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Pandemic influenza, infection control, and first responders with Dr. Gullion

October Birds: A Novel about Pandemic Influenza, Infection Control, and First Responders by Dr. Jessica Smartt Gullion
Photo contributed by Dr. Jessica Smartt Gullion

Title: October Birds: A Novel about Pandemic Influenza, Infection Control, and First Responders

Author: Jessica Smartt Gullion

Publisher: Sense Publishers

Publish Date: February 2014

ISBN: 9789462095885

Tell us a little bit about your writing and educational background

Dr. Gullion: I am a PhD sociologist. I've published a lot of scientific writing, but this is my first novel.

Sociological work should be done for the benefit of society, to make the world a better place. Otherwise, why bother? Sociological research should not be buried in academic libraries. It should be accessible to people outside of the university. This is why I am drawn to fiction, and this is what the social fiction series is about -- translating social science research into forms that are accessible to a variety of audiences.

I was an infectious disease epidemiologist for a number of years before I became a professor. I learned so much, not only about how disease spreads through a community, but about how people respond to a disease outbreak. I wanted to share that knowledge, so that other people could use it when confronted with a similar situation. It's a way of sharing 'lessons learned' so that the same mistakes are not repeated.

I really dislike a lot of the novels and movies about outbreaks or disasters because so many of them are wrong. I drive my family crazy when we watch a movie like that because I spend most of it saying 'that's not what would happen!' So part of the motivation for writing this book was to get a more realistic story out there. A lot of times I hear media critique of disaster response, and I think part of why people get upset is that they aren't familiar with what really happens. Most of us (thank goodness!) will never be in a massive disaster, so we just don't know.

What is your book about?

Dr. Gullion: October Birds is about an influenza pandemic. A physician from Jakarta who has been working on an outbreak of a new strain of bird flu there, comes to the US for a conference. It turns out that he is carrying the virus though, and he starts an outbreak here.

The story follows the healthcare workers and emergency responders as they cope with the outbreak. I also include the perspective of a traditional healer and a priest. I wanted to explore both how Western medicine would react along with tradition and faith-based healing.

An event becomes a disaster when the local response groups can no longer handle the event on their own. For the citizens of Dalton, Texas (the fictional town where the outbreak begins), it doesn't take long for their outbreak to become a disaster.

Why should readers read your book?

Dr. Gullion: Because it's good! Sure I was motivated for the reasons I stated to write the story and those motivations helped craft the narrative. But ultimately, it's a good story. What if we did have a new disease outbreak? The scenario is likely. What would happen?

It's a story of life and death, of fear and faith, of coping with tremendous odds, and most of all it's a story about love and community. The characters in the story could have hidden in their homes, hoped and waited for the outbreak to go away. But they don't. They fight to save as many people as they can.

Did you have any obstacles while writing this book? What were they?

Dr. Gullion: I wrote this book as part of National Novel Writing Month ( The idea is to write a novel in a month. That works out to writing about 1500 words per day. I loved it because if you stick with the schedule, you don't have time for self doubt or writer's block. This story spilled out of me. I had a wonderful time writing it.

Is this the first book you have ever had published?

Dr. Gullion: Yes, this is my first book.

Are you working on any projects right now?

Dr. Gullion: My main area of interest as a sociologist is how communities respond when something threatens their health. I am working on a nonfiction book about people who are protesting natural gas drilling. Similar to the infectious disease outbreak in October Birds, the people in some communities where this is happening perceive natural gas drilling as a threat to the entire community and they are fighting against it to protect everyone's health.

What is your advice for writers wanting to turn authors out there?

Dr. Gullion: Just write. Writing is work. Sit down and write. For me, having word count goals helps silence my inner critic and get words on paper. Also remember that you can always edit later -- it's fine if you write a paragraph that's total crap. The main thing is that you wrote it! You can edit it later.

What made you become a writer?

Dr. Gullion: My father had a book on the shelf in his den that I found when I was a kid -- his name was on the spine. I couldn't believe my dad had written a book! I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I've wanted to see my own name on a spine ever since.

I am a voracious reader. I read several books at once -- fiction and nonfiction. Words are my nourishment.

Who is your favorite author and why?

Dr. Gullion: Wow -- there are too many! I love writers who have a beautiful command of language. I also love hand-made zines.

Where can we find you?

Dr. Gullion: I have a Facebook page -- Dr. Jessica Gullion.

Anything you would like to add?

Dr. Gullion: If you read the novel, I would love to hear what you think about it! You can reach me through Facebook.

For More Books in the Social Fictions Series:

Low-Fat Love by Dr. Patricia Leavy

Athabasca's Going Unmanned: An Ethnodrama About Incarcerated Youth by Diane Conrad

Sailing in a Concrete Boat: A Teacher’s Journey by Carl Leggo

American Circumstance by Dr. Patricia Leavy

Zombie Seed and the Butterfly Blues: A Case of Social Justice by R.P. Clair

Unfolding the Unexpectedness of Uncertainty: Creative Nonfiction and the Lives of Becoming Teachers by Anita Sinner

Zero Tolerance and Other Plays: Disrupting Xenophobia, Racism and Homophobia in School by Tara Goldstein

Heartland: A Historical Drama about the Internment of German-Americans in the United States during World War II by Lojo Simon and Anita Simons

For More of Michelle’s Articles & Interviews:

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