When Lawrence Wright sent the final draft of his pandemic thriller to his publisher in July 2019, it was a novel built on facts and research, but still a story born of the author’s imagination.
Six months later, “The End of October” began to sound like current events.
There’s no escaping that the story Wright tells, which began as a screenplay project a decade or so ago, has so many parallels to the novel coronavirus pandemic that it makes for uncanny reading at times — even for its author.
“It’s very strange,” says the longtime New Yorker staff writer from his home in Austin, Texas. “At one level, it’s like reading chapters in my book. This resonance that is eerie.
“Of course, to a great degree, it’s what the experts told me could happen,” he says. “And they were right, so in that sense, it’s not a surprise.
“There are correlations that I find intriguing, like making the vice president – putting him in charge of it. Instead of a cruise ship or an aircraft carrier, I have an outbreak on a submarine. And there’s the nursing homes and stuff like that.
“Those are all things that when you sit down to imagine what would happen if a pandemic struck our country, it was pretty clear where the points of vulnerability would be,” Wright says.
The road begins
“It was a decade ago,” Wright says of the earliest seeds of the idea that became “The End of October.” “Ridley Scott had read the Cormac McCarthy novel ‘The Road’ in which a father and son are wandering through the ruins of a once-great civilization, and Ridley was totally puzzled because there is no explanation about how civilization broke apart.
“And so his question to me was simply, ‘What happened?’ Actually, what he said was, ‘What the (bleep) happened?!’
“I thought it was an intriguing question,” Wright continues. “And I like to start projects sometimes just with a simple question, so I thought, ‘What force or event could be so powerful that it would cause civilization to crack and crumble?’”
He considered nuclear war, the go-to doomsday scenario since the dawn of the Atomic Age, and briefly climate change, though at the time it wasn’t as much in mind as it is today.
Then he remembered a handful of stories he’d written as a young reporter in the mid-’70s about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in particular, one about a mysterious outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus at Fort Dix in 1976.
“The same strain killed at least 50 million people (in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19), but in 1976 killed only one,” Wright says. “And I had also written about Legionnaires disease, which was another big medical scare at the time.
“But what really impressed me in these stories was the courage and ingenuity of these public health people that I spoke to,” he says. “I was so intrigued by the mysteries that the microbiologists and virologists were trying to solve, and the courage of the epidemiologists on the ground, trying to figure out what dangerous disease this is.
“Going to investigate an unknown disease is absolutely terrifying to me. My hat is off to people who are willing to do that.”
A change of plans
The movie project ended as so many do, burning out like a virus that mutates its way to harmless obscurity. But Wright couldn’t shake the idea, and in time, decided that with more research it might make a great novel.
“I come out of the journalistic tradition,” says Wright, whose 2006 non-fiction book, “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” won a Pulitzer Prize the next year. “I like to work with reality — it’s more interesting to me than what might be fabricated in my imagination.
“So when I decided to take a look at it as a novel I realized that what I needed to do was a lot more research because I had never really been able to solve the story,” he says. “And I think the reason is I didn’t understand it well enough.”
“The End of October” reads with the kind of authority you’d expect from a journalist of Wright’s caliber, and the acknowledgments testify to the breadth of experts — scientists, doctors, military and political leaders and more — he consulted to ground his fiction in truth.
In the book, Henry Parsons, the director of infectious diseases at the CDC, travels to a refugee camp in Indonesia to investigate a mysterious outbreak of hemorrhagic fever and discovers an incipient pandemic. The Kongoli virus, named after the refugee camp, quickly spreads to Saudi Arabia via a traveler making the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and from there, the rest of the world.
Parsons fights to find a way to slow the disease even as his family in Atlanta is imperiled, the Saudis and the Iranians go to war, and Russia exploits cyber-vulnerabilities in the United States. The president and vice president in Washington D.C. are never named but the descriptions of the administration leave little doubt as to their inspirations.
“When I was considering what kind of virus it would be, I thought about coronavirus because SARS and MERS are so mortal, and we really dodged the bullet when those diseases did not become pandemic as they might well have,” Wright says.
He ultimately settled on a strain of influenza similar to that of the Spanish flu, and created a calendar for 2020 — just as a template, no year is mentioned in the book — to plot how the disease might spread.
“Whenever I wanted to reference something like that I would look back at 1918 to see where the influenza was,” Wright says. “And it’s fascinating to me how closely correlated it is, the progression of COVID-19.
“COVID-19 actually got a started a little earlier than the influenza in 1918, so COVID is moving faster than the 1918 flu, and moving faster than my own invented virus. So it moves more quickly, but Kongoli’s more deadly.”
The world catches up
The first public announcement of the novel coronavirus in China came on Dec. 31, 2019, and Wright says he immediately feared the worst, remembering how deadly the related SARS virus had been.
“So I was on guard and concerned,” he says. “It was pretty clear it was going to come here and we were doing nothing really serious to stop that from happening. That’s when I began to urge my wife to stock up on groceries and I ordered masks and gloves.
“The only thing I didn’t do was sell my stocks,” he says with a rueful laugh. “A little sad I overlooked that. I had written all about it in the novel, but I didn’t take my own advice in that regard.”
Publication of “The End of October” was bumped up a few weeks given the timeliness of its topic, but Wright says he really doesn’t know what to expect in terms of its potential readership.
“There’s a lot of interest in the book but will people be interested in reading about a pandemic? I don’t know,” he says. “And the book will be appearing when the books stores are shuttered, the airports are empty, all the normal means of selling books are handicapped. So it may not be such a propitious moment to walk into the market.
“But people, some of my early readers, have remarked that there’s something consoling about it. That the novel helps you understand what our adversary is. I also think it restores agency to people. My hero’s an epidemiologist and he exemplifies so much of the courage and ingenuity that I find in people like that, and I think that must be in some ways reassuring to readers.”
And in a pleasing kind of symmetry, “The End of October” is back in the hands of Ridley Scott for a potential adaptation for the screen, Wright says.
“It’s my hope that it would finally make it to the screen,” he says. “But to be frank, I’m glad it didn’t get made the first time around. The story wasn’t finished, I didn’t understand it well enough as a writer, and I learned so much from writing it as a novel.
“It was one of the most thrilling writing experiences I ever had,” Wright says. “So in a way, it was a gift to me that the project that I thought I wanted was not the one that I got to complete.”