I started writing Agnes at the End of the World three years ago, during the height of the Zika epidemic, while pregnant in Honolulu. It awed me then how quickly daily life could change, how even life’s meaning could alter in an instant. Before Zika, I’d always felt my existence was somehow separated from the world around me—cordoned off, protected. In the span of a few months, while the radio projected warnings about avoiding standing bodies of water and my baby slowly grew amid a swirling haze of DEET, I realized we’re not as separate as we imagine. Our community is a global one; despite every illusion, it always has been. To protect ourselves, we must also, always, protect each other.
These were the seeds of a cult/pandemic genre mash-up, called Agnes at the End of the World, which releases on June 9. Undoubtedly, the world will still be reeling from Covid-19 when the book hits shelves. I’ve prepared myself for the reality that the book won’t sell hard copies in the numbers I’d hoped for; like all authors of 2020 books, I’m braced for disaster. And yet, if I had any say in it, I wouldn’t hold my book back. There’s a chance the novel won’t succeed by our old metrics. But what if, to someone still social distancing this summer, the novel means more—offers comfort, even?
It’s come as a shock to hear people calling my book a pandemic novel; it certainly is, but I’d anticipated more interest in the cult, and crafted my talking points accordingly. At the beginning of the novel, Agnes is trapped in a fundamentalist cult in the middle of the desert. When an Outsider boy gives Agnes a cellphone, she gets her first glimpse of a better world—but that world is also battling an emerging pandemic, which will be waiting to greet her when she finally finds the courage to escape.
Like my protagonist, I feel shaken by the irony of a worst-case scenario. Agnes escapes from her cult, ready to take on the world—but she runs too late. The world she’d anticipated becoming part of is very nearly gone. When our world crumbles around our ears, it will always scuttle our best-laid plans, but we never expect it. Underestimating forces larger than ourselves is simply human nature. It’s the key ingredient in every pandemic novel, and in every pandemic reality, too.
I’d planned to launch my novel at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, where my mother, the bestselling novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes, lives. I’d planned visits to Tattered Cover and Book Bar in Denver, at Boulder Book Store in Boulder, at Changing Hands Bookstore (my childhood shop!) in Phoenix, and more. It’s painful that those visits are now in doubt. But I find great solace in the work that people are doing to try to keep these stores alive. I find it heartening that social media has united to support authors with the unluckiest of publishing dates. And I especially find hope in the idea that we are all re-learning what it means to be members of a global community, united in our humanity.
I always say that my book’s title is an ironic misnomer. The book is called Agnes at the End of the World, yet its prime message is that while the world is constantly in flux, it won’t end—can’t end—unless we let it.