGHT: On the other hand, I'm pretty sick of the coincidences, and I hope it doesn't turn out as badly as I forecast. But, you know, this was - it was meant to be a kind of warning cry. And yet, you know, this pandemic happened before the book actually hit the shelves, and so the timing is very - it's hard to explain. I mean, publication of the book, the timing of that, is a total coincidence. But the parallels with what's happening in real life, that's not coincidental. I've researched it very carefully, and I talked to people who knew what was going to happen. They laid it out for me, many of the people that are fighting this virus on the front lines right now. And so the fact that it's unfolding as they suggested it would and as I reflected in the novel is no surprise at all.

KELLY: I mentioned you won the Pulitzer. That was for an earlier book about al-Qaida. I mention that to make the point that you are not an infectious disease specialist. You're a journalist and reporter. And yet you were able to learn enough about a potential threat to write a novel that has predicted much of what we are living through. Is the very existence of your novel an indictment?

WRIGHT: Well, I guess the difference is - let me put it this way. I made use of some of our nation's best minds. Most of them work for the government in one way or another, you know, in many of our precious laboratories. And I also read these tabletop exercises that were done almost every year at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere, oftentimes using similar or the same people that I talked to laying out scenarios that are very similar to the one that I depict in the novel and the one that we're - the real-life event that we're experiencing. The only difference between me and people in the administration is that I listened to these experts. And the novel reflects the anxiety that they expressed to me.

KELLY: On the one hand, you couldn't have invented a better news cycle in which to drop a novel about a killer virus sweeping the world. On the other hand, any part of you a little worried readers might say, you know what? This is the last thing I need to read about right now. I need fiction to escape the moment that we're all living through.

WRIGHT: Oh, of course, I worry about that. I - you know, I worry about people being frightened by what happens in the novel and worrying that it'll come true in real life. On the other hand, some of my early readers say that they were consoled by it because they understand the actions of a virus and what it takes to fight it. And also I think the - I think and hope that my admiration for the kind of people that are involved in this field of public health comes through, you know, that people appreciate the sacrifice but also the ingenuity of people in that field.

KELLY: Any plot twist you wish you had thought of now that this is playing out in the real world?

WRIGHT: (Laughter).

KELLY: I mean, if we thought, oh, I could have written that into Chapter 7. I had no idea.

WRIGHT: Well, you know, I guess that there are sort of variations on a theme. I - instead of a cruise ship or an aircraft carrier, I have an outbreak on a submarine. And there are things that I give myself credit for, like having the vice president be in charge of the response and...

KELLY: That also I had a big exclamation point next to that one, that he's in charge of the task force.

WRIGHT: The thing that I underestimated was the solidarity of ordinary people to isolate themselves sometimes against their own government's recommendations and at great personal cost, financial and social and in many ways. And that has succeeded in many respects in keeping the death toll down I think.

KELLY: Dare I ask the subject of your next novel? And dare I ask you to give us some advance warning next time?

WRIGHT: (Laughter) I've been getting many suggestions. You know, why don't you write about the end of climate change or a woman president or something...

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: People believe that I have these powers to, you know, put things into play in the real world where all I'm doing is examining the world that we live in and extrapolating where it might go. And so the kind of geopolitical clashes that are depicted in the novel are just taking events and rivalries that we're experiencing right now and imagining under stress, the stress of a pandemic, how might that change. And, you know, as I said, I hope these things don't come to pass. But, you know, you see these - the blame that is thrown and the accusations about somebody cooked this up in a laboratory and, you know, these are all very dangerous allegations. And they'll have consequences.

KELLY: Lawrence Wright, thank you very much.

WRIGHT: Well, it was my pleasure, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That is the journalist and author Lawrence Wright. His new novel is "The End Of October." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.