Lawrence Wright: 'I became more and more anxious as I wrote the book.' Photo: Larry Busacca / Getty Images
Artillery Row Books

Lawrence Wright’s pandemic prescience

An interview with the man who saw it coming

The coronavirus has been disastrous for authors and publishers, with shops shut, publication dates pushed back, book tours cancelled and publicity plans in ruins. One exception to that rule is the Texan writer Lawrence Wright, whose new thriller, The End of October, will be published earlier than initially planned.

The reason is the book’s uncanny prescience. The End of October is a thought experiment that asks what would happen if the world were to be hit by a deadly virus in early 2020. In the novel, a new influenza called Kongoli triggers global meltdown. In the real world, a new coronavirus has upended all of our lives. 

Some passages from The End of October could just as easily have appeared in a newspaper in recent weeks. “But this is the flu,” exclaims a world leader reluctant to accept the seriousness of the situation. “We’re running out of syringes, diagnostic test kits, gloves, respirators, antiseptics, all the stuff we need to treat patients and protect ourselves,” complains an American public health official. A “frothy pink liquid” that covers one character’s gown as he investigates the lung of a Kongoli victim will be grimly familiar to doctors and nurses who have tended to seriously ill Covid-19 patients as blood cells leak into their airways.

I didn’t plan for this. But the parallels are not coincidental.

“The timing is totally coincidental,” Wright tells me by telephone from lockdown at home in Austin, confirming that he does not possess powers of clairvoyance. “I didn’t plan for this. But the parallels are not coincidental. They’re based on research, and talking to experts about what would happen if we had a pandemic along the lines of the 1918 Spanish influenza reappearing in modern life. How prepared would we be? How would it affect our societies and our behaviour?”

The answers found in Wright’s thriller involve a dystopian web of threats to our safety and security, some very modern, some age-old. The second-order consequences of the Kongoli flu are as catastrophic as the damage done by the virus itself, which Wright explains is “less contagious but more deadly” than Covid-19. 

Wright, 72, has been a staff writer at the New Yorker for 28 years and is responsible for several non-fiction blockbusters. The Looming Tower, his bestselling 2006 account of the road to 9/11 earned Wright a Pulitzer Prize and has been made into a television series. Going Clear, a book about Scientology, prompted critical acclaim, commercial success and lawyers’ letters for the less-than-flattering picture it paints of the organisation.

The End of October started life as a script for Ridley Scott. The director had read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road and asked Wright “What happened?” Wright’s answer was never made into a film, but he had dipped his toe into the world of pandemics and plagues. “I finally decided I would write this novel because I just needed to research it more,” he says. “I needed to understand naturally what would happen in such a scenario rather than just trying to make it up.”

The more reporting he did, the more worried he became: “After talking to the virologists, the microbiologists, the epidemiologists, even the veterinarians, I was able to look at the world through the lens of a public health official and see how alarming it was through their eyes. I became more and more anxious as I wrote the book, but the novel just reflects the anxiety that was already there in the health establishment.” 

In recent months, we have all been forced to climb the same learning curve Wright volunteered to scale, swotting up on the ABCs of public health. Herd immunity and social distancing, curve flattening and serological testing: most of us never thought about these things before Covid-19; now we can think of little else. And the more we know, the less surprising the parallels between the real world and Wright’s assiduously researched thriller look.

What about the differences? “People are kinder in real life than they are in the novel. The panic set off by the rampaging virus that I write about is far more severe than what we’re seeing right now.” Wright says he also gave “more credit to government than it deserves in real life”.

“My virus is a different virus and I guess they are variations on a theme,” says Wright, explaining some of the differences between reality and fiction. “But the truth is, I am struck by the things I got right that I didn’t even know. I mean they were sort of suppositions. In the book, I write about patients in a nursing home. Instead of a cruise ship or an aircraft carrier, I have a breakout on a submarine. There are similarities. One is the product of imagination. The other is what is happening in real life. But they travel along the same course.” 

When Wright started work on the novel, he created a calendar on his computer for 2020 and mapped the spread of 1918 Spanish influence onto the then not too distant future. He recounts the parallel paths of that virus and his fictional Kongoli: “It comes out towards the end of influenza season… it seems to die out in the summer. And it was in October that the great killing wave arrived. This is the first wave of the coronavirus. I hope it doesn’t return. And if it does I hope it doesn’t mutate and become more lethal. There’s no doubt that it will mutate, because it’s an RNA virus and that’s what they do.

“We may be at just the beginning of the Coronavirus story,” he says, ominously. “But I hope not. I want the coincidences to stop.”

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