San Francisco's California Street, usually filled with cable cars, is seen empty on March 18, 2020, after residents were ordered to shelter in place. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)
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.
"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."
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.