Q&A: Lawrence Wright on his new pandemic novel ‘The End of October’ and what we can learn from the coronavirus

Lawrence Wright has already written 10 nonfiction books, including the deep insider look at Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. So it’s no surprise that that The New Yorker staff writer would follow that up with a captivating narrative about a mysterious new deadly virus sweeping the planet.

Except this time, the book is a work of fiction.

If it had been released this time last year‚ or even just a few months ago, the riveting thriller The End of October (Knopf) would have been interesting for anyone looking for an escapist page-turner. (Although given the subject matter, maybe not the best travel read.)

Yet in the age of the coronavirus, it is no longer escapist. But it’s still a gripping tale. Readers might find themselves holding out for a real-world hero like Dr. Henry Parsons (think Robert Langdon, but working for the World Health Organization and without any of the womanizing), who races around the globe to track down a novel strain of influenza as it spreads like wildfire and threatens to bring the planet to a standstill. (Sound familiar?)

Fortune recently spoke with Wright about the inspiration for his latest work, what the research process was like, and his reaction to just how frighteningly prescient it has turned out before it publishes today. (And as many authors publishing books this spring have encountered, the launch has been retooled as bookstores across the country remain closed to guests. So the book launch event has been moved online via Zoom and EventBrite.)

The following (spoiler-free) interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The End of October-book
“The End of October” follows a mysterious, acute, and highly contagious disease as it spreads worldwide, dismantling institutions and decimating the population in its wake.
Courtesy of Knopf

Fortune: Without giving anything away, given how many recent, actual geopolitical and public health events are referenced within the book, the plot takes place as close to present day as possible—making the similarities to real-world events (we’ll get to that) all the more ghostly. So I have to ask, when did you start writing this book? What inspired it?

Wright: This book actually started off as a screenplay for Ridley Scott a decade ago. At the time, I hadn’t solved the story, and to be honest, I hadn’t done enough research. Still, the idea of a massive pandemic haunted me, and in 2017, I decided to write it as a novel. This time, however, I plunged into the research in earnest, just as I would with a nonfiction book or a New Yorker story. By learning from experts who had devoted their careers to studying exotic diseases, I let the story take a more natural course. 

For people reading this during the current news cycle, the language surrounding influenza strains and vaccines isn’t as foreign as it might have once seemed. What was your research process like? What kind of access, if any, did you get to experts at the WHO and government agencies?

I was fortunate to talk to some of the great figures in medical science. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, was one of my first calls, and he allowed me into his lab and lent one of his assistants to teach me how viruses are sequenced. Philip Dormitzer, the chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, taught me about vaccine development. Dr. Barney Graham, a viral immunologist and vaccine expert at NIH in Bethesda, helped me solve some of the medical puzzles I set for myself in the novel. Jens Kuhn, at the NIH/NIAID/Integrated Research Facility at Fort Detrick, took me through his lab and instructed me on not only the science but also the moral quandaries researchers face in animal experimentation.

Because animals play a strong role in the novel, I also consulted with veterinary scientists, including Jamie Lee Barnabei at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa; Sally Ann Iverson, a veterinary epidemiologist in Arizona; and Emily Lankau, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Ronin Institute. I feel embarrassed that I’ve slighted others who contributed their time and insight. These people are on the front lines of the struggle against COVID-19 right now.

Now that it’s not possible to ignore the elephant in the room any longer, when did you first take notice of COVID-19? When did you realize that it might balloon into not just an epidemic, but a global pandemic?

When the Chinese announced the presence of the virus, on New Year’s Eve, 2019, I immediately thought of SARS, which also started in China, in 2002. The fact that it was contained within 100 days was perhaps the greatest triumph of public health. Had it been the pandemic that COVID-19 is, the world would be facing a far more dangerous enemy. 

So, near the end of January I had decided that it was time to order masks and gloves and start stocking up on canned goods. We planted lettuce. I wish I had sold more of my stocks.

Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, when news about the novel flu in the book reaches top ranks at the Department of Homeland Security, the young Health and Human Services lieutenant stresses to convey the severity of the situation, baffling her elders in the conference room.

A few months ago, readers might have been hard-pressed to be convinced as well, but the scenario she outlined—from total economic shutdowns to how long it takes to produce a successful vaccine—is exactly what is playing out in real life for us now. With that in mind, what has been your reaction to how the past few weeks have unfolded?

Dismay. If I can fault myself as a prophet, I would say that, in general, people have behaved better in real life than I gave them credit for, but governments have performed as expected, or worse.

Lawrence Wright-Author
Lawrence Wright, author of “The End of October.”
Courtesy of Kenny Braun

While your previous books have been rooted in journalism, it needs to be reiterated that The End of October is a work of fiction. And while some of the aforementioned plot points (and others that will not be described here but saved for the reader) are startlingly similar to the coronavirus pandemic, the trajectory and severity of the actual disease are different.

But given the anxious climate right now, readers are undoubtedly going to be looking for some kind of answers, or even hope, by reaching the end of the book. What do you hope readers take away from this book, and quite frankly, are there any words of comfort you can impart to them?

I hope that readers will come away from the book with a better knowledge of the threat that viruses pose, but more than that, I want to convey my respect for the scientists who have devoted their careers—often at great personal danger—to understanding the cunning devices that nature presents us with in the form of disease. 

This pandemic will leave a scar on history. The death toll hasn’t been totaled yet. The economy is still in a coma. It will be years before we truly assess the damage.

But moments like this offer the opportunity for a civilizational reset. Some of the great epidemics of the past, like the Plague of Athens, led to years of chaos and tumult. On the other hand, the Black Death, which killed a third of Europe in the 14th century, closed the door on the Middle Ages and led to the Renaissance. When societies are under great stress, they reveal their strengths and weaknesses. I think we all appreciate the need to respect science, demand a responsible and compassionate government, subdue partisanship, and put to rest the global antagonisms that have weakened democracy and keep us constantly on the threshold of needless conflict.

Recognizing those facts, of course, is not enough. We have to make the changes that will fortify our society. Whether we will do that is yet to be seen, but we certainly can if we determine that it must be done. In that case, this terrible disease will have given us a gift.

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