'Thomas Mullen is an old-fashioned storyteller, and his epic novel dramatizes the complex tensions between individual rights and group responsibilities. Mullen is both merciless and measured in his depiction of the natural forces that can drag idealism down to earth.' Daily Telegraph
'A subtle, robustly written novel of compelling contemporary resonance. The ensuing crisis involves the entire community, pitting principles against passion, values against instinct.' Observer
'Thomas Mullen's debut novel is an exceptionally powerful portrait of a community losing its soul under intense pressure.' Waterstones Books Quarterly
About the Book
`But They Never Talked About It' - by Thomas Mullen
One tip an aspiring novelist often will hear is `don't try to write something trendy or marketable'. The reason for this is that novels take so long to research, write, edit, and publish that by the time your book hits the stores, the trend that you were hoping to capitalize on will be last year's news - or, more likely, news from five years ago.
So I thought I was safe from this quandary by writing about the 1918 influenza, a historical footnote that few Americans other than historians, virologists, and public health officials seemed to know about as I began my work in 2002. Indeed, one of the only books I could find on the event was titled `America's Forgotten Pandemic'. I myself had been a history major in college and had even focused on Twentieth Century history, yet I'd never heard of the 1918 flu until I saw mention of it in a long article about an AIDS virologist who had once studied the fatal flu strain. What truly got my attention was the striking fact that some uninfected towns in 1918 had posted armed guards to keep outsiders away - the novel's opening confrontation took form in my mind immediately - but I was equally amazed that such a horrific and worldwide event could have become, as the book's title suggests, forgotten.
Why had this major catastrophe been swept under the carpets of history? Possibly because it had occurred during World War I; history texts from this era spend all their ink on the war and can't be troubled to mention the flu - it merits a sentence or two if it gets mentioned at all, even though it killed as many as 100 million people worldwide, far more than the war itself.
I was further intrigued by the fact that, although the 1918 flu took place during the formative years of such literary giants as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos, none of them had written about it. Many writers of that golden literary age found war a weighty topic to expound upon, allowing exploration of such themes as manhood, patriotism, and courage. But a senseless illness that killed so many, without discrimination, did not appeal to these writers the same way, apparently. Perhaps it was too reminiscent - albeit in much greater form - of past typhoid or yellow fever or cholera outbreaks, a reminder of pre-modern times best ignored by young writers hoping to forge a bold new artistic path. Perhaps people had so internalized the incessant propaganda of World War I - to be strong and patriotic and never admit fear - and as a result it would have been unseemly to expound upon or even write about the lives lost to the flu, to stare in the face of such issues as failure and helplessness, to recount such undignified deaths.
Or perhaps the flu was a bitter memory they just wanted to forget.
A number of readers have approached me after reading The Last Town on Earth and told me that its subject reminded them of a great-aunt or a great-grandfather who lost a spouse or parents or children to the epidemic. I have been struck by the fact that their stories always end with some variation of the line: `But she never talked about it.' There seemed to be a wall of silence surrounding survivors' memories of the 1918 flu, which, after the passing of many generations, was quickly leading to the very erasure of those memories. I can only imagine that this is due to the unimaginable horror of the time, the mind's inability to fully grasp what it had experienced and what it had lost. In our current age of psychoanalysis, talk shows, and tell-all memoirs, it is argued that the best way to recover from traumatic events and difficult pasts is to dredge up those memories, to `come to terms' with the fact of those wounds and their effect on our present selves - only then, the theory goes, can we achieve `closure' and become a healthier person. But the mindset in the 1910s was very different, and perhaps survivors felt the only way they could possibly recover from such an event was if they built a wall around those memories and tried, ever so slowly, to walk away from them.
One of the reasons I wrote The Last Town on Earth, then, was that it felt needed, that it would not only fill a gap in the literary canon but also, hopefully, would help retrieve some of the memories that were fading, would provide a new echo for stories that had not been voiced in many years.
By the time the book was published, of course, fear of bird flu - and virologists' warnings that mankind was overdue for another major influenza outbreak - had brought the 1918 flu out of history's dustbin and onto the front pages. Suddenly I was being told that the novel that I thought would be most interesting due to its unknown setting was now `timely', though such timing was unintended and certainly unexpected.
Although the 1918 flu was largely a natural disaster, human actions certainly exacerbated the situation. Governments were too distracted by war to devote sufficient resources to protecting public health, newspapers were cowed by censors into reporting only good news, and citizens showed distrust and suspicion toward their neighbors most in need of aid. People, quite simply, did not know what to do; they had neither government nor media nor family legends and stories to guide them. Even today, despite our many medical advances, it is sobering to realize how much more vulnerable our globalized world would be to such an outbreak. Eighty-nine years since that most awful epidemic, perhaps now is the time to remember what those before us have endured, to understand how the earlier versions of our societies reacted, and to talk about how we might respond if cast in a similar crucible.