What Lawrence Wright Learned from His Pandemic Novel


How do you mean? What are you observing now in the reaction to this coronavirus that resembles what you might have anticipated?

Well, specifically, quarantine. Quarantine is not a cure by any means. Its only goal, really, is to forestall the advance of a disease so that time can be used to develop some kind of vaccine or cure. And I imagined three million people in Mecca, on hajj, quarantining—to me, that was a real leap of imagination. It doesn’t begin to compare with what China did with sixty million people in Hubei Province. And now Italy. My own imagination would have balked at such a stupendous effort. But, you know, that’s the world that we’re actually living in. I wonder, if I had written this novel after this event, how my approach might have changed.

Does it feel a little weird to have a novel coming out about a pandemic in the midst of one?

You have no idea.

Tell me.

In some ways, I have to admit, I’m kind of proud that I imagined things that, in real life, seem to be coming into existence. On the other hand, I feel embarrassed to have written this and have it come out. I don’t know what the world’s going to be like when it’s finally published, because this disease gallops along so much. I had a similar experience once before, when I wrote a movie called “The Siege.” It was about what would happen if terrorism came to America, as it had already in Paris and London. And that came out in 1998.

Three years before 9/11.

Yeah. But, you know, al-Qaeda’s assault on America really began that same year, in August, with the bombings in East Africa of American embassies. And then, after 9/11, it was the most rented movie in America.

Larry, why go at this subject in fiction rather than nonfiction?

Well, it had been conceived as a screenplay originally. And I started getting enchanted with the possibilities of creating characters who were dealing with an imaginary crisis, but one that still resembled the world in which we live. I could easily have written a speculative nonfiction book, but it didn’t arrest my imagination as much as the idea of doing it as a novel.

This isn’t the first novel about an apocalyptic pandemic. Some in the past have had a pretty familiar form. There’s a stable world. The virus throws that world into chaos. And then some brave souls defeat the virus, and things go back to normal. That’s not what happens in your book. Do those other novels get pandemics wrong somehow?

Well, there are enduring consequences. “The Plague,” by Camus, is a good example of a book about a city under siege. After terrible devastation, the siege is lifted, and people go back to something like their normal lives. But there are residual effects of any great pandemic. Smallpox, plague­––they affected the outcome of wars. They affected the mortality of humanity for years to come. We tend to think that, after the twentieth century, in which there were so many triumphs of medicine, we had put the great plagues of the past to rest, excepting, perhaps, influenza. But then along came SARS, along came MERS, along came these other viruses that posed tremendous threats. Fortunately, until now, we have been able to contain them somewhat, but they are incredibly dangerous.

Now, as you watch what’s happening, and obviously we’re still in the early stages, how do you evaluate the American reaction to the pandemic on a government level?

Oh, God. You know, let’s go back to when the Administration fired the global pandemic team, including Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who had handled the malaria outbreak in Africa and helped save six million lives, and cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that they were no longer able to monitor health in most countries in the world. We were handicapped going out of the gate. And we handicapped ourselves even further. America is not a country like China that will easily lock up cities and partition states. The trust is going to be that people will take care of themselves. But I know this is not really going to happen. I think that people will isolate themselves. A lot of Americans are taking this very responsibly. But, still, I don’t think that there is another country in the world that can take those measures that China did.

Well, isn’t Italy doing something of the like?

They are trying to. But not with their army. They’re not building walls and shutting off streets on the same scale. Italy is making a gesture in that direction.

In a sense, what you’re suggesting is that there is an innate advantage to an authoritarian state like China’s over a democratic, fluid state like the United States in this kind of situation.

Here’s what I think about China. It does not like any criticism. It hides any kinds of interior problems it might have. We saw that at the beginning of this outbreak, when that young doctor made an outcry and he was suppressed. And, of course, he eventually died of COVID-19. Previously, SARS had broken out in China, and China hid that. And then it came back the next year, raging.

When World Health Organization authorities went to China to examine the situation, there were reports that the authorities placed SARS patients in taxis and had them ride around until the W.H.O. officials were gone. That is the downside of an authoritarian government––its attempt to suppress any kind of information that would help its population, and the rest of the world, protect itself. The other side of it is that a government as authoritarian and as brutal as the Chinese government can enforce a quarantine in a way that I don’t think any other country in the world would be able to attempt.

One of the striking things in your novel is that the first outbreak of the disease coincides with something else, something that seems even to dwarf it—a terrorist bombing, in Italy. Why choose to frame your story that way? What meaning might it have for us now?

When you have something like the virus outbreak that we have now, what happens is that it comes along with great suspicion. Where did this arise? Was it created? Was it man-made? If so, who did it? Who would do it? Right now, we’re seeing that Iran and Russia and China have tried to blame this outbreak on America. You know, something very similar happened with H.I.V./AIDS, when the [K.G.B.] blamed the United States for creating it.

What was your first thought when you heard about this outbreak in China late last year? Did you immediately think we could end up where we are today? Did you expect a different outcome?

I have written this novel, but I’m not a prophet. And good evidence of that is that I didn’t take any of the precautions that a person, given all the knowledge that I had, might have taken. Like so many people, I kept thinking, This isn’t going to affect me, it won’t reach my home—although, as it grew in China, we began to stock up on groceries and things like that, which I’m glad that we did. But I’ve been unnerved by it. I think it’s going to be a real challenge to our democracy, and it’s going to inflict a whole lot of grief on the world in one way or another.


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