In 2003, I was living in Ottawa, Canada, during the Toronto outbreak of SARS. Toronto to Ottawa is not much further than Canberra to Sydney. Every few days there was a story about an unexplained illness in a nursing home that might or might not be the first case in Ottawa. There was a strong sense that it was only a matter of time. In the following years, there were a number of swine flu and bird flu scares.
In 2009 I was looking for an idea for my next novel, when I stumbled across information that during the 1918 flu, boarding schools and convents shut their doors and had food delivered to avoid infection. I wanted my novel to be about hope and joy and family, which I think can be difficult to express. A crisis seemed a good crucible for those emotions. I set myself daily word targets, which I often didn’t make, and somewhere between two and three years later I had a stable draft. Editing and rewriting before submission took another year or so, and I’ve been working with the publisher on the final editing for the last year.
Why is a fully stocked pantry important to you as a person?
The idea, if not the thing, is important to me. I like to be prepared, I’m not good with unexpected crises, and I tend to fret about things outside my control. Those aspects of me are magnified in Hannah. I did, for a brief while, have a well-stocked pantry. I had an idea of artisanal jams and marinated artichokes in an old corner pantry filled with rickety whitewashed shelves, but in reality it is a white melamine cupboard in the garage. It turns out I’m not very organised. While I appreciate having extra toilet paper and long life milk in the cupboard, I forget to replace what we use. And being lucky enough to live in a country like Australia, where the weather is good, we have excellent public health and dependable infrastructure, I’ve never needed one.
In the novel, Sean takes significant risks for a cup of coffee. What food item could you not live without?
I don’t drink coffee! I like the idea of coffee; it implies a whole lot of social things that have nothing to do with beverages. But in terms of foodstuffs, it would have to be tea. Although I probably wouldn’t risk my life. Other than that, although I don’t need it every day, I think chocolate is the pinnacle of our civilization. I recently read about a fungus that is destroying coca plantations, so I might be deprived of chocolate by a different kind of epidemic. This happened once before, and the trees were replaced by fungus resistant strains that didn’t taste as good. In Trinidad there is a Cocoa Research Centre and gene bank aiming to save chocolate by finding a hardier strain, and at the same time make it taste better. So I’m not the only one who will go a long way for chocolate.
Do the characters stem from your own family?
The make-up of the family in the novel mirrors my own, but they are most definitely not the same people. That having been said, as my boys have grown up, I’ve noticed how much they and their friends don’t fit the stereotype of ‘teenagers’. There’s a caricature of the unthinking, grunting teenage boy. I’ve never found that with my own family. Quite the opposite. In my experience boys can be many things, including curious, focused and compassionate, open, caring and accepting of difference. I thought it was important to infuse into Zac and Oscar some of those qualities.
Why did you pick Sydney?
Sydney is my home. It is often portrayed as either a world of beautiful people or the tough underbelly of Australian society, neither of which reflect the city I know. There’s a down-to-earth, no-nonsense practicality about Sydney that I love. It’s spectacular and comfortable at the same time.
I considered setting the novel in a generic Western city, but I realised that I use a lot of Australian colloquialisms and to remove them would be to gut the reality of these characters. As the disease creeps closer in the first half of the book, it was important for the geography to be real. Sydney has some strongly ingrained barriers, like the Bridge, that are both physical and psychological. But the suburb the characters live in, the houses and shops around them, even the local hospital, are not direct descriptions of any real place.
What books influenced the novel?
As a teenager I read John Christopher’s Death of Grass. I don’t remember much of the plot, but I do remember being taken with the everyday problems – how long would you still be able to find tinned goods. More recently I came across Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and I found the very factual style intriguing. Mixed in with specific figures of how many people died in each parish per week, there were also very human touches. Some of those details wound their way indirectly into An Ordinary Epidemic. Defoe’s book contains a character who trades in food from a river boat to avoid direct contact and leaves the money and provisions he acquires on a rock for his family. Those ideas influenced characters like the pharmacist, the supermarket delivery man and Hannah’s neighbours.
Who provides you with inspiration?
Us, as a species. When I look back to the world my grandfather was born into over a hundred years ago, and I see the enormous changes we’ve made, I am awestruck by us. In his world, trains were the cutting edge of technology. He had to join the merchant navy and spend years risking his life in a boat to experience a fraction of what I can see through my computer any day. We harness sunshine to make electricity that brings us art, music and the ideas and words of people on the other side of the globe who we will never meet. In his day, people died of what are now trivial infections. Cancer was incurable. Travelling to the moon was literally science fiction.
An Ordinary Epidemic is essentially optimistic. We have a history of muddling through hard times. Our species is good at survival, both through technological solutions, but also through people like Hannah, who find ordinary ways through difficult circumstances. We not only rise to the challenges but our society gets incrementally better. A potential epidemic is only one of the many challenges we face, but I think we are going to make it.