March 8, 2008
Lifestyles/Extra, The Daily News,
By Ben Beagle
Daily News Lifestyles Editor
It didn’t start as much. Just a few words a decade or so ago in a weekly newsmagazine’s profile of an AIDS virologist who had once studied the 1918 flu outbreak.
The passing reference (a parenthetical, really) indicated that the flu had been so lethal and terrifying that some towns had attempted to remain healthy by closing the roads into town and preventing anyone from entering.
But for author Thomas Mullen it was the germ of an idea.
One that Mullen would eventually turn into his ambitious debut novel, The Last Town on Earth, this year’s pick for the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. The author will visit Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties next week for a series of talks and booksignings.
The novel, winner of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Excellence in Historical Fiction, explores what happens when a fictional Pacific Northwest town shuts itself off from the outside world in an attempt to keep a particularly virile strain of the flu from infecting the town.
“I didn’t have a lot to work with, just that one little factoid that I found so fascinating,” Mullen said recently in a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C.
It was enough.
“I immediately imagined a scene in which two people are
standing guard and a stranger is begging them for food and shelter. They have to make the decision. Are they going to let this person in or are they going to, you know, tell him that they just can’t trust that he’s healthy and they don’t want to endanger themselves,” Mullen said. “I thought it was an interesting moral dilemma and was an interesting scene.”
But it was only a scene. For a whole novel Mullen would have to discover more about the town, the people and the era. The novel is set in 1918.
“It seemed like a whole order of magnitude more difficult than writing contemporary fiction,” he said. “In addition to having to get all the characters done well and the writing and plot and all the other things that you have to do when writing a novel, there’s this added element of mastering the time period and getting your facts straight and figuring out how to fit the story within that framework. It just seemed like a lot of work to me, to be honest, and I was afraid of it.”
So he filed it away.
But it never really went away.
Finding his subject
Mullen – who wrote imitation Hardy Boys books when he was “however old kids were when they read Hardy Boys books” – desperately wanted to be a writer.
“It’s always been my goal and I knew it was a bit of a far-fetched goal. So I’ve been responsible and had other good jobs at the same time” he was trying to write books, said Mullen, who counts work at a consulting firm, a senior-citizen-run thrift store, a research center on alcohol and drug addictions, and a small publisher of newsletters for esoteric industries such as medical rehabilitation and mortgage banking among his past jobs.
“The fiction I was working on was very different. I was 23 or 24 so it was about the sorts of things that 23- or 24-year-olds find to be important,” the now 33-year-old writer said. “It was written in a very different kind of style.”
One characterized by long sentences with very caffeinated prose, he said, and lots of slang.
“That’s the sort of fiction that I found really engaging at the time. But it just wasn’t getting me anywhere,” he said.
Just out of college, living in Boston, and with a writing career moving in fits and starts, Mullen began working with a literary agent who asked what ideas he had. He listed a few; she encouraged him to tackle the flu story.
“On the one hand it was very flattering that she jumped on the idea,” he said, “but it was also really intimidating because one of the reasons I had not acted on the idea Š was because it just seemed so intimidating and very difficult, the idea of writing historical fiction.”
“It was difficult at first to figure out how to write a book like this given what I’d been doing before and it would have to have a very different kind of voice,” Mullen said.
Having done all his research, Mullen never considered a non-fiction approach.
“Fiction is really all I’m interested in writing,” he said. “I love to write novels Š I just think telling those sorts of stories is what’s so interesting to me.”
Imagination takes over
As Mullen began reading about the 1918 flu epidemic, he found “surprisingly little material out there.”
“At first, this was annoying me, but then I realized this is probably best because it allowed me to just let my imagination run wild,” Mullen said. “I’m a novelist and I need to be able to make things up and when you’re working with historical fiction, obviously, you need to stay true to the facts. But at the same time you need a little bit of leeway to tell a story.”
One book he did find helpful was America’s Forgotten Pandemic by Alfred N. Crosby, “but it was very much a history book written by a history professor,” Mullen said. “It was a little dense for the casual reader.”
So Mullen read about more than just the flu. He found as many books as he could about America’s home front during World War I and the other issues that were going on in America at the time, notably workers’ rights, women’s suffrage and questions of patriotism in a country where some would have preferred the United States not send its troops to Europe.
John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza came out in 2004, as Mullen was about three-quarters of the way through his rough draft. The non-fiction account has become the definitive history of the 1918 flu, and led Mullen to make what he called significant changes to his novel.
But even at nearly 550 pages, Barry’s book gives little space – about a half page – to the fact that some towns instituted reverse quarantines.
What developed in Mullen’s work was a story that raised questions about isolationism, community and morality. He also revealed a darker side of patriotism during wartime.
“It’s astonishing to me how many different issues he brings up. Even though he’s not writing about it as a contemporary issue, I feel like he’s addressing so many things that even now might happen,” said Nancy Coble Damon, program director of the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Va., where Mullen will be a guest at the end of March.
And even though the story was set in 1918 and came out in 2006 as America was fighting an unpopular war overseas and many around the world worried of the potential for another pandemic, Mullen did not intentionally set out to comment on contemporary topics.
“I wasn’t exactly trying to put a mirror between 1918 and 2004 (when he was writing the book) but I couldn’t help but be struck by some of these similarities,” Mullen said. “Mainly when I was reading about what was happening then, it’s just interesting to see how similar human nature is over time and how when presented with similar problems we tend to respond in similar ways.”
Big story, small world
Epic at times, Mullen brings an intimacy to The Last Town on Earth as he introduces readers to the variety of residents drawn to fictional Commonwealth’s promise of a better way of living.
“The more I learned about the labor movement and what was happening with the country at war, the elements sort of worked their way into the story. You’re writing a character and you’re trying to figure out who is this character,” Mullen said. “Learning about this terribly violent strike that happened in Everett two years earlier you think, gee, maybe one of my characters should be somebody who was involved in it somehow. I think that’s a really interesting way to flesh out a character; trying to write a character that is true to the time and true to the place. In order to do that you find yourself working with these themes.”
Mill owner Charles Worthy started Commonwealth as a kind of Utopia in the forest of the Pacific Northwest after he became disgusted with his own family’s treatment of its workers. In Commonwealth, employees share in the company’s profits, share in the town’s decisions, and share in events of daily life. When the flu threatens, residents of the fledgling town decide on a quarantine.
They block the only road to their town and post guards around the clock, a decision that will eventually raise the suspicions of neighboring Timber Falls.
One day, Philip and his older friend Graham are on guard duty when they are confronted by a stranger. Uncertain what to do, Graham kills the soldier (it’s the first chapter of the book, we haven’t spoiled anything).
It’s a dramatic scene and one that sets the stage for events that will provoke dissent, unwanted scrutiny on the town, and criminal acts.
Days later, Philip finds himself in a similar situation. But, having seen the effect of Graham’s actions, Philip chooses instead to hide the man.
Both decisions have reverberations that lead to a stunning – and unexpected – conclusion.
“I didn’t want to write something that felt like one of those Hollywood movies set during some war or the Holocaust or some horrible event in which conveniently all the main characters lived,” Mullen said. “It would’ve seemed fake.
“But to have a complete downer of an ending would’ve been putting the reader through a lot so I wanted there to be some hope there,” he said. “The protagonists are all so young, there’s a sense that there’s more to life and there is some way that they can move on from there. The simple fact is that here we are, it’s 2008, and people lived through this and they got by somehow.