Wednesday, January 20, 2016

1918: the Great Pandemic - interview with author (and doctor!) David Cornish

Salutations, commies!
Today's guest of honor is an award-winning historical novelist David Cornish, who is also a physician by day. I came across his novel 1918: the Great Pandemic on the Readers' Favorite website (a great place to meet fellow authors) and immediately ordered a copy. I am fascinated by the early 20th century history. Shows like Downton Abbey make it tempting to romanticize that period of time. It's easy to forget that before the discovery and distribution of antibiotics, people were one bad sniffle away from death.  1918 is a chronicle of a devastating flu pandemic that claimed up to 100 million lives.

MJN: I have a few doctors in my extended family, and they will be the first ones to admit that "in our profession you have to be cynical". So I was excited to see a novel about the pandemic written by an actual doctor.  I think it's a different perspective.  "Lay" authors are at risk of making the narrative too melodramatic and sensational. 

DC: Thank you so much, Marina, for inviting me to your blog interview.  It is both a pleasure and an honor.

I wanted to write a novel about the Great Pandemic that would realistically represent the actions and thoughts of a physician in 1918.  I studied actual medical journals from the era to accurately portray the practice of medicine in the early 20th century.  I also reviewed papers from 1918 scientific journals to describe how researchers desperately sought a way to combat a disease that took 100 million lives in about 37 weeks.  My editor cautioned me that my “talk-like-a-doctor” approach in the book might not appeal to a wide audience.  I knew that was a risk.  However, this was to be a medical story about a physician, and I did not want to separate his professional language from him.  So, there are some words used that may be new to the lay reader.  Still, a number of non-medical reviewers and readers have said that the occasional “big words” did not stop them from following the story.  Rather, using the lingo of 1918 doctors has been described by readers as adding depth to the novel. 

MJN: As a man of science, can you imagine something similar happening, another deadly pandemic?  It's no secret that viruses constantly mutate, becoming drug-resistant.  And there are so many horror films and sci/fi novels featuring mysterious pandemics. 

DC: Life is a powerful force on planet Earth.  It grows and changes much faster than science has been able to react to it.  The Surgeon General in 1967, Dr. William Stewart, was erroneously quoted as saying, “It’s time to close the books on infectious diseases…”  (He actually never said that, nor believed it.)  However, some experts at the time thought mankind was on the verge of completely eliminating infectious diseases.  We now know in the 21st century the folly of that belief.  The very fact that we must come up with new influenza vaccines each year is testament to the genetic flexibility of microbes.  We are gradually losing the “war” against bacteria as one antibiotic after another is rendered less useful through mutation.  In the next few decades, humanity may find itself without any drugs that work against bacterial infections.  This is a very sobering thought.  Regarding 1918, the Great Pandemic was caused by two elements that occurred at the same time:  First, an influenza strain mutated into an extremely virulent form, as viruses sometimes do.  Second, the First World War gave the virus a way to spread quickly through human transportation on land and sea.  It is not hard to appreciate how similar elements could again create the horror of the Great Pandemic.

MJN: Your novel is close to 800 pages, placing you in the same league as Edward Rutherford, who was notorious for his mega-novels. Have you ever thought of breaking it up into shorter segments and publishing them as a trilogy?  Or did you feel it was important to preserve the length of the novel at 800 pages so it would correlate with the magnitude of the pandemic itself? 

DC: It is interesting that you mention the length of the novel, since this was another cautionary issue raised by my editor.  I suppose that a trilogy could be less imposing.  However, the second decade of the 20th century was a very imposing time in history.  The First World War was a brutal conflict that was unlike anything humanity had witnessed before.  Then, just as the war was coming to a conclusion, humanity was slammed with a virus that came out of nowhere and affected nearly every family on Earth.  I wanted a reader of the novel to feel the immensity of the era, just like people in 1918 experienced it.  The book is the length it should be, in order to tell the story as it should be told.

MJN: What's in a name? Your protagonist's name is Dr. Noble.  Charles Dickens was known for using very telling symbolism-loaded names. 

DC: A lot has been written about authors and their protagonists.  The consensus is that protagonists are either what authors themselves would like to be, or they are the mirror image of the author (i.e. the complete opposite.)  I like to think that I share at least some of the qualities of 1918’s Dr. Edward Noble.  My family is quick to mention how I do not match him in every way, but so it is with relatives!  Actually, Dr. Noble in the novel is named after a senior faculty Internal Medicine physician I knew when I was a medical resident.  Dr. Noble was the quintessential physician with great clinical skill, poise, honesty, integrity, and a bedside manner that put all his patients at ease, regardless of the diagnosis.  I admired him, and he became one of my role models.  I honor his memory by naming my novel’s protagonist after him.

MJN: Your novel has won several awards and recognitions, including Independent Publishers of New England Book Award.  Do your regular patients realize that you also have a literary life?  

DC: Some of my patients ask me If I wrote “that novel”.  I tell them, yes, and that it was great fun.  (While I was writing the book, my family began to refer to the Nobles as my “other family”.  In a way, they were.  It is interesting that after “living” with a group like the Nobles for many months, they can become very real to the author.  My guess is that many other novelists over the ages would agree.)  In any case, when patients ask me about the book, I assure them that I very much plan to keep my “day job”.

Thanks again, Marina, for the opportunity to discuss with your readers “1918: The Great Pandemic”.  I have very much enjoyed it!

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