Jim Shepard is the author of many well-received novels and short story collections. He lived in Ann Arbor and worked at the University before taking his current position as a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. He agreed to sit down with The Michigan Daily to talk about his newest novel, “Phase Six,” which follows a deadly pandemic through the eyes of its index patient, key epidemiologists and others. He spoke to us about climate change politics, the U.S.’s pandemic response and his process of editing a pandemic novel while living through a pandemic himself.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What was the timeline of writing your book with the timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Maybe about seven years ago, I came across a story about a 12-year-old boy in Siberia who had died of anthrax, and the Russians had freaked out because they hadn’t had a case of anthrax there in like 75 or 100 years. When they sent some investigators up there, they discovered that the boy had caught the anthrax from a reindeer carcass that had been frozen in the permafrost — and the carcass had thawed out, and the kid had gotten anthrax from that and died, and he had infected 20 people in his village before he died, as well. That sort of confirmed what everybody had feared about pathogens that are buried in the permafrost. It turns out that viruses buried in the permafrost survive, but they have to be revived. But bacteria that survive in the permafrost can revive themselves, and anthrax is one of those: It’s a bacteria that sporulates, so it has a little protective shell. So I put that together with the fact that — with climate change — now Russia and Greenland especially are mining all the way across their northern borders, and they’re digging up millions of tons of permafrost. And then those people who are doing that digging are flying home for the weekend. I thought, “Well, this is not a matter of if, this is a matter of when, really.”
I do that thing that a lot of career counselors tell you to do, which is find something you’re doing anyway and find a way to make it pay. So I was thinking, “Well, you’re going to obsess about this anyway, you might as well try to write about it.” I was just smart enough because I knew I needed to go to Greenland — and Greenland is a very expensive place to go — I was just smart enough to sell a book to my publisher, Knopf, in advance, and that allowed me to pay for going to Greenland. But it also meant that when I was ready to turn the book in, which was the month that COVID really hit, March of 2020, not only did it seem “Wow, this is amazing timing!,” but it was actually like horrible timing because everybody was like, “Who wants to read about this at this point?” But my poor publisher was stuck with it because they’d already bought it, so they needed to figure out whether they were going to rush it into print right away and seem like they were just, you know, jumping on the pandemic bandwagon or wait a year and see what had happened with COVID, and they decided to do the latter. And I don’t know the right decision, I said, “I don’t know what the right decision is either, so you guys just do what you think.”
Waiting a year meant that I could put it in context with COVID because I was able to revise for that year. It also meant that, and this was probably more important, that all of that stuff that I’d put into that book about what happens when a pandemic hits, I could start to take out because, in fact, a lot of people were learning that the hard way. So my book actually got more lean and mean because all of that exposition about, you know, “You have to put masks on,” all of that stuff I could get rid of. So I actually thought the book got better in that regard. But it also meant that when the book came out, people were like, “Oh my god, really, I gotta read about this?”
How do you think your book stands out from this proliferation of pandemic novels?
Well, I think it stands out in that it’s interested in the very micro level: What is it like to be an epidemiologist right on the cutting edge of trying to find out what’s going on? What is it like to be a woman epidemiologist and having to deal with all these authority figures who don’t think you have the authority to pull this off? What is it like to be an E.R. doc? What is it like to be an index patient not knowing what’s going on? It sort of moves from there to the very macro level: How is it that a government decides it doesn’t want to do the right thing, in this case? Why is it that, as I say in one point in the novel, quoting an epidemiologist I’d been talking to, “When medicine collides with culture, medicine always loses”? I was interested in both the big and the small, and that makes it a little different.
The other thing that makes it a little different is that it’s a pandemic not like COVID in a lot of ways. It comes from a different source, it’s quite a bit more lethal and it’s also quite a bit weirder. One of the things I wanted to do because I was writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction was come up with a pathogen that would actually be pretty hard to pin down because I always think that (in) dramatic terms it’s cooler when you’re like, “What is this?” as opposed to, you know with COVID really early on, “This is what it is, how are we going to stop it?” But when you don’t even know what you’re dealing with, it’s much more terrifying. And there have been a number of those sorts of cases in the history of pathogens, where for a surprisingly long amount of time — Legionnaires’ disease is one of those examples — a huge number of epidemiologists worldwide were like, “What are we dealing with?” I just think that’s a very cool dramatic situation, so I wanted to do something like that. Because I’m at a small liberal arts college, what I could do was go to an actual microbiologist that was a friend and say, “If you were going to design a pathogen that your colleagues wouldn’t be able to figure out, what would that pathogen look like?” She could then have a lot of fun doing that and bouncing ideas off me, and I could bounce ideas off her.
Your novel focuses on people central to the outbreak: the index patient, the doctors who make initial contact and eventually “solve” the mystery and a healthcare worker who sees firsthand cases in her hospital. Why did you choose to mostly exclude normal, everyday people from the novel? Were they in there before COVID and were edited out?
A lot of times when I’m doing fiction, I’m trying to keep as economical a series of narrators as I can. In other words, as few narrators as I can. I knew that one of my protagonists would be a child that didn’t know what was going on. I tend to like that worm’s-eye view, that position of thinking, “Boy, I know less than almost anybody else,” because that reflects my sense of myself a lot of the time. But I also knew it would be way too frustrating to just do that because the reader would be like, “Well, what is going on?” That led me to the epidemiological point of view — the person who’s trying to figure things out — and that ultimately meant, well, you also have to do the medical point of view: What is it like to have to deal with this? So now I already had at least three points of view, and when I thought about doing what you’re referring to as the “normal person,” like, “Here’s Emilia in Ann Arbor, and her friend is getting this strange pathogen,” the more I thought about it, the more I thought that in dramatic terms, it would be very much like the child’s point of view because it would be like, “What’s going on? I don’t know what’s going on.” I thought, “This is going to be, in thematic and emotional terms, a little too similar, so I’m going to eliminate that one.”
Each larger section of the book is broken into smaller sections with subheadings like “Vinegar,” “The Wolf Keeps the Caribou Strong” and “Archimedes Naked.” Was this something you always planned on doing in terms of structure when you wrote the book, or did it come about during the writing process? How did you decide on the names for these subheadings?
That’s a good question. It came about very early on when I started writing. When I laid out a map for the novel, which I always do, those weren’t in it. What was in it was the roman numeral sections, like “You’re gonna start with a boy, you’re gonna move to the epidemiologist, you’re gonna move to the E.R. doctor and then where are you gonna go from there?” But as soon as I started writing, I realized that those little section headings would give a kind of tonal complexity to the situation. On the one hand, you’re horrified and feeling bad for everybody, but on the other hand, there’s this kind of ironic distance that those subheadings give you. And that seemed to me an echo of the way in which the book was moving from the micro to the macro: When it’s dealing with the micro, the intention is it’s quite sad and quite hopefully moving — you’re focusing on these friendships that are being broken up, you’re focusing on a suffering child. But in the macro, it’s very hard to not notice the absurdity of what’s going on and how inadequately governments respond to this kind of thing. I thought the subheadings would bridge that gap pretty nicely between someone who’s both genuinely compassionate but also is not oblivious to how lunatic this can get when you put a lot of human beings on this problem.
One of my favorite subheadings was “Countertops and pump bottles and door handles.” That cultivates a sometimes-uncanny sense of dread, and I’m wondering about your process of creating omnipresent anxiety, and how much it echoed your feelings as you went into being a person actually experiencing a pandemic.
Yeah, I had to imagine it all. It was a matter of, when the actual pandemic happened, how much did it resemble what I had imagined? And thankfully, I had imagined both a pathogen that was more lethal and much less able to survive on neutral surfaces, which is part of what “Countertops” is referring to. One of the reasons I wanted that (attribute) in my pathogen is that that’s a wonderfully paranoid situation: when you’re not sure what you can touch anymore. The ideal combination in terms of disaster is something that’s airborne in terms of transmissibility, which is what I had, but something that, even so, can live on neutral surfaces. That was what I had imagined, and as soon as I imagined that, I was like, “Oh my god, that’s so scary.”
Your novel really tries to hold institutions like governments accountable for the way a pandemic is handled or mishandled. What do you think the U.S.’s biggest failing was when it came to COVID-19? What do you think the most important thing we can do moving forward is as it becomes endemic?
The problems we have as a country were really just exposed by COVID. They’re problems we already knew about, so it’s just a matter of the same problems cropping up again. You would think that in the face of climate change, for example, we would put politics aside, but we don’t — politics takes priority. The same was true with COVID. Immediately, Republican governors could say “Oh, the central government is doing this the wrong way,” or whatever. The same way in which both money and politics distort everything in America and become prioritized over everything, the same was true of pandemics. What’s concerning about that was you would think, well, part of the reason that works with climate change is people can’t conceive of a threat that far away, even though it’s not very far away. The pandemic was a threat right on their doorstep, but once again, politics and money trumped everything else. By money, I mean things like, even the Democrats would say, “We gotta expand the patents so that everybody can get vaccines out there.” And then the pharmaceutical companies come to the Democrats and say, “You know what, I don’t think we’re gonna do that,” and the governments decide, “Yeah, alright, we’re gonna give in.” That’s an amazingly screwed-up priority, but it’s the one we’ve been operating on now for how long? There’s a line in the film “Citizen Kane” where one of Citizen Kane’s rivals says to him, “You’re gonna need more than one lesson, and you’re gonna get more than one lesson.” And that’s, I think, where we’re headed too. We just keep having to learn this over and over again the hard way.
I am also wondering about this novel’s connection to climate change because its events are a pretty direct result of climate change, as you were talking about: the way Aleq contracts the disease (through melted permafrost), and the way it spreads (through globalism and international travel). Was that something you were primarily interested in exploring?
Yeah, very much. One of the things that’s maddening about the way our political system handles climate change is that they see it as a far-off problem, when it’s really not. Two of the ways in which climate change will absolutely drive pandemics: One is the way I just dramatized, with melting the permafrost everywhere, and that’s gonna have ramifications even beyond the amount of methane that’s being released. But another way is, as species move away from the equator, with climate change now, species are moving both north and south to stay in their biospheres, they’re bringing their viruses with them. Humans now are coming into contact, in much greater numbers, with animals they didn’t used to come in contact with, and that’s gonna breed more pandemics as well. There’s no way around that. That’s not a two-decades-off problem. But again, part of what we’re dealing with is there’s so much suspicion, with some good reason, about our beliefs and our technological expertise, which has been used against the people for so long, as in, “Don’t ask about the banking system, it’s just too complicated for you guys.” Now, there’s a lot of hostility with people saying, “Well, this is what the scientists are saying.” There’s a lot of “Why should we believe the scientists?” When you add that into political parties that are cynically trying to undermine science, you’ve got a real problem in terms of mobilizing the population.
The title, “Phase Six,” is mentioned twice in the book: Once in reference to the highest level of alert in the World Health Organization’s pandemic labeling system, and once in reference to Jeannine’s relationship with Branislav, when she says the sixth stage of a relationship is “when you started thinking, Maybe the problem is me.” Can you talk about the connection between these two ‘phase six-es,’ and your choice in using that as the title?
That’s a really great question too. The way Jeannine puts it, obviously one meaning is the WHO thing, which is the kind of title a thriller would have, like “Oh my god, this is the highest level.” But the other meaning, that seemed to me more interesting, was the way when Jeannine says that, it’s one of those moments in a relationship you pretend you’re letting your lover off the hook — “It’s not you, it’s me” — but in fact, you’re being a little disingenuous, and you’re, in fact, letting yourself off the hook. That’s, I think, the way we relate to climate change and to this kind of natural disaster as well: We say we understand that it’s our responsibility, but we don’t act as though it’s our responsibility. We’ll say things like, “Yeah, man is causing climate change,” and then we just sit there, and you go, “Well, you’re man, so do you want to do something about that?” So it’s a little bit like in a relationship when you go, “Yeah, you know what, I think it’s probably me,” and your lover goes “So you don’t wanna do anything about that?,” and apparently the answer’s no. That moment with Jeannine also is supposed to be indicative of how self-destructive she can be in her relationships because that moment comes right after she and Branislav have gotten together, and they’re pretty happy, and she just says, “Oh, by the way, this is my theory of relationships.” And he’s like, “Why would you bring that up now? What are you doing?” And she just thinks she’s being funny, and he’s like, “I don’t get the humor there.” So looking back, she thinks, “Why do I always do stuff like that?” Which is again a way you can connect the micro to the macro. A woman saying, “Why do I always do that in my relationships?” is not very different from a society saying, “We can always point to the problem,” and then we act like the problem’s not there.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.