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
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
"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
"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.