In her riveting debut young adult novel Pandemic (Sky Pony Press 2014), Yvonne Ventresca tells the story of Lilianna, a traumatized teenager struggling to survive a bird flu pandemic. Lilianna's parents are called away on business just before the quick-spreading fatal illness hits her hometown, and she must choose between keeping herself safe from exposure, and doing all she can to help her community. Kirkus Reviews calls the book a "realistic page-turner" that will keep readers "enthralled." Ventresca spoke with me about the novel.
Mary Pauline Lowry (MPL): How did you get the idea to write about a bird flu pandemic?
Yvonne Ventresca (YV): I find natural disasters and contagious diseases particularly worrisome, so these types of unpredictable situations have always been on my radar. When the Swine Flu pandemic occurred in 2009, it turned out to be only as lethal as seasonal flu, but no one knew the mortality rates 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.
MPL: Lilianna feels a strong tension between keeping herself safe and helping other people in her community such as kids whose parents have died from the flu, people who have run out of food, or emergency workers that need antiviral medicine. How and why did you choose to write about a girl overcoming her fears in order to be of service to others?
YV: Dire circumstances can bring out a range of behaviors in people, 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 running 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 girl returned and she is fiercely trying to protect her family from starvation and a host of other problems. But her daughter naturally wants to help a friend. That small scene was memorable to me because it showed the conflict between our survival instincts and the desire to help people. I knew I wanted to explore that conflict 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. Since Lil's philanthropy leads to harm prior to the outbreak (it's during a food drive that she's alone with someone dangerous), she struggles to become altruistic again.
MPL: Even though the novel's subject matter is serious, and even tragic, I found Lilianna's teenage voice to keep the novel really readable and even fun. How did you decide to have the novel narrated by a teenage girl?
YV: I love teen fiction - it's what I read most, so I always intended Pandemic to be a young adult novel. The idea that Lil would need to survive on her own was interesting to me, as was the idea that she had emotional baggage before the outbreak strikes. She has a problem trusting people, yet that trust will be essential to her very survival. Could a teen girl heal and become stronger during a traumatic situation? It felt like an interesting dynamic to write about. I also felt that teens might be more likely to take the types of risks that Lil and her friends do to help other people.
MPL: Before the pandemic strikes, Lilianna obsesses about emergency preparedness. Are public health and natural disasters something that you spend a lot of time worrying about? And how do you recommend that people find a balance between being prepared and not worrying too much?
YV: I probably do think about public health and natural disasters more than the average person. But I realized that the worry wasn't particularly constructive unless I did something about it, so I tried to decide what a rational level of preparedness would be for my family and pets. We don't have a secret underground bunker, but we do have surplus food, water, flashlights, etc. I think what amazes me (and I used to be guilty of this myself) is that right before a hurricane there is a run on items like batteries and flashlights. Why do we wait to stock up on nonperishable necessities? Now I try to make a conscious effort to have what we might need for an emergency. Preparedness can vary based on people's comfort levels, but I do include resources about emergency planning at the end of Pandemic and on my website as a starting point.
MPL: What would you say to a teenager (or Young Adult fiction fan) thinking about reading Pandemic?
YV: Pandemic is meant to be both a novel about inner struggle and personal triumph as well as a true-to-life survival story. While writing the book, I researched emerging infectious diseases and their possible consequences. Sometimes the scariest situations are based in reality. But at the end of the day, to paraphrase Viktor Frankl, people can still choose how they react to their circumstances. I like to think if there was a disaster, that there would be a lot of Lils in the world.
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Follow Mary Pauline Lowry on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MaryPLowry