Via The Guardian, an entertaining account by Taylor Antrim: A deadly task: writing about a fictional virus when you're a deskbound novelist. Excerpt:
Skip forward to 2014. My agent sells the manuscript to a young editor who takes me to lunch. “Have you really made the science convincing?” he asks. A rhetorical question if I’ve ever heard one. “Perhaps you should read up a little on viruses?”
I mourned for a moment all that library research, but I also knew that reading books isn’t the trick. You have to be Ian McEwan shadowing a brain surgeon to write Saturday, or Philipp Meyer learning to tan hides and drinking real buffalo blood to write The Son.
It just so happens that I had gone to graduate school with Pardis Sabeti, an expert on infectious diseases who runs a lab at Harvard and MIT. She and I had traded only an email or two in the past 15 years, but hey, we’d played drinking games and hung out indie rock shows in 1999. She would help me.
The timing was awkward to say the least. I was on deadline, only four months from publication, and the Ebola outbreak was raging in west Africa. Pardis’s team was in and out of Sierra Leone and Nigeria, on the front lines.
“Okay it’s a little frivolous to ask a favor,” I emailed her, “but here goes.”
She couldn’t have been nicer. She read the first 100 pages on a flight back from China where she was giving a talk on Ebola at the World Economic Forum. She told me she was hooked by the story but as a scientist she had some questions:
“I was left wondering what is the mode of action of the virus? Is it latent in individuals? What is the reservoir, and how are new infections happening? How is it diagnosed, I am guessing PCR which then would be quite simple.”
Christ, what?! PCR?
A phone conversation was in order.
Influenza is easy to detect, she told me. Other viruses hide in the brain, like meningitis. I told her the virus in my book needed to vanish for long stretches of time, to lay low.
“What would be unusual is if your virus entered the adrenal cortex or the liver where it could simmer,” she said. “One hundred days after people clear Ebola they still have it in their semen.”
She suggested I write a short summary of how my fictional virus operated and she would pass along to some other specialists she knew who could further advise me.
These folks turned out to be an illustrious crew. Top virologists and researchers at the CDC, NIH, Harvard, MIT. Pardis sent them my short description with a warm plea for help.
The responses came in quickly.
“I don’t think I should say much about this from my official account. The virus is biologically very implausible and I find the timing distasteful,” one wrote.
“I can’t really think of any virus, natural or engineered, like the one you describe.”
“Though fiction should strive to be entertaining, I would caution strongly against miseducation in this arena.”
There was a feeling that I was exploiting a tragedy and I was mortified. This novel had been on the boil for years. Pardis wrote a note defending me and convinced a pair of her colleagues at Harvard not to dismiss me out of hand and offer help.
Antrim's novel Immunity is now out.