Max Brooks, Preppers, And What 'World War Z' Can Teach Us About Coronavirus

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"Smash The Curve" by u/Gleeemonex
"Smash The Curve" by u/Gleeemonex

TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)

We speak with Max Brooks about the viral PSA he made with his dad, Mel Brooks, and how his zombie apocalypse novel, World War Z, has become eerily relevant during the coronavirus pandemic. Then, we chat with FrugalChef13, a "prepper," to get her advice about how we can each better prepare for crisis situations.

Thanks to u/Gleeemonex for this week's artwork, "Smash The Curve."


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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Amory Sivertson: Ben, you and I are nearing three weeks of working remotely and socially distancing. And there’s a very important matter we need to discuss.

Ben Brock Johnson: Is it my shower regimen?

Amory: I think ignorance is bliss when it comes to your shower regimen or lack thereof. I’m talking about a video. And I want you to listen and then tell me if you know what this is:

Amory: That's enough. Make it stop! Do you know what that is?

Ben: That's the latest example of an idea that I agree with in spirit, but the execution makes me want to barf a little bit.

Amory: Yeah they didn't even agree on a key. That's what makes me upset. But if any listeners out there somehow missed it, Gal Gadot, AKA Wonder Woman, and a bunch of her celebrity friends like Natalie Portman and Mark Ruffalo all sang along to the wonderful John Lennon song “Imagine” hoping it’d be this uplifting viral moment during this trying time. And instead it went viral for other reasons.

Ben: Like reminding everyone that celebrities are definitelynot going to be the people who are going to save us.

Amory: Yeah, I think it was a Redditor named Joegiberra who summed it up perfectly in a comment, saying simply: “Problem solved.”

Ben: Brutal. And appropriate.

Amory: But there’s also a flip-side to this: some public figures have used their platforms in ways that are actually useful. Like this guy...

Max Brooks: Hi, I’m Max Brooks. I’m 47 years old. This is my dad, Mel Brooks. Hi dad. He’s 93. If I get the coronavirus, I’ll probably be okay. But if I give it to him, he could give it to Carl Reiner, who could give it to Dick Van Dyke, and before I know it, I’ve wiped out a whole generation of comedic legends.

Ben: You’re hearing author Max Brooks, standing outside his dad’s house.

Amory: His dad, of course, is comedy icon Mel Brooks. And Mel is standing right next to Max, but on the other side of a sliding door, while his son is delivering a timely PSA about the importance of social distancing.

Max: Do your part, don’t be a spreader. Right, dad?

Mel Brooks: Right. Go home.

Max: I’m going, I’m going.

Mel: Go!

Max: Love you!

Ben: Max’s PSA went viral for all the right reasons.

Amory: We caught up with Max the other day and asked him about the video.

Max: I wanted to make it very personal. Getting coronavirus is not just infecting yourself. You have to think of others. You have to think of society at large. And if we all thought that way, we would be very careful about going out in public and becoming a spreader, which is why I have the hashtag, “Don't be a spreader.”

Ben: Was your dad a willing participant and has he done a good job of staying home?

Max: Yeah, he was. I called him up and said tomorrow we're going to shoot this. He's like, yeah, sure. When we shot that video, I didn't go in the house. I talked to him through glass. I haven't hugged him since this started. And so the Brooks family, including my father, we are all doing our best to adapt to this new normal.

Amory: Max is more prepared than most to adapt to this “new normal.” Because in 2006, he wrote a zombie apocalypse novel called World War Z.

Ben: Some people might wonder why we're talking to the author of a zombie book about coronavirus. Can you help us answer this question?

Max: Unfortunately, my novel World War Z is hitting way too close to what's happening now. The zombies in my book are fake. Everything else is real. I based the global response to the zombie plague on the history of the global response to actual plagues. I was not looking forward. I was looking back. I was basing it on the first outbreak of SARS, so much so that World War Z was banned in China because I call out the Chinese government for suppressing the truth at the early stages of an outbreak. I then postulate that certain countries with a siege mentality such as Israel and South Korea handled the crisis relatively better than, say, complacent democracies like the United States, which respond too little, too late and let the outbreak flare out of control. So judge for yourself how close that comes to the real pandemic we're facing now.

Amory: Max’s fictional zombie novel made waves long before the coronavirus pandemic. It was turned into a blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt...

Ben: ...but also the former president of the U.S. Naval War College added it to his school’s reading list. And Max is now a Senior Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point and the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Max: I mean, if you go back and YouTube my first speech at the Naval War College, I'm joking about the fact that they must have screwed up the paperwork. And so, therefore, there must be a lieutenant commander Max Brooks, wandering around Comic-Con. What I was told and what I've been consistently told by admirals and generals and those working in national security and public safety is that when you take out the fictional threat from my books, I present a very clear understanding of how the real world responds to any threats, which is what I tried to do, which is why in every single book I've ever written, there's no wonder weapon. There is no no magical inventive cure. The solution to the crisis in every single book I've ever written is rooted in reality.

Amory: Can you talk more specifically about how World War Z parallels the U.S. response in particular?

Max: I can tell you that in my fictional zombie book, the United States is caught unprepared because we didn't pay enough attention to preparedness. We let our systems decay around us. We responded too little, too late. Our leadership did not want to ask the American people to serve and sacrifice. We were very deeply in denial and we were also greedy. We didn't want to spend the money. Our leadership was also cowardly because it was an election year and nobody wanted to risk political points. We tried to respond to this problem with a minimum approach and business as usual and the contagion spread out of control. And that is exactly what we are experiencing now. Not enough Americans are practicing social distancing. We do not have a social distancing national policy. We are attacking this virus state by state while the virus is attacking the entire country.

Ben: What steps do you think should be taken right now to slow down the pandemic?

Max: Well, I can tell you that while I'm not the expert, I sure know where to find them. And in the course of my career as a writer, I've tried to make sure that my books are based in fact. And so I have been lucky enough to assemble a network of experts on military and national security and disaster preparedness. I think, number one, you need a national lockdown to stop the spread. This is extremely contagious and we are just starting to see the very first surge of patients in New York. And if we don't stop or at least slow the spread as quickly as possible, that surge is going to roll over this country like a tsunami.

Ben: What was your reaction when you learned that China had banned World War Z?

Max: Well, from a businessman, I was obviously disappointed. That's a potential, that's a billion readers right there. But as a writer, I can't very well allow China to censor a book that I wrote because my book talks about Chinese censorship. They're just so far that anyone's hypocrisy will go. So I'm sorry. And I wrote back to them. I wrote back to the Chinese publishing company, I understand the bind you're in. But I just can't do that. And this is my book and this is how I wrote it.

Ben: Are there any lessons from World War Z that might be relevant for people right now? Like individual people?

Max: Of course. You have to do your part, particularly in a democracy, in specifically a republic, which is what we are. You know what terrifies me right now about this disease — and this is something that cannot be stressed enough by everyone with a microphone — is the deaths are coming. And they're not just coming from COVID-19. They're coming from the fact that coronavirus patients will crowd the hospitals and they will keep out other people who will be dying of other things. You know, people are still going to die of cancer. They're still going to need their insulin. They're still going to have car crashes. So you're going to have people trying to get to the hospital for a variety of other threats to their lives. And they won't be able to get in because the corona virus patients are clogging the hospitals. And you're going to see a lot more secondary deaths if we don't practice social distancing and flatten the curve and give our hospitals, give our government, give our industry, give our science time to ramp up the tools and the inventions that are going to keep us safe.

Amory: You wrote a great piece for The Washington Post, now about a month ago. What kind of tipped you off that, at the end of February, before people were working from home, before there was this kind of alarmist feeling, what tipped you off that this was as big of a deal as it has now become?

Max: So back in January, when I was laid up with the flu after getting a flu shot, I was still flat on my back. And I got an email from the former president of the United States Naval War College of Vise admiral who read World War Z a year ago and brought me in to speak to the students there. And where was he on the reading list? So we'd been in contact ever since he sent me an email about what was happening in Wuhan and said, you really need to see this. And so that was when I started my studies of what was happening in China.

Amory: You ended your Washington Post piece with this statement that kind of haunts me at this moment, which is, you know, you said that you were prevented from publishing your book in China because the government didn't want to confront its own flaws even when heavily fictionalized. And then you say, “...but if we admit ours now and we work together to correct them, we can ensure that World War Z remains firmly in the realm of fiction.” Do you think that we are on the road to doing that, to admitting flaws and working to correct them?

Max: Well, I think it's too early to tell at this point, but I can tell you one of the ridiculously awesome privileges of being born in the United States of America is that we have a system that will allow us to self correct. Many people on planet Earth right now are held hostage by their governments. Maybe their leaders will make the right choices. Maybe they'll make the wrong choices. But it's not up to these people. It is up to us, so we all need to educate ourselves about how our systems work. We all need to remember that we are the government. This is a government by, of, and for the people. And we all need to do our part to make sure we identify these flaws that got us into this mess and correct them so this doesn't happen again.

Amory: Max has continued to write about these kinds of themes. And he actually has a new novel coming out called Devolution.

Ben: Can you talk a little bit about the new book and what it's about and and how relevant it might be to the conversation we're having?

Max: Well, yeah. I write about adaptation in the face of crisis. And it could be zombies. It could be Minecraft. It could be World War One. And in the new book, it's Bigfoot. So, yes, this is a Bigfoot story, but it's about people caught unprepared for disaster. And we're talking about a very high end, very high tech eco community in the Cascade Mountains who are trying to live the dream with all the comforts of the modern world — drone deliveries, telecommuting, smart homes — but living in the wilderness. And so they thought they could have it all until Mt. Rainier erupts. And then they're cut off and forgotten. And the eruption has also driven a very large, very hungry pack of Sasquatch creatures right towards this pen of sheep. And so my very highly educated, very highly paid community of David Sedaris fans have to fight for their lives.

Ben: It's funny that you’re bringing this up because there was a New Yorker article now a couple of years ago and this story has popped up again about the prepper community among the the ultra-wealthy. And I wonder what you think about that.

 Max: I have no patience for them. I have no patience further for any ultra preppers in any way, because that's going too far. What you have to have is just regular, good old-fashioned common sense preparation. What I have warned against, what I've always warned against, is an over reliance on an interconnected system without any sense of resilience. You know, when I see the panic buying in Los Angeles among my fellow Angelenos, I'm shocked that this is happening because all my fellow Angelenos should have had an earthquake kit to begin with. It's literally that simple. Right now, when people are panic buying on Amazon, no one is thinking about the fact that Amazon still has a network of truck drivers and of delivery people who could get infected themselves. If you don't just sensibly prepare for anything going wrong, then you're going to be in a lot of trouble. And that doesn't mean, like I said, this does not mean loading up an assault rifle and going into the wilderness and living on rat meat and moths. This simply means preparing your everyday life for a moment when you might have to hunker down for just a little while.

Ben: Max, thank you so much for your time and for speaking so passionately and powerfully about all of this stuff. We really appreciate it.

Max: Thanks. I hope it was what you needed.

(music plays)

Amory: That was Max Brooks, author of World War Z and the upcoming novel Devolution. Max recently did an AMA — or Ask Me Anything — on Reddit to talk more about the coronavirus and about why his zombie novel was banned in China. [You can find that here.]

Ben: After the break, we’ll hear from someone who is definitely ready to hunker down for a little while. And she has some practical advice for all of us.

Amory: More in a minute.

[Sponsor Break]

Amory: Alright, so we just heard Max Brooks talk about preparing for the unexpected in your everyday life. And if you’re like me, this pandemic has made you feel pretty unprepared. Or at least underprepared.

Ben: So it’s not surprising that one of the groups on Reddit that has seen growth during the corona crisis is the community for so-called “preppers.”

Angie: A prepper is someone who believes that something bad — maybe a natural disaster or whatever — is going to happen in the foreseeable future, and makes choices to prepare for that and to protect themselves from the fallout.

Ben: This is Angie. AKA FrugalChef13 on Reddit. And she is a prepper, although she says prepping can look very different from prepper to prepper.

Angie: Some preppers who probably fall more on the survivalist back to the land type side are like buying homesteads and getting off the grid and trying to cook all of their own food. And that happens. But it's not super common. A lot of preppers are just regular, everyday people who have jobs in cars and live in the suburbs but want to be better insulated from disasters.

Amory: Angie is neither in the ‘burbs nor off-the-grid. She’s somewhere in the middle. Running a bed and breakfast in Vermont. But she says she grew up in a family of preppers.

Angie: But we didn't call it that. We called it, you know, shopping for the future or using coupons to build your pantry. It was never like a special thing that was set aside. It was just being prepared.

Ben: Angie remembers being caught unprepared when she got the flu in college. It was her first time getting sick away from home.

Angie: And I didn't have money for medicine or soup or any of the things that I needed. And that was sort of a reminder to me that I couldn't just depend on my parents to do that. So I got better, and I filled up a box with all of the things that I would need for next time I got sick, and I put a $20 bill on it and I taped it shut and that was my first prep for myself.

Ben: Angie’s come a long way since then. She calls herself a “deep pantry” prepper. She’s well stocked up on non-perishable goods.

Angie: I also have a chest freezer, which I stock up with meat when it's on sale, frozen veggies. I will admit there are about five frozen pizzas in there as well. I make casseroles in bulk. You know, two batches instead of one and freeze those. So they're ready for the future. The other thing I do is try to keep a really good first aid kit and a good supply of any of the medications that I or anyone else in my household uses normally.

Amory: But Angie says prepping is way more than just accumulating stuff. It’s about planning. And on that front, she has a lot of tips.

Ben: Things like, start a vegetable garden.

Angie: So I'm growing zucchini, patty pan squash. I'm going to plant basil and mint and I'll probably plant some carrots and beets as well.

Amory: Another tip: Get all of your essential documents together — birth certificate, insurance info, doctor contacts — so you know where they are and have them at the ready. Also, make an evacuation plan for your household.

Angie: And evacuation plans don't have to be crazy complicated. Our evacuation plan when I was a kid was if the house is on fire, run out to the backyard and meet at the swing set that's useful to do even if this current situation went away tomorrow.

Ben: Another one: learn basic safety skills — like how to use a fire extinguisher so your house doesn’t burn down. And how to turn off the gas or electricity in your house.

Amory: You had some that are less straightforward, like build mental and emotional resistance. How do you do that? How do you stock up on that?

Angie: So I don't think that there's a universal way people can build up emotional or mental resilience. Part of it is just living through stuff and continuing to go forward. Leaning on your friends and having a good support system. You can build resilience by finding hobbies and ways to distract yourself from worrying about things that are going on, sort of putting together that toolbox of mental and emotional coping mechanisms is really important, I think. Not just for prepping, but to deal with the world in general.

Ben: You also made a post recently intended for people who are feeling unprepared or underprepared and kind of maybe anxious about that in this current crisis, in your suggestion was just start by making a list. So the question is a list of what?

Angie: Anytime something comes up that you say, oh, man, I really wish I had a can of pumpkin in the pantry or oh, I wish I had learned how to turn off the water at the main before this happened. Make a list! Write it down, and then you can either learn it later, add it to your preps in the future, or it will also teach you useful skills about your strengths and your weaknesses.

Ben: Did you make a list like recently when the coronavirus stuff started happening?

Angie: I did, and I have a list right now. My list is more potatoes because I let my potatoes stock get too low and now I’m annoyed that I can't make shepherd's pie. I know it sounds like a small thing to complain about.

Amory: No, I'm with you. I need more potatoes, too.

Angie: Yeah.

Ben: I had mashed potatoes last night and it was like the greatest thing that had ever happened over the last week.

Amory: Alright, Ben, alright. You don't need to brag about your potato stock.

Angie: Just make us all feel bad and sad, it’s OK.

Amory: I’m puttin’ it on the list!

(music plays)

Amory: You're someone who is generally more prepared than the average person, but has this particular crisis taught you anything about ways to be more prepared?

Angie: I think it's taught me that it's really hard for me to deal with a crisis that's open ended like this. It just feels like it could go on forever. And I'm having an emotionally hard time dealing with that. How do you plan when you don't know how long you have to stretch your supplies for? I hit this point about a week ago where, like, I'm just not worried anymore. There's only I’ve either burnt-out my worry chip, or I've just hit the point where I'm just sort of doing the best I can and we'll just take what comes next.

Ben: Is there anything else that you want people to know?

Angie: Gosh, there's a lot you can do right now to be better prepared. You can learn things, you can cook things, you can grow, things, you can plan things. You can do all of that stuff now at home with the free time a lot of us are faced with. And that can make you more prepared in the future. And it can also help you cope right now. And that's important.

(music plays)

Amory: Well, thank you for educating us on how to be better prepared.

Ben: Yeah, and I hope your bed and breakfast stuff, you know, obviously that I'm guessing that that's very much on pause, but I hope a return soon.

Angie: Yeah, me too. You know we. It's just going to happen and I'm going to ride it out.

Amory: You're all out of worry chips.

Angie: I'm all a lot of worry chips. I'm just chillin. I'm taking a staycation. I'm going to read a book. I got some macarons that came in the mail a couple weeks ago that I'm going to pull out.

Ben: Nice.

Angie: I stuck them in the freezer for like a day that I needed them and now they're my treat. So it's pretty good.

(music plays)

Amory: Ben, have you started your own list of things and skills you need to acquire?

Ben: Well, I have been practicing archery on the golf course next to my house.

Amory: Really?

Ben: Yeah. And there are a lot of rabbits that live on my property. I'm sorry to tell you that as a vegan, but that's probably the most hardcore thing I've been doing. But I've also been learning how to make many, many meals with beans. So I'll start there before I have to kill an innocent animal with my own bare hands.

Amory: Yeah. I took that potato comment from Angie to heart. Next time I'm definitely stocking up on potatoes. And in the meantime, I have to learn all the things she talked about. I have nothing set aside. I don't know how to do most of the things in my home. So I'm a work in progress.

Ben: Well, just let me know if you need me to deliver a bloody rabbit carcass to your front door.

Amory: I'm not that desperate. Oh, and we still want to hear from you. Tell us what’s on your list, and how you’re doing, wherever you are. You can call and leave a ‪857-244-0338‬...or you can record a voice memo with your phone and email it to

Ben: One more thing for your list: if you like Endless Thread, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. It’ll help other people find the show just in time for our new special series, which is launching later this month.

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Josh Crane Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Josh is a producer for podcasts and new programs at WBUR.



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