Contagious Enthusiasm ‘That flu book’ draws readers in

March 14, 2008
Local News, The (Batavia, N.Y.) Daily News,
By Ben Beagle
bbeagle@batavianews.com

BATAVIA — Readers are not ready to say good-bye to Philip Worthy,
the young man who comes of age during the tumultuous period of American
history that author Thomas Mullen revisits in his debut novel, /The Last
Town on Earth/.
“I’d like to know more about Philip’s life. The fact that he
traveled around from town to town with his mother in the past, I think
he can handle his life being the way it is. He’s a man and can deal with
it, or will deal with it,” said Cindy Zarcone of Batavia, one of the 120
or so people who came to hear Mullen talk Thursday night at Richmond
Memorial Library as part of this year’s ” A Tale for Three Counties ”
community reading project.
Cindy Price of Batavia also thinks things will work out for Philip.
“I think he goes and does his thing, but I think he eventually comes
back,” said Price, participating in her third Tale program.
But Mullen, the only one who really knows Philip’s story, said he
never intended to write a sequel — his next book is set in the Great
Depression and involves a family in which two sons become famous bank
robbers.
“What happens to Philip after this book, I don’t know. The book
ends. I know it sounds flip, but as a writer, when you get to the end
you’ve spent so much energy to get that ending just right, you don’t
think there could be more,” said Mullen, who did offer the possibility
that the character could return some day in another book.
Mullen’s Thursday night talk and book signing was the second of four
such programs he is giving as part of this year’s Tale project. About
200 people attended the events at Genesee Community College and Richmond
Memorial Library.
Tale programs continue through Saturday. Today, Mullen will have
lunch with six winners of a book review contest sponsored by The Daily
News, and give another presentation at 7 p.m. at Lee-Whedon Memorial
Library, 620 West Ave., Medina. His final visit is scheduled for 2 p.m.
Saturday in the Perry Elementary/Middle School auditorium, 50 Olin Ave.,
Perry.
Mullen, casually dressed in a sport coat over a loosely-buttoned
dress shirt that revealed a guitar T-shirt beneath, spoke in a friendly
tone with asides that elicited a smattering of laughter. The reaction
might have seemed unusual given the often grim details of the flu
epidemic and reactions to Commonwealth’s quarantine in The Last Town on
Earth.
The author read from the novel’s first chapter, in which Philip and
Graham encounter the first stranger to cross the barricade outside their
town. He then spent 45 minutes taking questions from the audience.
“He was very genuine, very down to earth. He seemed very
comfortable,” said Zarcone, who has been to past author talks.
Lilo Townsend of Batavia thought Mullen “really opened up” and
shared a lot of his experiences with the audience. “I felt like I got to
know him,” she said.
Mullen talked about where he first got the idea for the novel — at
a YMCA in Boston on a day he forget his Walkman, picked up a Time
magazine, and read a small part about a scientist who was doing research
on the 1918 flu — and a little about the history of the period.
“As a novelist you want to write what hasn’t been done before. I
couldn’t believe that nothing had been written about the 1918 flu. That
was one of the things that drew me to the idea,” he said, noting that a
number of famous writers — Faulkner and Hemingway among them — came of
age during the epidemic that killed millions worldwide yet never wrote
about it.
Nor, he said, has much been taught about the homefront of World War I.
“In history class I remember learning about this battle, that
battle, but unless I was asleep that day or not paying attention, they
seem to have kind of glossed over what was happening here,” said Mullen,
who majored in history and English at Oberlin College in northern Ohio.
Mullen’s own history lesson explained how a massive government
propaganda campaign was used to rally support for the war. It was during
this time that Uncle Sam was created, Mullen’s favorite patriotic ditty
was born (“Your Lips Are No Man’s Land But Mine”), and people were
encouraged to plant Victory Gardens and buy Liberty Bonds to show
loyalty to America. Passage of the Sedition Act, which essentially made
it illegal to speak out against America’s role in the war, created a
culture of fear and made neighbors suspicious of each other, Mullen said.
“The reason I go on a big tangent,” Mullen said, “is that I decided
to write about a town that was closed off, but as I was writing … the
book pulled me in a direction I was not intending to go at first.”
During an afternoon program at GCC, Mullen focused on the setting of
/The Last Town on Earth/, his work researching the book and answered
questions that covered everything from the book’s theme to his thoughts
on the cover, which shows a road leading through a forest.
“I think it’s a nice cover,” he said, “but it’s not how I visualized
the road going in to town.”
Mullen was not consulted by the publisher about the cover. The
author did, however, come up with the title, although it took him a
while. “For a long time, I was calling it ‘that flu book,’ ” he said
with a chuckle.
The author said it was tricky to find an ending that had the right
balance for subject matter as heavy as war and sickness. “I didn’t want
to write a massive downer,” he said. “I wanted to express it as a
horrible event, but at the same time people did survive. People did endure.”
Peggy Lamb, who attended the GCC program, said she enjoyed hearing
Mullen discuss one of the themes in the book: the tension between
individuals and society.
“I thought a lot about the parallels between 1918 and today in
relation to the war and things like conscientious objectors, and the
conflict between what’s best for the individual and what’s best for the
community,” she said.
Jennifer Bryant, a former soldier who did two tours in Iraq, said
she “really related to the character of Graham.” Bryant said she has
read many debut novels and this was one she particularly enjoyed. She
said she will definitely read Mullen’s next book.
Mullen’s day began with a late-morning reception at Terry Hills
Country Club for winners of Genesee Community College’s Tale essay contest.
Tale is the first community reading project for Mullen, who will be
participating in several similar projects through the next year.
“It’s a pleasure to be a part of this,” he said at GCC. “You see so
many studies and reports about how few people are reading these days.
Community projects like these are great because they encourage people to
read.”

Daily News Correspondent Kristina Greene Gabalski reported from
Genesee Community College.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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