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Contagion: Jack Hyland on 'The Moses Virus' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Jack Hyland.

The author of The Moses Virus (Taylor Trade Publishing, $24.95), Hyland is also a founding partner of Media Advisory Partners. In addition to his career in investment banking, he has served on the board of not-for-profit institutions, including his role as Chairman Emeritus of the American Academy in Rome. Presently, he is the co-chairman of Teachers College at Columbia University, trustee and treasurer of the College Art Association, and vice-president and trustee of the Clark Art Institute. His writing credits include a number of travel articles syndicated by Hearst and the New York Times, as well as a biography, Evangelism’s First Modern Media Star: The Life of Reverend Bill Stidger, which Brendan Gill (author of Here at The New Yorker) proclaimed “an excellent piece of work . . . a remarkable accomplishment.”

The Moses Virus was published last month and has been met with enthusiasm from contemporaries and critics alike. Arthur Levine, author and president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, noted, “This is a terrific read—an intelligent thriller that captured my attention from the first page. I couldn’t put it down.” Further, FreshFiction.com praised, “Jack Hyland has written a dramatic novel, rivaling the amazing adventures by author Dan Brown. Mr. Hyland gives us a scenic view of the streets of Rome, as well as the countryside, with the use of magnificent, descriptive language. There is an architectural history lesson penned throughout the pages of The Moses Virus, as well as a European geography lesson. The action is fast-paced and transforms Dr. Stewart from archaeology professor to investigative sleuth in an adventure you do not want to miss.”

From the publisher:

Modern-day Rome: Two American archaeologists suddenly die in an underground passageway in the Roman Forum leading to the buried rooms of Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace. The Italian authorities conclude the deaths were caused by a devastating and highly contagious virus. Tom Stewart, an NYU forensic archaeologist who was present when the deaths occurred, becomes entangled in the race to find the supply of the virus—a race involving many powerful players desperately seeking the deadly contagion. Stewart must find and destroy the virus before others harness its sinister power.

The Vatican, foreign groups, the world’s largest genetic seed manufacturer—all have their reasons, and none will stop until they succeed, no matter the cost or risk to millions of people if the virus escapes and causes a pandemic.

Now, Jack Hyland spreads the word about his new book …

1) The threat of a contagion from a deadly virus is central to the plot in The Moses Virus. What attracted you to the idea of a pandemic as a storyline?

I was shocked by a conversation with a former head of the World Bank, who advocated a pandemic to solve Africa’s population growth. He was lucid, thoughtful and despairing that there was no other solution. Here was an apparently sane individual, a world leader, who had given up. Suppose, I thought, someone else, equally brilliant, highly successful, but frustrated and paranoid, actually went off the deep end. And also suppose that a devastating virus, able to kill millions of people, was easily attainable, and this man decided to take action?

2) Tom Stewart, the main character in The Moses Virus, visits the Sistine Chapel during the restoration of Michelangelo’s famed ceiling frescos. Did you draw this episode from personal experience?

I had official Vatican permission to go up on the scaffolding where Michelangelo had worked while painting the most famous ceiling in the world. I touched Adam’s finger, outstretched to receive the gift of life from God, and then I touched God’s finger. And 500 years ago, Michelangelo touched those two fingers when he was painting them.

Nearby a Polaroid photographer was taking a precise picture of Adam and Eve just after they had eaten the apple of knowledge given them by the snake. The Garden of Eden panel had been cleaned whereas the panel of Adam and God had yet to be cleaned. The photographer gave me a copy of one of his photographs, which I carried in my hand as I took the elevator down the sixty feet to the floor of the chapel. There, a guard spotted the photograph and took it from me.

In The Moses Virus, the visit to the Sistine ceiling restoration is an event which Father O’Boyle has heard happened to Tom Stewart—it’s in Vatican records—and asks him about it. Tom is surprised that the Vatican’s attention to detail is so complete and that this is part of their dossier on Tom.

3) The Moses Virus delves into the issue of secrets held by the church. What made you want to tackle the subject of the Vatican and its power?

There are a thousand churches in Rome, dominated by Saint Peter’s. The Catholic Church is an arcane bureaucracy, run by old men, that has lasted two thousand years, and has a billion members. Eugenio Pacelli, becoming Pope Pius XII in 1939, served the Vatican in Germany from 1917 until 1929. He negotiated a treaty with Hitler. Hitler, coming into power in 1933, wanted the powerful Catholic Church to stay out of German politics; for his part, Pius wanted the Germans to relinquish appointing new German Catholic bishops, giving that power instead to the Vatican. Each got what he wanted, but Hitler wound up with absolute power and became a threat to the Catholic Church and the Vatican, as well as Europe.

In The Moses Virus, Pius XII condones highly controversial steps taken by German scientists in reconstituting the Moses Virus to protect the Vatican and the Catholic Church. Pius greatly regrets the risk to mankind possible with the Moses Virus and orders the supply of it destroyed. A rebellious Cardinal disobeys the pope’s command.

4) The Moses Virus explores the collision of great power and ill intent. What interests you about driven men whose frustration leads them down a morally questionable path?

Hermann Bailitz, the head of Belagri, the major global genetic seed company, has built a monopoly. It uses genetic means to create seeds that are immune to disease and produce crops with higher yields. Belagri is highly profitable, squashes its competition and intimidates the farmers. Any activity, no matter how aggressive, is justified by its mission—feeding the world population, staving off universal hunger. Bailitz is a modern day emperor with no one working for him willing to oppose him for fear of losing his job.

Crossed by crooked politicians that steal the money in their third world countries meant to feed their starving populations, Bailitz’s frustration translates into a plan to threaten those politicians into getting out of his way. They are, after all, evil and deserving of having their power curtailed.
Bailitz sees that gaining possession of a powerful virus can accomplish his goal. He is more than willing to take the risk of using the virus, despite the risk that the virus could get out of control and kill large populations.

5) You’ve had a long career in investment banking. Describe your journey to becoming a novelist.

I’ve always written stories as well as books, etc., following in the footsteps of my grandfather and mother, both of whom were avid writers. And setting an example for my children. I have set an example for my children, all of whom are writers in one way or another. I wrote a short article on “Climbing the Carew Tower” in Cincinnati, Ohio when I was in fifth grade. For an assignment, in ninth grade, I studied and became fascinated with Tutankhamun and the discovery by Howard Carter of his tomb. Out of this effort, I found the ancient Egyptians, the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings captivating.

I wrote about my experiences in the Army, about every trip I’ve taken (and I’ve visited 57 countries, as many varieties as Heinz has). In the early 1990’s I began serious work on the life of my grandfather. It was published by Rowman & Littlefield, in 2001, and called Evangelism’s First Modern Media Star, The Life of Reverend Bill Stidger. See: www.stidger.com. Around 2003, I visited an excavation in the Roman Forum, on the Palatine Hill. It was the re-opening of a dig which had begun the prior summer. From six-thirty in the morning until four in the afternoon, I watched, totally absorbed, as a team of about 25 young archaeologists supervised by the American Academy in Rome, of which I was Chairman of the Board, went about their tasks. Was there an underground passage to be explored? Here, my recollection and my imagination merged. The Moses Virus followed as a completed book eight years later.

6) What is your writing and research process like?

I’ve often begun by writing about a specific incident that has intrigued me. When I’ve completed writing up that incident, I find that I have the core of a story. Then, I’ve plowed onward to write the book.

In one case, the incident was a fight my preacher grandfather had with the most famous novelist of the twentieth century—the first American to win a Nobel Prize in writing, Sinclair Lewis. Why did they fight, who was right and who was wrong? Was my grandfather really a ‘boor’? Once I had written up this incident to my satisfaction, after extensive research, I realized I had the essence of a biography.

Digging into my grandfather’s own fifty-two published works, his hundreds of magazine articles, his letters, his sermons, the transcripts of his national radio broadcasts, newspaper articles in the library archives of each of the five cities where he had been a preacher—I found an overflow of material and had the difficult task of selecting the choice bits for the book.

In the second instance, a day spent at an excavation in the Roman Forum captured my imagination. When I had researched what I needed, and written up the story that I had half experienced and half imagined, I found I had also introduced myself to some characters who then wouldn’t stop. They would lead me on and on until the entire story was told.

I originally thought that The Moses Virus would be easier to accomplish than the writing of a biography since I could make everything up. This was wrongheaded. It was harder than a biography because I not only had to be entirely realistic (as was required in my biography) but I had to make all the incidents up. But it was great fun.

7) What are you reading now? Who are some of your favorite novelists?

The books I have liked best are those that have strong characters, compelling stories and take me to fascinating places and times. They will not allow themselves to be forgotten. These are the books that shape one’s mind, by making a difference. Books like The Wizard of Oz, Tom Sawyer, in my youth, as well as The Name of the Rose, the books of Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens are ones that have made a difference for me.

And, I also like fictional stories with compelling heroes and enemies. There are plenty of books featuring great characters, such as James Bond (Ian Fleming), Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler), Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (Tony Hillerman). Science fiction, particularly books or stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Philip Dick, fascinates me.

8) Could a powerful virus be reconstructed? Could any virus or other substance or weapon made by man ultimately destroy mankind?

Some think that exploding the atomic or hydrogen bomb could trigger a chain reaction which would destroy the earth. It could have happened, but didn’t. Were we just lucky? Despite ourselves, mankind has shown enough restraint to limit (mostly) the spread of nuclear weapons. The jury is out on whether we can monitor our own greed and thirst for power enough to control the fearsome weapons we now have.

There are other serious manmade substances. There is poison gas, much in the news recently with regard to Syria. It was used by the Germans in the First World War. Its power to maim and kill was awesome, but it had a frightening consequence: the wind could carry it so it didn’t hurt just soldiers from the enemy’s side but could kill innocent bystanders in the war—women and children. The Golden Rule has been an important restraining force, “Don’t do unto others what you would not want to be done unto you.”

Our human history is filled with scourges, plagues and viruses, which have done devastating damage to our populations. Infected fleas on rats carried the Black Plague throughout Europe, wiping out a quarter of the world’s population. Our powerful institutions, such as the Christian Catholic church, were nearly brought to their knees. Religions preach that there is a higher power that watches over us. But just how powerful is the Church (and therefore what allegiance could it expect) if it is unable to stop the sickening deaths of a widespread plague?

Beginning with accounts in the Old Testament of the Bible, and throughout Greek and Roman history, there have been recurring plagues. The first reference to a major plague was the tenth plague of Moses (and God) against the Egyptian first born children and livestock, as was reported in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament.

The most devastating plague, or virus, occurred in 1918-19. It was called The Spanish Flu. Soldiers returning to their homes in most countries carried the infection with them. One man infected two, who, in turn, infected four, that four infected eight. Quickly the numbers grew.

Young people were infected more devastatingly than older citizens. By late 1919, the number of those dead from the Spanish Flu were between 50 and 100 million people. Overall, 675,000 Americans were killed by the virus, more than ten times the Americans killed in World War I. There was no way to stop it. In San Francisco, and other cities, for example, people wore face masks to protect themselves from transmitting or receiving whatever germs were responsible. Nothing worked.

It is not believed that man created the Spanish Flu virus. It just happened. Some theorize that it spread from a flu suffered by some animals which mutated and leapt to infect man. Like the pattern of all viruses, there is a rapid rise in the number of those affected, and, then, gradually—for many reasons—the virus subsides.

The US Centers for Disease Control, located in Atlanta, Georgia, have made a practice of studying everything they can to keep viruses dangerous to mankind from happening again. This intellectual drive to know and understand amazingly toxic substances has led the CDC to re-construct the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. In recent years, tissue samples were taken from two victims of the Spanish Flu. One of the bodies was found frozen in the Alaska tundra and the other was from a body of a soldier which had been preserved. In 2005, DNA testing allowed scientists to re-construct the Spanish Flu of 1918-19.

Samples of the reconstructed virus are now kept under refrigeration at the CDC, under lock and key. A scientific triumph of impressive proportions? This mission to study the world’s most dangerous virus and maybe find its antidote? Or, a project of high risk and questionable morality? Suppose someone else fell upon a supply of this virus and wanted to use it for their own purposes?

In the book, The Moses Virus, German scientists reconstruct the virus described in the Old Testament book of Exodus. It is this virus, more devastating than even the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, that escapes from the Roman Forum.

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With thanks to Meg Walker, President & Director of Marketing at Tandem Literary, for generously providing this Q&A for use on HBE.

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