Pulitzer-winner Wright presents a chillingly plausible look at the consequences of a global pandemic in The End of October (Knopf, May.).
What inspired this novel?
The idea actually came from filmmaker Ridley Scott, who had read, and loved, Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel The Road and had asked me to write a screenplay inspired by it. Ridley’s question was what had happened to cause civilization to collapse. I started researching, and decided that the most likely path to such a catastrophe was a novel virus. Even though I’ve written about public health as a journalist, I was shocked to learn how stripped-down the public health infrastructure has become. There’s no greater threat to our safety, but we pay little heed to the dangers.
What about global pandemics did you find most surprising?
I was staggered to learn the abundance of viruses, thought to number 100 million times more than the stars in the universe. Most of these we know almost nothing about. It was also fascinating to learn that viruses sometimes insert their own DNA into our genome, including genes that control the formation of memories and the immune system. They are part of what makes us human.
Your movie screenplay about Islamic terror, The Siege, felt prescient after 9/11. Do you fear this book will be thought of that way in a few years?
I got the reputation of being prescient for writing about terror striking New York a few years before 9/11. I’m no prophet. The scenario I created for The Siege evolved from intensive research about how societies react to terror strikes and how we, in our own history, have dealt with such crises. It was research that led me to shape the story of The End of October. Once I decided to write about a new plague, I followed the trends already in our society to foresee where they would lead.
Does the coronavirus outbreak validate the concerns you express here in fictional form?
When I read the accounts of the spread of this new disease, I feel like I’m reading chapters from my own book. I just hope it turns out better in real life than it does in the novel.
Your plot features concerns about the virus being man-made. How much of a threat is biowarfare?
Biowarfare may not be limited to state sponsors. I once interviewed a senior intelligence official who said that in a few years he expects high school students who now play with computer viruses to be able to do something similar with actual biological viruses. The appeal of such agents for terrorists is well known but not yet exploited. Even if they’re never intentionally employed, diseases have a history of breaking loose from laboratories.