By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Disasters Are No Longer Random and Rare’A talk with Juliette Kayyem is like a chat with your favorite, most personable friend–except that Kayyem knows what she’s talking about.
“Disasters are no longer random and rare,” she says. “We have to stop wishing that they were.” And that’s why her new book, The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning To Live in an Age of Disasters (Hachette Book Group/Public Affairs), is one of the timeliest releases in a chaotic season. It’s one of the most internationally fluent works you’ll find about our exploding contemporary crises.
This makes The Devil Never Sleeps a likely natural for foreign rights directors, scouts, and literary agents to check out.
As much as none of us wants to think about it, in roughly a month’s time, we’ve seen unforgivable gun violence not only in the United States but also in Norway, in Denmark, and–the most politically spectacular instance–the assassination of Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe. This, amid a raging war in Europe, stringent COVID-19 lockdowns in China’s biggest financial center, floods, fires, a staggered air-travel industry—London Heathrow now caps its traffic at 100,000 passengers per day—burgeoning inflation, baby formula shortages, monkeypox vaccine shortages, and patience shortages.
“It’s too much,” Kayyem says to a Twitter correspondent. And from this emergency expert, that’s saying something.
- English rights for the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, are being handled by Hachette’s Amber Hoover, senior director for subsidiary rights at Perseus Books (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Inquiries on all other languages and territories go to Rebecca Gardner, vice-president and rights director with the Gernert Company (email@example.com).
“To date, the translation field is wide open but of course we’d love for The Devil Never Sleeps to find an audience abroad,” Gardner at Gernert tells Publishing Perspectives. “Juliette is such a knowledgable and wise voice in this field.”
At news outlets in the United States and on international news networks, Kayyem has become such a regular and trusted expert on crises that a glimpse of her on a CNN panel or in a liveshot has come to be a signal for many viewers that “something has happened.” They stop, read the chyron, and crank up the volume to see what she’s talking about.
She’s as conversant on the Boeing 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia as she is on a late-June effort in Idaho to disrupt an LGBTQ pride event by a right-wing militia dressed in khakis and matching T-shirts. Beyond the ongoing pandemic’s pressures, upwind of wildfires’ smoke, and in villages built on mountainsides because the elders know that tsunamis happen, Kayyem is ahead of the game.
And yet one of the first twists to her message is that she wants you to look at the other side of that game, the other side of the “boom” as she calls it.
Obsess less about whether a boom is coming, she says, her hands flying with emphasis points. A boom is always coming. Worry more about what happens after it.
Left and Right of the ‘Boom’
Picture a bad event. Any bad event, choose one–hurricane, tornado, Russia attacking your nation, your condo highrise collapsing while you’re asleep, flooding that kills hundreds. That’s the boom, the moment something goes very, very wrong.
For Canada’s Globe and Mail last month, she distilled her concept of what we get wrong about the boom, and she used the example of the wildfire destruction of the village of Lytton in British Columbia in 2021:
“Generally, we can divide the world into two time periods: before and after the boom,” she wrote.
“‘Left of boom’ reflects the preventive and protective measures that are employed to stop the bad thing from happening, such as mitigating climate change. But, the crisis will happen, the “boom” in our parlance, agnostic as to what the harm might be: a fire, flood, terror attack, or pandemic.
“‘Right of boom’ represents the response and recovery efforts that occur when people need help and places need to be rebuilt.
“As a society, we tend to define success as whether we can stay on ‘left of boom’ and keep the harm at bay. We act surprised, angry or powerless in the face of the disaster, wondering why it has come to pass. [But] essentially, we can learn to fail, more safely. And the measure of success will be whether things were, in very technical terms, ‘less bad’ because we prepared for their eventuality.”
Even when describing something as nightmarish as the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986–and as she recounts the Morton Thiokol engineer Allan McDonald’s strenuous efforts to stop the launch–Kayyem doesn’t depress her reader. She never berates her audience for not knowing the voluminous secrets she does. A remarkable undertone of her compassion, her love of an ironic laugh–that’s her understanding of our lack of understanding–is always right there.
She even offers you little known secrets with which to amaze your buddies. Those “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, considered a great example of crisis management from World War II in England?–the British War Council never released them, never put them out on public view. “Too passive” is Kayyem’s guess as to why Churchill didn’t use them. “Churchill needed Londoners to engage and sacrifice.”
If anything, what makes her narration of Public Affairs’ audiobook edition of the book such a standout is a comfortable-in-her-skin, intensely authentic voice you hear from this author. As anyone working in publishing will know, this means she’s a public policy analyst and expert who has the gift of writing in her own voice, something many authors don’t have. Once she’s in the tracking booth, nothing she has put onto her pages sounds stiff or artificial in her delivery. She’s written it in the dynamics of her own exuberant expertise, the sound you hear from her hits on CNN and in her regular appearances on WGBH Boston Public Radio.
The secret of her success in her audiobook narration, she tells Publishing Perspectives, may have to do with the fact that “I like the book,” she says, not quite in surprise but with real pleasure. “It’s like you feel when you believe in what you’re selling, you know?”
Regular readers of her Twitter feed do know exactly what she’s saying.
They’re used to her “security mom” persona–the title of her 2017 book for Simon & Schuster, Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland. Her engagement with her three teens is a constant source of amusement for this former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the US Department of Homeland Security.
When one of the kids contracted COVID-19 and was sequestered at the house, she shared on Twitter the debate raging at Chez Kayyem.
“It’s not coming through the air vents,” she tried to shut down the speculation with professional authority.
“Definitely coming through the air vents,” one of the boys immediately concluded.
‘The Preparedness Paradox’
The Robert and Renee Belfer senior lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government—where she’s the faculty director of the Homeland Security Project and the Security and Global Health Project—Kayyem is also a regular contributor to The Atlantic, where she recently defined how the select committee to investigate the January 6th insurrection is providing one of its best services by “giving an off-ramp to those who accepted Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was stolen out from under him—and who might excuse or even support violence done in his name.”
If anything, the negativity you might expect to attach itself to someone whose 20-year career has been focused on things that go “boom” is reserved primarily for what Kayyem defines as a stark danger in domestic terrrorism: the right-wing animus unleashed by an administration that offered permission to anyone who’d like to outwardly display their hatreds, bigotries, and hostilities.
“Naming and shaming,” she has said many times, is what was lost in the Trump years, emboldening those khaki militia operatives to feel it’s fine now to act on their darkest impulses.
Such clean strokes of logic are a trademark of her analysis. Early in her book, she mentions a perfect example, the “preparedness paradox.” In that one—the Y2K scare in the year 2000 is one of her examples—everyone shrugged afterward and said, “See? Nothing happened, that was all a lot of alarmist nonsense.” But the truth of such moments is that “nothing happened” because the right preparations were put into place, the alarms were sounded early enough, the crisis was averted.
“I was being interviewed by someone who had been at the Agency [CIA] during Y2K,” she tells Publishing Perspectives, “and he’d done a lot to protect” the government’s systems.
“Then he suffered the criticism of the preparedness paradox,” everyone assuming that all his work had been needless. “He told me, ‘It’s like I’m having PTSD,'” because so few seemed to understand, as crisis specialists do, this syndrome of effective preparation being seen as superfluous when it works.
‘You Are Here’
The mantra Kayyem finds most useful to repeat at regular intervals, closing each chapter in The Devil Never Sleeps, is one we all know from those maps we use to find our way around airports or city parks or shopping malls: “You Are Here.”
“There’s a way of talking or writing that’s going to cause someone to either tune in or freak out. If I’m successful with the book, it’s a matter of finding that space in between.”Juliet Kayyem, 'The Devil Never Sleeps'
Inevitably, a failure of imagination–as she describes Sony not thinking of itself as a target for North Korean cyber-attacks–is the result of people not starting with that “You Are Here” concept. Look where you are–in time, in space, relative to what issues and potential experiences. If a boom happened, would you be ready to handle what comes next?
She recalls being in Louisiana for the Obama administration during the BP oil spill and discovering that the local authorities along the coast were, as one said to her, “embarrassed” because they were getting no information from the higher echelons of command and control on the effort to mitigate the spill and restore the coast.
“The feds weren’t telling them” the details of the response, she writes. “The counties, towns, and cities; the mayors and county commissioners; and parish presidents were not part of any structured information flow. … We were so enamored with the system we had in place that we were missing the very people most impacted by the disaster.”
The solution was to deploy Coast Guard cadets to each of 62 jurisdictions bordering the Gulf of Mexico’s waters. Those cadets then became each local community’s go-to intelligence channel.
And that, you notice, was on the right side of the boom.
This is what Kayyem is teaching, at Harvard, in her book, onstage in speaking engagements she’s doing to support the book. It’s what you work out needs to be done to make things better after a boom, less a failure.
She laughs about a follower’s tweet during a sequence of commentary on a recent law-enforcement action. “It must be exhausting for Juliette Kayyem to keep everyone calm” during breaking news segments on television. The observation rings true to her. “Everyone’s running around and I’m the one saying, ‘Okay, here’s what happened.’
“But there’s a way of talking or writing,” she says, “that’s going to cause somebody to either tune in or freak out.” When it comes to the disasters in which Kayyem deals, “There’s nothing in between. If I’m successful with the book, it’s a matter of finding that space in between, that space where you’re cognizant of what’s going on but you’re also asserting agency over something that could make you freak out.” Her goal is to get readers and public-service leadership, corporate chiefs and organizational honchos, to the point at which they, too, can assert that kind of agency, know there’s a right side of the boom coming, and work on what to do to make it better when they get there.
As she breaks away from our interview, she’s heading out to teach a class and then to catch a plane. Even after a Florida judge with no medical or public-health credentials has ruled that everyone on planes can now go maskless (boom), she’s working on what you do (here on the right side) after that bad moment.
“I’ve got my mask,” she confirms.
“Good. Keep it on,” her interviewer advises.
“Always,” Juliet Kayyem says. “Always.”
More from Publishing Perspectives on rights in the international book trade is here, our Rights Roundups can be found here, more on nonfiction is here, and more on Hachette Book Group and its associated companies is here. Porter Anderson formerly was at CNN as an anchor, editor, and senior producer.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.