Ann Patchett on her new book City on Fire

People are dying. Children are going to school only to not be able to eat. Babies are being born without being able to understand what life is all about. Even a few people –…

Ann Patchett on her new book City on Fire

People are dying. Children are going to school only to not be able to eat. Babies are being born without being able to understand what life is all about. Even a few people – vital people – still die from little things like coughing or shaking. It’s a crazy time to try to figure out what is the right thing to do, and everyone and everything has got their own reasons to be – or not to be – a good person.

Sometimes that is taking on monstrous amounts of shame and self-loathing. Other times it’s trying to hold onto your sanity so you can make a go of it in the world. And with so many people dying, and many people, even people who were meant to die, surviving, and walking, it’s hard to know if the right thing to do is really even the thing to do. Or, more appropriately, whether the only thing you can possibly do is help others.

And then there are the people just trying to do the best that they can, in a moment of complete tragedy, and you see every single day all these different things people try to do. People who did whatever they could to help with the Ebola epidemic and people who turned their backs on the disease to get on with their lives.

I’m terrified for the people in the middle of this cold, fast-moving civic disaster

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You see the dispassionate, smiling people trying to be perfectly normal while their own hearts are bound in no particular way but cinder blocks; people with whom we will never have any interaction but who have the moral virtue, personal courage and common sense to help whoever can help. This is a national crisis, and yet we know we cannot really help in this crisis because we are far too fragile and too busy to try to help ourselves.

If the Ebola crisis seems seemingly insurmountable, try the media crisis. All the other stories coming in this crisis are not really that interesting. Everything seems slow and insignificant. There’s the media blackout of the news. Everyone, including me, is trying to figure out the news. Nobody really knows anything, and so no one is keeping us in the loop. In more simple terms, no one is really reporting.

And yet this isn’t just a human crisis. This is also a media, business, political and economic crisis. A media – which I am attempting to avoid – is close to dead, and people are dying.

Also this is a national, cultural, military, ecological and just plain public health crisis. To a terrifying extent, the control of information is simply not working.

And so no one is really interested in what I think, no one even reads my book. So I write. I am terrified for the people in the middle of this cold, fast-moving civic disaster.

Maybe I’m underestimating the human capacity for self-pity. Maybe I’m underestimating the bonds of the human species. I am not so naive to think that even one person thinks about you or cares about you, which is why it’s so important to me to write.

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