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Rumaan Alam Explains How We Cope With the End of the World

There seems to be a sense in the book that, despite all of these differences, we’re all making these little lies together.

I think that’s right. Maybe “optimistic” is not quite the right word, but there’s a sense of optimism in this book? I think that there’s a sense of some promise of something. And gosh, I hope that there’s some comfort in that. The fallacy of George’s belief in [his contractor] Danny’s masculine ability seems so laughable, but also feels very real to me. I feel for him in that moment, because I understand him in that moment, because I’m somebody who can’t do anything. Sometimes we’ll have people into the house to fix a plumbing problem or put up shelves or something, and I’m like, “God, you have this ability. You understand how to do this thing, and you’ve got it.” And that person could also look at me and be like, “Wow, what the fuck are you doing sitting around here all day? Why don’t you have a job? That must be nice.” There’s a way in which everybody kind of can envy everybody else.

Was there anything actually more freeing about fictionalizing one of the worst possible outcomes for the world, rather than something that was affirming or inspiring?

Yeah, probably. It’s almost a relief to grapple with it. That’s not the animal instinct. You delude yourself and delude yourself because otherwise you would just give in, and our very existence is a delusion to some degree. But if your bigger question is whether I felt better or relieved after looking at these things, I don’t think that’s the language I would use. [Laughs] It’s unsettling to grapple with unsettling issues.

After writing about all these little failures of common knowledge under stress, did you go out and learn a new skill? Did you become a prepper and buy canned foods?

[Laughs] I didn’t, because I think that that is also just the ultimate fallacy, right? What’s stopping a prepper from getting hit by a truck? Shoring up supplies isn’t going to protect you from the real risks of actual life. It protects you in some theoretical scenario that you are convinced will play out, but there’s no relationship to the actual threat of existence. Buying shotgun shells and those straws that filter water, yes, that will protect you if you find yourself needing a gun or potable water. But you don’t know what you are going to need. Prepping is just a way of telling yourself that money will protect you.

In the book, there’s this awkward moment when Amanda remarks that G. H. looks like Denzel Washington. Now Denzel is set to play G. H. in a Netflix movie based on the book. Was that something you tried to reverse-engineer when you wrote it?

No—I mean Denzel Washington obviously possesses a very particular place in the culture. And what she is saying in that moment is what I think a white woman of her generation would do mentally: She would sort of categorize a man of a certain age and a man of means who happened to be black and sort of good-looking into the context of Denzel Washington, right? She’s turning the moment right in front of her into this narrative that is distant from her and filing him away as this type. And that’s all it is. It’s a joke, and I hope the reader recognizes the kind of joke that it is.

I have no idea what Sam Esmail will do with that particular joke. But I think it’s very shrewd casting because of course Denzel Washington is a genius and a brilliant performer, but I do think he exists in that space. If you were going to conjure a black man of a certain age who seems distinguished and trustworthy and handsome, and has this level of polish, you are going to think of Denzel Washington.

So, there are several large, looming, scary unknowns that are present in our lives right now. What’s your plan for surviving them?

I mean, there’s no plan. And that’s what the book is talking about: The plan is the same that it’s always been, which is just to do what people do. And what the people do in this book in response to crisis is really just the response to anything. It’s the animal response. They have sex. They eat. They drink too much. And they hang out with their kids and think about how much they love them. What else are you supposed to do?

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