Plague

Behind the Scenes

Several years before deciding to try my hand at becoming a novelist, I read Richard Preston’s gripping nonfiction page-turner The Hot Zone, a book about the deadly Ebola virus.  It scared the bejabers out of me, although I’m not sure what bejabers are.

What I learned was that while most species of Ebola are not transmittable through the air–lucky for us humans–the variant featured in The Hot Zone may be.  Fortunately, that variant, while fatal to monkeys, is not fatal to humans.  Again, lucky for us.

But it got me thinking, What if?  What if a brilliant (and psychopathic) microbiologist were able to marry the variant of Ebola not fatal to humans but perhaps transmittable through the air, to the form most deadly to humans?  That is, what if someone were able to weaponize Ebola?  It would be a nightmare aborning.  Perfect for a novel.

But breathing life into the story was slow.  I’m not a microbiologist, I’m a meteorologist.  Thus, to inject authenticity into the tale required a lot of research.  For several years I, in essence, “crammed for finals” while simultaneously pecking out early drafts of Virus, whose working title  back then was The Koltsovo Legacy (you’ll understand why when you read the book).  I also took a two-year sabbatical to complete Eyewall, my debut novel.

The research on Ebola and microbiology turned out to be a labor of love since I was truly fascinated (frightened?) by the subject.  The Websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more commonly called the CDC, and the World Health Organization provided reams of invaluable information and data.

Besides the Hot Zone, there were a number of other books that helped me develop insights into microbiology, viruses and the Russian and American biowarfare programs:

Biohazard–The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World by Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelman

The Dead Hand–The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (a Pulitzer Prize winner) by David E. Hoffman

Germs–Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad

Level 4–Virus Hunters of the CDC by Joseph B. McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hoch with Leslie Alan Horvitz

Virus Hunter–Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World by C. J. Peters and Mark Olshaker

 

While the characters in the novel are all products of my imagination, there is one, Richard Wainwright, for whom I borrowed the professional DNA of an old friend.  I loved the idea of having my hero be a high-integrity CEO who goes around fixing companies (all fictitious ones in the novel) and who could take over and run almost any kind of operation for a short period.

There was such a person in real life, an old high school friend, Steve Miller.  Steve, early in his career, was CFO of Chrysler.  From there he went on to spend the next twenty years salvaging a variety of foundering corporations.  He met with enough success that he was labeled by the Wall Street Journal as “U.S. Industry’s Mr. Fix It.”

I lost track of Steve over the years, but I followed his professional accomplishments via newspaper and magazine articles.  In the meantime, I completed Virus, modeling Richard Wainwright’s professional life after Steve’s, except for the fact that Steve was never in the Marines.

In early 2009, I found out Steve had written an autobiography, The Turnaround Kid–What I Learned Rescuing America’s Most Troubled Companies. I got in touch with Steve and he sent me an autographed copy.  It was a fascinating  read.  But I was stunned and saddened to learn that Steve’s wife, Maggie, had died of cancer in 2006.  I’ll freely admit that tears flowed as I read of Maggie’s death in the book.

The bizarre thing was I had written the death of Richard Wainwright’s wife into the novel long before I was aware of Maggie’s passing.  I explained this to Steve, and trust he doesn’t hold it against me.

Art accidentally imitating life.