Rumaan Alam: ‘Our cultural response to a crisis was to go shopping’

The author of the apocalyptic novel Leave the World Behind reflects on its parallels with the Covid pandemic, the genius of Lorrie Moore and why he is looking forward to letting his kids run feral outside

Rumaan Alam was born in 1977 and raised in Washington DC. He is the author of three novels, the latest of which, Leave the World Behind, got rave reviews when it came out in hardback last year. The story of two families, one white, one black, thrust together in a Long Island holiday home amid apocalyptic events, it was described by the Observer as “simply breathtaking… as terrifying and prescient as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”. Now out in paperback, it is being turned into a film by Sam Esmail (Mr Robot) starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. Alam lives in Brooklyn with his husband, David Land, a photographer, and their two adopted sons.

A lot of reviewers called your book “prescient”, given that you wrote it before the pandemic. What’s your take on that?
I’d never even heard the word coronavirus prior to February 2020. On a very basic level, the book dramatises being trapped in at home and not having enough information – and it happened to be published into a reality in which many readers felt that they were trapped in their homes and didn’t have enough information. So it’s a strange resonance. I think it’s connected to other books that are talking about some of the same things – about the individual relationship to anxiety over the climate, the absurdity of the contemporary moment, our warped relationship to technology. People are thinking and talking about this stuff so it makes sense that there will be books about it.

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