by Hadley Freeman: If I’m the smartest guy in the room, we’re in big trouble’…
Max Brooks is getting a little tired of being proved right. An author with cult appeal and massive sales, he is regularly referred to as “a soothsayer” and “a genius”. His 2006 novel, World War Z, was about a deadly virus originating in China that causes global devastation, and his compulsive new one, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Sasquatch Massacre, is about people forced into self-isolation, huddling in terror from an unimaginable threat outside. But Brooks, 47, is dismissive of the hyperbole: “Everything I write about has already happened. The history of pandemics tends to come in extremely predictable cycles. So if I’m the smartest guy in the room, we’re in big trouble,” he tells me over Skype from his home in Los Angeles (our interview was in May, before the national protests after the killing of George Floyd, but well after lockdown started.). He has the jittery energy of the chronically anxious, and the easy confidence of one who has been thoroughly validated.
He certainly saw the coronavirus coming long before most politicians, and was making preparations in January. On 16 March, when most people in the western world were barely getting to grips with the lockdown, he made a video about the importance of social distancing to protect the elderly. He enlisted the help of the oldest person in his life, his father, comedy god, Mel Brooks. “If I get the coronavirus, I’ll probably be OK. But if I give it to him, he could give it to Carl Reiner, who can give it to Dick Van Dyke, and before I know it, I’ve wiped out a whole generation of comedic legends,” says Brooks, pointing to his father behind a glass door and listing his closest friends. The video has been watched more than 16m times. “I wasn’t given some secret information. I got my information from the news. Really deep state: turning on CNN and watching Wuhan getting locked down,” he says dryly.
I thought World War Z was a really cool movie that happened to have the same title of a book I once wrote
Nonetheless, he even scared himself when he predicted a day in his own life. Despite its title, Devolution has nothing to do with Scottish political independence, “and I’ll do a Scottish apology tour if it’s a problem, from the Outer Hebrides to Hadrian’s Wall,” he says. It tells the story of an eco-community that is cut off from the outside world after a volcano erupts, and that is only the start of their problems. The novel is largely told through the journal of Kate, one of the community’s inhabitants, and in one scene she warns her partner, Dan, against cleaning the solar panels on their roof, because she’s worried he’ll hurt himself. “Injury turns you from a giver to a taker,” another inhabitant adds.
Cut to spring 2020 and Brooks is in lockdown at home with his wife, Michelle Kholos (“the greatest playwright in the world!”) and their teenage son, Henry. He heads up to clean out the gutters on the roof. “And my wife said: ‘Oh no you don’t! If you fall, you can’t cook, you can’t clean, you just consume resources,’” he recalls. Does it freak him out to live in his own books? “It doesn’t freak me out, it saddens me. Because I would much rather be wrong,” he says
World War Z, which uses zombies as a metaphor for the Sars virus, with the infected turning into killer creatures, takes a geopolitical perspective of a pandemic, with each country responding to the crisis in characteristic style: Israel makes brutally pragmatic choices to save itself; the US is overconfident about its exceptionalism. The parallels with today are breathtaking.
“But on a personal level, the day-to-day life of what we’re all going through now, that’s played out in Devolution. And that I did not expect,” says Brooks. And that’s no surprise, given Devolution is a thriller about Big Foot. Yet the novel provides very practical solutions for how to deal with isolation and fear – growing your own vegetable garden, seeking out small groups of trusted friends – and it is to Brooks’s credit that his galumphing beasts are genuinely scary, as opposed to laughable. When I make the mistake of mentioning the saccharine 1980s Big Foot family comedy, Harry and the Hendersons, Brooks – who takes his responsibilities to fans of horror (“my tribe”) as seriously as any other part of his research – recoils in disgust: “Noooo!”
Brooks has always been a worrier. When I ask if he was an anxious kid, he reels back as if I’d asked if the Pacific Ocean is wet: “Oh GAHHHHD. Yes!” he gasps. He researches disasters because it’s when he doesn’t understand something, or what to do about it, that he spins out. “Knowledge calms me down. I can deal with fear, it’s the anxiety I have trouble with,” he says. It’s a testament to the thoroughness of his research that after the publication of World War Z he was invited to join the Modern War Institute at West Point as a non-resident fellow. There, he writes articles about “non-military issues that could turn violent in the future,” he says, such as a recent piece about how corporations now control the food chain, and he lectures cadets about how to think creatively.
But how to educate the public? He knows some people don’t listen to lectures, or even the news. So instead he channels his knowledge into popular fiction. “I write about fictional threats, because they’re easier for people to deal with, but I provide factual solutions,” he says. World War Z, which has sold over 1m copies, has been named among the best horror books of all time, alongside Stephen King’s It and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But Brooks’s writing hero is thriller writer Tom Clancy, famously another fan of research. “The best way to educate is to entertain. In the second world war, the US government got Hollywood on board to break down the complicated strategic ideas into very simple stories, and America used to be the best at that. But somewhere along the line we gave up,” he says.
While stressing that he’s “quite proud to be the child of these two awesome parents” – his mother was the late, great Anne Bancroft – Brooks has generally kept his parents at arm’s length from his career. Unlike plenty of other Hollywood progeny, he has not wanted to be known as anyone’s junior, because he found out early on that it would only hurt him: his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), was originally marketed as “Mel Brooks Jr writes Young Frankenstein part two!” The book flopped, “and no surprise, because the media looked at it and said: ‘This is the least funny book ever’, and the horror people thought Mel Brooks’s brat was taking a giant dump on something they loved,” he says.
Brooks is not anyone’s image of a Hollywood brat. Yes, his parents had famous friends: Reiner, Van Dyke, Gene Wilder. But when they would all meet up on Sundays, they tended to talk about whether anyone had found a good dentist in Los Angeles, and who knew of a decent car mechanic. “They were all immigrants to this town – they were trying to figure out how to live,” Brooks says. The family was comfortable, but his father drove him to school in a Honda Accord 1982 (“best car ever”) because, he told his son: “It’s OK to make your fortune. But don’t drive your fortune past people who are starving.” His dad may have written the line, “If you got it, flaunt it”, for The Producers, but that was very much not how he lived. “Both my parents came from poverty and most people who are first-generation wealth always worry they’re going to lose their money, because they’re not really sure where it came from,” says Brooks. His father lives close by in Santa Monica and, until the virus started, he would come to Brooks’s house every evening before heading off for his nightly dinner with his best friend, Carl Reiner. These days, Brooks and his son go to his father’s house and wave at him through the glass door, just as he did in the video.
Brooks has his mother’s dark Italian colouring and his father’s features as well as his wit. (When I ask if he liked the 2013 movie adaptation of World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, he replies: “I thought it was a really cool movie that happened to have the same title of a book I once wrote.”) He credits his love of science and research to his mother: “In show business they only ever want one flavour and everyone just wanted her to be sexy Mrs Robinson. Nobody cared that her favourite book was about microbes – but I did. Everything I am comes from her,” he says.
Bancroft was 40 when she was pregnant with Brooks and had long since given up hope of conceiving. She was asked if she wanted a test for Down’s syndrome, but was warned if she had a termination she would never be able to get pregnant again. Bancroft refused, saying she would love this baby whatever. “So I was very … appreciated,” says Brooks.
As a child, he struggled with reading, and although the school dismissed him as another lazy Hollywood kid, his mother suspected he was dyslexic. She was right. There was little help available to dyslexic kids in the early 80s, but in 1959 Bancroft had won an Oscar for her performance in The Miracle Worker as Annie Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, how to read. So she knew about services available to blind children and she adapted them for her son, such as turning his schoolbooks into audiobooks, so he could read along to the tapes. “People assume because of who my parents are that I had this very privileged childhood. And they’re damn right, because I had this incredible mother who understood her son,” he says. His father, he says, “was busy feeding us. My parents were great partners.” Bancroft died from uterine cancer in 2005, two months after Brooks’s son was born, “so she got to be a grandmother for a bit. Thank God,” he says.
After college, Brooks worked briefly at Saturday Night Live, but soon realised he is really more of a solo worker than a collaborator. At 31, he published The Zombie Survival Guide, turning a lifetime of anxiety about existential threats into something potentially productive. For every one hour of writing, he says, he spends up to 100 hours researching, “and that totally comes from my mom”. People often ask if writing about zombies and Big Foot and apocalypses scares him, because they don’t understand that the writing calms him down. But now he has a different problem: he knows too much.
“I can’t pacify myself with the ignorant notion that we were caught unaware [by the virus]. I can’t go to bed at night thinking, we didn’t have a plan so all the mistakes are forgivable. Here it is!” he says, brandishing a thick wodge of papers, which is the National Response Framework, the United States’s plan for how to respond to emergencies. “So there is absolutely a plan.” According to Brooks, if America had fully locked down the country for three weeks, instead of doing it piecemeal state by state, and maintained a strict lockdown, the virus would have gone.
I ask if the problem was the incumbent president. “I don’t want to blame everything on Trump. America has the most incompetent, disastrous, dangerous captain that we’ve ever had. But the ship has had mechanical problems for some time,” he says. He launches into an engrossing monologue about how trust in the government has collapsed, after it was attacked first by the left in the 1960s, then by the right in the 80s, eroding public trust to a disastrous effect. “We have planted a very bitter crop, and now it’s harvest time,” he says.
But none of this explains why the UK’s response has been so terrible, I say. He throws his hands in the air, exasperated. “I expected all this from us. But I did not expect it from you. I’m shocked, because you already had a national health service, you’re much more unified than us, you still understand the need for government. So what’s your excuse?” he asks. There are some questions even Max Brooks can’t answer.