My First novel about a Pandemic, before it began.

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 8 Jan 2022

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My humble think tank where it all started.

I was a university graduate, shy and studious during those six years, studious to a fault. My fascination was language and languages. I studied, Latin and Greek and French, English, some Hebrew and then German, enough to read Nietzsche, Italian for Dante and Spanish for Cervantes. I had a heap of dictionaries which I read like books. That’s all I did.

But I had no interest in an academic career. When I left with two M.A’s my professors were confused. But I had some money left from an inheritance and knew how to live cheap. I rented a shack behind a house in the flatlands of Berkeley, the slums, for two hundred a month. The day old bread store, the dented can store were my staples, along with my coffee machine, my one luxury, constantly perking.

It was an idyllic life, no responsibilities, reading most of the day, my only exercise the twenty minute walk to the Doe library and back, where I still had a valid stack pass, good for another two years, a gift from a teacher who would do anything for me, seeing my rare love of literature and words, and sharing the same passion.

My favorite study was history and mythology. My favorite meal was oysters on Saltine crackers, which I’d eat at my large desk, leaning forward in my swivel chair, books and dictionaries open in front of me, reading and taking notes, as I was always writing down any new word that I came across, and it’s origins and meanings.

It was during the second winter of this quiet life that I caught the flu. I had a high fever and lay in bed watching the late news. There was a report of a new avian flu in Asia, how millions of chickens were killed and how it might possibly mutate and spread to humans, which I half-listened to just before falling sleep.

That night I had the strangest dream of just such an event happening, with vivid scenes of hospitals full of people.

I really wasn’t concerned about it. Such bird flus were common and the spread to other animals unlikely. But it gave me the idea for a story, which I began to write, still in bed the next day.

At first I simply recounted the dream, the scenes of pandemonium and panic. I’d recently been reading Thucydides, his description of the plague that hit Athens in 430 B.C. I do admit I borrowed some details from his account, how birds and animals wouldn’t eat the dead, how those who recovered thought they were immune forever and treated the sick, the problems with so many corpses. It killed thirty percent of that city in one year.

I made my story much less drastic, knowing full well that any novel, to be popular with intelligent readers had to be probable and full of explanations and up to date with modern medicine. I relieved and contrasted those public scenes with individual characters caught up in this mess, lives disrupted, the trials of individual nurses and doctors, describing their personal lives and the worries of those most at risk and the ones already in oxygen tents, their loved ones not allowed to visit them for fear of contagion, their last thoughts and lonely deaths. This gave realism and humanity to my novel. Otherwise it would have been just shock or pulp fiction.

So I described the WHO taking swift action and the leaders of America and Europe and their speeches. Vaccines were quickly developed and the toll on the population minimized to the old and unhealthy, needing respirators. The doctors and hospitals preserved most lives. And as with the Spanish flu I had people wearing masks on streets, the large venues shut down and restrictions on assemblies.

The only difference from ancient times, where it traveled by ship from Egypt to the Piraeus, the port near Athens where it started, I thought of airplanes and how they would transmit the virus everywhere within days.

I sent off a few copies. An agent in New York liked the quality of the prose, the smooth flow and variety of the story and called her friend at a publishing house where it was accepted, a rare thing for a young unknown. It was published as a literary novel with a few lukewarm reviews and modest sales.

Then the pandemic hit, shortly after. As the first months went by, nothing happened, but my story seemed to exactly describe the real scenario as it unfolded. It took a few months for people to catch on. But finally my publisher did too and advertised the book to the skies. Sales skyrocketed.

Even doctors and politicians started reading it with deep attention, as if I had some insight into the problem. I was invited against my will to New York, for a few appearances on late night shows, then a lecture in an auditorium where I stood like a speechless fool when technical questions were asked, as I had no background in medicine. Future engagements were cut and I was wafted back to my shack, much to the disappointment of the media.

But she was wise enough to not make a fool of me. I was still heralded in the tabloids as some kind of prophet, and as the sale of my book climbed the charts, a second was promised.

As the pandemic continued, I had no idea how I’d been so accurate.

It was pure luck that reality chose to closely mirror my fiction. But nobody believed such an improbable chance could happen. It was uncanny even to me, so many parallels, so many headlines in the papers and speeches politicians delivered, written exactly as they were in my novel six months before they happened.

I’d picked the source correctly, a market in southern China and many of my numbers were close, for Italy, France and England by the third month of the spread. I knew the States would succumb, with its president and so many opposed to vaccines, opposed to anything they were told to do. I even predicted New York, Florida and California as the worst hit states.

I predicted vaccines would take about a year to develop and another six months to deploy and that each summer things would get better, as with any flu. It was seasonal, and the vaccines worked, for a while.

But I’d read about mutations too, that any virus spread into enough hosts genetically transforms and improves its abilities to transmit and harm.

My agent told me to start on a second volume, a whole other book. She would handle my privacy. That was all I wanted and it was easy for her, as no one knew me beyond my few appearances in the city, my face, or followed me to my ghetto residence.

She handled all my mail, my heaps of fan mail and requests, her secretaries replying to them in my stead, and one particularly pretty secretary came to deliver me all I needed, food or any other little item. I was told never to leave the house, not even at night, which was fine by me as I was so busy, captive in a way by her but far more captivated by my own curiosity, by what I'd correctly predicted and what would follow.

I'd started on my second novel with the first hints of the real pandemic. It bothered me that it was happening. I had the news playing constantly and went from the T.V. to my desk, jotting down page after page of ideas, formulating further developments. I knew that all the poorer countries had massive populations in poor health and would be the last to receive vaccines. They were the perfect breeding grounds for mutations, while all the western countries thought they had it beat, and let down their defenses, typical human stupidity.

Before I finished this second episode, the news or the WHO had started giving each new variant a different letter of the Greek alphabet. So I revised my draft to match their designations.

And once again I was uncannily accurate in my predictions. I figured each variant would have major or minor complications to the world and each needing another vaccine. There were two hemispheres and when it slowed in one it would flourish in the other and never go away, just repeat again in an ever larger outbreak each season.

With these notes I easily completed a second novel, a continuation of the first spanning the next year and a half. I described the unemployment rates, the government subsidies to compensate those out of work and the small businesses shut down, the work at home movement and the recovery of most economies with minimal harm. In the last chapter I described a new 'epsilon' variant coming out of South Africa, faster spreading, with unknown consequences.

I still have no idea how my predictions matched reality because I completed this second work just as the first lockdowns were being eased, and this book was published just before the first mentions of the Delta variant hit the papers.

I was still in my shack in Berkeley. The first checks began to roll in, several thousand dollars at a time, which I signed and which my pretty helpmate, Naomi, took to the bank, always returning the receipt and lolling about the house longer and longer as the account grew larger.

I didn't mind her company. She was my only company. She went from bringing me food to cooking it too, saying she could save me time for more writing. Then we began eating together and our lunch talks at the table were so pleasant they lasted much longer than any cooking would have taken.

But her absence at the office was noticed, and that ended that. My lifestyle and solitude returned for the next week and the book progressed quickly, as all books do when they are nearly finished.

Then one evening there was a soft tap on the door. It was her again, lovely as ever, this time with a bottle of wine and Chinese take-out. Her charming excuse was to ask how my book was coming along. I invited her inside and showed her the manuscript, one short chapter away from completion.

Her outfit, her intimacy and sending out for two more bottles revealed a different motive as she spent the night, the first of many. But I didn't mind. This was my first taste of sex, long overdue at twenty six. It even inspired me to write the last chapter in record time, and then revise the whole manuscript, adding much, bringing it in line with what the daily news revealed, new insights as to what might happen next. I finishing each day's work by five, as I knew her knock would always come around six. I used to write till late in the night when I was on a roll. She would drive across the Bay Bridge and we'd eat out at fine restaurants. She taught me manners, courtesy, even how to dress, to look handsome to women, something I'd never thought of before. I gave her my debit card so she could buy me clothes and cologne. Later each night she taught me the pleasures of sex.

We were happy together those few weeks. But my mind was preoccupied with the book. The day I finished the final revision we had a special celebration. We might have made a perfect couple. But that was the last time I saw her, for months. She must have been bribed away I suspected, used by my agent, who I slowly learned was a ruthless witch when it came to money and success.

The following morning there was a louder knock on the door. My agent and my publisher greeted me.

They saw my state, still in my jeans, and asked how my writing was coming along. I told them it was well under way, putting them off as I thought, saying I didn’t have the full plot finished yet. They asked for a tour of my shack, almost embarrassed at the poverty of it, stepping gingerly over the scattered books and papers on the floor. But they headed straight to my bedroom, my study, and sat on my unmade bed as if they knew where to go. When they saw the large stacks of papers on my desk their eyes widened.

I didn’t mention the completed novel in the drawer, exactly what they wanted, and even more exciting than the one before, as the pandemic itself provided the plot, growing faster and more dangerous and on everyone's mind. It was better material and my writing skills improved with my two revisions.

But my agent, reeking of perfume, in high heels and a tight dress, fortyish, acting coy and enticing, and my publisher in his expensive suit, all politeness, told me they'd arranged some interviews in New York, some television appearances with important people. I had to leave with them right away, as all this was developing so fast. He apologized for the few checks I’d received but said sales were soaring and the next ones would be ten times larger.

Then my agent took over and told me she had a beautiful apartment near Central Park where I would stay with her, and that she'd tutor me, and manage all my appointments. They both talked fast. What they didn’t mention was the money, that she took twenty percent of my earnings while my publisher took twice that. And with all the expenses they conjured up, they split another ten. Their haste revealed their greed. It reeked as much as her perfume.

They told me to pack quickly. I had one suitcase in the closet which I handed them saying I needed all the books on the floor. This gave me the time to stash my manuscript under a heap of clothes in my backpack. They were back in an instant collecting all the papers on my desk, asking if there were others, opening drawers.

Then they escorted me out the door to a waiting limousine, the engine running. I was almost expecting to see Naomi sitting inside.

After the night flight, I found out the next day, standing on a street corner in New York, looking for a bagel, that the Times had published my picture and first book on its front page that morning, promising the next was coming soon. Five days later it hit the stands. They'd stolen my manuscript the moment we arrived at the airport, their large limousine driver insisting on carrying my bags.

I knew I'd been used. But I thought I might recover Naomi. Even if she was a spy she was still my first, sweet love. I asked to see her repeatedly over the next few days but my agent told me her mother had died and she was in Ohio to arrange the funeral. I doubted that story but had no number, no way to check. I was now trapped in a fancy apartment in Manhattan, dressed in suits and ties by several other assistants of my agent, my hair combed and perfumed by them, and glasses of champagne handed me as we drove off in limousines to interviews. The one woman who wasn't model grade, wearing glasses sat closest to me, coaching me on what questions to expect and what to say along the way.


Parties begin, from: The Last International Playboy

The billboards were soon plastered with my face, the interviews began, along with the crowds of women and clubs. My agent quickly placed me in my own penthouse, to get me out of hers. Within a few weeks I was in a daze of drugs and parties. The only thing I remembered of Naomi was that she taught me the pleasures of sex, which became my first addiction. Soon I had many others.


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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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