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A Conversation With Ann Benson
An interview by A. John O'Neill
August 6, 1997

Ann Benson
Ann Benson
Ann Benson had four bestsellers in the bead and needleart field when she decided to undertake something entirely different. Combining a passion for medieval history with her love of biological sciences, which she studied at Upsala College and the University of Massachusetts, she wrote her first novel, The Plague Tales.

Not content with standard methods of promotion, Benson turned to the Internet to help promote the book. Drawing on her own resources she created a top notch website at www.plaguetales.com -- a place where she can communicate with readers and booksellers, offer reviews and reader commentary on the book, and progress reports on its sequel.

She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she is an elected member of the School Committee, working as an advocate for literacy and public health. She is a member of the Back Bay Chorale participating in the premiere recording of John Knowles Paine's St. Peter Oratorio. She is an amateur carpenter; she built the house in which she and her husband now live with their two daughters.

Feature Review: The Plague Tales
The Plague Tales Website
Excerpt from The Plague Tales
Amazon.com: The Plague Tales
Bantam/Doubleday/Dell Books
Dell Catalog: The Plague Tales
Centers for Disease Control
The Internet Medieval Sourcebook
Literary Review & Internet Bookstore
Entertainment Weekly Review

Plague Tales

Tell us a little about your background.
"I was a product development consultant for many, many years, working as a freelance designer for several companies. Most of it had to do with beadwork and needlepoint."

What's a product development consultant?
"Manufacturers of craft materials would come to me for ideas that might help sell their products, and I would develop those ideas all the way from notion to actuality. I wrote a number of books on beadwork and was able to live off the royalties, so I didn't need to work while I was writing The Plague Tales."

Why the switch to Science Fiction?
"I studied biology in college, and I've always enjoyed science. My library is full of books on science. Although I don't read a great deal of SF -- my favorite genre is probably fantasy -- I like things that are logical, or fantasy oriented. I'm very selective, and much of the science fiction I do read is historical in nature. I'm actually quite surprised to find that a lot of people consider The Plague Tales to be science fiction. But I'm told they do."

What are your major influences?
"I love Gary Jennings. I enjoy Michael Crichton, who skirts into science fiction quite often. And of course Marion Zimmer Bradley. My tastes in general fiction tend towards the commercial -- I like Margaret Atwood and I enjoy Patricia Cornwell, most of the time. And I adore Diana Gabaldon, the author of Outlander and Drums of Autumn."

The Plague Tales has a very unusual structure: two parallel story lines separated by nearly 700 years. What inspired that?
"The idea really called for it. The original concept for the novel came during a family trip to London. We went on a guided mystery tour that included sites like supposedly "haunted" castles, crime sites, and the like. We were shown a spot of soil where nothing had ever been built. People were afraid to dig there because it was rumored Black Death victims were buried there. My first thought was, "what would happen if an artifact were dug up?" and my second was "How did it get there?"

"I can't tell you how many times people tried to convince me to separate the two stories, write two separate books. And how glad I am that I was able to resist, and get the story down. I was very taken with the notion of having two stories that intertwined."

Why have you created such a grim environmental picture -- with bio police, containment suits on air flights, etc. -- in the very near future of 2005?
Remember, this is fiction -- it's not real! But the thought of what might happen after a major world-wide epidemic is very scary. I don't think I actually created all that grim a picture -- everything in the brave new world of the New Tales is very clean, after all, but I hope I created a fear of what it could come to if we aren't careful.

One of the major themes of The Plague Tales seems to be Science versus Nature. Was this deliberate?
"I think it was more an unconscious theme. I think my more conscious theme was Science vs. Religion. To me Science represents the conscious mind, and Religion the unconscious, and I see the two constantly at war. Certainly that's true in my own life. I was raised a Christian -- a Lutheran, actually, and you can't get more fundamentally Christian than that (laughs). And I've always had difficulty accepting some of Christianity's more fantastic dogma. The main character of the Old Tale, Alejandro Canches, had to intertwine his beliefs and reality in so many ways that I believe the real struggle in the book is between Science and Religion."

You've received accolades for the science in the book, not an easy thing to get right in a medical thriller. Was is tricky to keep straight?
"Very much so. I think the trickiest thing was to come up with something that sounded plausible. For example body printing -- a hologram separated into individual body systems, such the circulatory system, muscles and bones -- is really just a 3-D MRI scan. I think it's quite feasible that we'll have them in the future, although perhaps not with quite so visceral a design."

"Another thing is Compudocs -- the medical scanners which diagnose diseases of all kinds in the book. I'm not sure we're all that far away from that either. I know that for diabetics there are already instruments that will read blood sugar levels without piercing the skin, taking the measurement right from the body surface. So Compudocs can't be too far off."

What about the science behind a true pandemic. Was that hard to get right?
"Well, remember a plague isn't controlled so much by medicine as it is by sanitation. Fleas and rats are the main carriers. If we had a lot more rats in our cities, as they did in the Middle Ages, we'd have plague. In the part of the novel set in the 14th Century -- the Old Tale -- there's a lot of speculation about how the plague is spread: by breath, by Jews poisoning the wells, etc. There's even one theory that it's spread by looking at someone with the plague. But there was more accurate speculation on germs floating through the air, accurately called "contagion".

In a book with such exacting science, why throw in a magical element with Mother Sarah?
Again, I'm drawn to the religious aspects of how we react to frightening things. Though Mother Sarah is a midwife (or a healer, if you prefer), she is regarded by those who don't understand her to be a witch, with all of the religious baggage that carries. And the techniques she uses are taken from many different belief systems.

Did you do a lot of research for the book?
"Absolutely -- a lot into ancient folk cures especially. In the scenes where the midwife practiced her cures I wanted to be particularly accurate. The one thing I made up was related to my attempt to tie the two stories together: a cure the midwife calls "The Dust of the Dead." In modern medical terms, anti-bodies. I tried to use a medieval version of that."

What's your opinion of some of the recent conjecture about a coming plague, à la The Hot Zone?
"My opinion is that some of the stuff has been overblown. For example, we really fear Ebola, Marburg, and Four Corners disease -- and fear them far more than we need to, since these things aren't easily transferred. What we need to fear are small infections: Strep, e-coli, etc. There are two hospitals I know of in Australia that had to be shut down because they are so infested with undefeatable bacteria that they can no longer be occupied. Antibiotics simply didn't work anymore. People were going out sicker than they came in.

"Another example is Mad Cow disease, which is carried by proteins in our food supply. We're don't have enough information on these diseases, but they're out there. That scares me."

Will there be a sequel to the book?
"Yes. It's in the works right now. In The Plague Tales, and particularly in the last fifty pages, there are things that are... not quite left dangling, but could be followed up.

"The sequel to the New Tale is set in America, and the Old Tale in France. There will be a unifying factor in the book just as there was in the first, with Alejandro's notebook. This time it's a Hebrew manuscript that actually existed. I have a translation, and it is fascinating. It's basically an alchemy manual from the 14th Century. There is an historical Alejandro, who I ended up basing my character on -- he originally had a different name until I came across the real Alejandro in my research. The historical Alejandro did some work on this manuscript, and in the novel he falls in with an alchemist who is also trying to translate it.

"The New Tale will focus on cloning, which is very in-the-news these days. I'll have to take it forward ten years and decide what aspect of cloning I'll focus on. That's all I'd like to reveal about it at the moment.

Tell us about the website, www.plaguetales.com.
"What inspired it was having seen other websites and learning about a lot of new books from them. It occurred to me there wasn't enough promotion for the book, at least in areas where it was doing quite well.

"I'm very comfortable in the Internet, and it feels like a very natural thing to do. It allows me to communicate with readers, talk back and forth with reviewers and booksellers, and with the people reading the book. It's a very effective means of communication.

"It's very exciting to me. I enjoy hearing from people who've read the book. Unlike other writers who've perhaps written a little more, I'm still in the "romance period," and enjoy hearing from my readers. I haven't heard anything negative yet. Perhaps when I hear more negative comments I'll enjoy it less. But right now I'm on my honeymoon (laughs)."

Will the Web change any aspects of book publishing?
"I think it'll change the way we sell books. The Internet offers a way to present an awful lot of information about a single title. The Internet acts like the clerk in the small bookstore, who might walk up to you and offer a detailed recommendation for a book -- or tell you which ones stink. One of the main problems with bookselling these days is that the chains have such a huge grip on the market, taking something away from the small bookstores where many small books get their start.

"The Internet give the opportunity for a much more in-depth look at the book. Type in the name of the book at any of the various search engines and you'll get all kinds of opinions -- good, bad, and in-between. It'll get people reading things they might not otherwise have read."

To wrap up, can you recommend some good Web resources for fans of The Plague Tales?
"Dell's site, of course. And Amazon.com. Enter "The Plague Tales" at a search engine and you'll find both reviews of the book and some interesting sites related to plagues. I was very surprised at how many newsletters I found myself in the first time I did that. Some other sites I might suggest include the Medieval sourcebook, and anything the CDC [Center for Disease Control] publishes. And there's an interesting look at the book at the Literary Review and Internet Bookstore."

Copyright © 1997 by A. John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the Founder and Managing Editor of the SF Site.


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