Carrie Bengston Interviews Amanda Hickie


Special thanks to Amanda Hickie for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – An Ordinary Epidemic

** An Ordinary Epidemic is being offered for July Book Giveaway. Go into the draw for a free copy of the book **

Amanda Hickie has always been interested in ethical questions, at the age of ten annoying her scripture teacher by asking if it was immoral to lie to a murderer. Despite a passion for writing, she studied Computer Science (but quickly recovered) and Cognitive Science. A change of lifestyle when she and her family moved to Canada resulted in her first novel, AfterZoe. Living down the road from the SARS outbreak also provided the seed for her next novel, An Ordinary Epidemic, was released by MidnightSun Publishing in May 2015. – Adapted from Amanda’s Homepage

Amanda’s Homepage:

1 – What inspired you to write the book?

I was living in Ottawa, just down the road from Toronto during the 2002 SARS epidemic, and every few nights on the news there was a story about someone who might be the first case in Ottawa. We all expected it would come to our city but our lives went on as normal.

A few years later I read Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ which he wrote 60 years after the 1665 plague, possibly based on his uncle’s diary. It had that same feeling. He lists how many died each day in the various parishes, all the while carrying on walking the streets, observing everyday life. Some of the scenes he writes about are very domestic – a man who trades food up and down the river from his boat to avoid contamination and leaves the money he earns on a rock for his family. Some of those scenes have influenced parts of my novel.

All sorts of less obvious inspirations contributed to the novel as well. I wanted to write about families and teenagers, and a family shut inside their house was a good crucible for that.

2 – What is the meaning of the title? What is an ‘ordinary’ epidemic vs an ‘extraordinary’ one?

You can look at this epidemic as being ordinary in two ways.

Firstly, it’s not something we can’t anticipate. Epidemics have been around as long as we’ve had settlements, so in a sense they are all ordinary. Also, ‘extraordinary’ things happen all the time. Between when I first had the idea for the book and writing it there was Hurricane Katrina, the 2003 blackout on the east coast of the US/Canada, Hurricane Sandy, the Fukushima tsunami, and outbreaks of bird flu and swine flu. Just a few weeks ago, a fierce storm left 200,000 Sydney homes without power.

Secondly and more importantly, my characters’ experience of the epidemic is ordinary. This is their everyday domestic life. For me, ordinary lives are more interesting and illuminating than the extraordinary.

A friend in New York talks about sitting on the roof of his apartment block during the 2003 blackout, barbecuing whatever was in the fridge and watching the sun go down over a dark city. All the residents were up there and it sounds almost serene. Often we don’t think about the mundane, practical aspects of emergencies.

3 – You researched infectious diseases and historical information about outbreaks and emergencies for the book. Can you give us examples and tell us about that process?

 My research wasn’t rigorous – I’m not a journalist and I don’t have medical qualifications – but it fell into three categories.

I looked for historical precedents that I could give a modern setting to. For instance, during the global 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, some communities fared better than others. Boarding schools and nunneries that shut their doors and had food delivered came through mostly unscathed. In a sense Australia was in that position. Theatres and other public places were closed in the UK during the 1918 flu, as was Shakespeare’s theatre during the Black Plague. My personal experience of the impact of SARS influenced the novel. The change in hospital hygiene and an incident involving a block of flats is directly from Toronto.

The other two forms of research took less time but were just as important. To achieve something approaching realistic numbers, I modelled my fictional ‘Manba’ virus outbreak on data I found online from a 1990s London flu outbreak. I made a spreadsheet I could tweak to change the duration, severity and mortality rate and I was mostly faithful to the numbers. However, for storytelling purposes, I was optimistic about how long an outbreak would last.

Lastly, a doctor friend who specialises in infectious diseases talked me through what clusters of symptoms would likely appear together, a timeframe for the disease’s progress and such things as likely animal vectors and methods of transmission.

4 – You have a degree in cognitive science and you’re in an ethics teacher in a primary school. How did your background influence the book?

Cognitive Science affects my writing style more than my subject matter. Emotions are felt physically in the body and then interpreted in the brain. I tried to put the reader into the character’s head by concentrating on those physical responses. Wherever possible, I try to think not of how the character is feeling emotionally, but what they are feeling physically.

In terms of subject matter, one of the things that psychology (and history) tells us is that the gut decisions we make in the heat of the moment are not always decisions to be proud of. We think we’ll act on our principles but most of us don’t and, in part, that’s a failure of planning and imagination. In the school ethics program, we get kids to engage with moral problems. It’s easy to say what you would do in straightforward ethical situations. That doesn’t tell you much. It’s much more interesting to look at the kind of decisions you make in difficult circumstances. I wanted to put my characters in some of those grey areas and play them out. I’d like the reader to explore for themselves some of the ideas – how we relate to our kids, how we assess risk, what compromises we are prepared to make and what that says about what our bedrock principles are.

My partner has a T-shirt that says ‘Hope is not a strategy’. I first thought that was a bit negative, but my experience has been that blind optimism eventually leads to being blindsided by something you should have seen coming. I try to plan for the best but consider how to deal with the worst, then I’m prepared, emotionally, ethically, practically, for whatever comes my way.

5 – How does ‘An Ordinary Epidemic’ compare to other epidemic stories like Geraldine Brooks’ novel ‘Year of Wonders’ (2001) or the movies ‘Outbreak’ (1995) or ‘Contagion’ (2011)?

My novel is definitely not ‘Contagion’ or ‘Outbreak’. It doesn’t follow heroic scientists making superhuman efforts to save all mankind. It’s not a zombie apocalypse! In a sense it’s closer to ‘Year of Wonders’, although that takes a real epidemic in a historical setting. I wanted to put the reader in a realistic setting they could recognise and hopefully relate to – contemporary Sydney – and make them wonder how they would react in these circumstances. I don’t think my characters always make the right choices but when the reader reacts to the character’s decisions, I hope that’s illuminating.

For example, the central character’s (Hannah’s) need to control her circumstances could be seen as both a strength and weakness. The more things spiral out of her control, the more she clings to her plans, even if they’re not always suited to the changing circumstances. On the other hand, it’s her fear, obsession and planning that have prepared her family for what they will go through. Behaviours like Hannah’s caution aren’t necessarily valued in our society but they’ve persisted. I like to think they confer some benefit, like a single gene of sickle cell anaemia does for malaria. Maybe when the village had been wiped out by a volcano, the person who looked around and said ‘This is bad but right now we need to get up and move somewhere else and deal with the emotions later’ ensured the village’s survival.

The novel is essentially optimistic. We’re reliant on a huge interconnected infrastructure, a complex many-facetted machine that is the scaffold of our society. Like many aspects of our society, no one person understands how every bit of it works and, although the machine is fragile, people are resilient. Humans have been through many crises and muddled through. Not always the same, not always all of us, but on the other side nevertheless.

carrie-bengstonThanks to Carrie Bengston for conducting the interview.

Carrie Bengston

Carrie Bengston is a science communicator formerly with CSIRO. A bit of a tragic science nerd, she loves to see research findings reach a wider public and enjoys making that happen. She’s been a member of a book club in her community that reads fiction, occasionally fiction with a science bent, hence this book review.

Twitter: @cbbengston

Image Credit: Amanda Hickie, Sydney author of ‘An Ordinary Epidemic’ (AmanadaHickieHeadandShoulders.jpg)


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