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Author Lawrence Wright on ‘eerie parallels’ between the pandemic and his new novel

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: The vice president is put in charge of a task force to deal with the mounting health crisis. The president is given untested preventive medicine. The country faces chaos.

Amid a global pandemic comes a novel about a global pandemic, and it feels all too real.

Jeffrey Brown talks to author Lawrence Wright.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: ... in Asia and quickly spreads around the world.

Here in the U.S., deaths mount, the health care system is overrun, schools close, the economy tanks. It's the world we're living in, but also a world of fiction.

Lawrence Wright: It's a very strange experience, Jeff, honestly. The stories seem to be chapters out of my book. I felt -- it was unnerving.

Jeffrey Brown: Lawrence Wright's new novel, "The End of October," was written before the novel coronavirus had been discovered in China.

Lawrence Wright: The timing of the publication is a total coincidence. But the eerie parallels with what we're experiencing, those are not coincidences. That's exactly what experts told me would happen.

Jeffrey Brown: This isn't the first time Wright has seemed to predict the future.

Denzel Washington: Agent Hubbard, FBI.

Jeffrey Brown: In 1998, he wrote the screenplay for "The Siege," a film starring Denzel Washington about a terrorist attack on New York.

Three years later, it became a top-rented movie after September 11.

But Wright is best known for his nonfiction. He's a staff writer for "The New Yorker," and in 2007 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for "The Looming Tower," a book later turned Hulu series about events leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

I asked why he'd returned to fiction now.

Lawrence Wright: As a journalist, you're always asking, what happened?

And in fiction, you're allowed to ask, what could happen? So, it is similar. But it gives you the opportunity to create a new canvas, and also to get inside the minds of your main characters.

Jeffrey Brown: His main character is a scientist with the World Health Organization named Henry Parsons, who has experience with Ebola and other viruses, and is now trying to stop what's called Kongoli flu, first seen in Indonesia.

It's fiction, but filled with scientific fact.

Lawrence Wright: I interviewed a lot of experts, but I also got them to read it to make sure that I hadn't made some colossal error.

And even, Jeff, sometimes, as a novelist, I would paint myself into a corner, you know, with some kind of problem that my hero had to solve. And so it seemed impossible to me, but I would turn to these experts, who are now, you know, on the front line of trying to find us a vaccine.

And they actually kind of jumped in with a lot of good spirit. It was very helpful to me.

Jeffrey Brown: But you had moments where you're writing, and you're thinking, oh, no, I have gone a little too far here?

Lawrence Wright: Well, a good example of that is, I had them quarantine Mecca, three million people.

That just seemed like a huge leap of imagination. And this was several months before China quarantined 100 million people, which I would never have dared as a novelist.

Jeffrey Brown: In the book, the crowded pilgrimage in Mecca is one way the virus is spread around the globe.

Today, of course, Mecca is empty.

Lawrence Wright: Well, this is Austin in the middle of its lockdown.

Jeffrey Brown: Wright has been sheltering in place at his home in Austin, Texas, the long days broken up by occasional walks.

Lawrence Wright: There are very few people on the hike and bike trail.

We're supposed to be running all in one direction, but we have got some scofflaws out here, which isn't surprising for a city that likes to keep it weird.

Jeffrey Brown: Even as debate continues over how quickly to open up, Wright sees reason to be encouraged.

Lawrence Wright: Unfortunately, I got too many things right.

But I will tell you one thing I got wrong. I underestimated the solidarity of ordinary citizens to isolate themselves, at great personal cost, not just financially, but socially and emotionally, spiritually, so many ways.

The whole society has retreated and made this disease, so far, far less dangerous than it would have been had we not taken shelter.

Jeffrey Brown: It's got to be strange for you. You finished the book. You wrote an ending. We don't know the ending to our story yet.

Lawrence Wright: I see us being at a kind of crossroads, Jeff.

I mean, it -- this -- a great pandemic, or like a war or a depression is like an X-ray on the society you live in. And now, suddenly, we can see everything. All the faults of our society are clearly on view. And we can address that now or we can fail.

If you look back at our own history, we had World War II. You know, we became the biggest manufacturing and commercial country in the world's history. But then, you know, after 9/11, where we had a similar inflection point, I thought the country was going to make great changes, but, instead, we invaded Iraq.

We can make a change that will lead us to a stronger and more unified future, or we can forfeit this opportunity. And I hope that we don't do that.

Jeffrey Brown: All right. The novel is "The End of October."

Lawrence Wright, thank you very much.

Lawrence Wright: My pleasure, as always, Jeff.

Judy Woodruff: Being able to see into the future.

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