In 2007, the writer began work on a project about a massive hurricane hitting New York City. Five years later, just as he put the final edits on Odds Against Tomorrow–published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux earlier this month–Hurricane Sandy descended on the city. Over a recent cup of coffee in Turtle Bay, the fresh-faced 33-year-old talked about writing the apocalypse, his obsession with worst-case scenarios, New Orleans, and productive misunderstandings.
Reading Odds Against Tomorrow is incredibly eerie in the wake of Sandy. How did you feel when the nonfictional apocalypse came to New York?
I wrote the novel over five or six years, so I endured five hurricane seasons during the process. I kept thinking that it would be the year that I’d have to throw out the novel, that I’d be scooped by reality. I thought I was in the clear, but Sandy hit after the hurricane season ended. I was editing the galley copy of the novel and woke up the next day to see images of a flood in Manhattan on cable news. It was absolutely surreal, especially being in New Orleans (where I now live), the city known for its flooding and hurricanes, watching New York, my hometown, flooding from afar.
Did you change the book at all after Sandy?
When Sandy happened, I was first concerned that I’d have to cancel the book if it was on a catastrophe on the level of 9/11, for instance; but that was a very selfish concern. Then I was concerned that I’d have to rewrite new sections about Sandy. But I only had to put in one part. Since the storm in the book takes place in the future, I couldn’t just not mention Sandy. I didn’t change any of the technical details of the storm, because all of the bad news in the novel is based on research. None of it is made up. Everything was drawn from research and studies by the Army Corps of Engineers and the government of New York City. As fantastical as the story might get in certain ways, it was important for me that the facts of the novel were real. I wanted to write about something that is very real, which is that we live in a scary time. I wanted to ask what that does to us.
So, even before you moved to post-Katrina New Orleans, the idea was to write a disaster novel?
The conception from the beginning was a novel centered around a character who is obsessed with worst-case scenarios and a mathematician who is confronted by a real-life worst-case scenario. The idea was a descent into obsession and paranoia and perhaps madness. I wanted to write about how we live in a time where we are inundated with more bad news than any generation has ever known before. If you have any inclination to seek out bad news, like I do or my character Mitchell does, with a few strokes you can learn all you want about the Yellowstone Supervolcano or avian flu and so on. I wanted to write about how we deal with that. Do you ignore it and pretend it’s not out there or do you become overwhelmed or cynical? Or is there some other way out? I feel that’s the contemporary condition.
What sparked your idea for a novel about a greed-ridden New York fallen to disaster?
The original seed came from a conversation I had with a friend who was a hardcore communist in college and even founded a communist magazine called Continua, like “the fight continues.” Then he went to Georgetown Law School and became a corporate lawyer with a white shoe firm downtown. We’d have lunch, me in my T-shirts and he in his suits, and one day he told me about this new type of risk analyst through which corporations would indemnify themselves against loss and lawsuits in the face of catastrophe. We had this conversation in 2007, so it was a year before the credit derivative scam. But I think already that people had the sense that there was some shady shit going down on Wall Street, and this seemed to be part of it. Then I spoke to some corporate lawyers and a risk analyst, but it turned out that I completely misunderstood what my friend had told me, and I still don’t really know what he was talking about. My misunderstanding of this scheme is what became the FutureWorld (the risk consulting firm in the novel).
What was your process of writing the apocalypse?
It was really fun. But I wanted to avoid writing some novelization of Hollywood disaster. I didn’t want to write a novel version of “Deep Impact” or “Armageddon” or “The Day After Tomorrow.” I didn’t want there to be massive explosions and vast large-scale images of disaster, because I don’t think that is how we actually experience catastrophe. If there is a huge hurricane and flooding in New York, you don’t see it as a bunch of images of different landmarks being flooded. You’re sitting in your house and all of a sudden there’s rain on the windows and maybe the electricity does off and you go into the street and see what’s there. I wanted everything to be reflected through the characters and keep it an intimate perspective
Do you have an obsession with worst-case scenarios?
I developed one writing the novel! I mean, I’m definitely more prone to neurosis than a lot of people. But I am not a psycho about it. It’s not debilitating. For example, I always use a headset to speak into my cell phone because I am paranoid about brain tumors. I never go through radiation machines. They aren’t allowed in Europe. They don’t let pregnant women do through it, so why should we? I get anxious when I fly, but I still fly. I take trains whenever I can.