To write his first novel, Jeffrey Lewis had an unfortunate amount of material to draw on for research: Archival interviews with those who survived the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the chaos that unfolded on 9/11 and other grim historical realities. The title of Mr. Lewis’s work of ticktock speculative fiction is harrowingly plain: “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.” It imagines the detailed reporting filed by a commission in 2023, three years after nuclear attacks on the United States, South Korea and Japan left millions dead. The novel includes wonky Pentagon details, eyewitness testimony and even a statement by “former” President Donald Trump, which includes this line: “Now the Democrats want to blame me for the Nuclear War (which was very terrible) and that they caused.” Below, Mr. Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, talks about the book’s surprising source of drama, the inspiration he took from “Dr. Strangelove” and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I got the idea to tell a fictional version of how the United States and Korea might stumble into war when The Washington Post asked me to write a piece about that. I found I had trouble expressing to people how something crazy like that could happen. And then an editor at Houghton Mifflin, Alex Littlefield, called and asked if I ever thought about making it a book-length project.
I’ve always been intrigued by writing fiction because I’ve always enjoyed reading it, and it’s impossible to read it without sometimes thinking, “I would have done it a different way.” People who write nonfiction, all of us think we have a novel in us. Some of us are wrong about that. So I didn’t want to be a cliché, the academic who writes the terrible fiction book. I approached it with some trepidation. But I liked the idea of a novel that purports to be something it’s not; in this case, a government report. I found that liberating.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I delved into North Korea’s cellphone infrastructure and was shocked to learn that, according to the man who ran it, the senior leaders don’t have a secure communication channel other than as part of the cellphone network. That scared the pants off me. I knew immediately how it would play into the novel if it were true, because I remember cellphones not working on 9/11, so it was not hard to imagine that if you were the leader of North Korea and your cellphone stopped working, you might jump to certain conclusions. It took me a while to feel satisfied that it was probably true; that they rely on an encrypted cellphone channel to communicate.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I imagined that the mechanics of the nuclear war would be dominant, rather than the fateful decisions leading up to it, but in fact it was the opposite way around. In fact, Alex had to ask me to go back and add in. I think I forgot to show the North Koreans actually launching the missiles. And he said, “Hey wait! You’re robbing me of my North Korean launch protocols.”
This will be terrible for sales, but in some ways it became a book about decision-making. It’s a book in which the scenes play out in little rooms. In the sense that there’s drama, it’s the drama of people having constrained access to information and making a decision that seems smart to them, but that the reader knows is terrible. And I didn’t know that the places where the decisions were made would become characters. Mar-a-Lago is a character in the book.
I always intended to rely on real-life people. The only instance where that got complicated was John Kelly, because he’s still there; but he’s been on the hot seat for months, and we weren’t sure how long he was going to last. So I created a fictional post-Kelly chief of staff who looks a lot like Kelly.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Stanley Kubrick. If you study nuclear strategy, for lack of a better word, “Dr. Strangelove” is a thousand times smarter than people realize. Much of what passes for comedy in it is direct quotes that he dug up from actual serious writings, real arguments that people made. What makes the movie funny is not the dialogue, but the juxtaposition of the dialogue with the reality that exposes it as absurd. You only realize how ridiculous the words are when you take them out of their sterile environments and put them in a room where real people are making decisions.
Persuade someone to read “The 2020 Commission” in 50 words or less.
I promise it’s not like eating your vegetables. Sometimes people make the book sound important in a way that’s less fun than it was for me to write. I do care a lot about people getting the right lessons from the book, but it’s also kind of fun.
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