I reviewed Pandemic by Yvonne Ventresca back when it first came out in hardcover. The paperback edition just came out so I thought this was a great time to sit down and chat with the author about this amazing book. You can read my original review of the book here. Details on the giveaway follow the interview.
Did the idea for this book come from news reports and such at the time or something else? The hardcover edition came out in 2014. Two years later, the subject matter is still very much top of mind in the world.
The Swine Flu/H1N1 pandemic of 2009-2010 was a definite inspiration. That particular flu only turned out to be as lethal as seasonal flu, but we obviously didn’t know the mortality rate at first. It was a highly contagious new influenza, and the more I researched flu pandemics and the potential for a contagious avian flu, the more the idea stuck with me for a story.
How much research went into this book? Many elements seem very fact-based, such as how the Blue Flu spreads and which age groups are affected the most.
I read about historical diseases as well as emerging infectious diseases in order to create my fictional flu, using books like The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, Influenza 1918 by Lynette Iezzoni, Spillover by David Quammen (one of my favorites) and Secret Agents: Emerging Epidemics by Madeline Drexler. The H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic is well-documented on the www.flu.gov website, so I started with that timeline as an approximation for my fictional disease and its rapid spread. I modelled the mortality pattern after the Spanish influenza, since that fit with my plot (the very young and old are spared, leaving teens and their parents at risk), and because it was such a devastating illness.
Pandemic is set in New Jersey, so another source of information was state preparedness documents. I was surprised to find some plans online, like NJ’s “Antiviral Distribution Plan.” I also found a 2005 Homeland Security Document, “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.”
Based on their planning assumptions, I tried to imagine complications. For example, many people think it’s most likely that a pandemic would start someplace else, like Asia, and as a result the U.S. would have a warning period. What if that turned out to be untrue and we had little or no time to prepare?
One of my best resources was an interview I did with a local health officer in 2011. He spoke frankly about the H1N1 experience and gave me insight into what problems could potentially occur if a deadly pandemic struck. It was educational and also inspired some ideas, like the news story Lil (the main character) sees about who should receive the antiviral first if supplies were limited.
I do have to be careful about over-researching. For example, I spent a lot of time checking the spring migratory flyways of waterfowl, relating to my fictional transmission of bird flu to people directly. I have a whole folder on bird research which I didn’t use. (Fun fact: Wild waterfowl are carriers of all influenza A viruses. The World Health Organization calls them “natural reservoirs.”)
Something I really enjoyed as a reader was the dialogue in Pandemic. Many authors, myself included, struggle with this and often it sounds forced. You absolutely nailed it, though. Any tips or pointers?
Thank you! A few tips that I’ve found helpful:
I mostly stick to simple dialogue tags like “said” and “asked.” If a person sounds angry in the dialogue, for example, I don’t need to say, “she vented in an irate voice” at the end of the sentence, which can be a distraction to the reader. I try to work in some action between the spoken bits. This helps show the character’s emotion and can improve the rhythm of a sentence/paragraph. I also find reading everything aloud helps enormously.
Another aspect to the story I liked was how some of the characters eventually teamed up to not just help one another but to reach out to other survivors. This is something I’ve often stressed on this site and elsewhere – the idea of building a community rather than going it alone. Was this an element you’d planned ahead of time for the story or did it just develop organically?
The idea of a community and comparing people’s differing reactions was always something I wanted to include in Pandemic, because dire circumstances can bring out a range of behaviors, from charity to self-preservation. There’s a scene in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s novel, Life As We Knew It, where the mother reprimands her teen daughter for leaving to tell a friend when the town gives out free bags of much-needed food. The mom is furious because the supplies could have run out before the she returned. But her daughter naturally wants to help someone else she cares about. That small scene was memorable to me because it showed the conflict between our survival instincts and the desire to help people and I wanted to explore that in Pandemic. Should we help others even if doing so puts us at risk? It’s not an easy question, but the moral dilemma fascinated me.
Given the nature of my own blog and books, I have to ask – would you consider yourself any sort of prepper or survivalist, either before or after writing Pandemic?
The research I did caused me to think more seriously about emergency preparedness. I had the chance to test our preparations during an October ice storm which caused unexpected, widespread power outages in our suburban town and surrounding areas. We were still woefully unprepared. I’ve learned from that lesson and tried to improve, but it is definitely an ongoing process. As a result of my research for Pandemic, I do tend to wash my hands more than the average person, if that counts for anything.
Every author has one or two questions in their head that they would love to get asked in an interview. Go for it, the floor is yours
One thing I’d like to share is how the Pandemic paperback differs from the hardcover. The editor and I worked to add some bonus materials, including some of my research that didn’t make it directly into the story, and a fun pandemic-inspired recipe called “pantry cuisine.” There’s also an educator’s guide to make it easy for teachers to use the book with students (ages 12+).
If your readers like survival fiction, I’d like to give a shout-out to a dystopian anthology I contributed to called Prep for Doom. It’s an integrated collection of twenty short stories that tell the tale of a single catastrophe (airborne Ebola) as experienced by many characters, some of whom cross paths. I wrote chapter thirteen, “Escape to Orange Blossom,” about a girl who tries to find safety for her autistic brother and herself during the disaster. There’s more about the project at www.prepfordoom.com.
What’s next for you? Any plans to do a follow up to Pandemic?
Pandemic was always intended to be a standalone novel, so no sequel! I’m thrilled that it’s available in paperback, so that it can reach even more readers.
My next young adult novel, Black Flowers, White Lies, comes out in October. It’s a psychological thriller about how fragile our perception of reality is. Here’s a blurb:
Her father died before she was born, but Ella Benton knows they have a mysterious connection. When an eerie handprint appears on her mirror, Ella wonders if Dad’s warning her of danger as he did once before. Could her new too-good-to-be-true boyfriend be responsible? Or the grieving building superintendent? As the unexplained events become more frequent and more sinister, Ella becomes terrified about who—or what—might harm her. Soon the evidence points to Ella herself. What if, like her father, she’s suffering from a breakdown? Ella desperately needs to find answers, no matter how disturbing the truth might be.
Visit Yvonne’s website to learn more about her and her books.
I’d like to thank Yvonne for taking the time to participate in the interview as well as donating a book for the giveaway below. Pandemic is a great book, one of my favorites.
One lucky person will win a copy of the paperback edition of Pandemic! To enter, post in the comments below your answer to this question – What one luxury item would you hope to have access to if you were forced to shelter in place for several weeks or longer due to a pandemic? Assume food, water, and other necessities are under control. Please keep your answers family-friendly. In order to keep spam to a minimum, comments are moderated. If yours doesn’t show up immediately, don’t panic.
When posting your answer, be sure to use a legit email address as that is how we will contact the winner. Entry deadline is 11:59PM (Central), Tuesday, July 5th, 2016. One winner will be chosen at random from all qualifying entries. Good luck!