Ten years ago, Lawrence Wright was sitting at his desk thinking about the end of the world. The Looming Tower, his book about the rise of Al Qaeda and the events that led to 9/11, had won a Pulitzer, making him the go-to guy for penning tales about catastrophes of epic proportions. So it was no surprise when director Ridley Scott called him up one day to talk about The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic literary masterpiece. “Ridley’s question was, ‘Well, what the fuck happened?’ ” Wright, 72, tells me over the phone from his home in Austin. “I thought that was an interesting question: ‘What would have caused civilization to crack and crumble?’ ”
Wright set to work creating a screenplay to answer that very question. Nuclear war was a bit too obvious. Climate change wasn’t as obvious as it is today. But as a young reporter (before his days at Rolling Stone and The New Yorker), Wright had lived in Atlanta and had covered the CDC. “I did swine flu and Legionnaires’ disease — both in 1976,” he says. “I was attuned to the idea that a pandemic could have that effect.” Wright wrote the screenplay’s first two acts but got mired in the third, not knowing quite how to end the end of the world. “And Ridley went off and made Robin Hood instead,” he says with a laugh.
Then, a few years ago, Scott called back: “He was like, ‘I don’t know why the fuck we never made that picture.’ He wanted to know if I would be interested in looking at it again.” When Wright did, he realized that he wanted to write it as a novel, which would follow a microbe hunter named Henry Parsons as he attempts to track down the source of — and find the cure for — a novel virus that’s wiping out humanity. Panic proliferates. Disruption abounds. With very good reason, civilizations freak the fuck out. Which means that imagined events of The End of October, out April 28th, are uncomfortably close to the reality of today.
So much of what happens in The End of October is happening to us now, like sheltering in place, the stock market crashing, schools closing, systems breaking down — even how the government responds. If I’d read it a few months ago, it would have almost seemed like science fiction. Now, it doesn’t at all.
There were things that I did in the novel that I thought were probably too extreme, like quarantining 3 million people in Mecca. It never occurred to me that China would quarantine 100 million people. The dimensions of the reaction were something that I would have thought were unbelievable.
But it’s remarkable how much you got right.
Well, there are things that I’m getting credited for that I don’t deserve. For instance, the feeling that we were due for a pandemic of great proportions is something that, when I was interviewing all these experts, they all felt that way. And so I was reflecting their anxiety in the novel. That’s not prophecy.
I just wrote a story about anxiety and climate change. Scientists know what’s going to happen and yet people just aren’t paying attention. Is that the same sort of feeling you got from these epidemiologists?
Absolutely. When I started working on [the book], I realized that my imagination as a novelist was not equivalent to the anxiety these people had. It was not an “if this happens.” They all, for the most part, felt that, “This is going to happen. We just have to be prepared for it, and we’re not.” And there was a fair degree of anger on their part.
In many respects, the novel is based on the progression of the 1918 flu and what would happen if it returned in an era where millions and millions of people are traveling every day, cities are denser, people are far more in contact, and the world has many more people in it. If you set loose a virus in that context, what would happen today? COVID-19 is not nearly as mortal as the 1918 flu, but you can see what would have happened if it were the 1918 flu, because of the lack of preparedness and the fact that it takes so long to create a vaccine or treatment. That struck me as a true threat to civilization.
When did you pull the script out of the drawer?
It was three years ago. I decided I would force myself to do the research. I am a journalist by training, and so I always think that what’s real is more powerful and more surprising than what I imagine. So I set out to talk to the experts, and I went around to the National Institutes of Health and Fort Detrick, I went down to the Kings Bay sub base in Georgia. There’s a lot of stuff about animals, because the influenza originates in birds typically, and so I interviewed veterinarians, and I learned things that I could not have imagined.
Going back to the 1918 flu, one thing that struck me in the book was how you talk about how people tend to remember historical events and commemorate them, but when it came to the 1918 pandemic, there’s almost this willful forgetfulness.
Well, I was fascinated by that, because that flu killed more Americans than have died in all of our wars of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — 675,000 Americans. My dad was three years old, and he and his parents all got it in central Kansas. The average lifespan of an American in 1917 was something like 55 years. In 1918, it had dropped to 39. It’s a scar on history that has left a deep mark, but immediately afterward, nobody talked about it. Why was that? Part of it was the flu was overshadowed by the war, which was very preoccupying. But also one reason people avoided the subject is they didn’t know what to do about it — and it wasn’t a matter of being heroic except for the health care workers. One simply got the flu, and either you survived or you died. There was no human action involved, unlike war, which is full of drama. The flu is silent, it kills people indiscriminately, and there’s little heroics in trying to fight off the infection. And so those things all contributed to the fact that this was just buried in the universal memory.
There’s a lot of heroism in your book though.
I was impressed by the courage and commitment of the people I’ve met in public health. In some ways it’s a kind of scientific priesthood. They subject themselves to tremendous danger.
Because the viruses can easily escape?
Yeah. It happens all the time and with alarming frequency. To go into a foreign environment by yourself, to investigate a disease that nobody’s ever seen before, and you have no idea, as the epidemiologist, what you’re facing? You’re placing yourself in harm’s way.
Do you think it’s good for us to be reminded how fragile our species is, how fragile our civilizations are?
Yes. It’s important to understand that we are subject to the whims of nature, and we have to respect that. Part of what makes us so poorly prepared for a pandemic of the sort that we’re enduring now is the sort of hubris that people have, that our civilization has conquered nature and subjugated it. That’s just not the case. Nature is more clever than we are. Even since the turn of the millennium, we had the resurgence of H1N1, which was a 1918 flu. We’ve had Zika, Ebola, SARS, MERS. In the space of 20 years, we’ve had a number of brand-new, extremely dangerous diseases appear, and we will see many more. In some ways, we can look at this as a wake-up call.
Knowing what you knew, how concerned were you when news of COVID-19 first started to circulate?
I was telling my friends, “Get your groceries.” If I’d been such a great prophet as everybody says, I would have sold my stocks — that didn’t occur to me. But I could see the peril that we faced; it was easy to read about what was happening in China. And there was this smug attitude in the West that that was China and it wouldn’t spread to our countries. That’s one of the reasons that, despite the warning, people weren’t prepared.
Are you personally frustrated by how the pandemic has been handled in America?
It’s just shameful. As someone who had spent some time working on stories out of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, it’s heartbreaking to see how that great institution has fumbled in this challenge. And it’s not just the CDC. Our Food and Drug Administration and our Health and Human Services departments, they’ve all failed in the face of this test. You look back at decisions that were made to cut the budgets of our health departments and to eliminate that pandemic-responsiveness team in the National Security Council, which would have been in charge of this right now. Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who was the head of that organization, he was the guy that handled the malaria outbreaks in Africa and is credited with saving 6 million lives. He and his entire team were let go. There was an act of hubris that is hard to forgive.
A lot of your work — especially this book and The Looming Tower — explores the way that humanity continually undermines itself.
Since the beginning of civilization, we’ve been struggling with this. We’re constantly finding that people are acting against their own interests, and there’s a struggle between savagery and civilization. That’s certainly something I studied when I was working on terrorism. There are these strong urges that are competing all the time for control of our civilization.
Does that give you more or less empathy toward us as a species?
Well, I think that we always have the possibility of renewal, and moments of great tragedy are opportunities to reset. Like, 9/11 was a such an opportunity. Then we bungled it. But I remember so distinctly the sense immediately after the attacks that, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to stand for something now. We’re going to have to become the people that our parents were when they faced World War II and the march of Nazism and then communism.’ Instead, we invaded Iraq. And it eviscerated that sense that we are a people who want to do the right thing and are the hope of the world. Instead, we made a catastrophic mistake. And if we’re going to make a big mistake on this one, it’ll have to do with sacrificing our democracy in some profound way. You see the exercise of extraordinary powers — which are, in many cases, absolutely needed — but the loss of privacy, the increasing concentration of control in government, those are going to be powers that are going to make it more and more difficult for our democracy to flourish.
But it is a moment of reset, and good things will come out of it. There’s a medical historian in Bologna that I’m writing about, and she was talking about how the Black Death ended the Middle Ages and opened the door to the Renaissance. Well, we have that opportunity now. It’s a time that we can rethink, for instance, climate change. It reminds us that it’s in our hands.
Another topic in the book that was interesting was the topic of religion and faith, this idea of humans playing God. Do you feel like humans are too godlike or not godlike enough in how we relate to the world?
Religion has been a theme in my work almost since the very beginning. I’ve always been intrigued by why people are drawn to belief. If you hold strong political beliefs, they might not affect your behavior at all — in fact, they rarely do. But if you have powerful religious feeling, then it dictates every moment of your life. It’s a mistake not to address the potency of religion. In writing about radical Islam, for instance, I’ve certainly seen how religion has a dark side. On the other hand, I’ve been in prisons and seen men whose lives have been turned around by faith. And so I stand as a respectful observer in the face of religious beliefs.
In the 20th century, humanity acquired godlike powers, powers that are capable of destroying creation, but did not acquire the wisdom to control the impulses that are always a threat to civilization. We were always in danger of ourselves, far more than anything else. And when we speak of godlike, it depends on your understanding of what God is. If there is a deity, is it a benevolent one? If you want to believe in a just God, then behave like one. We have a lot of people who say they believe in a just God, but their own actions suggest that’s not the deity that they pay allegiance to.
Has the experience of the past few weeks changed your perspective of The End of October?
Well, the virus that I created is not COVID-19 — and I hope the virus I created never appears. But it has appeared in the past, and it might again in the future. COVID-19 is a precursor to a disease that we will have to face one day, and I hope that the lesson of COVID-19 is that we had better be ready .
What’s up next for you? Or I guess another way to ask is, what’s the next scourge on humanity?
[Laughs] Everybody wants me to get off of scourging humanity. I’ve been besieged by requests to write a novel about a woman president or solving climate change. I’m grateful for the suggestions, but a reporter’s job is to face the crisis of the day.