Jeremi meets with Lawrence Wright to discuss the parallels between the pandemic and his new book. They also find an inspired, positive perspective on how the youth can see this situation as a moment for monumental change.
Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “Where did the books go?”
Lawrence Wright is one of the leading writers in America today, and the author of a major new novel about a pandemic, THE END OF OCTOBER. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a playwright, a screenwriter, a musician, and the author of ten books of nonfiction, including The Looming Tower, Going Clear, and God Save Texas, and one previous novel, God’s Favorite. His books have received many honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower. He and his wife are longtime residents of Austin, Texas, where Lawrence plays in a local band, WhoDo.
- Lawrence WrightAuthor and Staff Writer for The New Yorker
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
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Dr. Jeremi Suri: Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. This week we have a very special guest. We have a friend and prominent writer an important journalist in our society, Lawrence Wright. Larry is also a good friend of ours and we’re lucky to be friends with him. Larry is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He’s a playwright, he’s a screenwriter, he’s a musician. He’s an author of 10 books of nonfiction including one of I think the most influential books still on the events surrounding 9/11, The Looming Tower which won a Pulitzer Prize. Recently, he wrote a new book about the history of Texas including his own personal reflections called God Save Texas which is as a non-Texas native book that’s taught me quite a lot about the state we now reside in. Larry has just published a new novel that he’s been working on for at least two and a half, three years called The End of October. It’s a novel believe it or not about a pandemic with many eerie echoes of our current world. We’re going to talk to Larry about that, about the process of writing this novel and what insight it offers us for understanding the world we’re in today. Larry, thank you for joining us.
Lawrence Wright: It’s my pleasure, Jeremi.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Before we turn to Larry as always we have our scene setting poem from Mr. Zachary Suri. What’s the title of your poem today, Zachary?
Zachary Suri: Where did the books go?
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Well, let’s hear it.
Zachary Suri: Where did the books go. We read in school about suffering writers, about novels of suffering, stories from eternal grippers. We read in school about history, about health, about scientific mystery. We sit in damped classrooms to hear lectures about fate, the death of Banquo and guilt’s tyranny upon the Irate. We read in school the syncs of yesterday, laugh at the over dramatic death of characters overwhelmed by the gray. But what about poems that explain disease, memoirs from the plague, rotting among fleas. When did we forget that we have word from the other side of death that we possess novels about human inability to face nature, poem, songs, plays, diatribes and the rest. When did we forget that we are so small or like rodent size dependents waiting for the fall, or a Savior from the angels beside the one who knows all. Where did 1918 go in the history book texts, viral disease in the health pamphlets. Where did human vulnerability go when we were taught medicine had vanquished the foe. Where were the nurses, emergency doctors when we sing the anthem for violence adopters? Where did we lose the memoirs from death when sickness as now fell upon Lady Liberty’s breast. When did we fail to see the books that reminded us that viral infections ignore arrogance and powerless. Why did the studies of fate fail to produce this catastrophe leaving us quarantined at home, waiting to atrophy. Where did the books go? I think we all know. Why we chose to ignore the words, what did Napoleon say at the fall of his broad swords when he saw an entire empire collapse in a single day.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: It’s a very thoughtful poem, Zachary. What is your poem about?
Zachary Suri: My poem is really about questioning how books and accounts of plagues and sickness, disease and human vulnerability have disappeared from our conscience. In many ways, how we focus on actions and literature that teaches us how great humans are and how we’ve conquered nature but in reality, we’re still so vulnerable to something so tiny that we can’t even see it.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Larry, it seems to me that that’s one of the themes of your book, the vulnerability of human society, your hero Henry Parsons is an incredibly vulnerable character as he’s also in a sense the person who’s most aware of what’s going on, is that a fair assessment?
Lawrence Wright: It’s totally fair and let me say Zachary, I really liked that poem. I thought that was very intriguing and really spoke to me. This actually began with a screenplay idea from Ridley Scott, but when that didn’t work out I decided to make my character rather uncinematic. He is vulnerable, he’s flawed, he’s been touched heavily by disease himself. All those qualities, those vulnerable qualities that you cite, they are present, they are in here and I think that’s what draws me to him and I hope will draw the readers as well.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: What drew you to write about a pandemic and begin this journey a few years ago when you did?
Lawrence Wright: Well, as I said it started with Ridley Scott trying to get me to write a script and I did. But his question was, what would happen? What would bring civilization to its knees? What force? I mean, there are a lot of things that would consider: powerful wars, nuclear bombs. There are a lot of things, but when I was a young reporter, I was very affected by doing a couple of stories about disease. I was living in Atlanta not far from the Centers for Disease Control, and there was the swine flu outbreak in 1976 and that same year legionnaires disease. Two very intriguing moments in our history now pretty much forgotten, but I was very taken by the ingenuity and courage of these swashbuckling intellectual epidemiologist if you can put all those words together. There’s a degree of modesty that is belied by what I think is unfathomable courage to go charging into places where these heart diseases breakout and oftentimes no idea what they are, what the strategy of the disease is. Honestly Jeremi, those things scare me to death. I would rather go into a war zone.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I agree. Toward the end of the novel, you make the point about how we forget. You talk about, I think it’s on page 248, the way we forget about the history of 1918 as well as you just mentioned, the swine flu continuance and the vaccination frenzy of 1976 which was not that long ago. Why does that happen? Why do we forget about these moments? Why does disease scare us but yet, it’s usually not on the top of our list of national security concerns?
Lawrence Wright: It was even true with the Black Death, which killed about half the population of Europe. I think there are a number of reasons just reference to the 1918 flu, it was overshadowed by World War I, even though the flu killed far more soldiers than the war did. As a matter of fact, the 1918 flu killed more Americans than American soldiers died in all the wars of the 20th century. World War l, World War ll, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam. I mean all of those wars, the flu leveled every country, and yet it was scarcely even commented on at the time. Woodrow Wilson never mentioned it even though he himself got deathly ill from it may have lead to a stroke that incapacitated him. Partly I think, Jeremi it’s because there’s a perceived lack of heroism in getting sick and suffering. I think also at the time in 1918, people were far more used to the idea of dying of disease. The 20th century was still young and so many diseases would be conquered during that century. But typhus, diphtheria, yellow fever, cholera, polio, these were all very common diseases at the time. But finally I think it’s the level of stigma and shame that is attached to disease. I just offer those as hypotheses.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I was thinking as I read your wonderful novel and I really enjoyed it. It’s a very fast paced and scary story. I was thinking about the generation of Jews after the Holocaust and the desire not to talk about Holocaust. This is of course been written about by many historians. It really takes a decade and a half or a new generation to be willing to even discuss the topic. I wonder if it’s a similar dynamic. It’s the stigma, it’s the embarrassment, it’s the lack of heroism. People don’t like to talk about themselves as victims it seems.
Lawrence Wright: I think that’s absolutely true, and the idea that you’ve been victimized by nature, there’s no recourse. If you have lost a war like let’s say Germany after World War l, you can store up just tremendous amount of resentment and burst out at your enemies. You can’t do that against nature. Nature is implacable, it’s pointless to try to rail against nature. I think that’s the frustration of dealing with diseases.
Zachary Suri: What does literature and poetry and novels, what do they tell us about this human struggle with disease? What lessons do we learn from books and from poems?
Lawrence Wright: Well, I had been reading a lot of books about plagues and oftentimes like in Camus The Plague. That book is mainly a metaphor for the German occupation of France. It feels vague and metaphorical, even though it’s superbly written and beautiful in so many respects. The best of the books that I’ve read in terms of the plague or any pestilence like that is Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. She actually was sick of the 1918 flu. She’s from Texas, but she was a young reporter in Denver. She was deathly ill. Her newspaper actually put her obituary and they typeset it.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Oh my God.
Lawrence Wright: When she finally came to, she was bald, and when her hair grew back, it was white for the rest of her life. So you can just imagine the torment that she endured, and that novel is just beautiful and heartbreaking. I’ve also been reading, it’s odd, Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Sure.
Lawrence Wright: Which is a fascinating book in a historical way because it represents the attitudes of people as they were experiencing The Black Death. It’s a group of 10 friends who are sheltering in place and telling these stories, and the stories they tell about their society are so cynical. Never is there a good priest, they don’t exist, and adultery is the common story of almost every one of these. But you can see that there’s a level of disgust with their society that prefigures the end of the Middle Ages. That people had turned against the irrationality of the church and scholastic medicine, and it opens the door to science and the Renaissance. So that is a fascinating story from that perspective. The Daniel Defoe book, A Journal of the Plague Year, that’s also from a writer’s point of view. One of the most intriguing, because Daniel Defoe was a child when the plague struck London and he writes it as if he experienced it. Apparently, he may have had some relatives, but it reminds me in a very modern way of a nonfiction novel.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Lawrence Wright: It’s a form that I didn’t know existed at that era and I don’t know that it was repeated, but it’s a fascinating work of literature.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I agree. One of the things that seems to run through all of these works, including your own, Larry, is this sense of social decay that seems to go along with health decay.
Lawrence Wright: Yeah.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I wonder what connection you were thinking about because I do think it’s present in your novel as well, without giving away any details. To what extent were you thinking about that relationship when you wrote your novel?
Lawrence Wright: Well, it’s much on my mind right now, Jeremi, because I’ve been looking back at the Black Death in 1918 and other instances, the plague of Athens and so on. What happens afterward?
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right.
Lawrence Wright: In some ways, a war, or a depression, or a pestilence like this is like an X-ray of the society you live in, and it’s suddenly revealed to you who we are and what kind of society we have made. I think everybody is pretty dismayed by what they’ve seen. It’s an opportunity. Once it’s been made clear to you, the weaknesses in our society, the fault lines, the partisanship, those kinds of things, the needless conflict, all of those things are impeding us as a society and it suddenly becomes very clear, the cost, not only in financial terms, but in spiritual terms. We’re having to face the truth about who we are, and this is also an opportunity. I’m not saying that we will take it, but I think that there’s going to be a time when we’ll look back at the COVID-19 era as the great turning point, the time when we could have made a change, and whether we did or not is going to determine whether we’re prepared for the big one. I don’t think this is the big one, but one like this will come one day and we’ll have to be ready for it.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I think that’s so well said, Larry, and I was thinking about this as I read the novel and one of the characters I was drawn to was Majid. I don’t want to say too much about him because I want readers to buy the book and have a chance to read it. But in a certain way, there’s a reconciliation between two worlds that you have in the midst of these worlds going to war with one another. I was thinking about that as a metaphor for today and the ways in which, for instance, people, especially in cities like New York, are finding themselves expressing appreciation for police officers and health care workers, some of those who often are the worst treated in our society. So I was wondering if you were reflecting on that as well.
Lawrence Wright: Well, Prince Majid is Henry’s friend, he’s a Saudi prince. He’s also a medical doctor, an epidemiologist like Henry, and they’re bosom friends.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Lawrence Wright: This reflects on two things. One was, we live in an age when is hard to make a convincing hero, and yet, for me, those people in public health just were heroic by instinct, by nature. I admire them so much that it was no problem for me to attribute these qualities of heroism to them because I think they really exemplify people in that line of work.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Yeah.
Lawrence Wright: The other thing about Majid is that, I lived in Saudi Arabia after 9/11. They wouldn’t let me in as a reporter, so I became an expat worker. I mentored these young reporters in Riyadh, Bin Laden’s hometown, and one of my first assignments was to oversee their coverage of the Hajj and of course, I couldn’t go to the Hajj myself, I couldn’t go to Mecca. But I was on the phone all the time, talking to them, and the thing that most impressed me was how dangerous it was from a health point of view. You got two or three million people all pressed together from other parts of the world. Every year, there is some dire outbreak, and I thought, what if something really big started there and then instantly went all over the world? That thought preoccupied me for quite a while and it never really left my mind.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I have to say, you do a wonderful job in the novel of describing the Hajj and describing the experience there, almost giving us a front row seat in some respects. One of the things about your heroic figures, your Henry, and your Prince Majid, and others. Bartlett, I think is another one in the book. You have them speaking truth to power. They all have moments when they have to dissent and sometimes even risk their positions and risk their lives to criticize more powerful superiors. Do you think that’s a necessary part of addressing a health crisis like this?
Lawrence Wright: Yeah, we’re certainly seeing it now, aren’t we? I have to say, it’s totally maddening to me that they have to do this. There are plans, the government made plans for occasions like this and the healthcare experts drew them all up, it’s very well detailed. In fact, I drew up on a lot of this material. There were, not just books about it, there were tabletop exercises, and I talked to so many experts who are now on the front lines of trying to create a vaccine and combat this adversary. But it was all there, you didn’t need to have experts improvising or politicians guessing how we’re going to handle this. There’s a playbook and had we followed that playbook from the beginning, we’d be in better shape than we are now.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Why do you think we didn’t?
Lawrence Wright: Well, first of all, in the current administration, when it came into office, it cut the budget for the Center for Disease Control, among many other agencies. One of the things that I mourn about that, the Centers for Disease Control had surveillance teams in about 50 countries, which they had to suspend, and one of those countries was China. The administration is railing against the World Health Organization. We had our own people there, but we cut the funds and lost that, so we didn’t have the inside track that we would have had. The other thing is that in 2016, John Bolton, who was then the National Security Adviser, eliminated the Pandemic Preparedness Force from the National Security Council. It had been led by Admiral Timothy Zimmer, who had overseen the fight against malaria in Africa and is credited with saving six million lives. Now, that whole team would have been in charge of America’s response to the pandemic we’re facing now, but it doesn’t exist anymore.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right. There was a section, it’s page 148 in your book, it was one of many sections, Larry, that just jumped out at me. It was as if you were writing news coverage today. I’m just going to read a little bit of it because it just made me shiver. This is Bartlett who is, if I remember, Bartlett works for the CDC, right?
Lawrence Wright: Yeah, she’s a public health officer.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right. She’s briefing the task force that’s been created in your novel to address the virus and the task force is headed by the vice president.
Lawrence Wright: Yeah.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Bartlett says to the Vice President, “I know what you people want me to say, but that’s not my job, is it? I’m supposed to be giving you information, real information. What you do with it is your job. Now, if you had been doing your job and providing us with the resources we asked for.” This refers to what you were just talking about, “maybe we wouldn’t be sitting here sucking our thumbs while people are suffering and the economy is going to hell and the graveyards are filling up, and all because people like you didn’t care enough about public health to pay attention to our needs.” You could’ve been writing that today, Larry.
Lawrence Wright: Yeah. It was an indictment, and they deserve that indictment. We were not prepared and it’s very clear, and it’s been sad to me to see a once distinguished agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at one point, one of the prize agencies in our government stumble so badly at the cost of many lives. The fact that they could not get the swab test to see if you were infected or not. Months passed, we’re still struggling to get an active antibody tests. It’s nuts and there was some hubris involved in this too, I think, because there are other nations like Germany that seem to have very good tests. Why don’t we just use that? Now we will get in this rut where we have to make our own test and delay until it becomes moot, whether you’re going to use it or not.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Well said. Zachary.
Zachary Suri: I think what’s really powerful about your novel is you make the science very human and very personal. How do we make sure that we place public health in the position of importance that it deserves, and how it influences us in our everyday lives?
Lawrence Wright: Well, we have to have a more responsible and compassionate government to start with. I think it’s pretty clear to most Americans, the limitations that we’re facing right now with our current administration and that’s true to some of the state governments as well. If we can elect a more responsible government, then we will certainly have to deal with the limitations that we’ve found in our response in this case. We have to do something that is not just good enough to deal with COVID-19, you have to deal with something as devastating as the influenza that I invented, because it’s as plausible as anything else. This particular virus that we’re fighting now is incredibly ingenious and strange, unusual in so many different respects, and we’re learning things about it every day. But there was an attempt to make a vaccine for MERS the Middle East respiratory syndrome, which was in 2010, I think, something like that, and it killed 35 percent of the people that it infected. So is a far more fatal disease, and then it went away and the money was withdrawn for the vaccine. What remained of the effort to build that vaccine is now being reassembled to try to fight against COVID-19, and it’s already in human trials. But had we pursued that, we would be much farther along the line to developing a vaccine that would be effective right now.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Certainly countries like South Korea, which had dealt with SARS and other epidemics in recent years, they were better prepared in terms of their health infrastructure than we were.
Lawrence Wright: Well, they were far more aware of the risk. I mean, SARS, I think, scared the crap out of them, and every country that had that experience and realized what could happen, I think that they really did get the message. But it got all the way to Toronto, and it was a miracle of the public health officers around the world that it was contained and stopped within 100 days.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right, it was a miracle. Larry, we always like to close with a positive discussion about what our listeners, many of whom are young people, probably at home right now, what they can do to make a difference, and I want them all to read your novel during one of my classes it will be assigned to them. As they read it, what do you want them to take away as things they can do to help our society going forward so we don’t repeat this terrible moment we’re in?
Lawrence Wright: Well, Jeremi, I think we’re at a fork and we can go one way or the other. If you look at all the problems that we’re dealing with, it should be pretty clear that we need to have more accountability in our government, more respect for science. We need to diminish the partisanship, the geopolitical conflicts that we have going on now are very dangerous. Just the blame, for instance, that countries are blaming the United States for creating it in a lab and we’re saying the same thing about China. These are irresponsible and dangerous accusations. We have the opportunity to change those things, and yet when we’ve come into these inflections in our history like 9/11, I remember so strongly the sense after that day, “Oh, we’re going to have to stand for something now. We’re going to have to be the country that our parents gave us.” I know I wasn’t alone. I know a lot of people have felt that same way. Think about all the people that joined the army and stuff like that, there’s tremendous upsurge, and what did we do? We invaded Iraq. We made a catastrophic error. Instead of reforming our country, we just made a really big mistake. Now, another example is the Arab Spring. I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and my heart very much goes out to those people. They so desperately need reform and democracy, and I thought the Arab Spring was that moment, and yet what happened is that most of those countries have become only more tyrannical. So the lesson is, I think that we have the opportunity to make the changes that will make us a stronger culture and a better society. It’s in our hands, but we also have the same elements in our society that could defeat it, and those are the elements that we have to defeat ourselves.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Just to extend that a little bit, how do we do that? How do we not make the same mistakes we made? I like you thought after 9/11 that we were going to see the better angels of our nature, and for a little while we did. In some respects, the negative elements that came out of that are what brought us to today, Larry. Right?
Lawrence Wright: Yeah. I think that for one thing, standing on the sidelines and criticizing is not the way to go. People have to be activated. For instance, I urge young people to look at public health and medicine as this is a truly noble calling, and those that might be inclined, this would be a great thing to do. I think that we’ve seen, for instance, just from a business standpoint, the manufacturing, the supply chain, we’ve got to do a lot to fortify our country and make it more resilient. So if you’re in the business world then there’s something you have to look at. What would make our nation safer? We should be able to manufacture the kinds of products that we need without depending on a foreign country that might decide to use those products for themselves or withhold them for political reasons. I think we’ve lost the sense that patriotism is a good thing. We need to cherish the country that we have and the institutions that we built and try to make sure that they’re strong. So I think that the partisanship is very crippling, but what we really need is an upsurge of commitment. I look at young people today and they seem far more committed than my generation was, so I have a great deal of hope with them.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I share that. I always say to people, you’ve heard me say this, Larry, I have the best job in the world because I get to work with so many young people and that they’re so much better than those of us who are not as young, and that’s instructive for us. Zachary, is this inspiring for you? Do you agree with Larry that there’s an opportunity for young people to see a mission here, and mission not for war or for violence, but a mission for health and love and caring and bringing people together. Do you see that happening among young people like yourself?
Zachary Suri: I do. I think that if we come out of this pandemic, the best that we can be. I think that means that we’re going to become a nation that’s much more dedicated to humanitarian issues, to health and to kindness for all. I think that the literature like Mr. Wright’s book and others that are coming out right now, gives us an opportunity to understand this moment, not just from a scientific perspective, but from a cultural perspective to hopefully move closer to that moment.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right. There there is a sense, Larry, in which maybe your book can be part of an emerging literature like the literature surrounding abolition or the literature surrounding civil rights and other moments that provided people, provided citizens with an imagination of a different world. A world that was less militaristic and more committed to the values that you articulate so well.
Lawrence Wright: Thank you, Jeremi. I hope that’s true.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Well, I hope all of our listeners will read your book. It’s available on Kindle and in hard copy. I just read it as I said, and it it’s really a page turner and at times it’s a little scary, but it’s a book that one really learns a lot from, and it’s a gripping story with many surprise turns, none of which I think we’ve given away. That wasn’t my concern.
Lawrence Wright: Thank you for that.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I encourage everyone to get a copy of The End of October, and also to look up Larry on the web. I know he’s doing many other interviews in various other places, so I hope everyone will take advantage of that. Larry, thank you for joining us and thank you for writing such a wonderful book.
Lawrence Wright: Thank you, Jeremi. It’s been my pleasure, and thank you, Zachary.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Yes. Thank you, Zachary, for your excellent poem, and thank you to our listeners for joining us for this episode of This is Democracy.
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