Talking with Jon Mooallem about publishing a book about a disaster in the middle of a global pandemic

Friends, do I have a book recommendation for you. No matter who you are, no matter what your reading tastes, I can assure you that Bainbridge Island writer Jon Mooallem's brand-new book, This Is Chance!, will speak directly to you at this moment in time.

Chance! is the deeply reported account of three days surrounding an earthquake that struck Anchorage, Alaska in the spring of 1964 — the largest earthquake in recorded history. Mooallem centers the story on a young radio host named Genie Chance who talks Anchorage's citizens to safety, disseminating information, coordinating rescue efforts, and sending messages of hope to and from people spread across the broken city. It's a story with the happy message that when the worst things happen, humans get together to do their best.

You can see where I'm going with this. Human beings around the world are right now sheltering in place in an effort to protect our weakest and most vulnerable neighbors from coronavirus. Some of us are on the front lines. Some of us are working jobs that two months ago would have been considered non-essential but are now the backbone of our civilization. We're all communicating, and we're all trying to get by. It's a slow-motion disaster that will leave all of us changed. Chance! reminds us that the change that is happening to many of us right now will be for the better.

Mooallem is taking some big swings in this book: the structure and themes of Chance! are deep in conversation with no less of an American classic than the Thornton Wilder play Our Town, which happened to be playing at the big theater in Anchorage at the time of the quake. This conversation encompasses the biggest topics we're all facing right now: mortality, optimism, impermanence, loss, and the uneasy feeling of being swallowed by the tremendous scope of the universe.

I talked with Mooallem on the phone earlier this week about his remarkable book, what it feels like to have a book launch get squashed by a global pandemic, and his race against the clock to preserve living history at a time when many witnesses to the Anchorage earthquake are passing away. What follows is a lightly edited and trimmed transcription of our conversation.

After Trump was elected, I spent a long time waiting for the first post-Trump book, the first book that felt like an adequate response to Trump's election. I don't remember one breaking out from the pack. But when I was reading your book, it felt like I was already reading the first post-coronavirus book, because—

I thought you were going to say it was the first post-Trump book. Which, in some ways, actually might have been right. Because I think it was really after the election that I sat down and really tried to do the proposal [for This is Chance!]. I feel like that was probably where my state of mind was — an unimaginable disruption.

That's interesting. So was this book about you trying to find a happy place after Trump's election?

Oh, no, I wouldn't say that. I had been collecting research about Genie, and about the quake, for a few years before then. This theme of unanticipated, very violent-seeming disruptions, was always what drew me to it. And I think we can all relate to that in a personal way — that our own personal worlds sometimes take these swerves.

So, it wasn't that suddenly the election happened, and I had this new way to approach this story. That was just very much in the air then, just as it is now.

It's funny, because there's a part of the introduction that I keep seeing people taking pictures of on social media. It's that last bit that says, "A terrible magic can switch on, and scramble our lives."

I remember writing that in early 2018, and thinking that, "this reads like I'm talking about the election." And now, it reads like I'm talking about Coronavirus.

Your book is a one-stop shop for terrible disasters. So, I guess it's an evergreen.

Yeah. Like how every Christmas they play It's a Wonderful Life, maybe every time there's a disaster, people can read this.

I haven't actually yet spoken with an author whose book launch was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. How are you doing? It seems like your publisher must have had a pretty big plan in mind for the launch.

Yeah. Definitely for me, it felt like it was going to be a big launch. I think I was supposed to go do eight or nine different events, the last of which would have been this week up in Alaska.

I really have struggled to find a way to talk about it, because the honest truth is, I don't even really feel like I've grappled with any of that on the emotional level. Partly because I'm doing the very healthy thing of just being grateful for what I have to be grateful for, and then, also — less to toot my own horn — because it's just so frickin' confusing right now. My kids are home, so I just haven't had the mental capacity, I guess.

I think at some point, I'm probably going to end up feeling resentful about it. I guess something was taken away from me. But I don't really have any cogent feelings about it just yet.

It's definitely true that there's been a lot more media interest, I think, than there maybe would have been – just because it feels so timely, in a weird way. But this is a moment that I've been looking forward to for years, literally. And it's great that I still feel like people are finding the book, and reading it. But it would have been nice to have just a little moment where I could feel like I was celebrating it, unabashedly.

Were you aware, fairly early on, that things were going to not happen? These launches from New York publishers are planned out way in advance.

Oh, yeah.

So, you probably had a plan in your head for months.

Yeah. They set the pub date last April, I think, and events were all worked out, I think, by the end of last year.

The weird part of that was being where we live [in Washington state, which was hit early by the coronavirus pandemic], and talking to people in New York in late February, early March. There was a big disconnect between my concern and growing pessimism and the view in New York, which was, "Well, nothing's happening here. We're all fine — let's just take it day-by-day."

And that's not to fault them, but it did make it strange. And in retrospect, I don't know even if we had two extra weeks, when I started worrying about it, to come up with some kind of Plan B. I don't think we would have had any real substantive differences anyway. So, it's a wash. But that was definitely a very strange few weeks.

And then, there was just one day when I got this cascade of e-mails that everything was canceled, one by one.

We're not getting preview copies from publishers right now, so I bought your book from Third Place Books. I loved it, and I thought it was actually the perfect book to read right now.

Thank you.

But it's also very impressive on a technical level. The fact that you interact with the structure of Our Town so thoroughly in This Is Chance! is a hugely brave thing. There are nine ways this book could have failed and one way that it could have worked, and I think you found the one that worked.

Oh, thank you.

When, in the course of writing the book did the structure of the book become apparent to you? I can't separate the story from the structure in my mind, which means you did it well. How did that take shape?

Wow, thank you so much. That's what every writer wants to hear. I guess I don't really know how to answer that.

I think that the Our Town thing is just like it's described in the book: I really had done a lot of research, and met a lot of people, and been up to Anchorage. I knew a lot by the time I finally brought myself to read Our Town — for a number of reasons. One is because I didn't think it was going to be that cool; I thought it was just this hokey play.

So, when I did finally read it, and I got to that first part where the stage manager character just offhandedly tells the audience that this kid that's on stage delivering papers is going to die in a war, I was gobsmacked by it, because that was the experience I was having reading about all these accounts of the time. I was just Googling people, one-by-one, and not to be crass about it but there's a body count that you just see pretty starkly. Like, "Okay. He's dead. She's dead." And you see how they died, and you just get the ending to all these stories.

So, I felt like that stage manager is really the only representation I've ever seen of this phenomenon that I'm having, and what luck that it also happened to have a place in the story itself.

So, I think I knew right away that I could do that in the story, that there'd be something really powerful about just quickly flashing forward and seeing, "Where are they now?"

Honestly, I was a little ignorant. Some of the parallels did escape me. It didn't even occur to me until pretty late that I was telling a story that took place on three different days, and Our Town was a story that took place on three different days.

You're asking me about mechanical things that, I think, it's easy to articulate after — you can come up with reasons why they work. But I don't know. It just seems like it should be that way, and then you try to do it that way in the best way you can. And then hopefully, it works.

It didn't work for everyone, I can tell you that.

Sure. It's a pretty bold move, so, of course, there are going to be people who are going to take issue with it.

I think the trick is it didn't seem bold, because it just seemed like the best way to do this.

I don't talk about writing a lot so it's hard for me to know if I'm making any sense.

It makes total sense to me. In the first few pages, you introduce a couple of characters and then explain how they were going to die, many years in the future. It was a little jarring at first, but there's also something very tender and intimate about having that information right off-the-bat. And reading a book about a disaster and knowing that these people don't die because of the disaster is a little bit of good news, too. It was really striking. And I didn't realize how much that experience of reading mimicked your research for the book until you just said that.

The bit you're talking about is with these two radio broadcasters. One of them is Ty Clark, a very suave Don Draper figure of the station. And right after I tell you that he dies, the next thing that happens is, he's on the radio, ecstatically calling this dog race.

I felt like there was an emotional thing that happened to me when I held those two facts up next to each other in my mind, and that really seemed to be the emotions that people were having after the earthquake, too.

There's this feeling after disasters, and I think some people are having it now too, where you just look around at things that you took for granted, and realize that they're fleeting, and that they're precious, and that they're unimportant. But they're so vital.

I think you get that same thing when you consider a single person's life in its entirety. It's a feeling I was trying to write about, because people felt this at the time of the quake, and I felt in the process of researching it. And so I just want to get people to feel it as they're reading, too.

Was Genie always at the center of the story?

Yeah. 100%, absolutely. She was definitely the center, and if anything, she became less central to this story as I learned about other people that I wanted to include, and other storylines I wanted to follow.

I learned about the quake and about Genie, I think, almost at the same time. I found this report that she'd compiled after the quake, where she collected people's experiences: They would just say what happened during those four-and-a-half minutes of the earthquake for them.

And I knew that she had been on the radio all weekend because this was written up in her little bio with the report. And it also said that her family had recorded some of those broadcasts. And that was what set me off, was just trying to find those tapes. As someone who writes true stories, any time that you have an inkling that there's some big cache of detailed material, you want to go chase it.

This story is not quite at the edge of living memory, but it's getting there. Somebody trying to write this book in 20 years would have had a much more difficult time than you had, obviously. Did you feel at any point like you were racing against time to get these stories for the book?

Yeah, I felt that almost every day. It was very unsettling, actually, for two reasons. One is, because you feel the story slipping away. Literally, people were dying as I was writing the book. There were definitely two very important interviews that I did, and those two men did not live to see the book finished.

There were others as well. I had the experience in Anchorage where I was having coffee with a really important source for the book, the son of Bram, the owner of KENI. I said, "I'm really desperate to find contemporaries of Genie, if there's any left — any people who knew her as equals." And he said, "You might try Ermalee Hickel." She was Wally Hickel's wife; he was a big Alaskan businessman and politician.

I wrote the name down, and the next morning I woke up in my hotel, I went downstairs to the lobby, and on the front page of the newspaper was an obituary for Ermalee Hickel. She had just died the previous day.

Oh, God.

There were definitely uncanny experiences like that.

And then, even when I would find a lot of these people, I would often have much more detailed knowledge about what they had done and said during the earthquake than they could remember. Because I had these interviews that they had done at the time, these very exhaustive interviews with sociologists, for example, or the interviews that Genie had done.

It's not because they're 85 that they can't remember, it's because it was 50-something years ago. They could have the best memory in the world, but they're not going to remember what time they showed up at the police station on a Saturday morning.

So, it did feel like the story was slipping away. And then, also, to be totally honest it made me uncomfortable to feel that. Because it almost felt like hubris: like, "if I don't tell this story, it's going to be lost forever!" That kind of thing. And that didn't sit well with me, either.

When you were talking to somebody and they were countering their own narrative from before, did you feel the need to correct them, or did you let them go? Do you let them live with the version they have in their head?

Oh, that's interesting. No, I don't think there was ever a scenario where I was ruining something for anyone. I think mostly they just didn't remember. So, I would tell them, and they'd go, "huh." Or, "Okay, sure. If you say so."

There definitely were cases where people told me things that they remembered very clearly that I could prove were not true. And I guess in those cases, I didn't push it. Because also, maybe I am wrong. But there wasn't anything of such great consequence, where I felt like I was robbing anything of anyone.

I should also say that those people were really still valuable people to talk to, because they could tell me just about what life was like in Anchorage, even if they didn't remember particular details about the narrative. I learned so much from them about what it was like to live there at that time, what it was like to live in the four-and-a-half minutes of the quake. Which everyone remembered perfectly.