After the 1918 flu, few Americans talked about it. It rarely appeared in books or art or public policy. The world had been reshaped by war and by disease, but we focused on commemorating the war.
It’s natural to want to move forward with our lives and leave the pain and trauma of 2020 in the past. But it’s also important to look back on the year just to process everything we had lived through. And to learn what really happened.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s new book “The Plague Year,” is an expansive work of analysis about America during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2020, Wright published his first novel “The End of October,” which just so happened to be about a deadly virus that upended the world. The sources he’d developed while writing that book put him a unique position to examine the global effects of Covid-19. Wright has covered topics like terrorism, Scientology, and Texas politics in previous books and has a knack for explaining dense subjects and finding interesting characters.
This week on the Reckon Interview, we hear from Lawrence Wright about the origins of the virus. What we got right. Where we went wrong. And how this experience may have reshaped us. We also learn a little about what’s happening in his home state of Texas.
And sign up for The Conversation, a new weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.
Below is a transcript of the episode.
John Hammontree: In the spring of 2020, just as America was starting to shut down and cases were rising in places like New York and New Orleans and Seattle, you were preparing for the publication of your first novel, “The End of October.” And it just so happened to be about a flu-like virus that emerged from Asia and led to a global pandemic. This wasn’t the first time that you had predicted what could happen in a world changing scenario. Your film, “The Siege” also anticipated 9/11 so you know, something of a monkey’s paw for you, I guess. Your new book, “The Plague Year,” chronicles that first year of the actual coronavirus pandemic.
And just from a storytelling perspective, for a novel, you get to create your characters; you kind of get to create the virus; you get to create the scenario. With the real-world pandemic that affected so many different people in so many different ways. How did you go about choosing the perspectives and the stories and the characters to include in this work?
Lawrence Wright: Well, in the real world, when my editor… It started with a New Yorker article, they wanted me to write a big story about how the pandemic has changed us. And it really is a big story because you think about how the pandemic left almost nothing untouched: race, the economy, politics, science, the way we live, the way we interact with each other, our whole cultural system was shut down. So everything about being an American at that point, and practically anybody in the world, had changed.
So, the question was, how do you tell such a vast story? And my technique was to, first of all, find the institutions that represent those sectors of our society like Congress, Wall Street, the White House, hospital, Bellevue Hospital is the one I picked. You know, emblematic institutions. And then within them, I look for characters who can convey the story and represent, you know, other people. I call these characters “donkeys.” It’s just a term of art for me but, and it sounds disparaging, I’m very aware, but a donkey is a beast of burden. And he can carry a lot of information on his back, and he can take the reader into a world that he’s never been. That’s exactly the kind of person that I like to concentrate on. If the reader cares about the donkey, then the world that he inhabits becomes far more important. You can write a nonfiction book without any characters at all. But to me, characters and scenes are essential to enlist the reader sympathy and, once you have captured that, then the factual matter that surrounds the context becomes far more crucial and memorable I think.
So that’s what I was setting out to do.
It’s really not very different from writing the novel. The novel, I had to invent characters, but I wanted them to be based on people that I knew about or at least the facts should be accurate. And the world in which these characters live, that has to be accurate. You know, when you’re writing that kind of novel that anticipates, you know, a fictional event, you know, I created a calendar for 2020. I wrote it in 2019, and I wrote, you know, the calendar was for events in 2020. This was just for my purposes, but the 2020 calendar was based on what happened in 1918.
So the events that unfold in the novel sort of replicate what happened in 2020. And then the nonfiction book is also about 2020. So it’s sort of bookends that year, forward and backwards.
Hammontree: It’s interesting how much you were able to anticipate. The virus that you created was a deadlier pandemic, not to diminish in any way the death toll of the Coronavirus, but it certainly was more destructive. But it’s interesting because you address this in The Plague Year. You know, a lot of people said, “Oh, well, how did you predict that this was going to happen?” And you said, and you wrote something to the effect of, you’re not the only one. I mean, a lot of people knew that something like this could happen. The Trump Administration inherited a playbook from the Obama Administration, about how to deal with a pandemic of this sort. And then they had their own projections and predictions about the Crimson Contagion, I think that they call it about knowing what could happen, and yet we still weren’t prepared for it as a society.
Wright: I interviewed a lot of public health people when I was researching both the novel and, and this, the more recent book. And I would ask, oftentimes, suppose 1918 came back? Would we be any better prepared than our ancestors were? And the answer was a novel pandemic, you know, a population has never been exposed to it, without any therapeutics without any vaccine, no, we’d be in exactly the same spot that our predecessors were a century before. The only thing you can do in those cases are what are called non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as hand washing, social distancing, masking, that’s about it. The repertory was, you know, what we could call upon really hadn’t changed. The masks are better, that’s about the difference.
Hammontree: Well and that was interesting, because that was something that the scientific community mostly had wrong at the very beginning. The efficacy of masks because they were thinking of it spreading the way that a normal flu would spread. And when I say at the beginning, it’s been such a long year, but we’re talking in a matter of weeks, not necessarily, you know, they came around in July and realized that people should be wearing masks. But, you know, in the first half of 2020, our knowledge of the virus was changing by the day.
But you kind of point to a few key moments where we could have made a bigger difference than we were able to, and one of them was masking. Another one was cutting down flight from China and elsewhere in the world. What did we do right? And then what were our missteps in those first few months?
Wright: Well, to start with the missteps at very beginning on January 3, 2020, Robert Redfield, the Director of the CDC, had a conversation with his counterpart in China, George Gao. And Gao assured him that this was not a humanly transmissible disease, which wasn’t true. Chinese authorities knew that it was. It had supposedly kind of come out of a wet market in Wuhan, and a wild animal infecting workers or shoppers in the market. But there were family clusters; doctors and nurses were getting sick; it was pretty clear that it was a communicable disease. And yet the Chinese were misrepresenting it.
At one point, George Gao broke down in tears, and said, “I think we’re too late.” And you know, it became evident to Redfield that something was going on. So he said, “Let me send a team over.” A crack team of people, epidemiologists, virologists, to help you out with this and we’ll learn something ourselves. The Chinese refused to let the Americans in, as far as I know, they didn’t let anybody in. But the American team was not able to get in. Had they been able to get in, they would have learned something that the Chinese medical authorities at least knew, which was that this disease was not only humanly transmissible, it was asymptomatically transmissible.
In other words, people could have the virus and not show any symptoms, not even know they were ill. And yet they could communicate it to other people.
Well, that would have a profound effect on how it would be treated. Public health people worldwide just thought it was a kind of elaborate flu. And that’s one of the reasons that masking wasn’t thought of as being that serious because if you keep your distance and so on, a mask is maybe not going to make that much difference. But if you have an aerosol as it turns out this Coronavirus was, it spreads, it floats on the air, like a cloud of vapor in the cold. In that case, masking was vitally important.
And then you know, I can’t overemphasize my dismay at the testing fiasco. It was horrible. Start with the Chinese would not give us a sample of the virus, which is against the International Health Regulations. But you can’t really create a test unless you have a sample of the virus. And so we didn’t get a sample of the virus until January 20, about a month after the disease was revealed to be circulating in China. And we definitely only got it because there was a case in Washington state, so that set things back.
But then the CDC… It was such a noble institution when I did stories before. I just was so impressed by it. But they allowed the test to go out of that building that they knew when it left the building would fail 30% of the time. And they sent it off to public health laboratories with no warning about this. The labs were… you know, one of the first things they do when they get a test is they test it against something they know is pure, such as sterilized water, and the water turned up Coronavirus, a false positive.
So CDC goes back to work on it.
Weeks pass. Dr. Redfield is promising the FDA will have it next week. Next week comes, it’ll be a couple more weeks. Finally he admits they don’t know when they will have a test. And so at the end of February, FDA sent a specialist down to Atlanta. He arrived on Saturday afternoon, and they wouldn’t let him into CDC. The next day they let him in, but they won’t let him into the labs. It’s a weekend and I get a little angry when I think about this. Finally on Monday, he’s allowed into the CDC. This is the Citadel of medical science. Right? So one of the things he discovers is that one of the labs where they’re creating the test, in the same room, they’re processing swabs of virus. This is highly contagious. You know, the viral particles float around the room. A person might walk through the room and DNA particles would get on the hospital gown or the lab gown. And then you know, go into the next room. It’s that transmissible. And it was simply contaminating the test and, for some reason that I cannot discern, the CDC hadn’t figured it out.
Well, it was five precious weeks from the day that they got the sample to the day they finally sent out a test that would work. And you know, actually the test that worked was the test they already had. They had three elements. And two of them tested for COVID-19, and one for Coronavirus in general, and if you just took that one element out, the tests worked pretty well. And nobody seemed to understand that there was a test that worked and we could have… but we never, never caught up.
We never caught up to those early days when the gap between when we got our first sample and we were allowed to make a test, and then when we finally did have a test that was more or less reliable, more than a month had passed. Five weeks.
And by that time the contagion was all over the country.
And there were not nearly enough testing facilities or swabs and so on. So we were constantly behind. And then, you know, the masking fiasco was on top of it with the president actually sabotaging the effort at the end, one last thing that we had to do, that could have saved this.
And I’m gonna say about one thing that the Trump administration did, right, because I’m very critical of what they did wrong. Operation Warp Speed was a tremendous success. And essentially what that meant was the federal government guaranteed drug companies that they would be reimbursed for their investment in creating a vaccine, whether it worked or not. And so suddenly, you had a lot of different entities pitching in to make a vaccine. As you can see, you know, it’s a lucky thing that we had many different entities because a lot of these vaccines turned out not to work. Or to be moderate in their effect. But one vaccine, which happens to be in both Moderna and Pfizer is stupendous.
Hammontree: And that one, I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but that vaccine, at least vaccine candidate, was ready to go to trial before we even started having community spread in the United States.
Wright: This is the advantage of pure science. Barney Graham was the great mind behind this. He is at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is Dr. Fauci’s shop. And I had actually interviewed him for my novel. I had no idea that I was talking to perhaps the greatest immunologist in the world. But he’s this big six foot five, former Kansas farm boy. I’m very fond of him. And when I was working on the novel, I went to visit him and I asked him to help me invent a fictional virus, an influenza that would pass muster with somebody like him, that would be plausible. And so he helped me do that.
And then I wrote myself into a corner, near the end of the book, cuz I had to cure it. And I did, I had to turn to Barney once again, to cure the virus that he had created that was supposed to be so invulnerable.
This was government, there had been a lot of disparaging of, you know, the functions of government since the Reagan administration. If it hadn’t been for the pure science that was being done at the NIH and NIAID as it’s called, we probably would not have a workable virus. They were predicting that we wouldn’t have a workable vaccine.
Imagine where we’d be if we didn’t have a vaccine now. Look at India, and they have a vaccine, they just haven’t got it into enough arms yet. But the only thing that’s really put the brakes on this is a marvelous and highly effective vaccine, which we owe thanks to the federal government for creating.
Hammontree: You were talking about the missteps of the CDC early on, and in some ways, the CDC and the scientific community have never fully regained that public trust because of some of their early communications issues. How much of that do you think was political pressure and how much of it was just misinformation and misunderstanding of a novel virus?
Wright: Well, there are two things, one was poor leadership at the top of the CDC. Dr. Redfield is an accomplished epidemiologist and virologist. But he’s probably not cut out to be a leader of a large organization like that. He didn’t defend his organization when it was attacked politically, again and again.
There has never been as much political pressure on a public health institution in history, as far as I can tell, compared with what was put upon the CDC and other institutions in the American public health establishment. Scientists were essentially ordered to come up with findings that agreed with the politics in the White House.
There was a guy named Michael Caputo, he was the chief spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health, FDA, CDC, he was chief spokesperson for Health and Human Services, which covers all of those departments. He began to meddle with, there’s a thing called the morbidity and mortality weekly report, which is the scripture for the public health world about what’s happening, you know, outbreaks and so on. And everything scrupulously follows the science, but it didn’t accord with the White House’s preferred messaging. So you know, that was changed.
He actually took $200 million out of the CDC budget to create an ad campaign for celebrities defeating despair or something like that. They were going to get celebrities to support Trump’s efforts using money that was built in for public health. That’s a cynical use of public monies to promote a political outcome is unparalleled. Certainly, as far as my memory goes.
Hammontree: Of the Trump administration’s failures, two of the biggest seem to be not having a central leadership effort for how states should combat this and how states should get equipment, and in fact, actively pitting states against each other. And you refer to it at one point as distributing needed materials like ventilators based on political patronage. And another being that the president, and everyone else by default, actively undermining their own guidance on things like masks or hydroxychloroquine being one of the examples. And do you consider there to be blood on the administration’s hands for some of those actions?
Wright: Unquestionably. There’s no doubt in my mind. Let’s just take, you know, in April of 2020, when the masking ordinance was finally proposed and the President was brought out to be the spokesperson for it at a Coronavirus Task Force briefing. And what does he say? He says, you know, well, “we have evidence, you know, they tell me that the masks are gonna work and they probably will. Everybody says it’s good thing. And you can wear it. I’m not going to wear it but uh, you can wear it if you’d like to, but I’m not gonna wear it.”
He became a saboteur of this policy.
It was our last chance to do anything meaningful to stop the spread of the contagion. And it’s hard to get past the responsibility that he bears for that. I mean, he even went to a mask-making factory and didn’t wear a mask. If there’s an example of, you know, impudence greater than that, I don’t know. I mean, it really undermined the effort of a lot of scientists to do something that would actually help stop the spread of the contagion.
Listen, America was going to suffer as all nations have. But it did not have to have this tremendous surge of death. 600,000 people.
If we had done as good a job as the state of Vermont, for instance, we would probably have three or four hundred thousand fewer deaths in this country. Just to use an American example. But you know, the counter to that is, South Dakota. And both South Dakota and Vermont, very similar in some respects, different culturally, but, you know, they’re both, you know, small states. They have extremely low unemployment. So they’re very successful economies in many respects. But South Dakota had 12 times as many fatalities. And those are two American states.
Had there been a federal policy that followed more closely the careful guidelines that were administered in Vermont, by a Republican governor, I think that the nation would have salvaged hundreds of thousands of lives.
Hammontree: Coming up after the break, Lawrence Wright shares what we know right now about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, and why it matters that we understand, plus a little bit of Texas politics.
There’s a very heated debate happening right now about the origins of the virus. And to the extent that I can, I want to separate this conversation… we have seen, obviously a large spike in anti-Asian violence in the United States. So when we talk about China here, I want to clarify that we’re talking about the Chinese government and Chinese bureaucrats and the American government and American bureaucrats and not talking about China as a people.
But there are some who believe that this virus was not only created in a lab, but was deliberately released from a lab, and you explore this in some depth. I mean, we still don’t know the answer. And we may never know the answer of where the virus originally came from. We do know, like you said at the beginning of our conversation, that the Chinese government certainly stymied efforts to learn more about the virus very early on in the process, and that it could have been circulating in some form or fashion as early as September of 2019, if not earlier.
What is your general sense right now of where this virus came from, and it does it honestly matter that much in terms of the grand scheme of the last plague year?
Wright: I think it will help people understand, you know, the quandaries we face with viruses if we understood where this came from, more fully.
First of all, let’s talk about China in SARS 2003.
One of the reasons we’re having this conversation is that when SARS broke out, world medical authorities went to China to investigate. And the Chinese took patients out of the hospitals and hid them in ambulances and taxis until these people left. This is a society, or at least the ruling Communist Party, that was willing to place that gamble. SARS was… COVID has about a 2% fatality rate. SARS was 10%. And had it been as contagious as COVID-19, think of what we’d be facing now. International health rules were changed because of those Chinese actions. And this was really the first big test.
Now the Trump administration was full of China hawks before this happened. And so there was an inclination to dump on China. Remember we were in some very bitter trade negotiations. So that’s the atmosphere that surrounded the discovery of this new unknown pneumonia circulating in Wuhan, first discovered in December of 2019.
SARS came from bats. It may have come directly from bats because there are very similar viruses in bats, or it may have passed through an intermediate animal like a civet cat. So there was a precedent. And originally that was the hypothesis is that both of them, coronaviruses, this must have been the same kind of thing, just a different virus from bats that came into people and probably through an intermediate animal. Probably through a civet cat at a wet market.
And that was a hypothesis.
But even when that hypothesis was put forward, there were people that were getting sick, they had nothing to do with the market. And you know, they were seeing people getting sick, and families and doctors and nurses were getting sick. And so it was pretty clear. It was being transmitted person to person, even as Chinese authorities were telling us that it wasn’t. So the most damning factor of all this is this suspicious Chinese behavior, which may not be necessary, may just be habitual, with the authorities.
But in any case, then there are questions like lab leaks. I think people think, “oh, that’s rare.” It’s not. It’s shocking how often these things actually do leak out of labs. Even CDC, you know, Ebola leaked out of a lab in the UK, or smallpox, I’m sorry. Several times that’s happened and people died from it. Ebola has leaked, SARS leaked out of labs in China four different occasions. Fort Detrick has had lab leaks.
So it’s unusual, but it’s not rare.
And then there’s the fact that the bats are 600 miles from Wuhan. And it was December or November/December, a time when the bats would normally be hibernating. And the market, if there really is a connection is in Wuhan where the Wuhan Institute is.
And then on top of that there were experiments done in the Wuhan lab called “gain of function.” And there’s a reason for doing them. You have a virus that may one day evolve in nature into a human virus. So why not experiment a little bit, see what it takes to make it a human transmissible virus, and then you’d be prepared to make a vaccine for it when that day arose. They were doing exactly those experiments in the Wuhan lab.
Now, the Wuhan lab is a biosafety level four lab, BSL four, it’s the highest level. It’s a world standard. And some of the scientists, you know, they initially thought “well, this wouldn’t have happened,” were influenced by the fact that it was done in such a safe environment. But then they learned that, actually, many of the experiments were done at BSL 2 or 3 levels, which BSL 2 is about the same level of safety as you would find in a dentist office. So experimenting with viruses to see how they can become contagious at a lower level of safety is a hazardous enterprise.
And so on balance, I think that either of these things can be true. I don’t believe we will ever find out what happened if it was a lab leak because I don’t think the Chinese will ever allow us to. Or even I don’t know if the evidence is still there. But if it is found in another animal, or in a bat, then I think we can pretty much say that’s how it evolved. Otherwise, I think we’ll never know.
Hammontree: One of the things that you do a great job of in this book is taking a historical step back and looking at the way that other plagues and viruses have shaped humanity.
These political divisions and states being pitted against each other, there were moments early on where it seemed like our response to the virus had the potential to pull us together and certainly on a lot of levels it did. People found new ways to relate to each other and communicate with each other. People realize how precarious economic safety could really be, because of the stock market collapse. A lot of our long-standing economics debates went out the window. You know, we unanimously passed massive stimulus packages to try to steer our way out of this. With the summer of George Floyd protests, more and more people seem to awaken to the realities of systemic racism.
But then the longer we’ve gone on, it seems like the more not only that, we’re trying to go back to the way things were, but that in some states like your state of Texas, or in Florida, or in Alabama where I am, we’re trying to make it illegal to move past that status quo. You know, we’re saying that, in Alabama, they just recently passed a law that they’re not going to be able to enforce, that said that, you know, universities cannot require you to take any vaccine that they did not require you to take before January 1, 2021. How has this pandemic changed us permanently? And how has it just deepened the divisions that were already there?
Wright: I don’t like to think that it changed us permanently in those ways. It might. You know, there’s no telling how we’re going to come out of this exactly. You know, had a foreign enemy attacked America and killed half a million citizens, we would be a united country.
But that’s not what happened.
It was nature. And I think that we tend to discount the effects of nature. I mean, look at global warming is a good example. We worry about it, but we don’t do very much to stop it.
In the pandemics of the past, it’s been characteristic that people simply forgot about them. 1918 was a good example. It was buried in historical consciousness. And I talked to a medical historian in Italy, Gianna Pomata, I asked her about plagues of the past and what happened after that. And she pointed to the bubonic plague in the 14th century in Italy, which was far more… I mean the plague killed a third of Europe so, you know, the scope of it was far greater. But she said in terms of the outcomes, what happened with that plague is, it was in the Middle Ages. It was a period of great piety, but, suddenly, things that people counted on didn’t work. And for one thing, medicine changed. And once people began to rethink the society they were in, it opened the window to fresh thinking. And that fresh thinking became the Renaissance.
Now, I’m not saying we’re going to have a Renaissance, but I can say that this pandemic has functioned as a kind of X-ray for us to see in our societies what kind of people are we really and where are we broken? I think that all these things have been revealed. And now we have a task to do which is to repair our society and our countries. And we may fail in that task. But it won’t be because we didn’t know.
Hammontree: While writing the novel, you were able to kind of think about things like this, like the end of the world and annihilation of mankind on a theoretical level. As you were writing this and living this like the rest of us, you know, you were part of that vulnerable demographic? How did writing about this virus and living through it change you and change the way that you think about your work and the world?
Wright: Well, it’s been a very solitary experience, right? I yearn to be with my friends and travel. I thought I never wanted to get on another airplane. But it turns out that I really miss my old haunts and the friends that I have around the country and other countries.
Yet, I was really fortunate to have a mission during this time to write this book and try to come to grips with what was happening as I was writing it. It wasn’t really a history. And it was an odd kind of journalism, because it was all on the phone or Zoom. You know, I didn’t get to meet any of my sources. There are parts of my life that I don’t know how they’re going to get back together.
One of the things I love, I’m a playwright, among other things. I had a play in Houston that we were hoping to take to New York and it was closed down by the virus. What’s gonna happen with the theater world, for instance? Just to take a small example. It’s an extremely intimate audience environment. Are people going to be ready to go back, maskless into a 1300 seat auditorium? Swapping their breaths with each other? Yeah, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.
And as soon as something looms on the horizon that’s like another pandemic or an epidemic of influenza that might be serious. I think that the lights will go out again.
Cities, you know, I live in Austin. People are streaming here from New York and New Jersey, in particular, and LA. They’re getting out of places that they perceive to be more dangerous and coming to Austin, which has never been… I’m a little mystified by the lure that Austin has always had. It’s got this absurd PR and people that don’t even know anything and have never been to Austin always think it is cool. And I love it. I just am observing the fact that people are fleeing here as if they’re seeking sanctuary from the danger. And we don’t have that.
Hammontree: One of the things that we talk about on the show a lot is, as goes the South, so goes the nation. And I think it’s probably fair to say, as goes Texas, so goes the South, very often. Or at least more often than not. So let’s talk about Texas for a minute. You know, Austin is growing. Houston is growing. Dallas is growing. All of Texas is growing, from the census and every other measure.
And it seems to be at an inflection point.
Just a few weeks ago, Republicans in the legislature tried to pass one of the strictest voting laws in the country. And the Democrats staged a dramatic walkout, right around the time of midnight, that effectively killed the bill. There’s a lot of talk about Texas as a purple state. How real is that? And, you know, will it matter if the Republican legislature is able to eventually pass things like that and codify it as a state where it doesn’t necessarily matter what the people think?
Wright: Well, you know, Republicans in Texas are looking over the horizon and they’re seeing, you know, a shift that really endangers them. They are a party of ageing white men. That doesn’t mean there aren’t women in the party. But there are fewer of them than there are in the Democratic Party. Doesn’t mean there aren’t minorities, but there’re far fewer than there are in the Republican Party. And that is the fastest growing constituency in this state. So if you look at the demographics, you know, sunset is arriving, and something’s going to happen in Texas.
This last election was sobering from that perspective, though, because a lot of Hispanics voted for Trump. And so it probably is not going to happen right away. But the growth centers are all urban. And all the cities in Texas are blue. Fort Worth was the last holdout.
But it’s going to be harder and harder for the Republicans to win the popular vote in Texas, as is the case nationally. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t got strategies for holding on to power. And suppressing the vote is one of those things. And, of course, gerrymandering, which they’ve done an amazing job of, they’ve got far more representatives in Congress than they merit. And they’re about to get two more, I think, with the additional population.
I guess, you know, people might think “this is sort of inside baseball, it’s about Texas.” but what I think I’d like to convey to people outside of Texas, is that Texas is going to double by the year 2050. It may be sooner than that given its current rate of growth. And at that time, it’ll be larger than California and New York combined. It’d be the largest state in the union and most powerful. And what happens in Texas, to paraphrase your thing about the South, is certainly going to be true about where Texas goes, the nation will follow because it is going to be the anchor of American politics.
Well, I don’t think even Texans have taken in the level of responsibility that we have for that. We’re not educating our children to be the leaders of the future or the workers of the future. The infrastructure is lame and needs a lot of help. But what is happening right now is these culture wars instead of solving the problems that would make Texas a better state and make America a stronger country, because of the importance of Texas. Those things aren’t happening.
Hammontree: We also saw in Texas earlier this year, the power grid fail, and we’re starting to see a shift away from an oil economy. I mean, not anytime soon, but certainly long term. How is that going to affect Texas? Texas has certainly been able to diversify its growth and it’s not as reliant on oil as it once was, but certainly a big part of the economy.
Wright: Yeah, oil and gas is still very, very important. You take the example of Houston, outside of New York, it is the city with the most fortune 500 companies in the country. 21 of them. 18 of them are energy companies. So you can see that lock on the energy capital of the world is considerable. These companies are more savvy than people might give them credit for they know that they have to diversify. They know that change is coming. A lot of these companies have said that they would welcome a carbon tax if they could just understand what the rules of the game are. But right now, the game is constantly changing. And they don’t know how to forecast the future.
Texas gets right now 18% of his energy from wind, higher than any other state. That’s a blessing. And yet during this storm, after the storm, the governor blamed wind for being the problem. Whereas what it was, was the gas lines froze up. And so it’s true that it was a storm, the wind stopped blowing. But you know, there’s a hostility to alternative energy, which I think doesn’t serve the state. If Texas wants to be relevant in the energy economy of the future, it has to go with the flow. And wind and solar are going to be a big part of our future.
Hammontree: You’ve written books about, you know, potentially catastrophic events like pandemics and terrorism and Texas, you know, what should we be prepared for next? What’s your next project?
Wright: I’m working on a musical podcast about Texas politics. And so I’m having the best time you know, it’s a totally… podcasts are something that I came to late. I’ve been on a lot of them but, as far as I know, there haven’t been very many musicals done on podcasts, and it turns out to be a lot of fun. So I’m working with Marcia Ball and wonderful, highly revered musician here in Austin, and also my son Gordon, who’s a musician.
But I am looking for a new project. And whenever you finish something like a book, you lose your job. People say, “Oh, you’re between projects,” as if the next one is obvious, but it’s not. And, so I’m whiny about it, because I have lost my job. And I’m looking to be hired to a new project and I haven’t found it yet.
Purchase “The Plague Year,” and find Lawrence Wright’s other work at http://www.lawrencewright.com/