The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I just published a novel with a pandemic plot. It’s both eerie and a chance to reflect.

(Victoria Blewer/Doubleday)

Books are published on Tuesdays, and I have had novels published on Tuesday, September 11, 2001; Tuesday, April 16, 2013, the day after the Boston Marathon bombing; and Tuesday, March 18, 2003, the day before we invaded Iraq.

And, yes, this spring I had a new book published on Tuesday, March 17, the week the nation began to close up shop and quarantine to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. My publisher and I had an ambitious book tour planned for “The Red Lotus” — four time zones and 13 cities in 14 days — that was canceled roughly 48 hours before I was to begin the first event. Also: My new book is about, in part, a deadly pathogen.

My point is not that I am jinxed and you never want to board an airplane with me. The fact is, my career has been one of spectacular good fortune. I’ve been with the same remarkable publisher for 25 years and had the same brilliant editor for a decade.

But the reality is that we are always living in history and sometimes, in the daily need to stock (not hoard) the pantry, get the kids to Little League and dance class, and do whatever it is we do for a living, we forget that history is a river in which we always are wading. Sometimes it’s serene and we are barely aware of its ripples; sometimes it’s a maelstrom of white water and we are crashed with bone-crushing ferocity against the boulders.

‘The Red Lotus,’ a new novel with a pandemic plot, is both prescient and diverting

“The Red Lotus” is a thriller about a New York City emergency room doctor whose boyfriend disappears on a bike tour in Vietnam. In his absence, she discovers so much that he told her was a lie — and she may be in spectacular amounts of danger. Among the sentences from the novel that readers have quoted back to me a lot the last week is this one:

“In the months to come, as the CDC worked to contain the pandemic, the names of the American teens would be largely forgotten, although the older of the pair, who was also the first to evidence the symptoms, would be remembered as Patient Zero.”

If there’s karma, publishing “The Red Lotus” in this pandemic spring means that my next novel better be about a cure for a horrific disease. Or, maybe, a lighthearted rom-com.

But that’s not how I’m hardwired. When my books work (and Lord knows, they don’t always work), they tend to be about heartbreak and dread. A tale of a missing man and a deadly pathogen will always have more appeal for me than a love story in which everyone lives happily ever after. I reread those novels that leave me a little broken at the end.

We are all fragile right now. Someday we will look back on this time and know precisely where we were when:

We stopped shaking hands.

We started standing farther apart.

We saw supermarket shelves bereft of toilet paper.

We realized the bookstore had closed.

We lost our jobs.

We learned someone we knew was sick.

We learned someone we knew had died.

When this pandemic spring becomes the renaissance summer – and, yes, that is my hope – we will all be a little kinder with one another and a little more patient. I was on a runway in Denver, awaiting takeoff at 7:59 when the first of the two World Trade Towers collapsed on 9/11. I was on the book tour for the novel that was going on sale that day. We never left the ground, and I would spend the next week in a hotel in Denver, and my principle memories are how hard my publisher worked to bring me home and how courteous and gentle all of us were who were stranded together in that hotel. It was a bit like Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” minus the plague.

And now that we have — metaphorically, if not literally, because the actual plague is a kind of bacteria and covid-19 is a virus — a new plague, we who make it to the other side will get another chance. My hope is that we emerge from our quarantines not jaded but thankful.

The odds are that my next book will not be published on one of those historic, “Where were you when?” Tuesdays. And, perhaps, when I am that book tour, once more we will shake hands and take those embarrassingly stupid group selfies we love. We will gather together in those sacred spaces we call bookstores and libraries, and celebrate what stories can mean to the soul.

Chris Bohjalian is the best-selling author of 21 books. His most recent novel, “The Red Lotus,” was just published.

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